Friday, February 27, 2009

Confessions of a Would-be Klepto

I stole easily and often in those months, and my compulsion knew no bounds. Fuelled by a deluded arrogance and a sense of entitlement underwritten by the unfairness of the niggardly wages at the retail chain, my sticky fingers cut a nightly swath through the aisles. This is slave labor, I thought in facile and voluptuous self-persuasion. Highway robbery. We're being taken advantage of. Some of my colleagues were also stealing - I was sure of it - on different levels, and one, a good friend, had even been caught trying to smuggle out a CD. Feeling a kinship with my fellow cogs-in-the-corporate-wheel, and underage sweatshop workers, my baroque rationalization was complete.

Of course, the truth, as per ushe, was a bit more complicated. I could have busted my ass, hustling my way into a better paying job, but frankly, didn't know how. Then there was the endless torment of being denied a raise -- as a supervisor working for minimum wage -- time after time for the most infinitesimal and pettiest of reasons. Was it my problem that the fools on my watch couldn't add or subtract -- that a VISA transaction was off by a fraction of a decimal?

Ironically, these were some of the best times of my life. Not because of the loot, but because of the camaraderie and humor fostered amongst my coworkers, bright and charismatic beings all. Many of us were young and sensitive, passionate, genuinely critical thinkers. We were forging our own styles through the form and content of books and music -- seductively shiny packaging our siren song. The older folks were mostly liberal and young at heart -- we were a de facto family of sorts. There was sometimes drama or high dudgeon, never malice. We would often work on holidays, and would have Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in the workroom, with food and communal sharing of the pipe in the staff toilet (the secret to stemming the odor problem was to exhale into the commode as you were flushing, and supposedly the smoke would be sucked down). Everyone was there because they enjoyed the work -- they had to be. (That was before the rot set in.) It's funny, at one point we were having a staff meeting at the local pub across the street. The store manager, with ultra-serious affect, brought up a customer complaint. Someone knew someone else who thought that they had heard one of the employees at the front counter complain that the company CEO was a "cheap Jew." This was hilarious. Not because the remark, if it had been made, was in any way funny. But because it was patently impossible that anyone on our staff of educated, measured-in-their-comments folks would have ever said such a thing. It was purely a case of Chinese whispers.

Becoming more and more reckless in my adventures, I knew the jig would soon be up, but was in a state of denial. Arriving to work one day, I was greeted by a passel of security. They were there with evidence of my crimes and my walking papers. The confession was signed admitting certain things, but it was oh-so-carefully worded. Jail-time was perilously close, but ultimately avoided. Walking the plank, i.e. out of the store, there was a certain numbness mixed with pride and a prick of shame. I met a friend for lunch - mango burgers at the local diner. A year later, I was satisfied to hear through the grapevine that the patronizing security guard who had sealed my fate was hoist by his own petard -- sacked for being caught on camera in a nightly workroom jack-off session. A two-way mirror alone is no guarantee of protection. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Now, on one of my daily sallies to a venerable German book retailer, I watch as a male customer blithely scoops into his hand the contents of the bathroom attendant's tip jar. Mouth agape, I look around to see if anyone has cottoned to this fact. In true Berlin fashion, everyone is minding their own goddamn business. If they had seen it, I doubt anyone would have said anything, either. It's a bustling setting, too, gemuetlich, folks ensconced in leather chairs, tucked into novels or tucking into their kuechen. The bells of a snow-encrusted Kaiser Wilhelm church, right across the way, clang comfortingly.

Flanked on either side by the stacks of books I've been perusing, as I turn to go, I reach out to insert them into my bag, open-zippered like a hungry black maw. I stop myself in my tracks. Hovering in a giddy mental space of momentary uncertainty, I feel like a housewife about to pop her first valium. Then it's back to earth as I realize in a millisecond where my property ends and the store's begins. I zip up my bag, locking inside the strong gravity, the pull of kleptomania (never ever stronger than the possibility of imprisonment in a foreign country), and walk out briskly, relieved, welcoming the sobering winter air into my lungs.

Friday, February 20, 2009

From Wreck to Ruin

Lately the weather in Berlin has been a metaphor for life -- endless cycles of beautiful snow falling, rendering all cozy and gemutlich, quickly losing its charm, turning to grey slush and rain, freezing over again, a more temperate rain coming and washing the detritus of our lives into the gutter. In the end we all end up drugged and fucked on the permafrost, food for carrion birds...until then I'll just watch the sky drip from my Berlin window -- not quite rain, not quite snow, the cold still biting enough to tear into your balls should you forget to don underwear.

It's in this spirit which I have luxuriated the last week or so, sort of in a no-man's land, a purgatory of the soul. It didn't help that I ploughed through two timely novels in quick succession -- one about a couple of deluded sell-outs stuck in a sick marriage, the other dealing with the most grotesque gallery of losers you could ever hope to meet. I've met people like this in real life, but to get into their heads for a while can be quite corrosive. Not coincidentally, both novels riff heavily on Edward Albee's acid Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- the newer one, The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, quite flagrantly. The other one, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, was actually published in 1961, a couple years before, but it does harbor many similarities to Albee's masterpiece of delusion and conjugal warfare (including an epiphany at a roadhouse). I do recommend both tomes for those in a reflective mood,but neither trumps Albee's classic.

CAUTION -- spoiler alert

Yates' book is certainly a product of its times, and the theme of suburbia as a graveyard of dreams, from our vantage point, is nothing new. But the characters are imbued, beneath the parlance of 50's Americana, with a universality which may make some readers wince. Can't anyone identify with the little lies people tell themselves to deal with unfulfilled hopes and expectations?

For instance, Shep is a clumsy ox and half of a couple who fulfill the generic role of "best friends" of the Wheelers. In the end, Shep realizes his love for April was illusory, as thin as the hopes which the Wheelers had pinned on their flight from an un-extraordinary life. Shep and his wife may have been consigned to a life in suburbia, and may have been tainted by the Wheelers' maelstrom of a marriage, but in the end, they are, in a sense, lucky in their doofusy suburban blissful ignorance.

Another surprising implication was that if April had actually gotten her abortion before the third trimester, she would have saved herself and perhaps realized her dreams. But Frank talks her out of it, representing the 50's mores of family values above all else. Something tells me that if they had made it to Paris, that goal would also have collapsed under the weight of their own character flaws. That's how much Yates is invested in these characterizations -- the plot is almost rendered irrelevant because every decision is pervaded by the immutable flaws that get the characters in this pickle. It gives everything a nice sense of historical inevitability which Albee would have appreciated.

Coupland's epistolary novel is also a tragicomedy set in suburbia -- well, not a tragedy really, because things start out shitty for these characters, are set against a brown background of shitty, and go from bad to worse to only slightly hopeful. The redeeming quality here of course is the laugh factor, which is high -- Coupland is walking a tightrope of gallows humor and tangible despair.

The action is rendered through various points of view, in old-fashioned letters, sent via snail mail and Fed Ex (which saves the style from total anachronism), handwritten notes, journal entries, and the manuscript of a novel by the protagonist, Roger, a broken forty-something working at a Staples office supply chain (the novel-within-the novel is transparently modelled on WAOVW, right down to the fact that its four main characters are two couples, one older, one younger, faculty at a prestigious university gathered together for dinner at the older couple's rambling campus home, a dinner which quicky degenerates into squabbling, truth-telling and the puncturing of delusions, such as the lie that the older couple have a young son).

Roger once held promise but after a series of personal disasters he becomes an alcoholic husk of his former self. He soon strikes up a correspondence based on mutual neediness and blackmail with Bethany, a fellow employee at Staples and embittered overweight goth girl par excellence. Others, soon become entangled in their web of correspondence, including Bethany's mother Dee-Dee and some fellow employees at Staples. (The whole book could be an amazing feat of product placement if only the characters weren't so embittered about their predicament -- in fact, it could be seen as a practical argument against office supply chain stores.) Will Roger keep his day job or succumb to his neuroses, his novel languishing in purgatory? Will Bethany's elopement to Europe with a handsome Office hack spell disaster? Or can she somehow redeem herself by heeding Roger's negative example? Hint: there is nothing remotely resembling redemption in this story. Like Revolutionary Road, the characters can barely keep head above water, hobbled by their own delusions and fear of mediocrity and beholden to a system over which they have scant control.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Invisible Cord

There is a passage in Edmund White's great biography of the French bard of prisons, Jean Genet, in which the scribe has a mid-life crisis of sorts, pivoting on a singular vision. The moment occurs when Genet is sitting across from another man on the Metro. He envisages a hitherto invisible cord which extends out from the man's spine and extends across the width of the car, connected to a similar cord of interwoven silky tendrils (or something) emanating from Genet. The implicit revelation: that all humanity was somehow connected. For Genet this was unutterably depressing, and represented a huge failure of imagination (on the part of the creator perhaps?), the conclusion being that if everyone is connected in this way, then everyone is interchangeable, and no one unique or special. For an artist one can surmise that such a vision would be a crushing blow, and it came tellingly at a point when Genet's most prolific years were behind him.

I thought of this sequence recently while pondering my ambivalence about that hydra-headed Internet phenom, Facebook. Could FB friends be grouped into subcategories? Granted there are scads of people who had betrayed me, and I never forget such things, the people who I always respected but somehow we lost touch, and people whom I loathed from the get-go who somehow seem to think that the remove of time and space somehow exculpates their crimes.

Then there are the ciphers, and they are at the crux of what I am getting at here. The ones who, perhaps by default or association, somehow, at some point, insinuated themselves into your life, and have come to indiscriminately stake their claim to FB immortality by accruing as many "friends" as humanly possible. You're somehow, by virtue of living in the Matrix, inextricably linked to these people.

I remember a few years ago I was in the first phases of dating someone, shortly after the luster had worn off and you begin to question. Although I was somewhat smitten, and the physical delights were sublime, there was also a kind of rot at the core of the relationship which revealed itself in these thoughts that all there is? Is that all there is to dating a gorgeous, sweet, ostensibly intelligent guy? And then I had my own vision which later recognized itself in the Genet anecdote: this really nice, moderately intelligent, middle class,earnest guy could be replaced by just about any such guy of his generation and elicit the same effect in me: a persistent blandness of aspect. Suffice it to say, being crushed under the weight of both our expectations (and his bipolar disorder) the "relationship" was an abject failure.

But back to the Facebook conundrum. I look at all these forgotten faces suddenly resurfacing on the crest of a wave of a fad, and I realize that the ones who stuck are the only ones I am interested in, and there is a reason why the others had been siphoned off, intentionally or not. If I really want to hear the opinionated, hollow ramblings of some domineering or insane mediocrity, I'm sure I could find some other empty vessel to fulfill the exact same function in my present tense, thank you very much. That much alone can be gleaned from 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Party Monster

Caught bodyrockin' duo Dolby Anol at the Cockaigne party at Berghain Kuntine the other night (double entendre overload there). I'm not really up on all the subgenres of electro, but these hotties hailing from Glasgow rocked da house with an exotic concoction of banging beats. Imagine a cubist version of yesteryear's mash-up craze being beaten to a pulp by the cannibal rough trade from "Suddenly, Last Summer", your favorite dance hits put in a cement mixer with liberally added squelches, bleeps and farts for your trippy dancing pleasure. Somehow, the end product emerges victoriously melodic while retaining its experi-mental flair.
These deckmasters know how to "fill" a floor....ok, so there were only ten people there, but they were very enthusiastic. Plus, we found out after the fact that all the gays were at the Mobel Olfe for some bear party or so...also props to Carlos for winning that bet and popping that girl's balloons with your ciggy!!!

Speaking of bears, tonight is the Teddy Bear Berlin party at the Haus der Kultur der Welt, an inspired choice of venue in its merging of Kunst, Kultur und Nachtleben. This is the the big gay party, the capstone of the Berlin Film Festival. There should be plenty of entertainment on hand for both the scenester and the Cineaste...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Adidas Nation

"Check it out," he said. "I stopped at the Adidas store in Leipzig and got all this stuff."

Three humongous Adidas vinyl duffel bags full of tagged Adidas merchandise, everything from shoes to gloves to knee-pads, were plunked down pell-mell. A cute pair of pristine white sneaks rolled out onto the floor. They would later be added to the Imelda Marcos memorial shoe collection at the door.

"I thought you were giving up Adidas?" I asked. If I had any feelings, I would have felt bitter and jealous. But I know he was just doing this in the spirit of sharing. I would want to share too. Playing dress-up is fun. But I couldn't help but feel the green-eyed monster rear its ugly head a tad. I hadn't bought new clothes in at least a year. Never mind the fact that he still hadn't made good on his offer to give me some of his cast-offs. After all, I'd harbored something of an Adidas fetish since the mid-90s, when Britpop was king in the US alternative scene, the whole cool Brittania thing cinched by Ewan McGregor's swaggering performance in Trainspotting. Oh well, I thought, at least of he buys more then chances are he'll need to make more room in his closet.

"No, man, this shit is Old Skool." He pulls out a jersey with a distressed look which could have been culled from the Munich 1971 fussball team. I can't help but think how fetching it would look on my frame, my shimmering personality offsetting the generic sexiness and clean lines of the label.

With the Blur/Oasis dichotomy a distant memory, since I moved to Germany last year, this interest has abated a bit, since Adidas accessories paired with a Keffiyeh and skinny jeans are pretty much the national uniform. Adidas is to Germany what Abercrombie and Fitch is to Middle America. Maybe it's a misplaced form of nationalism: after all, you can get Adidas stripes in the colors of the German flag.

Best intentions aside, my roommate has become a proponent of this collective fetishism, by dint of being a "victim" of corporate sponsorship. You see, he's a professional athlete, with Adidas as one of his sponsors. He just can't say no to a little swag bag. But his line of credit extends to other accounts as well.

"You know, I never wanted to be one of those people who showed off their gadgets. I really hate that. But check out this new IPhone..."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Deadpan Humor

Yesterday in class I decided to use my one-on-one student as a guinea pig, and try out an exercise meant for a bigger class. It was basically about humor and what kinds of feelings inspire laughter. The lesson culminates in the student's piecing together of a joke from disjointed phrases. According to the "British Council for Scientific Research", this is the world's funniest joke. That point is up for debate.

The emphases here are rhythm and pacing as effective components of joke-telling in a social setting. The student in question is forever challenging me -- in a good way, challenging my preconceptions, and he can be quite recalcitrant. For example, when I brought up the issue of timing, pacing and inflection in joke-telling, asking him if he thought the delivery of a joke was important, I got this response:

"No, I don't think so, not at all."

"Really? You don't think that the way a joke is told, the inflection in the voice, or whether the person even has a gift for joke-telling, is important?"

"No, no. It doesn't matter. If the joke is funny, then the person tells the joke, and everybody laugh."

"So the joke stands or falls on it's own merit? It doesn't matter how it's told? I could read it off of a sheet of paper in a flat tone of voice, and it would still be funny?"

"If it is a good joke, then yes, I think it doesn't matter."

Now I know where Germans get their reputation for being humorless. Or perhaps, by the logic displayed here, they should find absolutely everything funny as hell!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bye-Bye Rixdorf

I'm moving this month, back to my old flat in Friedrichshain. I'm glad, because I'll be back relatively closer to the center of things. I've enjoyed my time here in Neukoelln, it's a fascinating area. At times it seems a bit dodgy, though. My bike was stolen, for example, and occasionally i hear gunshots. I know a couple people who have been assaulted in the Hasenheide (famous park abutting the former Tempelhof Airport) as well.

Things I will miss: the winding, narrow streets around Richardplatz, and the abundance of Lidl stores in the area. For those of you not in the know, Lidl is the ultimate discount grocery outlet. Being connoisseur of exotic foods, I was delighted when my roommate introduced me to the wealth of delicacies on offer at this chain. For instance you can get a large bag of Erdnuss Flips for only 55 cents. Flips are to the best of my knowledge unheard of in the states, but here they are a popular snack. They are comprised of peanut oil and a kind of peanut powder, puffed up with air into an inflated comma shape (I guess it's an approximation of an actual unshelled peanut). Essentially, it's peanut-flavored Cheetos -- and if that sounds unappetizing, quite the contrary. The little bastards are downright addictive. I will still have access to flips, though, as there is a Lidl near my F-Hain digs. Whoops. I digressed there.

I will also miss Sonnenallee, that endless avenue of Oriental delights. I mean that in the Turkish sense as well as the Asian sense, for there is a panoply of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants in addition to Occidental fare. Most of all I will miss the seedy Spielotheks and dodgy Spatkaufs, and the gruff men who run them. Invariably if you scratch one, there is a pussycat underneath.