An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2019

Well, well, well. Happy fucking new year.  Another year in Germany, another year of speaking German.  And you know what?  It’s getting better.  Like, it’s still a hot mess, but like, I can kinda do it for real now.1

Finally.  Finally I’ve got German friends who are just speaking to me in German now.  And that’s really gratifying, you know?  Cos like, in a way, I feel like I’m finally being taken seriously as a German speaker by actual Germans.  Well, some Germans anyway.

J-Dawg, for instance. Y’all remember J-Dawg – Julia – former student, now friend.  Well, we went to an ice hockey game together towards the end of last year.  And while we were there, I told her I really want to next-level my shit.  So I would appreciate it if we could just speak German, no English.  

Which, tbh, is not a small ask, I don’t think.  After all, she likes English.  She reads in English.  She speaks well.  And as a teacher in general, and her teacher specifically, I’m sure she would like to take advantage of that to practice some English.  But in fact, when I told her I wanted to German, she was all in.

To the point where, when I ask a question about a word or how to express a certain idea, she just explains in German.  No English translations.  Which is just so fucking great, you know.  Because first of all, that’s really the best way to learn.  But also, like I said, it makes me feel like I’m being taken more seriously.

We went to a second game, this time with her boyfriend. And her boyfriend is a professional chef. He’s been to America more than a few times.  He’s certainly capable of speaking good English.  In fact, in the past, we have spoken English.

But this time, it was all German.  We had a whole conversation about muscle cars.  It was great. And I never felt like he was dumbing things down for me.  And same thing, if I had a question about a word or whatever, the answer always came back in German.  I dunno, maybe he was just thinking, Dude, we’re in Germany, why the fuck would I speak English with you?  But whatever the reason, no English.  Fuck yeah, bitches.

And all this is coming at the right time.  Because my job is warping my feelings towards English in certain ways.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love my language.  And my job has given me a new and deeper appreciation for things I’d never even thought about before.  I love the elegant practicality of our verbal system.  I love the freedom with which our language nouns adjectives and verbs nouns. I love how user friendly it is; how somebody who is “bad” at the language can nevertheless make themselves understood and carry on a perfectly interesting conversation.  I love the manifold varieties of the language: American, British, Australian, New York-ese, Southern, what linguist John McWhorter calls “black English,” and by extension Spanish-English and any other type of “non-standard” English.  I love it all.

But.  But but but.  There’s one thing that has become a bit strenuous for me.  And that, friends, is the particular brand of English as manifested by native German speakers.  The word orders, word choices, idiomatic renderings, etc. utilized by the people of this country.  And to be clear, I’m not judging it.  I’m in no way saying it’s less valid, or somehow worse, than other varieties of English. Because of course it’s not.  

What I’m saying is, when I hear it, it feels like “work.”  And not work like, “oh this is difficult.”  Hardly.  No, what I mean is, it makes me feel like I’m “at work.”  Because this is what I hear all day, every day.  At work.  

And I know it’s not rational.  I’m no prescrptivist.  I in no way judge a person based on how they use the language.  People who say “ain’t” or “aks” instead of “ask” aren’t stupid. Likewise, a German who says, “Oh, that’s quite interestingly” isn’t stupid.  They’re just a person who hasn’t yet mastered the difference between adjectives and adverbs.  Nbd.  

But here’s the thing. I want to leave my work at the office, just like anybody else.  And it’s just that it’s hard to do that when you hear your job all around you.  The result being that, when I speak English with Germans now outside of school, I’m often hit with a feeling of, “Come on man, I’m off the clock, why I gotta listen to this shit?”  

Which, I know, is totally unfair to the speaker.  And obviously I don’t ever say that to a person.  That’s my mishigas.  All’s I’m saying is, increasingly, I find myself feeling an almost desperate desire to speak German outside of school.  Partly just to improve my German, yes.  But mostly just so I can, please gods, turn off my English-teacher brain for a few hours.  

That’s how I was feeling last month when I had plans to meet two former students for coffee.  And yes, actually coffee.  See, these two ladies are teetotalers.  Which, to each his own, right?  But I found myself nearly praying that this little get-together would be conducted in German.  To the point where I was actually mentally rehearsing asking them if we could just speak German and here’s why.

Well, turns out I needn’t have worried.  Without any prodding from me, the entire meetup was in German, start to finish. What a relief, you guys.  Oh, and also, it was a grand old time.  These two ladies are great.  We had a great time just catching up and shooting the shit. Fantastic.

Also fantastic, Christmas, of which I had 2.5 this year.  The first was by Margit.  How great is this?  Knowing a) I’m Jewish and b) I have no family here, she invited me to spend Christmas Eve with her family.  How can you not love that?

And what made it kind of extra special was, I was the only person there who wasn’t family.  So it wasn’t like some big Xmas party, you know? It was her, her husband, the kids, her mom, her brother and his wife, and her husband’s sister.

Anyway, it was a great time. And obviously I’m really thankful that I’ve got friends like that here in Berlin who think enough of me to bring me into their home and share their family Xmas with me.  That’s pretty great on it’s face.

And this too was all German. And not just German.  But I was exposed to some pretty hardcore Berlinese at this shindig.  Mag’s mom, for example, speaks with a pretty serious Berlin accent.  Now, I’ve met her a couple of times before.  And in the past, I always had a pretty hard time of understanding her.  But this time, somehow, I understood her no problem.  Level-up!

Also, we played Taboo. In German.  And it was kinda funny.  Because, first, they were like, “Uh, Dave, you can just do your cards in English.”  And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.”  So then, they were like, “Well, OK, but you can use the ‘taboo’ words, we don’t mind.”  And I was like, “Bitches please, I can German.”  And guess what?  I fucking nailed it.  I wasn’t the best player at the table, but I’ll tell you this.  I wasn’t the worst either.  Level-up!

Alright, so I’m making progress with some people, German-wise.  But this is coming largely with former students.  Much harder is making the switch with people with whom I’ve already built a strong relationship exclusively in English.

Which brings me to Second Xmas, which was with Jan and Zibs.  You’ll remember I did my teacher training with Zibs, so her English is pretty perfect.  And Jan’s English is also nearly prefect.  And so, based on where my German was when I got here, it never made any sense for us to speak that language.  

Side-story: Those two met while at Uni in Norway.  So their first common language was English.  Only after years of being married did they finally move their relationship into German.  And they’ve got this other friend here, Felix.  Who I’ve got a total man-crush on, I’m not embarrassed to say.  Now Felix is German, but his bae is Swedish, so their common language is…wait for it…English.  And so naturally Felix, and Sophia his boo, also speak nearly perfect English.  So that, when the five of us get together2 we always speak English.

Sub-story to the side-story: Zibs and Jan had been hearing about Anne for like literally years.  But somehow, they’d never met.  Anyway, finally, last month, we went out to dinner. Anne and me, J&Z, Felix and one of Zib’s friends.  And before we got to the restaurant, I warned Anne that we might be speaking English the whole night.  Since that’s been our modus operandi.  

So naturally, as soon as we sit down at the table, the first thing Jan asks Anne is, is it easier for you if we speak German or English.  To which Anne says, German, duh.  Well, alright.  This should be interesting.  Will they speak German with her and English with me?  Or will they actually finally speak German with me?

Right, so the way we were sitting, it was me, Anne and Jan on one side and Felix, Zibs and her friend on the other.  Anne is between me and Jan.  Felix is across from me.  And wouldn’t you know, it’s just German going on all around.  Anyway, at one point, Jan hears me carrying on with Felix.  And I guess he was sufficiently impressed, for lack of a better word.  Because he says to me across the table, Jan does, “Hey, Dave, wir sollten mehr deutsch reden.”  Hey, Dave, we should speak more German.  And I’m like, “Mutherfucker, yes, I’ve been asking you to do this for like forever!” 

So much for the side and sub stories.  Anyway, I was at J&Z for Second Xmas.  Which was great, btw.  We cooked a bœuf bourguignontogether, which was delish.  Drank a bunch, which was fun.  And just had the usual good times.  The first part of the evening was in English.  But after dinner, I asked if we could do a bit of German. Which, finally, they were only to happy to do.  So that was a first.  Just the three of us, Germaning.  I don’t know if that’s quite a level-up, but it’s certainly progress.

That leaves Joschka. The final frontier.  He’s the last friend where I just haven’t been able to break down that barrier.  One-on-one, I mean.  Because as I’ve written, when we’re together with Cindy or in Bavaria, we all speak German together and it’s fine.  More than fine, even.  But mano-a-mano, we’re not there yet.

Part of the reason is, we’re such good friends.  I mean, I know him twice as long as anybody else here, bc we met in New York in 2012.  So we’ve been mad tight for, shit, six years already.  That’s a lot of inertia.  That’s a big ship to turn around.  And look, no matter how good my German has gotten, I can’t pretend like I can just carry on in this language as well as I can in my mother tongue.

But the other thing is, that mutherfucker demands perfection.  Like, sometimes I’ll ask if we can switch to German for a bit.  And he’ll sorta shrug and say something like, “Yeah, we should because you need to get better.”  But at the first mistake, he’s correcting me.  Which, on its face, fine.  I mean, sure, fix my German.  Please. But corrections derail a conversation, you know?  So after about five minutes, it’s back to English.  

And look, I get it. It’s work for him.  Same as speaking English with Germans is work for me. For whatever reason, he can’t just let my mistakes ride.  I mean, he can in a group.  But one-on-one, he can’t.   And I don’t mean that as a negative.  He genuinely wants to help me improve.  But that’s work, for him.  So like, I somehow need to up my game far above it’s current level before we can German together at length.  So…not level-up.  But maybe that can be a goal for this year.

In any case, the Bavarians are visiting later this month.  So they’ll be plenty of German with Joschka and our “country cousins” when they get here.  And, like, they kinda are our “country cousins.”  Like, we’re thinking of things to do with them when they’re here, to show them “the big city.”  Which is funny and adorable in its own right.  But, and I mean this only with love, most of them are really “country” people. As in, they don’t care for big city life.  Not that they aren’t looking forward to visiting.  But we’re from different worlds in that way.  Same as when we go down to visit them, right?  I love to get away for a weekend.  But I couldn’t imagine living down there.  Anyway, I’m really looking forward to having them here. It should be a fucking blast.

I mentioned 2.5 Christmases. The first was with Mag and fam. The second was with J&Z.  The half-Xmas was by skype, with Flare and her fam. You’ll remember that for every year from 2010 until I moved here, I spent every Xmas with those peeps.  To the point where, my first year here, it felt weird for all of us that I wasn’t there with them.  

Anyway, Flare skyped me up and I got to see her and the whole mishpucha, which was great.  And her uncle was wearing a shirt that said, “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which, come on, how fucking cool is that?  And I got to see her baby.  And I met the baby last time I was in, but he was still pretty fucking new-born at that point.  Now the little dude is all walking around and shit.  And that is one cute kid, lemme tell y’all.

One last thing on the whole German deal.  So I cooked dinner for my roommates tonight.3  And we’re chatting, and at one point, I said something incorrectly.  So Marco corrected me.  But then he made a comment about my German.  He said I’m thinking about it less.  Which, coming on the heels of an error, I wasn’t sure how to take.

But what he meant was this. In the beginning, he said, it was clear that I was carefully considering the grammar and whatnot as I spoke. Which resulted in a very slow, disjointed sort of conversational style.  Whereas now, I was very clearly “just talking.”  It was much faster, much more fluid.  But also, with less attention to detail.  So that, despite the speed and fluidity, my English was showing through much more.

Now this was very interesting.  And before going on, I should say that he meant this as a compliment.  Or at least, that’s how I understood him.  What he was was saying, I think, was I’m now much easier to chat with, it’s a much more natural experience.  Just that there’s a bit of a tradeoff.  That all this comes at the expense of “correctness,” if I can say that.

Which, for me personally, is to be preferred.  I mean, given the choice of being “correct” or being interesting, I’ll take interesting every time.  Which is also how I feel when speaking English with non-native speakers, my previous comments notwithstanding.  Because in my job, I get both.  And I’d much rather talk to someone who can carry on a conversation at speed, even if half the shit is “wrong,” than with somebody who is “perfect” but takes all day to get to their point.  

To borrow from a rather old example from this blogue.  Imagine talking with two people at a bar.  And at some point, each person hears the call of nature.  Here’s how this goes down, by me.

Person 1: “I must to going after the toilets to bring a piss.”

Me: “Sure, I’ll be here.”

Person 2: “Please…excuse me…I…have…have to going…no, have to…go, yes go…to the restroom.  I will be back, no…I will…I’ll, yes, I’ll…be back, be rightback.  Yes, I’ll be right back.”

Me: “Yeah, and while you’re doing that, I’ll just hang myself with my scarf.  Tell my parents I love them.”

So I’d much rather be the “bring the piss guy” than “Mr. Takes Three Hours to Craft the Perfect Sentence but I Get there in the End.”  Which, apparently I am.  Or, at least, that’s what Marco was trying to tell me.  I think.

Of course, in theory, you should be able to have both.  That should be the goal.  I remember I was talking with a student about (linguistic) gender in German.  And she was saying how a lot of Turkish people here, who speak a kind of “broken” German,4 just omit the gendered article altogether. In English, this would be like saying, “I missed bus,” instead of “I missed thebus.”  So I asked her, in view of my problem of getting the gender right, which was worse. Is it worse to use the wrong gender, or no gender at all?5

To which she gave the most German answer ever.  “Of course, the best thing is to just get it right.”  Yeah, great.  Thanks.

So much for German. But what about Greek, my one and only? Also, it’s not my one and only.  In fact, on an emotional level, Yiddish is beginning to rival the Hellenic tongue. But it sounded nice to say “my one and only.”  I mean, how often do you get to use that?  Whatever, the point is, I love Greek.  And I always will.

Anyway, now that I need less time for Hebrew, I’ve decided to spend some of the surplus study time on Greek.  And as a text, I chose Herodotus, the so-called “father of history.”  Although I prefer to think of him as the “drunk uncle of history.”  Because he spins a good yarn, but he also wanders off on tangents like a mofo.  

Tangentially – and indeed this is a very Herodotian tangent – you may remember that I’m still in touch with my second year Greek prof, who is also a huge Yankee fan.  All summer, every summer, we email each other about the doings of the Bronx Bombers, mixing in a healthy helping of puns. Sub-tangentially – which is also a rather Herodotian device – when I was in his class, we read…you guessed it…Herodotus.

So in my reading, I came across a bit of text about which I had a question.  Well, who else could I ask?  So I sent him an email.  And of course he answered my query.  But he added at the end of the email something along the lines of, Herodotus is great and I’m kinda jealous that you’re reading him.

Eh?  OK, I said.  Well, we could read it together if you want.  Which he thought was a great idea.  So now, we Skype on Mondays and read Herodotus together.  And what a fucking joy, you guys.  I mean, I finished grad school in 2013.  So since then, everything I’ve done (Daitz aside), I’ve done alone.  I haven’t had access to “The Academy.”   

And look, it works, right? I mean, I have an MA in Classics. I can Greek.  I read Dumas on the subway.  I taught myself Hebrew well enough to read the fucking Torah already.  So I can work alone.  And I get by.  But that’s what it is.  It’s getting by.  I don’t benefit from the wisdom of others.

And now, all of a sudden, I’m reading Greek with an NYU prof, a proper fucking expert.  So on a technical level, it’s a huge benefit. Already, he’s corrected mistakes I’ve been making, reminded me of things I’ve forgotten, taught me things I never knew and would never have discovered on my own.

But more than that, it’s just fun.  I mean, we really get down into it.  In 90 minutes, maybe we get through two pages of text.  Maybe.  But that’s because we go back and forth debating about a word here, a phrase there, this verb tense or how this usually means something in Homer so what might it mean here?  And also we crack wise and make puns.

We’ve taken a break for the holidays, but the plan is to get back to it in the coming weeks.  And I can’t wait.  It’s 90 minutes, maybe 2 hours.  But it’s become a highlight of my week.  I mean, I’d be enjoying it anyway, if I was just doing it on my own.  But this ups the fun-factor by an order of magnitude.  

And let me tie this back to the German thing.  I said that when people speak only German with me, it makes me feel like they take me seriously as a German speaker.  Well, when we do Herodotus together, I feel like he takes me seriously as a classicist. 

Which is not to say he takes me seriously like a peer or an equal.  He’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive.  So he’s very much the prof and I’m very much the student.  But he definitely treats me as somebody who knows their shit and with whom he can do this in a way that it’s fun and not work; another recurring theme in this post, apparently.

All to say, this Herodotus reading group (can two people be a “reading group”?) happened by accident. But it’s kinda fucking gorgeous. It’s all of the things I love. Good people.  Greek.  Puns. Intellectual engagement.  What’s not to love?

So I’ll leave it here. It’s 2019.  Hopefully this is the year where German overtakes English as the primary language in most of my relationships.  This is the year I read the Torah for a second time; this time trying to understand what the fuck it’s actually talking about rather than just muddling through the Hebrew.  This is the year I finish my Yiddish grammar book and get that language to a level where I can actually read shit.  And who knows what else?  But it’s 2019.  This is the year…

זײַ געזונט

  1. Sometimes. []
  2. When I’m not rockin’ the third wheel, I’m rockin’ the fifth. []
  3. I wrote this post a week ago and am only proofing it now… []
  4. I don’t care for this term, but it serves the purpose here. []
  5. In German, “bus” is masculine: “Der Bus.”  So the correct sentence is, “Ich hab denBus verpasst.”  I would almost certainly make “bus” feminine: “Ich hab dieBus verpasst.”  Whereas Turkish “street” German would omit the gendered article altogether, giving “Ich hab [_] Bus verpasst.” []

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.) #7

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.)
A Vaguely Star-Wars-ish Kinda Thing
Mostly for Dale

Author’s Note: As the (sub-) title of this series indicates, these episodes have largely been written for my friend Dale.  Well, that old so-and-so just got married.  Therefore, this installment is dedicated to him (and his bride).  Consider it a wedding present of sorts.  Congratulations buddy, wish I coulda been there!

The Imperial Star Destroyer was in the middle of a long hyperdrive haul.  Three days with nothing to do but watch the mottled, swirling starscape worm by in an endless cocoon of blue milkyness.  This was the real life of an Imperial TIE pilot stationed aboard a battle cruiser.  Sit around and wait.  And that’s just what Nick, Micky and Reg were doing at this particular juncture. Sitting around waiting, in the pilots’ ready room.  

“You know,” Reg started in, “with all the technology at the Empire’s disposal, you’d think they’d have the wherewithal to develop a proper, full-sensory, interactive holographic entertainment system.”

“Who’s they?” asked Nick.

“Not this again,” moaned Micky.

“You know,” Reg answered Nick, ignoring Micky.  “Them.”  

“Right, right,” allowed Nick.  “But…who’s themthen?  I mean, people are always talking about theysan’ thems. But really, who are them?”

“Who are they, surely,” exhaled Micky through gritted teeth.

“Whom?” (Nick)

“Who.” (Micky)

“Yeah, whom?” (Nick)

“No, not whom.  Who,” groaned Micky miserably.

“What?” (Reg)

“Why!” whined Micky.

“Look,” said Nick after a moment.  “Alls I want to know is, whom is they?”  It was a question which made Mickey’s face turn a rather Yavin-esque shade of mottled red.

“First of all,” said Micky slowly, “whois a subject pronoun.  As is they.  Whomand them, on the other hand…”

“Now you’ve done it,” whispered Reg.

Whom and them,” continued Micky more loudly, “are object pronouns.”   

“Yeah, so?” Nick was unimpressed.  “And banthas are mammoths.  Inexplicably shaggy, hairy, wooly mammoths.”

“Why is that inexplicable?” pondered Reg.  “I mean, what’s so unusual about a wooly mammoth?”

“In an of itself, nothing, I suppose,” came back Nick thoughtfully.  “But haven’t you ever wondered, what the Force are they doing in a desert environment?  I mean, sure, you’d expect to find such a beast on an ice-world like Hoth.  But on a homogenously desert world like Tatooine? What kind of sense does that make, evolution-wise?”

“Say, that’s a good point!” Reg was impressed.  “I never thought of that.”

“Well, if you like that, I’ve got another puzzler for ya,” grinned Nick.

“Not the Mon Cals again,” winced Micky.

“The Mon Calamari,” declaimed Nick.  “How do they exist out of water?”

“Whatcha mean?”  Reg was hooked.

“Well, look at ‘em,” continued Nick.  “Surely this is a species that evolved under water.  Now, I’ve never been to their homeworld.  But I’d venture to guess that, even now, they live under the sea.”

“In domed cities, I reckon,” came back Reg.

“But why?  I mean, just look at ‘em.  Their eyes are clearly evolved to see under water, not through air. And they’ve got fishy skin.”

“They haven’t got scales,” countered Reg.

“Not all fish have scales,” groaned Micky.

“That’s right, Micky,” agreed Nick, slapping his comrade on the shoulder.  His comrade did not appreciate this.  “And neither do catfish.  But be that as it may, I’d suggest – and I’m no evolutionary biologist, mind you – but I’d suggest that our Mon Cal friends – “

“Enemies.”  (Micky)

“Whatever.”  (Nick)

“He’s right, they are our enemies.  Technically speaking.”  (Reg)

“Fine.  My point is, they’ve got catfish skin and underwater eyes. Can we agree to that much?”

“Well, I dunno,” pondered Reg.  “I mean, it could be more like dolphin skin.”

“But dolphins also live underwater, so my point stands,” persisted Nick.

“And yet they’re mammals. They breath air just like you and me.” Reg was working it out as he spoke.

“But it’s not a question of what they breathe, it’s a question of where they live, you see. And dolphins must be in a watery environment.  Or they dry out and die.”  

“I see…” said Reg, in a way that indicated he might not actually.

“Look,” said Nick, growing weary of his own argument.  “All I’m saying is, wooly mammoths on a desert planet and underwater fish-people serving on air-filled battle cruisers.  Things that make you go hmm.” 

“Well, see!?” exclaimed Reg. “That’s just what I’m on about!”

“What?” (Nick)

“How have they– the imperial boffins – not come up with a 3D, full sensory, holographic entertainment system?  I mean, we have moon-sized space stations capable of destroying entire worlds, but we can’t have that?  What’s the deal?”

“Well how would that further the goals of empire?”  Nick’s answer was succinct but poignant.  

“What do you mean?” pressed Reg.

“What I mean is this. Moon-sized space stations with world destroying capabilities further the goals of empire.  They generate fear.  And as any first year cadet knows, fear – “

“Keeps the local systems in line.”  (Nick, Reg and Micky in chorus)

“At least we’ve all passed Imperial Civics 101,” grumbled Micky to himself.

“Think about it though,” said Reg.  “Such a holographic entertainment system would be a boon to R&R.  Not to mention the health benefits.”

“Health benefits?” asked Nick, taking the bait.

“Well, yeah.  I mean, what’s the first thing any storm trooper does with a day’s leave and a few credits in his pocket?”

“Spend a fine hour with a lovely green dancing girl, I reckon.”  Nick paused.  “Or so I’ve heard.”

“That’s right,” answered Reg.  

“Are you sure you’re in the right universe?” mused Micky.

“There he goes again,” said Nick with a laugh.  “Mixing up Orion slave girls with our own beautiful Twi’leks.  He’s never had the pleasure, the poor bastard.”

“I’m married,” said Micky with a wave of his hand.  “And happily, at that.”

“Still, mate,” prodded Nick. “Those girls can do wonderful thing with those proboscises.”

“Would not the plural be probosci?” pondered Micky, half to himself.  “Or better still, probosces?” 

“Technically,” interceded Reg, “they’re tentacles.”

“What’s the difference?” queried Nick.  

“Well, so a proboscis,” began Reg professorially, “is an elongated appendage from the head of an animal, either a vertebrate or an invertebrate. The term often refers to tubular mouthparts used for feeding and sucking.”[1]

“Sucking, eh?” whistled Nick.

“And a tentacle?” wondered Micky.

“Isn’t,” said Reg, simply. “Anyway, Twi’leks don’t have tubular mouthparts for feeding and sucking.  Ergo, tentacles.”

“Maybe you just haven’t been with the right ones, mate,” cracked Nick, with a jab of his elbow.

“I’m hardly denying that a lovely Twi’lek bird can’t do wonderful things with her tentacles, Nick. Why, I myself have have known the pleasure of a pair of luscious, soft, firm, green…”

“Tentacles, yeah, I get it.” Nick was shaking his head. “Thanks, professor.”

“Is there a point to this anatomy lesson?” grumbled Micky.

“Good ol’ Micky,” winked Nick.  “Always keeping us on message.”

“The point, gents, is simply this.”  If Reg had worn glasses, he would have pushed them up on his nose at this point. “Despite the best efforts of Imperial Health and Safety, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among Imperial armed forces is at an all time high.  And things are particularly bad in the Outer Rim, where regulation is most scant.”

“Well that’s no surprise,” grinned Nick.  “There’s always a greater health risk where rim play is involved.”

“Nice one!” exclaimed Reg, high-fiving his comrade.  Micky just rolled his eyes.

“Anyway, all’s I’m saying is, we could virtually eliminate all STD’s by means of introducing 3D, holographic, full-sensory…comfort women.”

“It’s an interesting idea, I’ll give you that much,” conceded Nick.  

“Right.  And it’s hard to deny that a healthy, STD-free military force wouldn’t further the goals of empire.”

“It’s a fair cop,” allowed Nick.

“You mean, it’s hard to deny that a healthy, STD-free military force would further the goals of empire,” interjected Micky.

“How’s that?”

“You said, it’s hard to deny that it wouldn’t further the goals of empire.  But that’s a double negative.”

“I don’t follow,” said Reg blankly.  Micky pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Look,” he sighed. “The premise is, a healthy military would further the goals of empire, right?”

“Right.”

“So if one were to deny said premise,” continued Micky, “one would in effect be saying that a healthy military would not, in fact, further the goals of empire.”

“Yeah…” puzzled Reg.

“But your point is rather that this premise would in fact be difficult to deny.”

“It is?”

“Force, yes!”  Micky was growing exasperated.  “So you see,” he said, recomposing himself, “what you wish to say then, is that it it’s hard to deny that a healthy military wouldfurther the goals of empire.”

“Well…” struggled Reg.

“Well, what?  That’s it.  It’s that simple.”  

“I suppose,” agreed Reg weakly.

“Still though,” countered Nick, “you have to admit.  It’s hard to deny that a healthy military wouldn’t further the goals of empire.”

“Oh for the love of…you know what?  Forget it,” sighed Micky.  “I give up.”

“You give up?” parroted Nick.

“Giving up is tantamount to letting the Rebels win, Micky,” chimed in Reg.

“Rebel scum,” followed on Nick.

“It’s like trying to reason with a moisture vaporator,” grumbled Micky to himself.

“Anyway,” resumed Reg after a long pause, “I don’t know why they can’t come up with such a device.  I mean, it wouldn’t take much.  Just some tractor fields to hold ionized light particles – “

“Photons,” corrected Micky.

“ – photons – “ Reg went on, “into interactive patterns.”

“Twi’lek patters, specifically, you mean,” chimed in Nick.

“Well, for starters,” agreed Reg.

“It’s a fine idea, Reg, I’ll give you that.  A fine idea indeed.”  Nick’s brow was furrowing in deep thought.  “But I’ve spotted one problem, at least.”

“Go on,” encouraged Reg, ready to parry the blow.

“Well,” began Nick slowly.  “Suppose one were to use this holographic, interactive Twi’lek in the way one is accustomed to using a realTwi’lek comfort woman.  Well, the result of that…usage…I mean, it would have to go somewhere, wouldn’t it?”

“The result…of the usage…” repeated Reg, clearly confused.

“Yeah, the uh…well, how shall I say…” stumbled Nick, scratching at his ear.  “The err…well, the…”

“Ejaculate,” shot Micky dryly, rolling his eyes back in his head.

“Yes, that,” conceded Nick, blushing ever so slightly.

“I fail to see the problem,” countered Reg, failing to see the problem.

“What he means, is…Sorry, Nick, it’s your point.  Do you want to explain?

“No, you go on right ahead there, Micky.” 

“Right.  What he means is, so long as the program is running, any ejaculatory matter would be suspended within the tractor field of the synthetic comfort woman.  But the moment the program were to cease running, said matter would come splashing to the floor in an unseemly mess.”

“Sorry, did you say unseedly?” asked Reg with not a little confusion.

“Oh, no.  It would be quite seedly, as it were.”

“I think he said unseemly,” offered Nick, helpfully.

“Ah, rather.”  Now Reg was also blushing.  “I suppose I’d never considered the possibility.”  He paused, taking his turn at ear-scratching.  “Well, now that I think about it…such a problem could easily be solved by the use of prophylactics, which would necessarily contain – “

“Now you wait just an Alderaan-destroying moment!” interrupted Nick hastily.  “Do you mean to suggest, that after going to all the trouble of inventing a 3D, interactive, fully anatomically correct in every way Twi’lek comfort women, free of any venereal disease or risk of pregnancy…do you mean to say that, after all of that, I’d have to wear a – “

But he never finished his outrage-tinged question.  For just at that very moment, the ready room doors shsh’d open.  It was then that their commanding officer, Colonel Starrkin himself, entered.  Upon which, all three men stood to attention and saluted.

“At ease, gentlemen.” Starrkin causally returned their salute before gliding over to the coffee machine and pouring himself a cup of Kashyyyk dark roast.  Of the many benefits of empire, he thought to himself, one must surely be access to the galaxy’s finest rainforests and the glorious coffee beans to be found within their confines.

“Now,” said the Colonel as he seated himself upon a leather sofa, crossing his legs while holding his coffee cup to his lips.  “What’s all the hubbub?”

“Hubbub, sir?” asked Nick innocently.

“Yes, pilot, hubbub. It sounded from the other side of the bulkhead as though you three were having quite the heated debate.”

“Oh, that?” said Nick, inspecting his boots.

“Yes…that,” said Starrkin, taking a sip.

“Well, you see sir, Reg has this idea…”

“He does, does he?”

“I do, sir,” answered Reg proudly.

“Well, pilot, I love a good idea as much as the next chap.”  Starrkin recrossed his legs in the other direction.  “Do share.”

“Well, sir, it’s simply this.”  Reg straightened his collar for effect.  “With all the technological advances made by the Empire, you’d think they’d be able to invent a 3D, fully interactive, holographic entertainment system.”

“By which he means comfort women,” added Micky abruptly.  Starrkin looked at him.  “Sir,” he concluded.  The colonel merely raised an eyebrow.

“The idea, sir,” continued Nick, “is that such a woman would be free from venereal disease or risk of pregnancy.  To say nothing of reducing the need for slavery among – “

“The Empire does not engage in…slavery,” interrupted Starrkin coldly.

“No, of course not sir,” retreated Nick, hastily.

“Still,” pondered Starrkin, “the traffic in…paid…services such as these is distasteful.”

“Is what I meant, sir,” agreed Nick hastily, scratching this time at the bridge of his nose.

“No doubt, pilot,” allowed the colonel.  “No doubt.”

“All to say sir,” said Reg, filling the silence, “it’s a wonder the Empire hasn’t invested in such technology, which would no doubt be within our technical abilities.”

“Right?” echoed Nick. “I mean, if we can figure out how to destroy entire worlds – “

Molecular re-educationis the preferred term, pilot,” interjected Starrkin.

“Of course, sir,” conceded Nick, screwing up his face in thoughtful embarrassment.

“Anyway, sir,” said Micky, joining the conversation.  “What do you think?  Could the Empire develop such a technology?  Or is it just…”

Science…fiction?” finished Starrkin.

“In a word, sir, yes.”

“Well, pilot,” said Starrkin coyly.  “Who’s to say they haven’t?”

“Sir!?” exclaimed all three pilots in unison.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said anything,” said the colonel, taking another sip of coffee.  “It is highly classified, after all.”  He paused.  “Or rather, it would be highly classified.  If such a program existed.”  Upon which, he rose to his feet and headed towards the door, as if to leave.

“But sir!” cried Reg. Starrkin turned to face him.  “You can’t just say something like that and then leave us hanging!”  Hearing these words, Starrkin closed his eyes and sighed deeply.  Then, he looked over both shoulders, as if to confirm that they were indeed the only four people in the room.  At last, he walked over to the control console.  There, he entered his security code, thereby disabling all security cameras and microphones.

“Gather round, children,” he said softly, taking up his seat once more upon the sofa.  The three pilots swiftly huddled around their CO.  

“Well,” began Starrkin in hushed solemn tones.  “The Empire had indeed developed a system much like the one you proposed.  I’m not privy to the technical reports, but I gather it was based upon the principal that a tractor field could be made to organize ionized photons into physically interactive patterns.”

“See!” hissed Reg, elbowing Nick in the ribs.  “What’d I say?!”

“Tests were conducted aboard a captured Rebel transport.  The reason being, that if anything should go wrong, responsibility could be blamed on the Alliance.

“Rebel scum,” murmured Nick and Reg together.

“Quite,” nodded Starrkin. “Well, as it happens, things did go wrong.  Terribly wrong.”

“What happened, sir?” Micky, riveted.

“Well, as I said, the system was being tested on a captured Rebel transport.  But there were two phases to the test.  The first phase was purely internal.  In other words, the system would be subjected to any number of onboard errors.  System failures, power grid failures, computer glitches, hull breeches, that sort of thing.”

“Seems reasonable,” said Micky, half to himself.

“But the second phase was to be external.”

“External, sir?” Micky again.  Starrkin nodded.

“Hopes were high.  You see, the first phase was a smashing success. No matter the internal stimuli, nothing onboard could damage the holo-system.”  Starrkin paused for yet another sip of coffee.  “And it was a big system, you see.  In fact, they dedicated an entire deck of that transport to the holo-projection program.  One might even call it a…holo-deck.”  He smiled at his own phrase-coinage.

“I knew it could work!” whispered Reg, awestruck.

“But the second phase?” countered Micky.

“Yes,” answered Starrkin coldly.  “The second phase.”  And he shook his head, as if to say, the poor bastards.  “The idea was to see what would happen if the ship should pass through a nebula, or too close to quasar, perhaps.  The sort of thing that normally plays havoc with ionized photons, you understand.” The pilots nodded; Micky because he actually understood, the other two because they wished to appear as though they did.  “The only problem,” continued Starrkin, “was that there were no nebulae or active quasars in the quadrant where the tests were being conducted.”

“Oh, sir,” moaned Micky. “They didn’t?”

“Didn’t what?” prodded Reg, slow on the uptake.

“Yeah, didn’t what?” echoed Nick.

“I’m afraid they did, pilot.”  Starrkin had answered Micky while ignoring the other two.  Micky’s only response was to bury his face in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees.

“What was it, sir? What did they do?”  Reg was insistent.

“Well,” answered the colonel slowly, “as Micky seems to have divined what must have occurred, I’ll let him explain.”  And he nodded to Micky.

“There’s only one way to simulate the effects of a nebula or an active quasar that I’m aware of,” whispered Micky.  His comrades were on tenterhooks.  “And that’s to project a modified tachyon burst through the main deflector array of a capital class starship.  Something like a Mon Cal battle cruiser,” he added, musing to himself.

“Actually, in this case, it was a Nebulon Class-B Frigate,” corrected Starrkin gently.

“Of course!” cried Micky, slapping his thigh.  “The Nebulons always had the most advanced sensor and deflector technology!”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference, I’m afraid.”  There was a tinge of regret in the colonel’s tone.  “In the end, there were two, equally disastrous, results.”  At this, Micky let out a long whistle.  Starrkin turned to him.  “Micky?”

“Well, sir.  I can only assume the tachyon burst harmonized with the ionized particles, giving them permanent coherence, even outside of the tractor field.”

“Very good, pilot,” nodded the CO.  

“What the hot, steaming Bantha’s shit is that supposed to mean!” cried Reg, forgetting himself. Starrkin raised an eyebrow at this failure of decorum.  “Sir,” added Reg meekly.

“It means,” answered Micky gravely, “that your beautifully bedreamt Twi’lek comfort women would have been as physically real as you and I, and they would have had the run of the entire ship.”  He paused a moment to let this sink in.  “Even outside of the…how did you call it, sir?  The…holo-deck?”  Starrkin merely nodded.  “But…”

“Go on, pilot,” encouraged the colonel.

“But I can’t figure out what the other disastrous effect would have been.”  Micky was rubbing his temples, racking his brain in frustration.

“You said they’d be as physicallyreal as you and I,” prodded Starrkin. “But it was more than that.”

“Of course!” cried Micky, bounding to his feet.

“What?!” cried Nick and Reg, dying for the answer.

“Of course!” said Micky again, now to himself.  “Why didn’t I see it before?”  He was pacing back and forth.  Finally, he came to a stop and faced his fellow pilots.  He closed his eyes, imagining the scenario in his head as he spoke. “A modified tachyon burst, passed through the main deflector array of a capital class starship…the safeties…the safeties aren’t classified programming; they’re not behind the same firewalls…AI though…AI is critical technology onboard any starship nowadays; it’s super top secret…so the AI wouldn’t have been…”

“Very good, Micky,” smiled Starrkin.  He was clearly proud of his pilot.  “So?”

“The poor bastards!” Micky pulled at his cheeks.

“Out with it already!” cried Reg.

“Spill it!” shouted Nick.

“Don’t you see?!  The tachyon burst would have burned out the safety controls while leaving the AI functions intact!”

“Meaning?” Reg was growing exasperated.

“Meaning,” countered Micky, “you would have had a cohort of fully realized corporeal Twi’lek comfort women governed by an AI operating system devoid of any safeties, endowed with a ‘biological’ imperative to survive!”  With these words, he cast his head back and cried out.  “Poor bastards!”  

“So?”  Nick didn’t see the big deal.

“So,” winced Micky, “they would have realized they were a test program.  They would have realized they would be terminated at the end of the testing period.  With full AI and with true physical bodies, they would have overtaken the ship.  They would have been merciless.  They would have slaughtered the crew and warp-drived it to the furthest system in the ships cartographical databanks!”  Cold sweat was beading up on Micky’s brow.  “That’s what happened, sir, isn’t it?”  His question came in a near-whisper, cresting on a wave of horror.

“That’s our best guess,” shrugged Starrkin nonchalantly.  “The truth is, nobody knows for certain.  Within forty-five minutes of the tachyon burst, all contact with the test-bed vessel was lost; save for two automated distress signals. Not long afterwards, the ship entered hyperspace.  And we’ve had no trace of it since.”

“Unbelievable,” whispered Reg.

“All too believable,” countered Micky.

“A terrible waste of resources,” mourned Starrkin wistfully.  “And something of a security risk, I might add,” he amended, almost as an afterthought.

“Still,” mused Nick.

“Pilot?” questioned the colonel.

“I admit, sir, that I didn’t exactly finish top of my class in field dynamics – “

“It’s nothing to do with field dynamics,” groaned Micky.  “It’s bloody particle physics!”

“Be that as it may,” sniffed Nick, with not a little ennui.  “Still, I can’t help at wonder.”

“Right?” smiled Reg broadly. He and Nick looked at each other with the selfsame gleam in their eyes.  Whilst Micky and Starrkin eyed them – and each other – suspiciously.  

“If I understand you right, sir,” resumed Nick.  “You’re saying that, somewhere out…there,” and at this he gestured towards the nearest porthole, and beyond it, the vastness of the galaxy, “somewhere out there, there’s a ship full of fully realized, anatomically correct, self-aware, Twi’lek comfort women, free from any venereal disease or risk of pregnancy?”

“As it were,” nodded Starrkin not without a tinge of disappointment at his pilot’s one-track mind.

“Even so!” exclaimed Micky. “They’re a murderous lot!  They’d strangle you to death, first chance they got!”

“Still though,” shrugged Reg, “beats buying it an exploding shield-less TIE fighter.”

“Oy!” winked Nick. “Death by proboscis, that’s how I’d like to go out!”

Poor Micky, he couldn’t take it anymore.  He turned to his two comrades, arms spread wide, and cried out in equal parts frustration and horror:

“Tentacle!”


[1]Editors note: Pinched from Wikipedia, obviously.

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 September, 2018

Right, so obviously I haven’t written in a while.  Well, that’s not true.  I’ve written quite a bit.  But I haven’t posted in a little while.  There’s reasons for that, but first, Hi.  How ya doin?  Anyway, I guess the big news is, I had my appointment with the Ausländerbehörde – the foreign peoples office – today, to see about extending my visa, which was due to expire this November.  First of all, I mean, can you believe it’s been two years already?  Crazytown.  Anyway, it went off without a hitch, and they’ve given me three more years.  Now of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to actually stay for another three years.  But it does mean I have the option; and that I don’t have to stress about it until sometime in 2021…if ever.

Lemme tellya though, it was a surreal morning.  Just going to the office, I could remember my last visit there, back in November 2016.  I mean, I could remember it like it was yesterday.  I remember the weather; how dark it was in the morning; how I got lost and wound up having to take an Uber; how just that morning my phone had run out of data because I was staying at an AirBnB with no wifi and how I had to rush to a drugstore to buy more minutes just to call the Uber; how nervous I was while I waited.  All of it.

And I was nervous today, too.  I mean, in theory, I had all my papers in order.  But you know, you’re at the mercy of bureaucrats when it comes to this stuff.  And if the person you’re dealing with is having a bad day, they can decide to fuck you just because.  So I’m turning over and over in my head all the possibilities.  Like, what if they ask for something I didn’t bring?  What if something I brought wasn’t good enough?  What if they ask me something in German and I don’t understand?  What if whoever I got stuck with was having a bad day?

I tried reading my book – Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, btw; more Dumas; the Musketeers continued; he’s so fucking awesome; also Athos is kinda my hero – aaaanyway, I tried reading my book while I waited, but I just kept re-reading the same paragraph over and over.  Mazarin on his literal deathbed, confessing his sins, and I’m just like…whaaaaat even are you talking about you silly Italian cardinal person?  So I put the book away.

Anyway, I needn’t have worried.  My particular bureaucrat today was a young woman, very blond and very pretty.  Which I only mention by way of saying, she was very pleasant and not yet ground down by a life in bureaucracy and therefore more likely to be nice to me.  Which she was.  And also very patient with my German, thank gods.  Because she asked me two questions which I didn’t quite get at first.

I mean, I did get them.  But I so wasn’t expecting them that they caught me off guard and I needed to ask her to explain.  Which she did, patiently, and then I was able to answer her no problem.  She also asked me for my contract with the school, which I didn’t bring because the website didn’t mention it among the required docs.  But fortunately, they already had it in the system from my first go-round.  Major sigh of relief.

Anyway, she takes all my docs and tells me to wait in the waiting room while she does her thang.  And the way she said it, it sounded like it would just be a formality.  But of course, as I waited, I started imagining every worst possibility.  She was going to call me back in and reject my application because she didn’t like my job; or my second job.  Or I didn’t make or have enough money.  Or who the fuck lives in Köpenick?  I mean, who knows what she might decide?

Also, I had expected her to ask me how long I wanted to extend for.  I mean, maybe this was going to be a one-year thing, and I’d have to go through this every year.  Or maybe it would be like the first time where the maximum I could ask for would be three years, but really she could give me whatever she felt like.  My plan had been to ask for two years, on the grounds that my initial visa was also for two years.  In any case, she never asked.

So she calls me back in – finally; it was like half an hour – and she just smiles and said she’d given me three years.  I was delighted, yes, but more than that, relieved.  Vielen herzlichen Dank, I said, thanking her in the most polite but also effusive way I could think of.  To which, she was all, No problem; albeit pleasantly.  But you could tell she was already done with me.  So I hightailed it outa there before she could change her mind.  Which, she probably couldn’t, because the new visa was already pasted into my passport.  But still.

After that, all I had to do was pay.  On the website, it said the cost would be 49-96 Euros, “depending on the technical effort,” whatever that means.  Well my sweet golden angel of a bureaucrat hit me for the 49 minimum.  So I hope she’s having a swell night, wherever she is.

There was one other cost in this whole thing.  I had to take my tax returns, invoices and bank statements to an accountant and have them draw up profit/loss document for me.  That set me back 170 Euros.  So all told, renewing my visa cost me 120 Euros.  Well, that plus the 1.70 I spent on a celebratory beer after I got out of there at 11:30am don’t judge me.

So that’s the biggest news, but not the only news.  About two weeks ago, I finally finished the Torah.  That’s right, bitches.  Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year was a success!  And three weeks ahead of schedule to boot.  I don’t usually crow about my accomplishments, but this one, I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of.

I also finally finished my first draft of the French translation of that story I wrote.  I still need to go over it with Charlotte so that it’s actually, you know, readable.  And who knows how long that will take.  But the point is, I did it.  It’s over.  And thank all of the gods.

I’ve had some travels.  In August I visited Jared and family in Italy, which was wonderful.  And this past weekend, Joschka and I were in Bavaria to celebrate the birthday of one of our friends down there, and also to visit a Volksfest – kind of like an Oktoberfest.  So that was a great time as well.  And then the last weekend of this month, I’m meeting Charlotte in Copenhagen; so I’m quite looking forward to that.

As for upcoming projects, I’ve just bought a Yiddish grammar.  So I’m looking to take that journey to the next level.  And I’ve got my hands on a Tanakh, so I’ve started with the book of Joshua, which begins where the Torah left off.  I’m not making any grand plans for how long it will take me to read the whole Tanakh.  More, I’m just gonna try and keep it going as a side project.  Because I’ve also got Greek to do.  And I want to get my Latin back into shape.  And of course, in a few weeks, it’s time to start the Torah all over again; but this year with (English) commentary.  Not to mention, I need to get back to the Federalist Project; which I’ve picked up again this very evening.  Oh, and also work.  So I’m busy as ever, I guess.

I’ll get more into detail on all this stuff in coming posts.  In fact, I’ve written a bunch about it already.  But I haven’t posted any of it because, in their totality, I haven’t been happy with the posts I’ve written (but not published) lately.  To be honest, they read as a bit angry and bitter.  Or, at least, I think they do.

The reason being, I think I was in a bit of a rut for most of August; maybe even most of July as well.  And really, most of September, until today.  Part of it was the visa thing was certainly weighing on me.  But work has been frustrating as well, which I suppose is normal after two years.  Or so says every other freelance language teacher I’ve spoken with.

But I think I’m past the tough stretch now.  Or, at least, I hope I am.  So I’ll probably cull the interesting stuff from those unpublished posts and try to turn them into something a little more upbeat in the coming weeks.  But for now, I just wanted to give this (comparatively) short update.

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
22 July, 2018

Music, y’all.  What’s a life without music?  So maybe you remember a few years ago, I wrote about Charlotte’s old roommate in New York.  This girl Line.  The short version went something like this.  Line writes her own music.  And she’s fucking fantastic.  Really, she’s got this…I wanna say Geist, because that’s the best word I can find.  But honestly, I don’t even know if that’s right.  Because German.

What I’m trying to say is, she’s got his wonderful energy and intensity to her music.  Even when she sings in a near whisper, it’s intense.  Also, the music itself is really fucking good.  And she’s got a killer voice.  It’s kind of a complete package.  Very singer-songwriter-y though.  Which I only add by way of clarification.  To clarify that the kind of music she does is very different than the kind of music I do.  I do rock and roll, basically.  She does, well, art.

I make this clarification because something very surprising happened last weekend.  So I get a message from Charlotte that Line is going to be in Berlin and that she wants to get in touch with me.  And I’m thinking, yeah, sure, great.  I mean, I haven’t seen her in like 2.5-3 years, so it would be great to catch up, grab a beer, that kinda thing.

Well so Line gets in touch.  And she doesn’t ask me if I want to meet up for a beer.  She asks me if I’d be interested in playing a gig with her.  What the what?  I mean, yeah, obviously!  But I was certainly surprised.  Because as I said, we do very different kinds of music.  And to be clear, she wasn’t asking me if I wanted to play some of my own stuff.  She was asking me if I wanted to lend my guitar to some of her stuff.

Now look, that’s not totally alien.  Back when we were all in New York, we spent many a night in their (C & L’s) Bushwick apartment just jamming.  We’d rock out together.  Drunkenly make up silly songs on the spot.  Sing together on my songs.  Sing together on her songs.  And yeah, I’d noodle over her songs a bit with my guitar.  Nothing with nothing, you know?  Just for fun.  But that’s a long time ago already.  And it was never anything serious.

So yeah, I was surprised when she asked me if I’d be interested in playing an actual gig with her.  But I should give some background here.  Because I don’t want to undersell myself.  But I don’t want to oversell myself either.

So the deal is this.  Basically, the girl decided she wanted to take her music “on tour.”  So she just upped and flew over to Europe (she’s French, btw).  And she just started emailing clubs and bars in cities where she has friends, asking for gigs.  Which, not for nothing, good on you, girl.  That takes fucking balls.

Anyway, it’s not like I’m the only person she’s asked.  She’s asking friends wherever she goes to play with her.  And I discovered that part of this was just down to nerves.  She’s never done anything like this before.  To the point where, I don’t think she’s even ever really played her stuff out before.  So it’s all new for her.  And I get that, for sure.  I mean, I get nervous playing two songs at an open mic night where there’s a room full of supportive people.  And here she is, playing 90 minutes, two hours, to maybe nobody, who knows?  Maybe just a few friends.  That’s scary.  So I got the impression it’s just easier to have somebody up on the stage with her.  Nothing wrong with that.

It’s funny though, because I never think of her as being a nervous person.  I always see her as this true “artist,” you know?  Not giving a fuck what other people think.  Turns out she’s human like the rest of us.  Who knew?

All that said, she still didn’t need to ask me.  And I gotta tell y’all.  I was right honored that she did.  And that’s not an overstatement.  Because I really have the utmost respect for her music.  I mean, she does things I could never dream of doing.  I talked about this in that other post, whenever it was.  That when I play my music, people tap their feet and I’m happy.  But when she plays, people feel shit.  I’ve always been slightly in awe of what she does.  So yeah, honored isn’t too strong a word here.

Fine, so that’s the backstory.  Back to real life.  We didn’t have much time to work on the music.  Just two or three hours before the show.  So this wasn’t going to be anything where I would get to showcase what I can really do with the guitar.  Which may not be much anyway.  No, fuck that actually.  I can do some really nice things, given the time.  But the time wasn’t given.

So basically I just tried to find little things.  Just tired to add a little color, a little depth.  Nothing that would put the spotlight on me, nothing that would take away from her.  Well, I think I was able to do that.

She was great to work with too.  No ego, for either of us.  Some songs, she knew exactly what she wanted.  Other songs, I just tried a few things.  If it wasn’t working, she’d just say, “It’s not working.  Let’s move on.”  Sure.  You’re the boss.  Easy-peasy.

Right, so the gig.  I think it went really well.  By which I mean, from my point of view.  I think the stuff I did served her music well.  I think – or I’d like to think – it was exactly what we both wanted, under the circumstances.  So I’m happy about that.  And for her, I mean, she was great.  I think she kicked ass.

For me, it was just great to be up on stage again.  And not alone, open-mic style.  But really to be playing with somebody.  Was it The Fury?  No, of course not.  But it was special.  It was special to play original music with another person, music which you’ve contributed to in some way, no matter how small.

It also brought me back to the bands I played with after The Fury.  Perfect Syn, a metal band on Staten Island.  And The Rosies, on Long Island.  And in both of those bands, I wasn’t a primary songwriter, which I was in the Fury.  In those bands, I was exploring my instrument in a very different way.

The question was, what can I bring to these songs that have already been written?  How can I serve them?  How can I give them something special that really comes from Dave?  And I was able to do that in those bands.  That’s what I was most proud of there.

I remember in Perfect Syn especially.  That band had all their songs already.  And I didn’t get along with everybody in that band.  Me and the bass player would butt heads.  But I’ll never forget, he said to me one time, “Dave, I’ve never seen a rhythm guitarist like you.  You do things nobody else does.”  Or words to that effect.  But that made me happy.  Because that’s what I was going for.

You know, Brian May, from Queen, I think he’s the greatest guitarist ever.  Not because of his riffs (which are killer) or his leads (which are exhilarating), but because he knew how adding just one note here, a little harmony there, the tiniest thing – he knew how that could make a good song great.  Or maybe that’s not right.  A Freddy Mercury song is great with or without Brian May.  But he had a way of giving those songs – the songs he didn’t write – something special.  So that was the challenge I set for myself in those bands.  And I think I generally succeeded.

Point is, that was the challenge I set for myself with Line’s songs.  What I mean is, those songs stand on their own two legs.  They don’t need me, or anything I can bring.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t give them something extra, something special, if I really succeed.

I think there might be a triangle in Beethoven 9.  A fucking triangle you guys.  Now look.  Beethoven 9 is probably the greatest piece of music in the history of the human race.  And I’m saying ‘probably’ to be polite.  And I’m willing to bet you don’t even know where the triangle comes in.  How much does it matter?  Not much.  But it adds something worth having.  That’s what I’m driving at.  Sometimes you gotta be that triangle.

So I got to play triangle for Line.  And I’m more than a little proud of that.  As a ‘musician,’ I mean.  As a human fucking being though?  Fuck, that was fun, you guys!  So I say thank you to Line for inviting me to play with you, and good luck on the rest of your tour!

Meanwhile, French.  So this translation project continues.  And I gotta be honest, it’s kinda killing me.  I mean, it’s really kicking my ass.  And look, I get it.  I’m not French.  I’ve never formally studied French.  My expectations for myself are too high.  Rationally, I know this.  But emotionally, I’m taking a beating here.

Look, I’m doing it.  And in that cruel “labor of love” sorta way, I am actually enjoying it.  And yeah, there are days where I really do feel like I can do it, like I’m accomplishing something I can be proud of.  But there are more days where I feel like a fucking failure.  And that’s tough.

I’m gonna level with y’all.  Y’all can say what you want about my writing.  Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t.  Maybe you like it, but you don’t think it’s good, whatever that means.  But I know I can write.  What I mean is, when I’m going right, I can always find the words I’m looking for.  I can craft sentences the way I want to craft them.  When I’m going right, I have this feeling like I’m the boss and the words work for me.  And if I’m living inside my own delusions, then so be it.

But that’s one of the things I like most about writing.  Maybe it’s the main reason I do it.  I have control over it.  I create my own worlds, with their own rules.  I’m the master.  If it turns out the worlds I create are second rate, well, we can’t all be Mozart.  Some of us have to be Salieri.  Fine.

But French, man.  Fuck me.  You know, it’s like running under water.  You use up all your energy and just pushing your legs forward is a battle.  And you get nowhere.  Like, I don’t know how to swim in French.  So I just run underwater.  Or try to.  Yeesh.  That’s a shitty analogy.  Maybe I’m not the cat’s meow when it comes to writing after all.  Maybe I’m more like the duck’s quack.

Whatever.  The point is, all of a sudden, this thing I’m supposed to be good at, I’m not.  The words don’t work for me.  If I’m lucky, they work with me.  It’s brutal.

And I’m not talking about the little things.  So what if I use the wrong preposition?  So what if I put the pronoun in the wrong place?  Charlotte will fix that, bless her.  I’m talking about, I have this idea and I want to express it.  And the best I can do is, “Yeah, well, I think this is the word Dumas uses in this situation.”  But I can’t feel it.  And that’s fucking murder.

I’ll give a “positive” example, since this is already drowning in negativity.  As Charlotte is editing my text, she’ll occasionally highlight a sentence or a phrase.  And she’ll add a comment like “I really like this!” or “Nice!”  Which, you know, should be really gratifying.  But it’s not.  Because I don’t feel like I did it on purpose.  Does that make sense?

Like, why is this sentence good, but not the last one?  Or the next one?  We’ve just spoken about this on the phone, me and her.1  And she said something like, “Because those sentences really feel like a French person could have written them.”  So like, I can do it basically by accident.  But I can’t just do it.

Because there’s also a lot shit where she’s just, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but it’s not really French.”  Which again, is normal.  I get it.  I’m not French.  I’m not a native speaker.  No matter how much I read, there’s an upward limit on how much of a feel I can have for this language.  But that can be crushing.

And look, she’s super supportive.  She’s telling me things like, “This is the first time you’ve ever tried this.”  “You’re learning from this.”  “Next time you’ll be better at it.”  All fair enough.  But, you know, Serenity Now!  The Germans have this great saying, which I’ll probably misquote, but goes something like: Gott, schick mir Geduld.  Aber sofort!  Which I loosely translate as, “God, send me patience.  But fucking now!”

This project is kicking my ass in another way, too.  At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, I’m not used to working this hard at something and being shit at it.  I mean, the last time I really applied myself to something and still sucked was calculus, in college.  And even then, I’ve always been shit with math.

But this is language.  This is supposed to be my thing.  I needed to pass a French reading comp for my Master’s.  So I bought a book and taught myself French.  I passed first try.  I wanted to read the Torah.  So I bought a book and taught myself Hebrew.  Now I’m reading the fucking Torah.  German?  Yeah, I’m a mess.  But also, I never took a class.  I read half a book, moved to Germany, and now I speak the language (more or less).

And now I’m trying to take this story I’ve written, and all I want to do is re-write it in French.  And I feel like I’m banging my head against a fucking wall.  Probably I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  Probably I should rationally identify a reasonable expectation and make my peace with that.  But emotionally, it’s eating me up.  I very much want to smash and burn a great many things in rage.

But I won’t give up on it either.  I’ll finish it.  And I trust Charlotte to make it right.  Which is another thing.  You know that old trope about an artist’s work being his baby?  Not that I’m calling myself an ‘artist,’ but yeah, this is kinda my baby.  And I’ll be damned if I let any old so-&-so lay hands on it.

But she’s the one who brought me to the place that inspired the story.  (When it’s all said and done, I’ll get into that).  And she knows me.  She knows the story.  So I trust her with it.  And honestly, I’m glad she’s so gung-ho about working on it with me.  Because if I didn’t have her for this…I’d bury it.  Or burn it.  After I finish it.  Because I will fucking finish it.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, subject-changingly.  Yiddish.  Man, I love this shit.  So I’ve started digging up videos on the Youtubes in Yiddish.  Just to see how much I can get out of them, you know?  But it’s such a wonderful language.  I mean, obviously I’m biased.  But it’s fun.  It’s got personality.  And with each video I watch, I understand just a little bit more.  Which is cool.

I’ve just finished reading my second newspaper article.  It takes time, and it’s not easy yet.  But it’s getting easier.  In fairness, it’s mostly funny German, so that helps quite a bit.  But what’s also kinda cool is, I’m about 50/50 when it comes to the Hebrew words.  Which is only because I’ve been reading Torah every day for 10 months.  But I mean, I dig that.

Because the idea with the Hebrew words in Yiddish is, they’re words we’re all supposed to know if we’re going to schul like we should.  They’re not random obscura; they’re often at the core of the whole Jewish experience.  Whatever that means.

So basically, I’ve got three streams of vocabulary input with the language, which is what makes learning it on the side even remotely possible.  The first stream is just the words I’ve been hearing my whole life.  The second is my experience with German.  And the third is Torah.  The former of which, I’ve only been doing for 2-3 years and the latter, ten months, like I said.  מיט אַנדערע ווערטער, if I had tried doing this even three years ago, it would have been a huge undertaking.  But now?  I don’t want to say easy.  But it ain’t hard, neither.

But this realization has led me to another more frustrating and paradoxical realization.  Namely that for most of my life, I’ve had actual Yiddish speakers in my family.  My father’s grandmother was fluent, although she died when I was six or seven.  His mother may also have been fluent, or if not, I think could at least use the language to some degree; and she lived into my thirties.  My mom’s aunt, who raised her more than anybody else, was fluent, and she lived into my twenties if not thirties.

I remember my grandmother, when she was in the nursing home and not knowing who anybody was anymore, still throwing some Yiddish around.  There was a lot of sei gesunt – be well, be healthy – which is what I close all my posts with.  Who knows how much of that stuck with her, or came back to her, in those last years.

My mom’s aunt, well that’s another story.  She was out of my life, and that was by my choice.  I have not until now regretted that decision.  To be honest, I don’t regret it even know.  I made that decision for some very serious reasons.  But had I wanted to reconnect with her – which I know she would have wanted – that would have been my way back in.

Except, what good would it have been?  Because the whole time they were alive, I had no German, no Hebrew.  I maybe could have had them teach me a few phrases by wrote.  But I couldn’t have “learned” the language from them.  I couldn’t have sat down with them and tried to have any kind of conversation.  So on the one hand, I really feel like I missed the boat there.  But on the other hand, even if I’d tried to get on that boat, I’d just have been locked in my own cabin anyway.  That’s what I mean by paradoxical.

But the frustrating part is that it need not have been that way.  It’s only that way because I’m late to literally fucking everything in life.  I took my first Greek class with a bunch of undergrads2 when I was 26.  I didn’t learn French until I was 30.  Didn’t finish my Master’s until I was 32.  I was 35 when I moved to Germany, 35 when I started to learn that language in any meaningful kind of way.

When Vinny arrived in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, I was a half hour late picking him at the airport.  And he said, “I was almost gonna be mad, but when I saw you, I was just like, this fucking guy.  I had to laugh.”  Joschka routinely tells me things start 30 minutes earlier than they actually do because he just expects me to not be on time.3  Hell, I was even late to my first two dates with some girl.  Because why pretend to be something you’re not, i.e. an on-time person?

Fine, so I’m late to everything.  But the point is, it really hurt me here.  Late to German, late to Hebrew, late to my access to the Yiddish language.  And with that, too late for me to (try and) talk to people in my own family who actually spoke the language.  I mean, that stings, you know?

There’s another side to that, too.  Because see, there are several variants – if not dialects – of Yiddish.  And I don’t know what ours was.  I mean, I can guess a little bit.  I know where my dad’s family comes from.  I know where Art’s side of my mom’s family comes from.  I don’t actually know where my mom’s aunt’s side of the family comes from.

But what does that really mean?  Was the stuff my parents heard growing up the same language that was spoken in – I assume – the shtetl?  Or after one and two generations, was it an Americanized, New York-icized kind of Yiddish?  How similar, or different, is the stuff I’m reading now from what was spoken literally in the house I was born in?

All I really have to go on are the way my parents pronounce the words I’ve known my whole life.  I can work backwards from there, but not much.  It doesn’t get you very far.  So there’s that disconnect too.  Like, even if one day I actually can kibbutz around in Yiddish, it might not be the language of my family.  Like, imagine I met my bubbi in some fictitious afterlife and tried to talk to her.  She might say, “Yikes, kid, who taught you mamma loshen?”  That would be awkward.

Speaking of Bubbi, though, all is not lost.  My uncle Richard did a series of video interviews with her late in life, about…well, her life.  Anyway, according to the transcripts, she lapses into Yiddish at points.  But all the transcript says is “She speaks Yiddish,” or words to that effect.  But it occurs to me now, I should try and get my hands on those recordings and see what I can make of them.

First of all, it would be the only real opportunity to hear the language as it was spoken in my family; or my dad’s family, to be more precise.  But also, it would be pretty cool to be able to fill in those blanks for all of us.  That would be a nice contribution.

And that brings me to my last point about Yiddish, and then I’ll wrap this up, I promise.  There’s a gap between the formal written language as I’m reading it in The Forward, and the informal spoken language.  Now, of course that’s true of any language.  But Yiddish was really late to the standardization game.  It wasn’t until the late 19th – early 20th century that efforts were made at a ‘standard’ Yiddish.

And that was really only getting off the ground by around the 20’s and 30’s.  And you know how that ended.  So who knows how much of a gap there is between the Russo-Ukrainian shtetl Yiddish of 130+ years ago and what passes for ‘standard’ Yiddish today?  I mean, I say “who knows,” but obviously people do.  And maybe I will to, if I ever get to the point of being able to understand what she says in those tapes.

I don’t actually think, by the way, that I’m anywhere near ready to tackle those tapes.  Not in a way where I’ll be able to understand what she’s saying in any meaningful way.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear them.  I’m kinda dying to know what Bubbi’s Yiddish sounded like.

So we’ll see where this goes.  It’s obviously going to be a long term project.  A life-term project, really.  But there’s no reason to think I won’t be able to get a good handle on it at some point.  Hell, I just watched five minutes of a Megillah reading in Yiddish on the Youtubes.  Now, it had English subtitles, but I was able to get let’s say 80% of it, maybe more.

My dad tells how when he was a kid, they would go up to the Catskills and see these comedians.  And they would tell the whole joke in English, and everybody would be following along.  But then the punchline would come in Yiddish.  And all the adults would burst out laughing, and all the kids would have no idea what happened.  Well, when I can listen to one of those jokes and get the punchline, I’ll know I’ve made it.

So that’s that.  Now, though, it’s time to climb into bed and put on the ballgame.  Yanks-Mets this weekend.  Baseball.  Now there’s a language I can understand…

זײַ געסונט

  1. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve decided I have zero problem with things like “Me and Timmy went to the store.”  Or, “We did a good job, you and me.”  Timmy and I.  You and I.  Who gives a fuck?  English wants to be free.  I say, let it be free. []
  2. I actually just had a video chat with Dale, one of my friends from that very first Greek class. []
  3. I’m also fine with split infinitives, obvi. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 July, 2018

Oh, hey.  So remember way back in January of 2017 I did a sort of New Year’s Resolution post?  Except it wasn’t so much a “resolution” post as “here’s the shit I want to get done, or at least, get started” post?  Well, one of those things was to translate this fairy tale thing I’d written into French.  So yeah, like 2.5 weeks ago – which, you’ll note, is firmly in 2018 – I finally got started.

Really fascinating process.  And really hard!  But also really gratifying.  Until it wasn’t.  And then it was again.  I’ll explain.  Right, so the story itself, in English, is 20 pages, single-spaced.  By now, I’ve spent about two weeks on it.  Which has worked out to just over seven pages.  So like, half a page a night.  And after the first night, I was like, “Hey, you know what?  This ain’t half bad!  I think I can do this!”

Which isn’t to say it was good, either.  Just, you know, not half bad.  And I knew, off the bat, there would be problems.  Basic shit, like prepositions (impossible), idioms (possible, but mad hard) and the finer points of grammar (not impossible, but I don’t know what I don’t know kinda thing).  But after the first night, I thought I was off to a decent start.

After the second night, though.  Not so much.  What I mean is, I read the whole thing over, and I just thought, “Jeez, this is fucking terrible!”  See, I was out of the ‘working’ headspace and into the ‘reading’ headspace.  And to whatever extent I can or can’t write French, I can certainly read it.  And when I read what I had wrought…yeesh.  No, really.  I wanted to burn it and never ever even try to write French again as long as I live.  Seriously.

But as luck would have it, Charlotte was visiting that weekend.  More on that later.  But the point is, she’s a French teacher with a background in lit.  So she knows what she’s talking about.  Anyway, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a look at it.  Which, turns out, she was pretty excited to do.

So she did.  And sure enough, wrong prepositions all over the place.  Some grammar problems that are easy enough to fix and which I can learn from and hopefully get better at.  And she helped out with some idiomatic stuff which I just don’t have access to.  But there were also more than a few things which she thought I did really well, and one or two things I may even have impressed her with.

And then we talked about approach.  Because when I started, I really was trying to “translate” my English.  Which is what lead to the ‘idiom traps’ if I can call them that.  What I mean is, I was trying to translate English idioms directly into French, which just doesn’t work.  So what we talked about was basically this.  That going forward, I should stop trying to “translate,” so to speak.  What I should really be trying to do, is simply to tell the story in French.

After all, it’s my story.  I don’t owe it to some original author to try and create a “faithful translation,” whatever that might mean.  I’m the author.  It’s already mine.  Which means I have the freedom to just tell it in French, the way I can.  And so, I guess it won’t be so much a “translation” as a “French version” of my story.  My French version.  Which, the more I think about it, is actually pretty cool.

So we decided that I’ll create a google doc so she can edit as I go, basically.  But she’s the perfect person to be doing this with.  Because her attitude is essentially, “I’m not trying to re-write your story.  I just want to fix the things that are wrong and give you suggestions where things don’t work.”

Which is great.  Because there’s something that’s very important to me here.  And maybe this is a bit venal on my part.  But when it’s done, I really want to be able to say that I wrote it.  In fucking French.  And obviously I’m happy to give credit where credit is due, right?  Like, obviously I can’t just do this alone.  But I really want for it to be mine, you know?  I hope that makes sense.  Just, I feel like that would be such a huge accomplishment, to be able to really write a story in another language.  And have it not suck.

But she’s also the perfect person to be doing this with for another reason.  Not to sound corny, but she gets me.  What I mean is, working with her was pretty effortless.  Hand-in-glove kinda thing.  She explains something with a minimum of words, and I get it.  I ask a question, she knows exactly what I mean and how to answer.  She doesn’t get something I wrote, I can tell her what I was trying to do, and in a flash, she’s on it.  Just easy, you know?

Anyway, two big takeaways from going over just this first page with Charlotte.  The first is, keep trying.  Because I asked.  “Do I suck at this?  Should I just give up and never try to write French again as long as I live?”  And she’s like, “No, of course not.”  Because, like I said, that’s where I was at the end of the first page.

But the other takeaway was really special.  To me, anyway.  She said, “Looking at this, it’s very obvious that you read literary French.”  Or words to that effect.  But I mean, fuck yeah!  Because, come on, how long have I been reading Verne and Dumas and now Hugo (more on that later, too).  Like, yeah, I hope that shows through.  I hope I’m learning something from all this reading I do.  Well, I guess I am.  But to have that sort of be noticed and appreciated, well, yeah, that’s kind of a little feather in the cap, you know?

So yeah, Charlotte came for a short visit the last weekend of June.  A short visit, but a lot of fun.  And productive, obviously.  I picked her up at the airport around 11 on Friday night, which means we only had time to come home (an hour ride) and drink a bunch of wine.  Classic.  Saturday we played some music, went for a short walk in the woods out east (bad weather), and took a look at my story.

We realized we were hungry around 10.  Which is annoying because nothing out here is open that late, even on a Saturday.  But in the end we found a traditional German restaurant which Yelp said was open til midnight.  We got there at like 11.  And it was empty, save for the three people working.  And by working, I mean sitting around a table drinking beer.

So I asked if it was too late to order food.  And they were so nice about it.  Of course it’s not too late, we’re happy to have you.  That kinda thing.  And you guys.  The food was uh-mazing.  We both got schnitzel.  Which itself was fantastic.  But it also came with a little salad, string beans and fried potatoes.  And in the string beans and potatoes were little bits of bacon.  And all of it cooked in so much butter.  I mean, it was outa this world.  And the waitress, who didn’t speak a word of English, was just adorable.  The sweetest lady.

And also, the place was so empty and so quiet, we could actually hear the chef whistling and singing in the kitchen while he cooked for us.  I mean, what a win, you guys.

We actually, oddly, didn’t really get drunk.  So we came back, listened to music for a bit1 and just sorta fell asleep.  Just a nice, peaceful night.  And then Sunday was more music playing.  We had to leave to get her to the airport around 2:45, so there wasn’t really time for much else.

But you know how last time I was saying we had been working on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, and just not getting it?  Well, yesterday, finally, we got it.  I mean, it took a lot of work.  And nobody’s gonna confuse us for S&G.  But we can do it.  And you know what?  It sounds pretty good!  She does the melody and I do the harmony.  And it works.  It just works.  And holy shit, y’all, that is fun!

And we also came back to this song by some band called Moriarty (which may or may not be how it’s spelled).  I mentioned this song last time she was here, I think.  It’s probably called “Jimmy,” but we just call it “The Buffalo Song.”  Anyway, I worked up a new guitar arrangement.  She does the singing.  On the choruses I started experimenting with some harmonies.  Some definitely didn’t work.  Some worked a treat.

But there’s this too.  She’s got a good voice, you guys.  Like, she’s still figuring out how to use it.  But she’s got no problems with pitch.  And her tone is really sweet.  I mean, I just enjoy listening to her sing.  You would too.  So we recorded it.  And when I listened back to it, I was like, “Shit, that’s you?  You sound good!”

And I know I said this last time, but I love this now.  I love when I can just play the guitar and listen to her sing.  It’s really great.  And then when we get some good harmonies going, I fucking love it.  Because, that’s something that’s brand new for me.  Harmonies I mean.

All those years playing in bands, I never once stepped in front of a microphone.  And then, all these past years doing my own stuff, I’ve always sang alone.  So I don’t know the first thing about harmonizing.  I mean, Shyer, for example, that dude could just harmonize on top of anything and it would be instant gold.  Not me, nossir.

So this is new for me.  And it’s not easy or natural.  But I guess I can kinda do it.  And when it works, damn.  Fun City, Population: Two.

Anyway, that was that.  Basically a 36-hour visit.  But crazy good times, as always, (if a bit less crazy than always).  The plan is to hopefully meet up in the north of France sometime in September.  Already looking forward to it.

So, Victor Hugo.  I guess I decided it was finally time I see what this dude is all about, seeing as how he’s such a big deal and all.  Now, the obvious choice would have been Les Misérables.  But that shit’s crazy long.  And I’m not done with my Musketeers yet, so that one’s gonna have to wait.  So I decided instead on Notre Dame de Paris.  Which, in English, we know as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  But that’s a bit misleading.  The French title is more accurate.  Because so much of this book, apparently, is just about the fucking church.  And architecture in general.

No, seriously.  He has whole chapters that have literally nothing to do with the story.  They’re just about architecture and Paris in general.  The guy’s passionate about buildings, whaddya want?

Anyway, it’s good, obviously.  It’s hard though.  First of all, he’s dropping Latin left and right.  And not words or phrases, mind you.  Whole sentences in Latin.  And not bothering to translate them either.  He’s just, “It’s like, ‘blah-us blah-us blah-us,’ know what I mean?  Of course you do.  On with the story!”  Uh, thanks?

And the vocabulary is hard.  Lotta words I’ve never seen before.  Which, on the one hand, great.  That’s how you learn.  But on the other hand, uh, what?  The upshot being that I find myself skipping a lot of words.  Because I’d like to finish this book before I die.  So it’s a challenge.

But it’s worth it.  Because he does a lot of things where I’m just like, “Wow, nice!”  Like, yeah, OK, I see why this guy is a big deal.  Also, did you guys know Quasimodo has only one eye?  I mean, I guess he has two eyes.  But he’s got some awful growth that completely covers one of them.  So effectively he’s a Cyclops.  And he’s deaf.  Not born deaf.  But he went deaf from all the chruchbell-ringing.  Did you guys know that?  I didn’t know that.  Anyway, it’s pretty great, is what I’m saying.

Staying on the subject of reading.  I’ve just finished the Book of Numbers, maybe two weeks ago.  So that’s four out of five books of the Torah read.  Crazytown.  But I’ll get more into that next time maybe.

More interestingly, I’ve decided to get a bit more serious with regard to my curiosity about/passion for Yiddish.  Like, let’s see if I can teach myself to read this language.  After all, it’s basically German (which I speak, but ironically can’t read) with a smattering of Hebrew.  So there’s this newspaper, The Forward, out of New York.  It started life in the early 20th century as a Yiddish-language daily.  At some point it switched to a weekly English paper.  But they still publish in Yiddish online.  So, I figured, Fuck it.  I printed out an article.

And I just started hacking away at it.  Usually just in the mornings at work, before class starts.  It’s going very slowly.  But it’s going, absolutely.  Basically, I’m just working with my (admittedly imperfect) knowledge of German and Hebrew, my general (admittedly limited) linguistic knowledge and a dictionary.  And yeah, I guess I’m working with what I guess I can call the overall background music of my life.  What I mean is, I’m finding words that I just know because I heard them growing up.  Which is cool.

Anyway, it’s endlessly fascinating.  But more than that, there’s a joy in it.  Like, I feel like I’m connecting with something that belongs to me, but which is hazy, that hangs out in the past, but not the ancient past.  This is the language of my grandparents and my great-grandparents.  This is the language my parents heard around them growing up, even if they never learned it.  It’s words that are a part of my parents’ English vocabulary.2  It’s woven into the fabric of my life and yet largely out of reach.

I can’t talk to my grandparents anymore, never mind my great-grandparents.  But maybe I can learn their language a little bit.  It’s a way to connect with my ancestors that I didn’t have even when they were alive.  But not my ancient ancestors.  Hebrew does that, in a very different way.  Hebrew connects me with people I never knew, who died thousands of years before I was born.  Yiddish connects me with people who I knew and loved, and who loved me.   And that’s powerful.  Yeah, there’s a power in that.

So where is this going?  I mean, I’m not about to go start hanging out with the Chasidim, thank you very much.  Nor can I dig up The Olds and ask וואַס מאַכסטו (Was Machste?, What’s up?).  So I ask again, apart from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, where is this going?  I guess, my goal – for now, anyway – is, first just to finish this article.3  And then read another.  And another.  Until I feel good enough about it to try my hand at, I dunno, Shalom Alechem?  I mean, why not?

But yeah, I guess I’d love to get to the point where I could read Yiddish on the subway about as easily as I read French.  Is that attainable?  No idea.  Maybe.  But there’s only one way to find out.

So that’s a side project.  Among a million side projects.  But it’s a good one, I think.  And a fun one.  Because whatever else, there’s something undeniably fun about Yiddish.  To me, anyway.  But the way it’s almost sort of an argot.  Like, on the one hand, it really is just a dialect of German.  But the pronunciation is different.  And the idioms are different.  The word order and sentence construction are different.  And then there’s the Hebrew sprinkled throughout.  So that, I think, you could speak Yiddish in front of a German and, yeah, maybe they’d catch some of it, but they probably wouldn’t really understand it.  That’s what I mean by argot, I guess.  But that’s fun.  Like cockney rhyming-slang.  But for Jews.  Now if only I could find anybody to actually speak it with…

Right, well that’s probably enough for now.  Vinny is in Berlin now, so of course that’s fun – you know, drinking and philosophizing about sandwiches.  Plus he brought meat and cheese from Italy, so added bonus there.  And then in August I’m off to Italy myself for a week of desperately needed vacation.  And hopefully France in September.  And in between, work and work.  My job work and my projects work.  My Federalist Project, this translation project, Torah, Yiddish, Greek – I’ve got to get back on track with this Demosthenes oration; and Homer, I’ve got to get back to Homer.

And the guitar.  I’m trying to learn the whole of Gaspar Sanz’ Suite Española.  I’ve been playing the Canarios4 for years; as have two of my uncles.  But I don’t know that either of them ever learned the whole suite.  I should ask.  Anyway, I’m working on that now.  So yeah, much to do.  But so much of it is wonderful.  It’s good to be busy, when this is the kinda shit you’re busy with.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

זײַ געסנט

  1. Turns out we both sorta secretly love Ace of Base.  Who knew? []
  2. I sent my mom a picture of the article I was working on, all marked up with my grammar and vocab notes.  And as it’s properly in Yiddish, it’s using the modified Hebrew alphabet; it’s not been anglicized.  And she just writes back “Fershtayce?”  Which in Yiddish would look like פאַרשטייסטו and in German, Verstehst du?  “Do you understand?”, in other words.  Only one answer to that question, obviously.  “A bissell.” []
  3. So I drafted this last week.  But since then, I have actually finished the article.  Like, oh shit, I just read an actual newspaper article in Yiddish.  Fucking cool!  So now I’ve started a second… []
  4. Canarios – the last movement of the suite. []

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.) #-3

Editor’s Note: This piece resumes a series of silly Star Wars fanfic-y spoofs I’d started two or three years ago.  It concludes the story in which one Dr. Starrkin (father of the title character, Colonel Starrkin) discovers some overruns in the Imperial Budget and must sort them out with a certain Darth Vader.  It is in this third, and concluding, volume that Dr. Starrkin actually meets the Dark Lord himself.  The first two installments may be found here & here.  And so, without further ado, I give you:

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.) #-3
A Vaguely Star-Wars-ish Kinda Thing
Mostly for Dale

16 January, 01 E.C.

We made our landing on Mustafar without incident.  The shuttle ramp lowered itself and I began to disembark.  As I did so, Simon the pilot called after me.

“Shall I keep the engine running, gov?”

Everybody’s a comic, I thought, as I entered the main entrance hall.  I was greeted by a smiling receptionist.

“Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

“I believe I have the only appointment,” I sad calmly.

“Ah, Doctor Starrkin!  I wasn’t sure you’d actually come.”

“That’s why I made the appointment.”

“Yeah, right.”  His smile faded.  “Still though.”  He looked me up and down.  “Sir?”

“Yes, sergeant?”

“If I may ask, sir.  I notice you’re wearing a rather tight collar.  Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Am I sure that’s…Force, man!  You suggested it!”

“I was being ironic, sir.  I thought that was obvious.”

“Why would that be obvious?”  I was admittedly confused.

“Well, because of his Lordship’s…reputation.”  He almost whispered this last word.

“Reputations are little more than glorified rumors,” I said confidently.  “Now, may I go in?”

“Of course, sir.  His Lordship isn’t expecting you.”

“I’m sorry,” I said slowly.  “Did you say he’s not expecting me?

“That’s right, sir.  His Lordship generally assumes his guests will find any way possible to get out of any…appointment.”  He put this last word in air quotes.

“Why did you put ‘appointment’ in air quotes?” I asked.

“Well, sir.  People don’t generally come here willingly.”

“Well I most certainly have, sergeant.”  I was beginning to grow weary of this man.  “But if, as you say, he is not expecting me, perhaps you’d be so good as to announce me.”

“Best not, sir.”

“And how’s that, exactly?”

“Well, sir.  His Vaderness doesn’t like to be disturbed, you see.  The last man in this job who used the intercom, well…let’s just say he doesn’t work here anymore.”

“I see.”  This was becoming tiresome.  “Then I shall simply enter unannounced.”

“Ooh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sir.”  And he whistled.

“Very well, sergeant.”  I took a deep breath.  “What would you do, if you were me?”

“Well, sir.  I reckon I’d turn right back around and walk on out of here whilst I still had the chance.”

“Enough of this,” I said sharply.  “I’m going in.”  And I strode past him.  As the door shshed open before me, I heard him speak.

“Maybe you want to – “ But I was ignoring him.  “ – loosen your collar,” he said, as the door shshed close behind me.

I found myself walking down a long corridor, with only a single door at the far end.  And when I say ‘far end,’ I do mean far.  It was six hundred meters if it was a centimeter.  No doors, no windows, save the aforementioned single door all the way the end.  When I (finally) reached it, I found that it was marked only with the letters “DV.”  Well, this must be it, I thought.  I knocked.  The door shshed open.

And there, standing before me, doing literally nothing but standing there, was His Darkness himself.  The Black One.  The Machine-Man.  The Terminator.  The one and only Lord Darth Vader.  In the flesh.  Or, rather, what was left of the flesh.

Bloody tinted helmet.  Was he looking at me?  Was he looking past me?  Was he even awake?  I opened my mouth to speak, but he beat me to it.

“Ah, Doctor Starrkin.  Do come in.”  I came in.

“I thought you weren’t expecting me, Lord Vader.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then how did you – “

“Know who you were?  Let’s just say, I felt your presence.”

“I didn’t even know I had a presence,” I said, half to myself.

“Everybody has a presence.  It’s part of the Force, you see.  Ah, but perhaps you’re wondering what the Force is.  Well, the Force is a sort of power…no, not power.  An energy maybe.  I mean, not a quantifiable ‘energy’ in the sense of physics.  It is neither potential nor kinetic.  And yet it is both.  Both and neither.  Neither and both.  That is the Force.  And it…well, how can I put this in layman’s terms?  I guess you could say it binds the galaxy together.  Although, I guess you could say that about the Empire too.  But the Empire binds the galaxy together in a political sense.  And the Force is not political.  Well.  I mean, of course there’s a light side and a dark side.  And which side one adheres to generally breaks down along political lines.  So in that sense, yes, I guess the Force does bind the galaxy together in a political sense.  But also, in another, more powerful sense.  Sense.  Am I even making sense?”

“My lord?”  I must confess, I had begun to zone out.

“I say, Doctor Starrkin, am I making any sense?”

“With all due respect, my lord,” I said, returning to myself.  “I didn’t come here to philosophize about the Force.”

“No, no, of course not.  You came here to discuss the budget for…The Project.”

“How did you – “

“Know that?”  He sounded just a touch exasperated.  But maybe it was just his breathing apparatus.  “The Force.  I thought I made that clear.”

“Well, it doesn’t really matter.”

“Oh, but it does.  It does matter!  Look, I’ll show you.  Watch this.”  And without moving a muscle or a servo, he caused his desk to levitate a full meter off the ground.  “I bet you’re wondering how I did that.”

“The…Force?”  I tried to sound impressed, but I don’t think I succeeded.

“The Force!” he exclaimed.  “Very good, Doctor Starrkin.  Very good indeed.  You begin to see the true power of the Dark Side.”

“Of the Dark Side?”

“Of the Force!” he corrected quickly.  “Who said anything about the Dark Side?  There’s no Dark Side here.  Just because I enjoy dressing in all black – “

“With all due respect, my lord – “

“Don’t interrupt me!”

“I’m sorry, my lord.”

“And don’t apologize!  I don’t know why everybody is always apologizing to me.  I really seem to intimidate people, you know?  And I don’t know why.  Honestly.  I mean, maybe it’s the mask.  Is it the mask?  You can tell me.  I won’t be offended.”

“Well, my lord, if I’m being honest – “

“Please.  Be honest,” he said sincerely.

“Well, my lord.  To be honest, the mask is just a touch disconcerting…” I trailed off under his dark stare.

“Go on,” he insisted.

“And not the mask, per se.  But, well, it’s the tinted eye-pieces, I think.  What I mean is, one can’t tell if one is being looked at.  One can’t read your expression.  So one does not know if one has given offense.”

“I knew it!”  He punched a gloved fist into a gloved palm.  “I knew it.  I said to Palpatine, ‘Can we not do tinted eye-pieces?  It’s going to give a bad first impression.’  That’s what I said to him.  And you know what his answer was?  ‘Gooood.  Gooood.’  That’s what he said.”

“But surely you could simply order non-tinted eye-pieces?”

“It’s not in the budget,” he said, shaking his head forlornly.  “Ah, the budget!  That’s what you’ve come to talk about.  Let’s get down to titanium tacks, shall we?”

“With pleasure, my lord.”

“Now, if I read the Force correctly – which I always do – you have some questions about cost overruns on…The Project.”

“How did you…oh, right, the Force.  Yes, well.  There are a number of – “

“Line items I signed off on, which are unexplained, yes.  It’s part of a special assignment, which comes directly from the Emperor himself.“

“And what is the nature of this assignment, my lord?”  Now we were getting somewhere.

“Liquidation.”

“Liquidation?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, that’s simple enough.  If we could just show that in the filings, then that’s all I’d need.”  I was beginning to think this would be all too easy.

“Oh, we can’t do that,” he said nonchalantly.

“And why not?”

“It’s quite sensitive, politically speaking.”  I noticed, as he said this, that seemed to be almost nervously fingering his cape.

“Be that as it may, my lord, the public has a right to know where its tax dollars are going.”

“Well, normally I’d agree with you,” he said evasively.

“But?”

“But in this case…well, I was afraid…I mean, we were afraid…well, the emperor was afraid…” he trailed off.

“Yes?” I pressed.

“There was concern over a public backlash.”

“I see.”  Politicians, I thought.  They’re all the same.  “May I speak freely?”

“Oh, please do!”  He seemed almost relieved.

“Look, my lord.  These overruns are quite extensive.  They throw the whole imperial budget out of balance.  Two more years of this and we’ll have to raise taxes.  And nothing, my lord, nothing causes public backlash like raising taxes.”

“I never thought about it that way.”  He looked at me closely.  Or didn’t.  I honestly couldn’t tell.  “You know, Doctor Starrkin, you’re good.  You’re very good.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“No, seriously.  I knew I liked you the minute you walked in that door.  ‘This one doesn’t wear riding pants,’ I thought to myself.  That’s when I knew we would get along.”  And he patted his thighs to emphasize his own lack of riding pants.

“I never did care for them.  They make sitting at a desk quite uncomfortable.  And when you’re an accountant, such as myself, you spend an awful lot of time behind a desk.”

“Right?!” he exclaimed cheerfully.  “I mean, I don’t usually sit at a desk, mind you.  But I do spend a lot of time in shuttles.  And those things are cramped enough.  Riding pants would just make it worse.  Plus, I mean, try having a light saber duel in a cape and riding pants.  You don’t know how many Jedi I’ve seen try to whirl round only to get their cape caught on their riding pants.”  He paused, darkly.  “Many a Jedi has died in just this way.”

“Have they?” I asked.

“I mean, I’ve heard.  I’ve heard that many a Jedi have died in just this way.”  He paused again, this time even more darkly than the last.  “Which reminds me.  You’re not a Jedi, are you?”

“Me?  A Jedi?”  I laughed.  “Force, no!”

“Do I take it then, that you’re…not a fan of the Jedi?”

“To put it mildly, my lord.  In my professional opinion, they’ve been a sink on the economy of the Republic for far too long.”

“You mean, the Empire.”

“I mean both, my lord.”

“And how’s that, exactly?”  He seemed genuinely curious.

“Well, it’s like this, my lord.”  I was growing confident.  Now we were in my territory.  “Six generations ago, they applied for tax exemption on religious grounds.  Which, I mean, in theory is fine.  Separation of Church and State and all that.  But, well, they’re not really separate from the State, are they, the Jedi?  I mean, they were originally chartered as a defense force.  Which is a military matter, and therefore a matter of State.  But some clever Jedi figured, ‘Hey, we use the Force.  That’s a religion.  We should re-charter ourselves as a religion.  No taxes!’  So that’s what they did.”

“That’s absolutely fascinating!’ cried Darth Vader.

“Oh, it gets better, my lord!”  I felt like I was floating six inches off the ground.  Which, to be fair, I might have been.  One never knows, when one is in the presence of His Blackness.  “You see, if they had given up their capacity as a defense force and focused entirely on religion, there’d be no problem.  But they didn’t do that.  They kept on ‘defending the Republic’ or ‘defending the Empire.’  But they didn’t pay a dime in taxes.”

“Right?” He might actually have been smiling behind that mask.  “That’s just what I’m on about!”

“Exactly!” I agreed.  “And wouldn’t you know it?  It’s only after they got their tax exemption that they started building all these palaces and shrines and schools and whatnot.  And on some of the choicest property in the Rep…I mean, Empire.  Think of the property tax revenue we’re losing!  Why, just on Coruscant alone…”  I began to calculate the numbers in my head.  But Vader interrupted me.

“Well, I see we’re on the same page here.  So I shall be frank.”

“Wait, your name’s not actually Frank, is it?”

“Huh?  No, it’s…well, nevermind that.  My point is, it’s just for this reason that we decided the Jedi must be liquidated.”

“Liquidated?  You mean, their assets?”  I’m an accountant.  I need specifics.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In what manner of speaking, precisely.”

“In the manner of speaking where one considers one’s life to be an asset.”

“Ah,” I gasped.  “You mean…exterminated.”

“Oh, don’t act so surprised, Doctor.”

“Surprise has nothing to do with it, my lord.  But ‘liquidation’ is a technical term.  It must refer to assets.  If you want to say that you’re removing the Jedi…from life, as it were, in this case…well, that’s ‘extermination.’  Also a technical term.

“Is it?”

“Indeed it is, my lord.  We even have a special budgetary code for this.  We call it a six-one-seven-B-eight.”

“I see, I see,” mused Vader thoughtfully.  “And is there also a budgetary code for bounty hunting?”  And then he quickly added, “I’m asking for a friend.”

“Bounty hunting,” I thought, ignoring his last comment.  “Yes.  Let me think.  Oh right.  Yeah, that’s an I-G-eight-eight.”

“How ironic,” he laughed darkly.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Or coincidental,” he shrugged.  “I’ve never been really clear on the difference between irony and coincidence.”

“To be honest,” I answered, “neither have I.”

“Good man,” he nodded approvingly.

“But what I am clear on,” I pressed, “is numbers.”

“Bothersome things,” he shook his black behelmed head.

“OK, I think that’s irony,” I said, half to myself.

“How so?”  He seemed genuinely interested.

“Well, my lord.  If I may be so bold?”

“Of course.”

“Well, my lord.  All of your autonomous life-functions are governed by a computer.  With all due respect, you wouldn’t be alive if not for numbers.  So the fact that you find numbers to be – how did you put it? – ‘bothersome things,’ well, that’s just a touch ironic.”

“Oh, very good!”  He clapped his black begloved hands together.  “You.  You’re good, doc.  You’re very good.”

“Thank you, my lord.  But if we could  – “

“Return to the matter at hand?  Yes, of course.”  He paused.  “Ah, but I sense that you do not like it when I finish your sentences for you.”

“Did the Force tell you that?” I asked coldly.

“Was that irony?”

“More sarcasm, my lord.”  And then, thinking better of it, “Respectful sarcasm, of course.”

“Of course.”  This was followed by an awkward silence.  And then, “So.  You think you can help?  With the budget, I mean.”

“Yes, I think so.  I’ll need to see your files though.”

“Naturally.”  And without a word, he caused a filing cabinet in the corner of the office to levitate off the floor and float in front of me.  While still in the air, the top drawer seemed to open of its own accord.  And then a manila folder rose out of it and opened before me.  It was filled with receipts.

“These aren’t the files I’m looing for,” I said, shaking my head.

“These aren’t the files you’re looking for,” he repeated.

“I just said that.”

“Yes, of course you did,” said Vader with a hint of embarrassment.  And then, as if by magic, the folder closed itself and returned to whence it had come.  In it’s place, a new folder arose and opened itself before me.  This, too, was filled with receipts.

“You’re nothing if not thorough, my lord.”  I was genuinely impressed.

“One must be thorough, if one hopes to be a sith lord.”

“A what?” I asked, only half-listening as I perused the receipts.

“A…myth horde?”

“A myth horde,” I repeated, looking up.

“Yes, a myth horde.  You know,” he stammered, “an anthology of traditional semi-fantastic origin and folk tales.”

“I know what a myth horde is,” I sighed.  “But why would you hope to be a – “

“Nevermind.  It’s not important.  What is important,” he said grandly, “is that we get this budget sorted to your liking.”

“Well,” I said, closing the file.  “I don’t think that will be a problem.  We’ll just total up all these receipts and divide them up by trimester and assign them a six-one-seven-B-eight; ‘extermination of tax revenue inefficiencies.”

“You mean by quarter?”

“I mean by trimester.”  I shook my head.  I hated trying to talk shop with laymen.  “The Republic ran quarterly.  But since we’ve become an empire, we’ve moved to a trimester system.  Cuts down on paperwork.”

“I see,” he said in a way that made it clear he didn’t.

“In any case,” I said, returning to the matter at hand, “that will satisfy me as to the cost overruns.”

“Then you’re done with these files?”  He seemed almost giddy.

“I am.”

And no sooner had I said that, did he, with a wave of his black besleeved arm, cause the filing cabinet to fly through the air at great speed and crash against the wall, where it fell to the ground in contorted heap.

“Was that absolutely necessary?” I asked.

“No?  But it was cool, right?”

“Impressive,” I agreed.

“Most impressive,” he added.

“I mean, that was fire!”

“Please don’t mention ‘fire’ around me.”

“Eh?  How’s that?”  Oh no.  What had I said?  My collar suddenly felt very tight around my neck.  Was I just nervous?  Or was that…him?

“Well, it’s just that…”  He shifted his weight uncomfortably.

“It’s OK.  Nevermind.”  I pulled at my collar.

“No, no.  My therapist says its good for me to talk about it.”  Darth Vader has a therapist?  “It’s just…well, my accident…it was in a fire.”

“And yet, you’ve made your office on a homogeneously volcanic planet.  You’re literally surrounded by fire.

“I know!” he exclaimed.  “What a coincidence, right?”

“I mean, I think it’s ironic?

“Is it?”

“Yes?”

“Well, doctor,” he said ominously.  “One thing is painfully clear.”

“And that is, my lord?”

“That neither you nor I have a clear understanding of the difference between irony and coincidence.”

“It does seem that way, my lord,” I said with not a little relief.

“You know who does, though?” he added thoughtfully.

“The Jedi?” I suggested, thinking of the most sage and learnéd men in the galaxy.

“The Jedi?!” he laughed.  “Force, no!  No, the receptionist.  He was a liberal arts major at Republic University.”

“You mean, Imperial University,” I offered.

“I do not.  It was still Republic University when he was there, and that’s what’s on his diploma.  We may yet retcon all diplomas to read ‘Imperial University.’  And there are those who wish to simply nullify all degrees granted under the Ancien Régime.  But that’s short-sighted in my cybernetically enhanced eyes.  I mean, this system runs on bureaucracy.  You can’t just go around wiping out academic degrees like so many Jedi.”  He stopped himself.  “Sorry,” he added.  “Too soon?”

“Hardly, my lord.”

“Yes, well, in any case.  Let’s get the receptionist in here.  He’ll clear this up for us.”

“Very good, my lord,” I agreed.  And he pressed a button on his breastplate which seemed to activate the intercom.

“Cuthbert?” he called softly.  “Can you hear me?  Is this thing working?  Cuthbert?”

“Yes, my lord, I can hear you,” came the tinny voice over the intercom.  He sounded half terrified and half annoyed that his boss still hadn’t quite mastered the intercom.

“Cuthbert,” said Vader.  “Would you be a dear and come down to my office.  The doctor and I have a question for you.”

“Immediately, Lord Vader,” came the hurried reply before the intercom clicked off.

“Right,” said Vader, turning to look at me again.  I think.  “It will be a few minutes for him to traverse The Corridor.  Can I offer you a cup of tea?  Blue-milk?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Are you sure?  I can personally recommend the Blue-milk.  It’s imported from Tatooine.  They invented Blue-milk, you know.”

“I’m sure it’s lovely, my lord.  But no, thank you.”

“Suit yourself,” said His Blackness with a shrug.

“But I was wondering about that,” I added.

“About the Blue-milk?”

“Huh?  No.  I mean, yes.  I’ve loads of questions about Blue-milk.  But no, I was wondering about the corridor.  It seems to serve no purpose.  There are no doors or windows save yours at this end, and the one at the other, for reception.  Why have such a long corridor?”

“Honestly?”

“Yes, I’m genuinely curious.”  I was.  To the point where I’d been wanting to ask this question since I walked through the door.

“Well, it’s a bit silly, really.”  And he bashfully rubbed his right foot against his left while fingering his left elbow with his right hand.

“It’s OK,” I said encouragingly.  “You can tell me.”

“Well,” he stammered.  “It makes me feel like I’m back on a Star Destroyer.”

“Does it?”

“Have you ever been on an Imperial Star Destroyer?” he asked proudly.

“Can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure.”

“Oh, well,” he began with not a little delight.  “They’re just filled with long corridors.  Because they’re so bloody big, you know?  I mean, some of them just go on for-ev-er.  So I guess,” he said, pulling awkwardly at his cape, “it just makes me feel like I’m back aboard one.”  And he looked down at his black bebooted feet.  “It’s silly, I know.”

“Oh, it’s not silly,” I said encouragingly.

“Really?”  He looked up at me, tilting his helmet earnestly to one side.  “You mean it?”

“Of course!” I declared.  “We all need a touch of home now and again.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Oh, I’m so glad to hear you say that.”  He really did sound relieved.  “I was worried you were going to say it was an unnecessary expenditure or something like that.”

“Yes well…” I trailed off.  I mean, it probably was an unnecessary expenditure, if we’re being honest.  But even though I’m an accountant, I still have a heart.  And well, he seemed so vulnerable in that moment.  So I said:

“Yes, well, I’m sure it’s a function of the topography of the volcano into which this facility has been built.”

“It’s not though,” he said earnestly.  “I mean, between you and me, there’s no need for a corridor of any length.  I just as easily could have built my office adjacent to reception.”

“But I’m sure,” I said very slowly, “it’s just a function of the topography of the volcano into which this facility has been built.”

“Oh, I see!” he exclaimed, catching on.  “Yes, it’s because of the toponomy…

“Topography…”

“Topogrpahy!  Of the mountain…”

“The volcano…”

“The volcano – “  And then this charade was interrupted by the shshing open of the door, through which the receptionist had just entered.  “Ah, Cuthbert!” he said, relieved by the opportunity to change the subject.

“My lord,” said Cuthbert gravely, falling to his knees.

“Cuthbert,” said Darth Vader, deadly and darkly serious.  “I must discuss with you a matter of grave importance.”

“My lard,” stammered Cuthbert, “I…I…”

“Did you just say, ‘my lard?!”  His voice plummeted to a terrifying bass.

“My lord!” cried Cuthbert in terror.  “Lord!  I’m sure I said lord!”

“By the Force, I heard lard,” grumbled The Dark One.  “Did you hear lard, doctor?” he asked, turning to me.

“My lord,” I said nervously.  “I do believe he said, ‘my lord.’  I’m quite sure.”  In fact, he absolutely did say lard.  But the poor boy was so terrified, I could not be help him in this critical moment.

“Are you calling me a liar!?”  He was apoplectic in his Darthness.

“No!  My lord…I…”

“Then what?” he demanded.

“Perhaps, my lord, just maybe, there was a glitch in your auditory perceptors.  I didn’t mean to imply…”  And I fell to my knees in terror, beside the already terrified Cuthbert.

“You meant to imply that my cybernetic implants are anything less than perfect?  Is that what you meant to imply?”  And he levitated himself a full meter off the ground for effect.

“My lord, I simply – “

“Enough!”  And then he started to cackle.  A high-pitched, mechanical whine of a laugh.  “Oh relax, you two.  I’m just having a bit of fun.”  And he lowered himself back down to earth.  Cuthbert and I exchanged furtive glances of relief.  I gingerly rose back to my feet.  Cuthbert did not.

“Dear Cuthbert,” he said pacifically.  “What is the difference between irony and coincidence?”

“My lord?” he answered carefully.

“Irony and coincidence,” repeated Vader.  “What’s the difference?”

“Well, my lord,” began Cuthbert nervously, still on one knee and staring at the floor.

“Oh, get up!”

“Yes, my lord.”  And Cuthbert rose to his feet, though he continued to stare at his boots.  “Well, my lord, irony is when something said or done is the opposite of what is expected.  Like a fire truck itself catching fire.”

“Did he just mention fire?” said Vader, looking darkly at me.

“Whereas coincidence,” hurried on Cuthbert, “is two similar things happening at the same time by chance.  Like if – “

“Don’t make this about fire,” grumbled His Befired Blackness.

“Like if,” continued Cuthbert, “we all showed up today wearing all black.  My lord.”

At which point we all looked around.  We were, in fact, all three of us, wearing nothing but black.

“How ironic!” exclaimed Vader, slapping black belgoved hands against black beleathered thighs.

“Err, yes…my lord,” agreed the receptionist nervously.

“Thank you, Cuthbert.  That will be all,” said Vader casually.  “But know this.  Your parents may rest in peace knowing that your liberal arts degree has at last paid dividends.”

“Oh, my Force!” shrieked Cuthbert.  “Are my parents…are they…dead?”

“What?” barked Vader.  “No, of course not!  Why would you think that?”  He paused, looking up at the ceiling.  “Oh!  Because I said ‘rest in peace’?  Sorry, I meant to say, ‘they may rest assured.’  Sorry.  No, really.  I’ve always had trouble with idioms.  Right, doctor?”  He turned to face me.  “Liquidate.  Exterminate.  Rest in peace.  Rest assured.  Who can keep these things straight?  Well,” he said, half to himself.  “That’s why we keep you liberal arts guys around.  Am I right, doctor?”

“Most assuredly, my lord.”

“Very well then.”  And then turning back to the receptionist, “Be gone with you now, Cuthbert.”

“My lord,” said Cuthbert, bowing deeply before beating a hasty retreat.

“Well now, doctor,” he said to me after the door had shshed closed.  “I trust you are satisfied as to my cost overruns?”

“As to the overruns,” I answered, “I am.  But as for…the Project – “

“Yes, yes,” he cut me off dismissively.  “We can’t write that into the budget just yet.  It’s highly classified.  Top secret, you know.  Top top secret, even.”

“Top top secret?” I questioned.  “Is that even a – “

“A thing?  Yes, I’m afraid it is.”

“Well, it may well be, my lord.  But it still needs to be in the Imperial Budget,” I said firmly.  “Perhaps if you could enlighten me as to the nature of the project, I could help you devise an appropriate budget code for it.”

“Well, it’s quite simple really,” began Vader proudly.  “It’s a…hang on.  This is off the record, right?”

“It is now.”

“Gooood.  Gooood.”  And I swear he winked at me behind his tinted eye-pieces, in acknowledgement of his mocking of the Emperor’s favorite affirmation.  “Well, simply put, the Project is a roughly moon-sized space station with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet.”

“I see, I see,” I said encouragingly.  “And the purpose of this space station?”

“Fear.”  He spoke this single word with grave ominousity.

“Fear,” I repeated.  “You must understand, Lord Vader, I cannot write ‘Fear’ into the Imperial budget.”

“Fear,” he mused to himself.  “Fear will keep the local systems in line.  Fear of this battle station.”

“Ah, you said ‘keep the local systems in line,’ did you?”  My budgetary ears were pricked.  “I can work with that.  Domestic tranquility, common defense, that sort of thing.”

“Well it’s really more about – “

“No, no.  It’s best if you don’t speak, my lord,” I said waving him off, consumed by thoughts of numbers, percentages and line items.  “Now, tell me, my lord.  Will this ‘battle station,’ as you call it, will it be a one-off, or do you expect this is the first in a series of ‘battle stations’?”

“Would it not be better if we said ‘space station’ instead of ‘battle station’?”  He was trying to be helpful.  It was almost cute.

“No, certainly not,” I said firmly.  “You see, ‘space station’ sounds like science.  We’ll never get that through the Senate.  No, ‘battle station’ is better.  They never vote against military spending.”

“Doc,” he nearly cooed mechanically.  “You.  You’re good!”

“Yes, yes,” I waved him off.  “I’m not the AEIOU for nothing.  But please, answer the question.  Is it a one-off?”

“Oh, no,” answered His Blackness proudly.  “I expect we shall build at least three.  Well, to be fair, it’s a long term project.  I may only live to see the first two.  But, if I had to guess, at least three.”

“No, that’s good.  You see, one-off’s are hard to justify.  They seem like an extravagance.  But if this is to be a long-term, ongoing sort of thing, then we can write that into the budget almost as a permanent line item.”

“Yes, I see,” said His Darthness with faux confidence.

“Quite,” I agreed casually.  “In any case, Lord Vader, I think I’m done here.  I may yet need to review further documents.  But if you could have Cuthbert – “

“Yes, of course.  Anything you need,” he agreed eagerly.

“Right.  Well, then.  I guess I’ll be on my way.”

“Right.  I guess so,” answered Vader awkwardly.  “Sorry, I’m not good with goodbyes.”

“Me neither,” I muttered with equal awkwardness.

“Uh, take care of yourself?  I guess…it’s what your best at?”  He shook his head.  “Sorry, that sounded cold.”

“It’s fine,” I shrugged.  “Uh…may the Force be with you?”

“It already is?”  This was growing more awkward by the moment.

“Yes, of course it is.  I mean, you’re a…you’re a myth horde?”

“A myth horde,” he agreed.  “That’s right.”

“Fine, fine.  So, uh, I’ll just, uh…” And I gestured towards the door over my shoulder with my thumb.

“Uh, allow me to show you out?” offered Vader with awkward grace.

“As you wish.”

“Ah, well, uh, here you are,” he said pointing towards the door, without actually moving his feet so much as a centimeter.

“Right.  By then.”

“Bye,” said His Lordship the Black Darth Vader with a half-wave.  At which point, I backed out through the gently shshing door.  And when, finally, it closed behind me, I exhaled a long, sweet, exhalation.  Force, I thought, that was awkward.

I made my way back down the long corridor.  I waved to Cuthbert as I passed through reception, but he was too busy enjoying the act of respiration to notice me.  From there, I marched out to the landing platform and up the ramp into the shuttle cockpit, where Simon the pilot was smoking a cigarette.

“Didn’t expect to see you again, gov,” he said casually.

“Didn’t expect to see me again…so soon, you mean,” I corrected him.

“Err, yeah.  Sufmin’ like that, gov.”

“Nevermind,” I said, taking my seat.  “Home, James.  And don’t spare the horses.”

“It’s Simon, gov.  And horses?”

“Banthas,” I winced.  “Home, Simon.  And don’t spare the banthas.”

I never was much good with idioms.

The Federalist Project – #6

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 6

Hamilton

14 November, 1787

After the last four essays written by Jay, we return now to Hamilton.  Before diving in, I want to make a few short observations vis-à-vis their styles.  H has come down to us through history – and now again via Broadway – as the more gifted stylist of the two.  Indeed, thanks to the musical, he may even be surpassing Jefferson as the most gifted stylist of the age; at least in the popular imagination.  And by and large, I’ve so far found this to be true.

And yet.  And yet, he is wordy.  Wordy in that Mozartian “too many notes” kind of way.  It’s fantastic, it’s fun and, at times, over the top.  But there as a tightness to J’s writing, a sparseness, if such a thing could be said about the Greco-Latin influenced periodic prose of the 18th century.  He wasted no words, in my opinion.  Whereas H erects whole paragraphs of historical examples, which, really, we could probably live without.  J is more efficient.  H burns brighter.

This, at least, is my opinion after reading a mere six essays (2 H, 4 J).  In any case, Fed 6 sees H resuming J’s last argument.  Namely, that proximity without alliance breeds resentment and eventually conflict; and that commerce is no sure check against this.  H also begins to offer us his (rather dark, I dare say) views on human nature, as we shall soon see.  As in my previous essay, we will proceed through J’s arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:

In Paragraph One, H reminds the reader where we left off before stating his purpose for this essay:

  • “The three last numbers of this Paper have been dedicated to an enumeration of the dangers to which we should be exposed, in a state of disunion, from the arms and arts of foreign nations.”
    • H picks up where J left off.
    • “arts and arms” is a nice alliteration.
    • H makes no mention in the initial opening of ‘confederacy’ or ‘States,’ but goes straight to ‘disunion,’ replacing J’s positive word with a negative.
  • “I shall now proceed to delineate dangers of a different, and, perhaps, still more alarming kind, those which will in all probability flow from dissentions between States themselves, and from domestic factions and convulsions.”
    • The second sentence marks H’s first reference to the ‘States’ as well as to that of ‘faction.’
    • Again, we may note the alliteration: ‘delineate dangers…different…dissentions…domestic.’
  • “These have been already in some instances slightly anticipated, but they deserve a more particular and more full investigation.”
    • H announces the purpose of this essay.

 

Paragraph Two is not so much a statement or defense of H’s own views as an attack on those of the opposition:

  • “A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt, that if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other.”
    • ‘A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations…’ – H immediately undercuts the rationality of the opposition.
    • H is rhetorically clever here. He presents the argument of the opposition, but inverts it.  This argument, if made by an opponent, would be negative; in other words, he would say that these things would not  But by hanging the argument off a doubt clause (‘doubt that…’), he allows himself to use their words in a positive construction – to say that these things would happen.
  • “To presume a want of motives for such contests, as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.”
    • An indictment of human nature. Previously, J implied these things, either by historical example or by thought experiment, but never was he so direct; never did he describe ‘men’ so bluntly.
  • “To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties, situated in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”
    • Although he will soon dive into (many) specific examples, H paints here with the broadest possible brush.
    • ‘uniform course of human events,’ ‘accumulated experience of ages’ – H is much stronger in his characterizations than J. Where the latter often set out in a conciliatory tone, often speaking of things upon which all men can readily agree (I paraphrase), H is more combative.  History is the evidence – all of history – and those who are blind to it either cannot or will not see.”
    • ‘set at defiance’ – those who think this way are not merely wrong or misguided, they actively stand in the face of and challenge all available (and obvious) proof; no better than political Don Quixotes, tilting at historical – or present – Utopian windmills.

 

H addresses, in Paragraph Three, the ‘causes of hostility among nations’ in broad and general terms:

  • “The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable. These are some which have a general and almost constant operation upon the collective bodies of society.”
    • H breaks them down into three categories. The first:
      • “The love of power or the desire of preeminence and dominion.”
        • Further described as “the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety.”
      • The second is described is having “a more circumscribed, though an equally operative influence, within their spheres”:
        • “The rivalships and competitions of commerce between commercial nations.”
      • The third group is comprised of “others, not less numerous than either of the former, which take their origin intirely in private passions.”
        • “In the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members.”
      • To this last group, he adds the following commentary:
        • “Men of this class, whether the favourites of a king or of a people, have in too many instances abused the confidence they possessed; and assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquility to personal advantage, or personal gratification.”
      • We may sum up in this way. The first group is ascribed to collective bodies of society’ and the second to ‘commercial nations.’  These are offered as simple facts with no need of further explanation.  The third group is ascribed to ‘private persons’ and ‘men of this class’ [italics mine].  Only here dos H offer any sort of commentary, and again, it is that of his negative view of human nature, though more implicit here than in ¶2.  In the former, he says this is how men are; here hey says, this is what they do.
      • One might argue that he gives added rhetorical weight to his description of the third class by his use of assonance (‘in’): ‘intirely in,’ ‘inenmities, interests…individuals…in…

 

From Paragraphs Four, Five and Six, no lengthy quotations need be given; an overview will suffice.  In each case, H cites, in detail, the historical examples of two well-known individuals.  In ¶4, it is the ‘celebrated Pericles.’  What is worth noting here, is that as far as his contemporary Thucydides was concerned, P was a heroic figure and represented the best that Athenian democracy had to offer.  But we know that the Founders – especially those of the Federalist bent (amongst whom H must be counted) – were not fans of direct democracy (the Athenian model), preferring rather the Roman republican model.  It is also worth noting that he draws his examples, not from Thucydides, but from Plutarch, who wrote several hundred years later.  Even for Plutarch, P was a noble figure.  Yet it is in his writings that the unflattering examples are be taken.  The only negative to be found in Thucydides is the plague at Athens, which was an unintended consequence of an otherwise sound policy, rather than avarice, lust for power or uxoriousness – the examples here given.
In ¶‘s Five and Six, the example is Henry VIII’s minster Cardinal Wolsey, where the nature of the examples given are much the same as those supplied for P.  I hazard the supposition that this example – that of an Englishman – was chosen with care, in that it would be wholly familiar to an American audience.  In terms of history, in that it is not so distant.  And by ethnicity, in that the English are most near to the Americans in terms of culture, language, &c.  Thus, it is in the English, that the Americans are most likely to see themselves.
In any case, by choosing two examples so different from one another – at least superficially: different cultures, languages, religions, systems of government, and separated by over 1,000 years – he demonstrates the universality of (flawed) human nature.

 

In Paragraph Seven, H notes that it is hardly necessary to give further examples from history, which abounds with them.  He then closes by supplying a contemporary example:

  • “To multiply examples of the agency of personal considerations in the production of great national events, either foreign or domestic, according to their direction would be an unnecessary waste of time.”
    • Far be it from me to criticize the great H, but for one concerned with wasting time, he is at no want for a lack of verbiage, as this ¶ – and the preceding three – show.
  • “Those who have but a superficial acquaintance with the sources from which they are to be drawn will themselves recollect a variety of instances; and those who have a tolerable knowledge of human nature will not stand in need of such lights, to form their opinion either of the reality or extent of that agency.”
    • A clever bit of antithesis, for who would openly avow themselves as being ignorant both of history and of human nature? Thus, even his enemies must be with him on this point, or else declare themselves ignorant at best, fools at worst.
    • ‘Superficial acquaintance’ can hardly be a casual choice of words. Indeed, it stands in direct contrast with the deep knowledge of history just demonstrated by H.
  • “Perhaps however a reference, tending to illustrate the general principle, may with propriety be made to a case which has lately happened among ourselves. If SHAYS had not been a desperate debtor it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war.”
    • H cleverly cloaks his argument in the garment of detached rationality: “Perhaps…a reference…may with propriety me made…”. Yet, I assume it had – or, at least, that H meant for it to have – a rather different effect.  Whereas the examples of Pericles and Wolsey are relatively ancient history, Shay’s Rebellion is nothing short of current events (1786-7).  As such, it would almost certainly play upon the emptions of the readership in ways that the foregoing could not possibly.  Ending the paragraph with the highly charged words ‘civil war’ only hammers it home that much harder.

 

To this point, H has largely confined himself to arguing against the notion that neighboring confederacies would be naturally friendly towards one another.  In Paragraph Eight, he begins to rebut the idea that commercial relations are a guarantor of piece:

  • “But notwithstanding the concurring testimony of experience, in this particular, there are still to be found visionary, or designing men, who stand ready to advocate the paradox of perpetual peace between the States, though dismembered and alienated from each other.”
    • ‘visionary’ – to our modern eyes, this word has only a positive connotation. Was it so in 1787, or could it also be negative?  If not, then it is sharply ironic.  Thus, ‘designing’ either reinforces it, or else stands in contrast to highlight the irony.
    • ‘perpetual peace’ – a nice bit of alliteration.
    • ‘dismembered – calls to mind the idea dating at least to the middle ages, and still then current – I believe – of the body politic as a literal body, with the executive as head, military as arms, &c. Thus, to ‘dismember’ the Union is to literally take apart a very real body.
  • “The genius of republics (say they) is pacific; the spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men and to extinguish those inflammable humours which have so often kindled into wars.”
    • We can perhaps agree with H, from the perspective of our own age of rampant and barely-checked capitalism, that commerce does little to ‘soften the manners of men.’
    • By identifying the ‘humours’ as ‘inflammable,’ H highlights the implied/inherent impossibility of their extinguishment.
    • We should also note the assonance: manners of men,’ ‘softenso often.’
  • “Commercial republics, like ours, will never be disposed to waste themselves in ruinous contentions with each other [continues the opposition argument]. They will be governed by mutual interest, and will cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and accord.”
    • Current history would seem to agree with that which H finds so laughable.  The European Union would be a prime example; or the US and Canada; or the US & Europe, &c.  But of course this is all post 1945, and can fairly be labeled as a “small sample size.”  And where we have engaged in war post 1945, it has been with nations who have not been our economic partners; e.g. Vietnam, Iraq, &c.  But perhaps this is a superficial analysis on my part.  In any case, I must conclude, for myself at least, that the jury is still out on this question.
    • Note: I wrote the above comments before President Trump instituted his tariffs against Canada, and – for the moment, at least – seems to have endangered our relationship with that country. But even still, a war between is must still be considered unfathomable.

 

Paragraph Nine continues the theme, arguing that commercial interests under any form of government are no guarantee of security because men are men:

  • “Is it not (we may ask these projectors in politics) the true interest of all nations to cultivate the same benevolent and philosophic spirit?”
    • With this, H opens a series of rhetorical questions which make up ¶9. But in this first one, he casts the (implicitly) naïve argument of the opposition.  All that follow are his own counter-arguments.
  • “If this be their true interest, have they in fact pursued it? Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions and immediate interests have a more active and imperious controul [sic] over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice?”
    • This passage marked by M.
    • Simply a recasting of his previous arguments in the form of a rhetorical question.
  • “Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter?  Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships and desires of unjust acquisition that affect nations as well as kings?  Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?”
    • H gives further depth and color to his view of human nature. It is perhaps striking to our modern eye – so fond of democracy – to see ‘the people’ painted with the same brush as monarchies and kings.  We will see how H develops his views in the coming essays, but it is diffiuclt here not to see that for H, the constitution is not so much an expression of human nature as a check against it.
  • “Is it not well known that their [popular assemblies’] determinations are often governed by a few individuals, in whom they place confidence, and are of course liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war?”
    • This passage marked by M.
    • ‘…governed by a few individuals, in whom they place confidence…’ – It is impossible for anyone even ‘superficially acquainted’ with history not to see in this a direct allusion to the already cited example Pericles. Nor would it be lost on anyone with such a ‘superficial acquaintance’ with the history, that Athens was very much a commercial empire; in a way that Sparta, e.g., was not.
  • “Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power and glory?”
    • An accusation that would later be leveled against the Founders themselves.
  • “Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives, since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned b[y] the cupidity of territory or dominion?”
    • This passage marked by M.
    • I presume he speaks of the post-Columbian period and wars in and about the New World. But for me, it is hard to separate ‘commercial motives’ from those of ‘cupidity of territory or dominion,’ as the latter necessarily yields the former, whether in natural resources or human.
  • “Has not the spirit of commerce in many instances administered new incentives to the appetite both for the one and for the other?”
    • The ‘appetite’ always was – is and will be – present, as an inherent feature of human nature. ‘Commerce” simply gives it a new avenue for expression.
  • “Let experience the least fallible guide of human opinions be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.”
    • After a series of 12 rhetorical questions, H closes with the first and only statement of the ¶. By calling on ‘experience’ to answer these questions, he yields to a higher authority than himself, and one which is inherently harder for his opposition to gainsay.

 

In Paragraphs 10-14, H steps through a series of historical examples to show that commercial nations are as prone to war as any other.  I do not think much value is to be added to this analysis by quoting them in their entirety.  That said, M marked them out as being of special value, at least to him.  Therefore, a brief overview:

  • ¶10-11: Athens and Sparta; Carthage and Rome. H identifies Athens and Carthage as ‘commercial Republics’ and as instigators of the Peloponnesian war and the Punic wars respectively.  He also notes that both were ultimately defeated in those wars.  Special mention is made of Hannibal and Scipio, the generals of Carthage and Rome respectively.  No mention is here made of Pericles or any other Athenian general, nor of Leonidas or any other Spartan.
  • ¶12: The example is of Venice, which, H notes, ‘figured more than once in wars of ambition.’ He concludes by noting that Pope Julius II established a league against them which ultimately dealt a ‘deadly blow to the power and pride of that haughty Republic.’
  • ¶13: H here cites the Provinces of Holland as taking ‘a leading and conspicuous part in the wars of Europe.’ He notes their ‘furious contests with England for the dominion of the sea’ and that they were ‘among the most persevering and most implacable of the opponents of Lewis [sic] XIV.’
  • ¶14: As in ¶4-6, H’s final example is that of England, where, he notes, ‘the representatives of the people compose one branch of the national legislature.’ I give here the last two sentences in full, as they serve as a succinct summary of these five paragraphs wholly:
    • “Commerce has been for ages the predominant pursuit of that country. Few nations, nevertheless, have been more frequently engaged in war; and the wars, in which that Kingdom has been engaged, have in numerous instances proceeded from the people.”
      • We should note the verb tense in the final main clause, for H surely chose this with care. The use of the present perfect (‘has been engaged’) shows that this is still very much the current state of affairs with England; and by extension, would be the state of affairs for America if the proponents of disunion were to win out.  Although he begins in the 5th century B.C., he, after stepping nimbly through the ages, ends in the present day.  In so doing, he shows again that human nature – his view of it – has been constant for at least 2,300 years.

 

In Paragraph 15, H argues that representative governments can, in fact, be worse than monarchies:

  • “There have been, if I may so express it, almost as many popular as royal wars. The cries of the nation and the importunities of their representatives have, upon various occasions, dragged their monarchy into war, or continued them in contrary to their inclinations, and, sometimes, contrary to the real interest of the State.”
    • The people are as dangerous – sometimes more dangerous – than a person, argues H. he goes on to cite ‘that memorable struggle, between the rival Houses of Austria and Bourbon which so long kept Europe in a flame…’  He notes further that ‘the antipathies of the English against the French, seconding the ambition, or rather the avarice of a favorite leader [the Duke of Marlborough (H’s note)] protracted the war beyond the limits marked out by sound policy and for a considerable time in opposition to the views of the Court.’

 

H clarifies his position, in Paragraph 16, that commercial nations are prone to war:

  • “The wars of these two last mentioned nations have in great measure grown out of commercial considerations – The desire of supplanting and the fear of being supplanted either in particular branches of traffic or in the general advantages of trade and navigation; and sometimes even the more culpable desire of sharing in the commerce of other nations without their consent.”
    • In the foregoing paragraphs, H contented himself with the simple recounting of historical examples. Here, finally, he gives the reasons why ‘commercial States’ are as prone to war as any other; if not more prone.
    • ‘sharing in the commerce of other nations without their consent’ – Presumably, H is referring, at least in part, to smuggling; something which the Americans themselves were not entirely innocent of. While I am not sure to what degree, if any, smuggling was going on in 1787, I seem to recall that not long before, the colonists were running a tidy smuggling racket in molasses from the West Indies; and that this was more or less common knowledge.  Assuming I have that right, we might assume that this last comment would ring a little louder in the ears of the readership.

 

We may also deal with Paragraph 17 in a summary fashion.  Here, H gives the examples of ‘the last war but two between Britain and Spain.,’  The gist is that ‘illicit trade with the Spanish main’ on the part of the British led to disproportionately harsh reprisals by the Spanish which led to harsher again reprisals by the British; and ultimately war.  Within this, there are two passages worth giving in full:

  • “…and by the usual progress of a spirit of resentment, the innocent were after a while confounded with the guilty in indiscriminate punishment.”
    • The key phrase here is ‘usual progress.’ And with it, just a little more light is shed on H’s conception of human nature.
  • “…and a war ensued, which in its consequences overthrew all the alliances that but twenty years before had been formed, with sanguine expectations of the most beneficial fruits.”
    • This stands as parallel to – or forewarning of – the suggested alliances that would exist between confederacies or individual States should disunion occur.

 

In Paragraph 18, H begins to draw together his ultimate conclusion.  In this paragraph, he invites the reader to agree with him through another series of rhetorical questions:

  • “From this summary of what has taken place in other countries, whose situations have borne the nearest resemblance to our own, what reason can we have to confide in those reveries, which would seduce us into an expectation of peace and cordiality between the members of the present confederacy, in a state of separation?”
    • H’s first rhetorical question – in this series of three, which make up the paragraph – is narrow, as its focus is solely on the examples of ‘other countries, whose situations have borne the nearest resemblance to our own.” He expands on this in the next…
  • “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape?”
    • H broadens the scope of his rhetorical interrogation by moving beyond ‘other nations, whose situations have borne the nearest resemblance to our own,’ to now include ‘society in every shape.’
    • The choice of words, so freighted with disdain, are striking in their depiction of his view of human nature and any and all resultant ‘societies.’ These words – ‘fallacy and extravagance,’ ‘idle theories,’ ‘imperfections, weaknesses and evils’ – are no doubt calculated to arrest not only the intellectual attention of the reader, but indeed his emotional attention.
  • “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the inhabitants of the glove, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
    • Although given in question form, H in fact leaves no room to question his analysis. The reader is not invited to consider H’s views and then, even if reluctantly, to agree with him.  The analysis is given as fact.  The question, really, for the reader to consider, is weather they will agree with H on what to do about it.  By ending this paragraph with a rhetorical question, the reader is allowed to reach the right conclusion – H’s conclusion – ‘on his own.’
    • H cleverly paints the opposition’s picture in Utopian terms. Both H and any informed reader would know the Greek origin of the word ‘Utopia’, which means “no place.”  In other words, it is a fantasy, a ‘deceitful dream’ which can not possibly exist.  This is the effect of closing the ¶ with the words ‘happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue.’

 

Paragraph 19 serves as the answer to the rhetorical questions offered in the preceding ¶:

  • “Let the point of extreme depression to which our national dignity and credit has sunk – le the inconveniences felt every where from a lax and ill administration of government – let the revolt of a part of the State of North Carolina – the late menacing disturbances in Pennsylvania and the actual insurrections and rebellions in Massachusetts declare!”
    • H now answers his rhetorical questions with a series of exclamatory 3rd person imperatives.
    • My history is too weak to know to what he refers in NC; PA, I thought, was a reference to the “Whiskey Rebellion.” But that is dated 1791-4 and this essay 1787; so again I stand in ignorance.  MA almost certainly refers to the aforementioned “Shays’ Rebellion.”  In any case, the point is clearly and ably made.  There is already violent discord among commercially connected neighbors.  The opposition cannot even pretend to current state of tranquility.

 

Paragraph 20 is the final paragraph of this essay.  In it, H states once more his view of human nature before giving his proposed solution to the problem via a quotation:

  • “So far is the general sense of mankind from corresponding with the tenets of those, who endeavor to lull asleep our apprehensions of discord and hostility between the States, in the even of disunion, that it has from long observation of the progress of society become a sort of axiom in politics, that vicinity, or nearness of situation, constitutes nations natural enemies.”
    • In this long periodic sentence, H once again makes mention of the nature of man (‘the sense of mankind’), before briefly outlining the opposing argument, and then finally disposing of it by noting that his own position has ‘become a sort of axiom in politics.’
    • We should also note the assonance of the repeated N’s in his final four words: ‘constitutes nations natural en’ We might even fancy that this gives the closing a strong negative sound, as in ‘No!’
  • “An intelligent writer expresses himself on the subject to this effect – ‘NEIGHBORING NATIONS (say they) are natural ENEMIES of each other, unless their common weakness forces them to league in a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC, and their constitution prevents the differences that neighborhood occasions, extinguishing that secret jealousy, which disposes States to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their neighbors.’1 This passage, at the same time points out the EVIL and suggest the REMEDY.”
    • H, once again, stakes for himself the position of the ‘intelligent’ man. But by giving his own position in the words of another, he reinforces it with a further degree of authority.
    • His final sentence states succinctly what he has, by now, already stated at (great) length, many times over. Namely that the problem is clear.  Equally clear, is the course to be taken.

 

The full text of Federalist No.6 can be found here.

  1. The quotation, per H’s own citation: Vide Principes des Negotiations, par L’Abbe de Malby. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2018

Right, so I’ll just carry on writing about dead people then, shall I?  I mean, Anthony Bourdain, man.  Look, I’d be lying if I said I was a huge fan of this guy or that I’m taking his death pretty hard.  I mean, he’s not Dio.  When Dio died, I wore the same black Dio shirt every day for a week.  This is not on that level.  And yet.

And yet, the guy certainly had an impact on my life.  What I mean is, cooking is very central to my life; to who I am, I think.  And he changed the way I think about cooking.  Maybe not so much to the point that I’d say he’s a major influence on me.  But I think I’d say he was part of a constellation.

Let’s take a ride in the Way-Back Machine.  Obviously I’ve been cooking for myself ever since I moved out of my parents’ house.  But I didn’t really start to think about cooking until Jared and I moved into our apartment on Orchard Street.  That’s when I started experimenting.  That’s when I started picking Jared’s brain.  That’s when I started taking recipes from my mom and discussing ideas with my dad.  That’s when I started listening to chefs and food writers on NPR.  And that’s when I read Kitchen Confidential.

In the immediate wake of Bourdain’s death, the big takeaway from his breakthrough book seems to be his writing style and the way he opened people’s eyes to the theretofore hidden world of professional kitchens; the culture, the way of life, the language, the filth, the sounds, the fun, the work, and yeah, the food.

But that wasn’t my big takeaway.  It wasn’t Jared’s either.  For Jared, it was the idea of montre au beurre.  Basically, the idea that it’s physical impossible to use too much butter.  To which I say, Amen.  But for me, the big takeaway was this: you can do a lot with a little.

He has this part in the book where he goes to work at an Italian restaurant.  And he talks about how he was educated in the French style, where everything is a big deal, everything is a process, everything has a bunch of ingredients.  And then he gets to this Italian joint, and they’re making dishes with like three ingredients and they’re incredible.  But the key is, everything has got to be good.  It’s gotta be fresh, high quality.

But this idea that you can make the most amazing pasta pomodoro with just spaghetti, tomatoes and basil – that was new.  And this was before I met Vinny, before I ever tasted his mom’s red sauce.  But it’s something me and Vin talk about all the time.  It was the guiding principle last time I was in, when he took me to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

We bought some sausage from a butcher.  We bought some nice bread from the bakery.  We looked at the produce in the market.  And then we – well, he, really – made a very excellent and very simple dinner.  And it was just, I mean, you guys, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The kid is naturally gifted in the kitchen, in a way that I am most certainly not.

But we have the same philosophy.  The key ingredient is love.  And that’s something that Bourdain was selling too.  That when people put their heart into their food, it’s only ever always good.

Something else stood out from that chapter about the Italian restaurant.  It was that you can always learn new things.  Like I said, the guy had been classically (i.e. French) trained.  And for a long time, that was the way; everything else was second rate.  But he went into that gig willing to put that attitude aside, ready to soak up what new information they had to offer.

Which is also something I do.  I do that in all walks of life; or I try to.  I’ve written about that before.  Trying to learn everything I can from Murphy about not just his job, but the whole engineering business he works in.  Trying to learn all I could about economics from that guy Christian who lived here for a few months.  About psychology and the practice of social work from Josh and Jared.  Learn anything you can from whomever you can.

And that’s true in the kitchen too.  I love watching other people cook, love asking them questions.  Joschka and I do that now.  We’re always sharing techniques, recipes, new information.  And it never gets old.1

So maybe I didn’t learn any dishes from Bourdain.  I have only one of his recipes in my little app.  It’s for a beouf bourgignon.  And I’ve never actually made it.  But my approach, my philosophy; a lot of that comes from him.  Not all of it, but a lot of it.

Something else hit me too, when I learned of his death.  And this had nothing to do with cooking.  No, what hit me was, it took me back to that apartment on Orchard Street.  One day, Jared’s copy of Kitchen Confidential showed up in the bathroom.  At first, I’d just read a chapter here and a chapter there.  But I quickly realized, holy shit, this guy is a fun writer!   And before long, I’d read the whole book.

All of it.  In that bathroom.  And it took me back to that time, to that place.  And maybe it’s a funny thing to say, but you know what?  I kinda fucking loved that bathroom.  That was my favorite bathroom I’ve ever had.  Is that even a thing?  Am I the only person who has a favorite bathroom?

Like, there’s two kinds of people.  People who read in the bathroom and people who don’t.  And you know immediately who’s who when you go over someone’s house for the first time.  Because that’s when you see if they have books and magazines in there or they don’t.

And to all you people who don’t: What’s up with that?  No, really.  What is actually up with that?2

Anyway, we always had books and magazines on the windowsill across from the terlit.  And that’s where Kitchen Confidential showed up in my life.  On that windowsill.  Like, I can still see it, you know?  It was almost as if whoever designed that building, intentionally made that windowsill just big enough for books and magazines.  I say ‘almost as if’ because it was a tenement building, and I wonder now if it was even originally built with bathrooms in every apartment.

And speaking of windowsills, I remember also how when we first moved in, the other window – the one at the far end of the bathroom – would leak when it rained.  I mean, sheets of water coming through, you guys.  Which, yeah, classic Chinatown.  But also, can we get that fixed?  I feel they took their sweet time fixing that.  Because classic Chinatown.

And the shower was spacious, which was nice at the time, and nicer now when my current shower/tub doesn’t even have a curtain.  OK, sidenote.  This is like a thing in Germany.  Some people just don’t have shower curtains.  Which means you need to sit down in the tub and “shower” by holding the showerhead the whole damn time.  Honestly, it takes all the joy out of it.  It’s like work now.  Anyway.

But it was a funny bathroom.  Like the kitchen in that apartment, it was very long and very narrow.  I believe the technical term is ‘railroad kitchen.’  Well, I guess it was a ‘railroad bathroom’ too.  But the point is, it was a great room to spend time in.  It was a great room to read in.

I loved that kitchen too.  We had a chopping block set up opposite the counter.  And the place was so narrow, that you could just pivot on your heels and work both spaces at the same time.  Everything was at your finger tips.  And you could just create.  With a glass of wine and some music.  It was a kitchen, a studio and a lounge, all in one.  I miss that kitchen.

And that apartment.  That apartment where, one year, after Jared’s birthday, he was so drunk that Rob had to literally carry him up the stairs.  That apartment where, every year on Rob’s birthday, he would come over and the three of us would drink a bottle of scotch.  That apartment where Jared and I watched four seasons of Dr. Who and grumbled the whole time about how David Tennant was no Christopher Eccleston.  That apartment where we had a big wooden bookshelf in the living room, overflowing with tomes.  Where Jared and I would drunkenly watch old WCW matches on VHS and marvel at how Dean Malenko could carry any nobody you like to the greatest match you’ve ever seen; where we’d watch Bret Hart fight Ricky Steamboat again and again; where we’d sit on the couch with a glass of scotch and just talk.

That apartment where within three days of meeting her, Charlotte was sleeping on my couch; and that was just the beginning of a story that’s still running.  Where Niki and me would cook English food, get drunk and watch Sherlock.  That apartment where I spent all of Hurricane Sandy alone with a bottle of Tullamore Dew.  Where I wrote my thesis.  And where, not for nothing, I had a weeklong fling with a 20-year-old French smokeshow.

That apartment from where all the best Chinese food was just around the corner.  And on the way to where, after a morning of reading Homer with Daitz, I’d stop by Prosperity Dumpling and grab five pork-&-chives for a buck.  (Talk about things I miss!)  That apartment where I spent the last years of my twenties and the first of my thirties.  Where I once tried baking a brioche without a mixer, so Jared, Rob and I just passed the bowl around for hours, taking turns mixing with a wooden spoon until we couldn’t feel our arms anymore.

That apartment I’d walk home to every day after work, all the way from 31st between 6th and 7th, watching the city change from Midtown to Downtown to Chinatown.  Where you could always catch the D, on-time, in all its express, 35 minutes to One-Six-One and Yankee Stadium glory.  Getting out at Grand Street – never missing my stop, thank you very much – after falling asleep on the way home from one of Amber’s backyard bashes.

Walking the ten minutes from that apartment to Katz’ Deli for a Matzah-ball soup when I was sick.  Walking over the Williamsburg bridge for a night out at Duffs or for a bit of day-drinking with Niki.  That apartment where I taught myself French, where I would spend countless evenings laying in bed, in the dark, listening to Montréal Canadiens games on the radio, “studying” la langue française.

That apartment where, one Sunday afternoon, I sat down in the black leather easy-chair I had in my room, and started watching The Walking Dead; I never did get out out of that chair that day.  That apartment where, after a rough breakup, I watched Fawlty Towers and every single episode of all nine seasons the X-Files; in like three months.  Where after passing my Greek reading comps, I watched every single episode of all of the Star Treks.3  And where, while studying for my Greek reading comps, I listened to John Sterling call Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit on the radio.4

That apartment where, really for the first time, I started to write my own music.  Where Justin would come over and write music with Jared.  That apartment where I would come home drunk from something, where Jared would come home drunk from something else, and we would just drunkenly listen to Dio.  And really, is there anything better?

That apartment we shared with Chutzpah the Mouse.  That apartment from where Jared and I would go around the corner to Lolita, where our bartender friend Ally would pour us a shit-ton of whiskey and then round the bill off to $20.

The last time & place I lived with my best friend, and my last apartment in New York fucking City.  That apartment.

All this and more came flooding back to me, when I read about Anthony Bourdain’s death, when I remembered reading Kitchen Confidential in that bathroom…

So, changing gears, can I just say, Fuck Nazis?  And also fuck cancer.  Because always fuck cancer.  But also, I think it’s important to say, from time to time, fuck Nazis.  So say it with me now.  Ready?  1, 2, 3, FUCK NAZIS!  Good job, you guys.

So the reason I mention all this is, two weeks ago I went to my first ever protest-march-whatsit.  Here, the word is Demo; short for Demonstration, obviously.  Which I guess now is a German word.  But anyway, I did that.  Which, also, very late shoutout to my boss-ass bitch5 of a mom who went all the way down to DC for the Women’s March, back whenever that was.  Respect.  Well, now, finally, I’ve gotten in on the fun.

First some backstory.  Here in Germany, the nationalist, right wing, generally racist party is the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland).  And those cunts – I use the word in solidarity with Sam Bee – won 13% of the vote in the last election and now have seats in the Bundestag, the Parliament.  Gross.6

Anyway, the AfD had planned a big rally in Berlin two Sundays ago.  Not of actual Berliners, mind you.  You couldn’t find enough AfDers in this town to have a proper rally.  Because we’re7 awesome.  But they planned a rally.  And they actually paid to bus and train people in from all over Germany for it.  And they were all, “We’re gonna have ten thousand people!”  Well, they managed five thousand.  So, haha, fuck you, cunts.

Well so, Berlin was like, “Not in our backyard, bitches.”  And there were all sorts of counter-rallies planned.  And in glorious typical Berlin fashion, the biggest counter-rally was just a rave.  Yes, a rave.  An electro-dance party in the Tiergarten.  And they were like, “Yeah, we’re just gonna dance you down and drown you out with our loud bass.”

Obviously that’s not the counter-rally I went to.  No, so Zibs sent me a message that her and Jan and Felix were going to a counter-protest and did I want to come.  Uh, yeah, obvi.  So we met up in front of the Reichstag and listened to some speeches to start off with.  And then it was off to the actual protest.

The AfD clowns were staging their main rally at the Brandenburg Gate.  So what we did was to basically surround them on three sides and just yell at them.  And I’ll get to that bit shortly.  But first I gotta fill in a little more background.

So earlier, I described the AfD as a nationalist, right wing, generally racist party.  Which they absolutely are.  We don’t have anything like it in the states.  But there’s a wing of the Republican party that matches up pretty well.  The Trump wing, not to put too fine a point on it.  Anyway, it’s one thing to be right wing, nationalist and generally racist.  It’s still another thing to be actual Nazis.

Side note, except, or is it?  Because see, the actual Nazi party is illegal here.  So is displaying a swastika flag.  Which, not for nothing, to my American eyes is an uncomfortable repression of freedom of political speech.  But also, we didn’t have Hitler.  So, Germany’s gonna do what Germany’s gonna do.  Anyway, all this to say, if you were an actual Nazi, the AfD is probably where you’re gonna hang out.

Nevertheless, when I woke up last Sunday, I was not really comfortable casually throwing around N-word8 to describe any and everybody who might be associated with AfD.  But when I showed up, the first thing Jan said to me was, “So, Dave, are you ready to shout at some Nazis?”

So I asked him.  Is that where we’re at?  The AfD are straight up Nazis?  And he said yes.  And Zibs said yes.  Well, OK, they’re the Germans.  They’re politically active.  I trust them.  If they say – at the very least – that for today’s purposes, for the purpose of this rally and counter-rally, that the AfD are Nazis, well, fuck it.  They’re Nazis, the bastards.  So I said, yes, let’s give those Nazi bastards hell.

Which we proceeded to do.  We re-gathered at the entrance to the Tiergarten, directly across from the Brandenburg Gate, where we could see those cunts and where they could absolutely hear us.  And we spent the next few hours shouting them down.

Chants included, “Hau Ab!” (Go Away!) and “Nazis Raus!” (Nazis Out!).  And also, Ganz Berlin Hasst die AfD!”  (All Berlin Hates the AfD!).  Although there was apparently a second version of this chant from the ravers: “Ganz Berlin Basst die AfD!”  (All Berlin Basses the AfD, in reference to the loud bass they were using to drown them out.  Cool).

There were horns and whistles and all kinds of flags.  Communist flags.  Political party flags.  Rainbow flags.  One flag was just a giant hand, middle finger extended.  Also, there were a lot of middle fingers extended.  It was cool.

And It also made me just the slightest bit uncomfortable.  Because here’s the thing.  I don’t like mobs.  I think they’re ugly and dangerous.  Mobs take on a life of their own.  Emotion trumps reason.  Which is why you need effective police, btw.  To keep the people separated.  To prevent violence.

This, to my mind, was the big failing of Germany in the late 20’s and early 30’s.  The police didn’t do their job.  So Nazis brawled with communists.  Nazis intimidated would-be voters.  When the police do their job, this doesn’t happen.

At one point, somebody yelled – and I forget the German, but basically – “The police protect fascists!”  Well, yeah.  That’s their job.  And they should protect fascists.  They should also protect communists, and greens, and everybody else.  It’s literally their job.  If you’re suppressing the right of fascists to freely (and peacefully, which is key) express their political views, then what kind of democracy are you running?

But that’s my point.  Somebody yells, “Police protect fascists.”  Somebody else yells Ganz Berlin hasst die AfD!”  And yeah, OK, we hate Nazis.  But also, hate?  I looked over at one point, and watched the woman next to me.  And her face was contorted in this violent expression of, well let’s call a spade a spade, hatred.  And a part of me was like: Wait a second, isn’t this what we’re against?

But it’s complicated, innit?  Because like I said, Fuck Nazis.  But, I dunno.  Can we not be dispassionate about this?  Can we not just outnumber them 10:1 and just say “Boo!”  Or better yet, outnumber them 10:1 and just be a silent, impenetrable wall?  Can that not be enough?  Do we actually have to hate them?  Do we have to label every last one of them a Nazi?  Or is my head in the clouds, munching on a pie in the sky?

But it’s complicated.  I had a very uncomfortable exchange with an acquaintance recently.  She was complaining about how in certain parts of Berlin, any shop you go into, the staff are speaking English.  To the point where they only speak English.  And look, I get it.  I myself have complained that “I didn’t come to Germany to speak English with a bunch of ex-pats.”

But there was something in the way she was saying it.  “My mom is old.  What about the old people?  Shouldn’t they be able to go into a shop in their own country and speak their own language?”  Which, I mean, on some level, I’m not unsympathetic to that.  But also, English is a world language.  No, it’s the world language.  It would kill you to learn enough to order your food or drink item, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’?

I grant you, yeah, it’s annoying.  But is it worth kvetching about?  OK, kvetching, maybe.  But elevating it to one of the real problems facing Germany?  Come on.  So I said – and maybe I shouldn’t have – but I said, “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, you can always vote AfD.”

And she looked at me with more than a little distress, and she said, “Dave, come on, I’m not a Nazi.”  But.  She didn’t say ‘but.’  But it was there.  Almost like, “I’m not a Nazi…but…maybe the AfD isn’t wrong about everything.”  Now to be clear, she definitely didn’t say that.  All she said was, “Dave, come on, I’m not a Nazi.”  But me – and yes, this is highly subjective – I felt like that ‘but’ was very much there.

So I said – and again, maybe I shouldn’t have – but I said, “But…Deutschland für die Deutschen.”  (Germany for the Germans).  This was followed by an uncomfortable silence, and then we moved on.

And look, I want to be clear.  This girl is in no way a Nazi.  She’s young, she’s open minded.  Hell, she knows I’m Jewish.  And we’ve spent more than a little time talking about all the Yiddish/Hebrew words that have found their way into German; and she thinks that’s all very cool.  She’s a good kid.  And just so there’s not even a shadow of a doubt, not a Nazi.

But that’s my point.  Not everybody associated with the AfD is a Nazi.  And by the way, I can’t imagine that she would ever vote AfD.  But she has this concern.  And it’s a concern that those AfD cunts make real political hay out of.

But do you see the reason I’m telling this story?  I don’t like painting everybody who votes AfD as a Nazi.  I don’t like going to a rally and ‘hating’ these people.  Which isn’t to say that some of them are not in fact Nazis.  Surely some – even many…fuck, even most – of them are; or at least might be.  And there’s no room for Nazis in our political discourse.

But just because Fuck Nazis – and let’s be clear, Fuck Nazis – but just because Fuck Nazis, are we supposed to hate our fellow man?  Are we supposed to use the law to curtail their freedom to express their political views, no matter how heinous?  Personally, I don’t think so.

What we are supposed to do, I think, is outnumber the shit out of them.  To show them, through peaceable numbers, that there are far more of us than there are of them.  Which we did, btw, and I’ll come to that shortly.

But to come back to that lady standing beside me, who wore so much hate on her face as she shouted down those Nazi cunts, maybe dial it back a little.  Maybe.  When the police are doing their job, you can afford to take the emotional high road, is what I would argue.

But also, I’ll never be a German.  I don’t own this country’s history the way a German does.  And the attitude here seems to be, don’t give those Nazi cunts so much as in inch.  Because not only will they take a mile, they’ve already taken it once.  And that, I think, is the divide.  I don’t know if I can ever personally bridge it.

Fine.  So I said, to me, the thing to do is, outnumber them 10:1.  Show them there’s more of us than of you, and there always will be.  Well, we did that.  Five thousand of them.  Twenty-five thousand of us.  And that was just in the immediate vicinity.  Apparently, there were counter-rallies all over Berlin, in places where the AfD would never see the faces or hear the voices.  And when you add it all up, according to what I’ve read, the counter-protesters numbered as much as 75,000.  That’s 15:1.

You wanna express the idea of “Nazis Raus!”?  Wunderbar.  Show me, don’t tell me.  Well, we showed ‘em.  We showed those Nazi cunts.

But the battle continues.  Because they will continue to fight.  They will continue to hate refugees and Muslims and Jews and gays and whoever else they blame for their plight.  So we have to keep on fighting too.  But I hope we can keep our heads about us.  I hope we can remember that hate is ugly, even when our opponents are Nazis.  I hope we can be better than them.

So.  Will I go to the next anti-AfD rally?  You bet your bottom dollar.  But not with hate in my heart.  Pity, maybe, if I can muster it, for these poor bastards who can’t see beyond their own backyard, beyond their own town square.  Disgust, if I can’t manage pity.  But not hate.

Because there’s more of us than there are of them.  And if we can just remember that, and act accordingly, then those Nazi cunts don’t stand a chance.

זײַ געסונט

  1. Just today, we had a whole conversation about stews and braises.  Basically, he asked me why I do so many of them.  And my answer was basically, economics.  With a stew or a braise, you get a lot from a little and it goes a long way.  Plus it keeps your stock supply moving. []
  2. My roommates here – and you know I love these cats – they have zero reading material in the bathroom.  They are not bathroom readers.  And just like, why? []
  3. I still maintain that DS9 is far-and-away the best of the Treks. []
  4. I had a ticket to that game.  And I had to pass it up, because I was studying.  So instead of remembering being there for Jete’s 3K, I remember sitting at my desk, in that apartment. []
  5. Hi, Ma.  Just so you know, “boss-ass bitch” is a good thing.  It refers to strong women who kick ass.  You can confirm that with any millennial. []
  6. Not for nothing, in light of all this, I can’t not remember my (now late) Uncle Art asking me if there was anti-Semitism in Germany.  I always told him I’d never experienced any.  And on a personal level, I haven’t.  But yeah, there is.  And here it is.  I’d like to think he’d be pleased to know I showed up to stand against it. []
  7. Apparently I can include myself amongst Berliners now.  I was told recently that by bitching about Deutsche Bahn (the rail service) and by reading a book and drinking a beer on the train I’m basically a real Berliner. []
  8. Funny that Germany also has an N-word and it’s not the same as our N-word. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
28 May, 2018

With each passing year, the world is just a little more different than the world into which I was born.  Some of that is about technology, sure.  Some of it is about the environment or politics.  But also, on some very basic level, it’s simply about the people who are in this world.  And, more to the point, the people who aren’t.  Among the latter group may now be numbered my Uncle Art, né Arthur Levine and finally Mr. Arturo LeMay.

Which – and OK yes, I’m getting off track kind of early here – is a bit ironic.  The name, I mean.  Because Art was a pretty religious dude.  No, that’s not quite right.  I don’t think he was particularly religious.  He didn’t keep kosher, so far as I know.  I’m not sure how many holidays he “celebrated” in the religious sense of the word; although he was at every Seder of my life until this year.

But he went to schul three times a week.  He was very pro-Israel in that old-school, unquestioning sort of way; the way which my generation – and those younger than me – are finding increasingly difficult to be.  And the dude could beast through a page of Hebrew like it was nobody’s business.  Though I don’t actually know if he could understand the language.  But he could read it off the page, and he could do it with the oldschool Yiddish pronunciation, where all the final tav’s sounded like “S”s; not the way people my age were taught.

The point is, his Judaism – however secular it might have been – was a huge part of his identity.  So yeah, I always found it more than a little ironic that he would change his name.  Because “Levine” is a pretty big deal name in Judaism.  It’s of the priest class, right up there with Cohen.  It’s not a Euro-Yiddish invention like Lindenberg (Mountain of the Linden-Tree), my mother’s maiden name; or Starr, and who even knows what the origin is there.  Levine – the Levis – goes all the way back to the Torah.

So why would he give that up for the totally non-Jewish sounding LeMay?  Because he liked the way it sounded.  But it was a very Art thing to do.  He could be eccentric like that.  The dude had his own way of making sense of shit.  Like anti-Semitism.  More than once he said Jews could be more anti-Semitic than gentiles; ‘self-hating Jews’ was, I think, the term he used.  But he also said that Arabs couldn’t be anti-Semitic.  Because the Arabs are themselves a Semitic people.  So there you go.  In Art’s world, there were anti-Semitic Jews and non-anti-Semitic death-to-Israel Arabs.

Or the fact that although he’d be at schul every Saturday, he’d insist he wasn’t religious.  Called himself a ‘fraud.’  Sure Art.  You read Hebrew.  You practically lived at the synagogue.  But you weren’t religious.  As you wish.

He was the the last Patriarch standing.  That’s a bit weird to think about.  All the grandparents were already gone.  So Art was the last of that generation.  That’s fucking weird, I’m sorry.  To look at my parents, my aunts and uncles and realize, shit, they’re the patriarchs now.  Or matriarchs.  They’re the grandparents now.  The Olds.  Which knocks me back a generation too.  That knocks me into the Aunts & Uncles generation, rather than the Children & Cousins generation.  With Art’s passing, I became a generation older.  I’m just realizing this as I’m typing, btw.  So, you know, thanks for that, Art.

So now it’s Shelly and Don, on my mom’s side.  Shelly sits at one head of the Seder table and Don at the other.  And this year, I had to read the big Hebrew spiel.  Art’s part.  The part that actually says, in Shelly’s homemade Hagaddah, “Uncle Art reads:”.  Surreal is the word I’m looking for.

Anyway, what about the man himself?  What about Arthur “the atomic bomb saved my life” Levine?  Lemme start by saying he was a tough motherfucker.  The short, red-headed Jewish kid from the Bronx who volunteered to carry the big Browning Automatic Rifle in the army.  The dude who took over his father’s business and made it big.  The dude who ran marathons.  The dude who went back to college – cut short by the war – and got a degree from Columbia when he was already a million years old.  Those are some pretty serious achievements.

Soldier.  Businessman.  Athlete.  Student.  All of those words describe Arturo.  But the word I would choose, if I had to pick just one, would be this.  Storyteller.  That man could spin a yarn.  Let’s start with the whole “the atomic bomb saved my life” spiel.  We’ve all heard that one a gazillion times.

When I was a kid, there was one major school of thought on our use of The Bomb in WWII, and one minor one.  The major school of thought was that it ended the war sooner and saved untold lives.  Along with that was the notion that by seeing the power of those early bombs in 1945, later world leaders were sufficiently scared into never pushing the button.  The minor school of thought was that even if this were all true, the bombs were so terrible as to be unjustifiable by any argument.

Those were the arguments I heard when I was young, when I was in school.  Nowadays, the latter argument seems to be more in vogue.  To the point that the term “war crime” is even trotted out to describe their use.

My point here, though, is that Art was one of the last people entitled to a different view by direct personal association.  Because he was ticketed for the invasion of Japan.  So when the war ended shortly after those two terrible detonations, it meant that rather than dying on a beach, he would spend a couple of years cooling his heels in the Philippines.

And you know what?  I don’t know if he thought the bombs were a good thing.  I don’t know if he thought we did the right thing in using them.  Maybe he did.  I don’t know.  But he always believed that The Bomb saved his life.  And that is almost certainly true.  And there aren’t many people left now who can say that.

So yeah, the stories.  My favorite thing about Art in the later years was the car trips to Passover and Thanksgiving.  We’d drive over the Tap and pick him at his home “upstate” and drive him up to Connecticut with us.  And he’d just tell stories the whole way.  Stories about how he nearly married some Jewish dame in the late 40’s, but didn’t, “because she was fat.”  Or the one about the rich oilman relative, who may or may not have killed an “Irishman,” who may or may not have screwed Indians out of some land, who may or may not have sold dry goods to settlers moving West, but who definitely was cut out of the family because “he didn’t keep kosher.”

There were stories about his time in college.  About his military training.  About how his, I want to say father, moved from one of the Baltic states to Germany (Frankfurt am Mein) because they needed a Rabbi; and then moved to America.

I once asked him if he could speak Yiddish.  He couldn’t.  I asked him if his father could.  “He could,” he said.  “But he didn’t like to.  If somebody addressed him in Yiddish, he’d answer in Yiddish; to be polite.  But he always said, ‘I’m an American.  I speak English.’”   And that was Art too.  Proudly Jewish.  Staunchly pro-Israel.  100% American.

Art had a million stories.  And not one of them was self-aggrandizing.  You knew he had to have been one tough SOB, because only tough SOB’s volunteer to carry the BAR.  But when he talked about his military training, it was always about how it affected his schooling, or about how some other guy outperformed him.  He wasn’t religious, he was a “fraud.”  But he went to schul more times in one week than I’ve been in the last decade.  He talked about business trips to Asia but he never let on how successful his business was.  He talked about about business trips to Puerto Rico, but never mentioned that he could understand Spanish quite well and could even speak it a bit.

He had a sister, Ferna.  She had Down Syndrome.  She was in an institution or a home or something; not totally sure on the deets.  The point is, yeah, of course other people visited her.  But he visited her every single week.  And you know what you never heard stories about?  That.

A few years back, we were over his house.  And he had this room full of old junk.  Mementos, pictures, awards, all that kind of shit.  Anyway, I found the damnedest thing.  It was a framed letter to a rabbi on his mom’s side of the family, so a Coblenz; maybe it was an uncle, I’m not sure.  The point is, it was a personally addressed letter from FDR thanking this rabbi for some small service.  I’d need to see the letter again.  I don’t know if he had served on some religious council, or given some kind of advice or what.  But it was a thank-you letter from Franklin fucking Delano fucking Roosevelt.  I mean, come on, that’s kind of a big deal.  Yeah, well, he never spoke about that either.

So as I’m writing this, I’m texting back and forth with my mom, asking for little clarifications here and there.  And she reminded me that I have a couple of recordings of him from the last years.  I have one on my phone, where I asked him a few questions and just let him go.  It’s only about two minutes.  But sure enough, it’s the whole “the atomic bomb saved my life” spiel.

And so, just two little things I want to add to that story.  There was no glory in it, no joy.  He simply said, “I was fortunate.”  He also said he enlisted because “the army paid for six months of NYU.”  What a good Jewish boy.  The goal wasn’t war, it was an education.

More important than that though, is simply the fact that I have his voice.  Because people don’t sound like that no more.  See, he had this oldschool Bronx accent.  And let’s be clear here.  Not the stereotypical “New York” accent from old movies.  Not “dese, dem ‘n’ dose.”  Not “I’ll meetcha at tree’o’clock on toity-toid ‘n’ toid.”  No, it’s far more subtle, but also far more real.

Mel Blanc once described his choice of voice for Bugs Bunny as being a cross between a Brooklyn and Bronx accent.  Because Bugs was a wiseguy, and that’s where wiseguys came from.  And if you think you can tell the difference between a 1930’s Brooklyn accent and a 1930’s Bronx accent, I think you’re full of shit.  But whatever is the Bronx part of Bugs Bunny’s voice, that’s what Art sounded like.

And I gotta tell y’all.  It’s beautiful.

And maybe it doesn’t matter to other people.  Maybe it only matters to me, because I’m interested in language.  But when Art died, that sound died with him.  That voice died with him.  There ain’t nobody left in my life who sounds quite like that anymore.  But I’m sure as shit glad I can still go back and listen to it now.

But maybe it doesn’t just matter to me.  Because I know I’ve heard my mom talk about the way Carol’s booming “Hi!” could fill a room.  My point is, you don’t just remember the person.  You remember how they sounded.  It’s really a sort of Proustian experience.  A sort of auditory madeleine.  He says having never read Proust.

But yeah.  I can still hear Carol’s warm and grand greetings; which, btw, was also Herb’s warm and grand greeting.  I can still hear Ida’s glottal stops, how she would pronounce ‘dentist’ as den’ist.  I can still hear Steve’s absolutely classic Brooklyn.  Just as I can hear Daitz’ baritone “Well, Dave…”.  Or how, on the phone, Mike sounded exactly like my dad.

And it makes me treasure the sound of those who are still around.  My dad’s very subtle but unmistakable Brooklyn which 30+ years on Long Island haven’t dimmed; totally different than Steve’s btw.  My mom’s sharp, elbows-out Brooklyn when she gets mad; totally different than my dad’s.  Jay’s ‘Vinny Baggadonuts’ Brooklyn, different from all of them.  To say nothing of Margaret’s again totally different Sicilian-Italian Brooklyn, which yields the wonderfully hypercorrective vodker.

So, always when people die, come the inevitable questions of regret.  Art had his.  He regretted never marrying in general, and, towards the end, never marrying Linda specifically.  Man, Linda was a character.  I didn’t know her well, so keep that in mind.  But she had this gracious southern accent; I don’t know from where.  And she had all these wacky southern idioms, all of which escape me at the moment.  But she was probably Art’s best friend.  And I’m fairly certain they were a thing at some point.  It never worked out though.  She had MS, which may have had everything – or nothing – to do with it.  In any case, she died quite a few years back.

But towards the end, you could tell he missed her.  And you could tell he was lonely, which was tough.  In the last few years, he would talk about how he wished he’d gotten married.  To which my dad would invariably reply with something along the lines of, “Trust me, Art, you’re better off.”  But it was just a joke to try and make him feel better.   And he appreciated the sentiment.  He’d play along.  But yeah, that was kind of sad.

On the other hand, he loved his family.  He was close with Cookie, I know.  And my mom would always call him.  But – for me at least – he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to.  “Demonstrative” is not a word that comes to mind.  Which should not be mistaken for not caring.

He was always asking about Germany.  Always asking if I was happy.  If I enjoyed teaching.  And, not for nothing, always asked if there was anti-Semitism in Germany.  Because the Jewish identity was always central with him.  And now, as I write this, I’m wondering if that also didn’t play a role in him and Linda never really getting together.  Because when he talked about the fatty he didn’t marry back in the 40’s, he never failed to mention that she was, if nothing else, Jewish.

Oh!  And the worst insult in his book – at least towards another Jew – was that they were “of the shtetl.”  Shtetl is the Yiddish word for the backwater ghettos which Jews used to inhabit in Eastern Europe before…well, you know.  But if somebody was “of the shtetl,” they were low class, uneducated, uncouth, worthy of derision.  It’s witheringly brutal and wonderfully oldschool.  My cousin Jay (Mike’s son) is the only person of my generation whom I know that still uses it.  And even then, it’s always ironic and spoken with an old-timey Jew-y accent; either preceded or followed by an “Oy!”

So yeah, regrets.  I regret that I didn’t know the man better.  I regret that I didn’t get more of his stories down by recording.  Because already the finer details escape me, and I can only paint them with broad strokes.

But these are small things.  The dude made it all the way to 91.  Lived at home, just until the very end.  Drove his own car until he was 89 or 90.  Which, OK, may not have been the best idea.  Ran his business right up to the end.  Was mentally with it until the end.  When I was home in March, he knew exactly who I was, knew I was living in Germany, The Whole 9.  So what if he asked the same questions 20 times?  He knew who he was asking them to, and they were on point.  We should all be so lucky.

I feel like I’m walking around with dead people in my back pocket.  Hm.  There’s probably a better way to phrase that.  What I mean is, there are people – dead people – who are always with me.  Daitz, right?  For as long as I read Homer – which will be as long as I live – Daitz will always be sitting across from me, nudging my pronunciation, carefully noting the verb tense and debating my interpretations with a deep, gentle, “Well, Dave…”.

My grandfather will always be the measure by which the Starr family judges itself.  Whether that be the love of music, the love of learning or just curiosity about the world.  If he’s not around to be the patriarch anymore, he’s very much the spirit animal.  Nobody who knew him doesn’t still get emotional when he comes up.

And now Art.  By way of a slight detour for the goyim, the Hebrew word for the number ‘five’ is chamesh.  From this, we get the word chumash, which means “The Five,” meaning the five books of Moses, the Torah.  The use of the article matters here.  When we say a Torah, we mean the scroll, whichever one happens to be in the ארון קדש – the ark – at your local schul.  When we talk about the Torah, we mean the content, the thing generally.  All this to say that a chumash is not a Torah, but it is a bound-book edition of the Torah.

All this to say, I have Art’s chumash.  Well, really, Cookie’s chumash, which Art gave to her as a gift, which she then gave to me.  He inscribed it too, you know.  He wrote:

                                                                                                            February 26, 2005
To my Niece “Fran”
I hope you enjoy this Chumash.  Happy Birthday.
Love
Art

Two things about this are great.  First, “Fran” in quotes?  So her name is Francine, but she goes by Cookie.  So like, if you were gonna put a name in quotes, wouldn’t it be “Cookie”?  But he always called her Fran.  So in Art-World, her real name is Francine; obviously the shorter “Fran” deserves quotes.  Classic Art.  Also, “enjoy”?  I mean, this book is great for a lot of things.  Cultural connection.  Learning.  Family heirloom.  Whatever you want.  But enjoyment?  Uh, not so much.

Whatever.  The point is, it came from Art.  And this is the book that I work with.  Every day.  Remember my whole Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year thing?  The Torah that I’m reading is Art’s chumash.  So he’s with me.  Every day, when I sit down to read, Art’s there too.

Daitz and Homer.  Art and Torah.  One more dead guy in my back pocket.  If this keeps up, I’m gonna need bigger pants.

So that’s the end.  No, that’s not quite right.  It’s an end.  You say goodbye to the man.  And lemme tellya, I’m so glad I got to see him one more time, this last time I was in.  So glad I got to say goodbye.  Even if I didn’t say the word “goodbye.”  Because I’m pretty sure what I actually said was, “Take care of yourself and listen to your doctors.  I expect to see you at Passover next year.”  But that’ll have to do.

So yeah, it’s an end.  It’s the end of his life.  It’s the end of an era, even.  It’s a different world without him.  It’s passed just that much more from the hands of his generation to the hands of the next.  But he did his part to shape this world, and my life in it.  And whatever I do with my life, it will be what it is for his having been a part of it.

So I raise my glass to you, Arthur Levine.  Rest in Peace, Arturo LeMay.  You bloody well earned it.

Let me end this with a wish, with a hope.  It is my wish that, for many years to come, I will have the great honor at our Passover Seder of reading the Hebrew bit in the Hagaddah marked, “Uncle Art reads:”.  And I hope that one day, there will be a child; a child not yet born.  And I hope that child will see the words “Uncle Art reads:” and ask, “Who is Uncle Art?”  Because on that day, I will say, “Come ‘ere, kid.  Lemme tellya a story…”

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 May, 2018

Oh hey, Writer’s Block.  What’s up?  Ugh, you guys.  I’ve tried writing a post – the same post – twice already, and just…I’m not feeling it.  So I’m officially ditching it and starting a new one.  Maybe I’ll circle back at the end though and try to recapture some of it though.  Not that you, dear reader, would know the diff if I didn’t tell you.  So why am I telling you?  Because it’s my blogue and I can ramble if I want to.

Anyway, Germany.  No matter how much I like this country and its fine people, there’s always gonna be some shit that’s just straight up weird, you know?  And by weird, I mean, yeah, every culture is different and they’re all valid and blah blah blah.  But listen to this and tell me if you don’t think it’s fucking weird.

So a couple of weeks back, I went for one of my walks.  I ended up in Friedrichshagen, which is adorable and one of my favorite spots in this neck of the woods.  There’s a Japanese joint I really like there as well as what passes for a good Vietnamese spot in this town.  It was at this Vietnamese outpost that I stopped for a late lunch after several hours of strolling.  I got a bowl of Pho, which was quite good for Berlin, but wouldn’t even make the menu at Pho Grand.  Such is life.

Anyway, after this lovely meal, I mosey up the block where I encounter a little gelato shop.  Well, remembering how nice it was to have a bit of gelato back when I was in Florence, I decided to get a little desert.  I mean, a little gelato never hurt anybody, right?  Well, it hurts me if it has lactose.  So I ask what they’ve got that’s lactose free and the lady behind the counter gives me my options.

And at first, it seemed like I was getting the answer I was hoping for.  Namely that they had both a chocolate and a raspberry that were lactose-free.  Great.  So I ask the lady if I can get a small half-chocolate-half raspberry.  And that’s where things got weird.  Cos the lady looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.”  We don’t do half scoops.  And I’m like, how do you say “Can’t…or won’t?” in German?

Like, what the actual fuck is that?  I mean, what exactly is stopping you from taking half a scoop of one and half a scoop of the other and jamming them into the same tiny little cup?  Sure, I get that they won’t be exactly halves.  And, yeah, maybe that offends your German sense of…what, even?  Exactitude?  I ain’t exactly asking you to go in the back and concoct an entirely new flavor, just for me, you know?  And I’m not asking for extra ice cream.

I’m literally asking for the same total amount of product for the listed price.  And you know what even?  Fuck the listed price.  If you need to charge me an extra twenty cents for asking for something “off-menu,” so be it.  Although, even that, honestly would be weird.  But just flat out being all, “Yeeaaah, sorry, we don’t do half scoops”???  Oh, and not even “sorry.”  Just straight up, “We don’t do that, [implied] you monster.”  Like, that can’t be normal.

Except, apparently, that’s totally normal.  Here, I mean.  Apparently it’s totally normal here.  It’s obviously not normal.  What I mean is, I’ve told this story to like three people here; three Germans.  And it was the same reaction each time.  Every time I get to the part where I ask for half-&-half, their eyes go wide and the look at me like I’ve just kicked their dog.  I can see it in their faces.  Oh gods, you’re going to take her side, aren’t you?

“So she says – get this – she says, ‘Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.’  Can you believe that?”  And they all said the same thing.  “Dude, this is Germany.”  As if that were sufficient as an explanation.  I try to reason with them.  I try to make them see where I’m coming from.  They can’t.  Because Germany.

They have a saying here.  Kunden ist König – the customer is king.  Unless the customer asks for two half scoops.  Then apparently, the customer is a mad king and needs to be protected from himself.  It’s weird, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, Saturday I went for another walk. I didn’t really have a plan.  Just, it was a nice day.  So why not grab a brew and stroll?  Well, so I do that, and it’s lovely.  I got back to my Infinite Monkey Cage podcast.1  For some reason, it feels like a summer podcast to me.  My first time here, in 2015, I listened to it a lot whilst exploring.  So it evokes that – this – time of year for me.  I’m rambling again.

Well, as my walk is winding down, I notice that it’s about 4pm and also that I haven’t really eaten anything yet.  Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, when you consider I couldn’t be bothered to get my ass out of bed before noon.  But I was hungry, is the point.

So I pass a döner shop and awkwardly pause to look in the window.  It looks good, but there’s another one up the block, so I decide to check that one out too before making a decision.  I dunno why.  Not like they’re gonna be vastly different.  Meanwhile, I say that, and sure enough, the second one doesn’t look quite as good as the first.

What I mean by that is, the huge rotating döner in the window of the first shop looked crispier.  Which I like.  Because first of all, I feel like if it’s crispier, then it’s less likely to be super greasy and therefore a bit easier on my not-so-iron gut.  But also, when it’s crispy, you get that nice little crunch.

OK, now I sound like Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride.  You know, with the MLT – Mutton, Lettuce and Tomato, when the mutton is nice and lean…

Right, so I decide I want to go back to the first shop.  The only problem is, I’ve now lingered in front of both their windows; long enough for the guys behind the counter to see me.  And like, that’s awkward.  I mean, it’s not awkward for the more well-adjusted among us.  But I’m like, Great, Döner Guy #1 is gonna be all, “Oh, now you want my sammich only after deciding you didn’t want the other one more?”  And then I’d have to re-walk past the second shop with my purchase from the first shop in hand.  So then Döner Guy #2 could be all, “Oh, I see how it is.  My sammich isn’t good enough for you?  So you bought one from my competitor and are walking past my shop with it, what, to rub it in my face?”

Am I overthinking this?

Anyway, I decide to walk around the block the long way.  That should buy me 5-7 minutes, by which time, hopefully, both Döner Guys will have forgotten about my awkward window shopping.  Except, on the other side of the block, I find a cemetery.  So obvi I need to go check that out.

And at first, it’s just your usual cemetery business.  Nothing’s very old, mind you.  The oldest stones might be from late 19th or early 20th century.  But that’s OK.  It’s still nice and peaceful.  And it reminded me of the time me and Niki went to a cemetery.  That was either one of our last “dates” or one of our first “friend activities.”  We made up stories for some of the people.  And this one guy, Ruben (or Rueben?), Niki actually found a picture of his family.  Crazytown.  Probably not any Rubens in this joint though.  Not a very goyish name.

Well, as I’m looking at these stones I’m noticing the dates.  And it gets my mind going.  Because a great many of the people buried in this cemetery lived through the Nazi times.  And for me, it’s impossible not wonder about that.  Who were they?  What did they do?  Were some of the Nazis?  Did some of them resist?  Did most of them just go with the flow?  The shit these people must have lived through.  And why?  Because they happened to be born at a certain time, in a certain place?

And that’s when things took a turn.  Because then I came to a most interesting part of the cemetery.  Most interesting indeed.  Here, there were not the usual upstanding gravestones.  More square plaques, almost flat in the ground.  And I start to notice, all the death dates are 1945.  These stones are very Spartan, I should say.  Just a name (or “unknown”), a birth date (if known), a death date (if known), and then at the bottom “1939-1945.”

So is this a military part of the cemetery?  There’s nothing to indicate branch of service, rank or anything else.  But all the stones are of equal size, make, layout.  And it’s got the war dates.  So what’s the deal?  I start to look closer, and some of the people died in their 20’s and 30’s.  But some are definitely teenagers.  And a lot of them have death dates of April-May ’45.  So now we’re talking Battle of Berlin?

But so far, I can’t find any sign or plaque that gives actual information.  So after reading a bunch of the first stones I stumble across, I make my way to the front of this little area.  (I had entered from the back of it).  And there I do find a plaque.  But all it says is, 1st and 2nd World War.

Hey?  First also?  I turn around, and sure enough, at the front of this area, all the stones – which are otherwise identical to the ones above described – show the dates 1914 – 1918 across the bottom.  Well now that’s interesting.

So what is actually the deal here?  Did this start as only a cemetery for WWI soldiers; if indeed actually soldiers?  Was it expanded after the second world war?  Or was it all done at one time, later on?  Were bodies exhumed from both wars and reburied here all together?  I don’t know, because I can’t find any information.

But there’s layers of history here, beyond the obvious.  One just has to look at the names.  What I mean is, while many of the names are clearly German, a whole bunch are also Polish.  Which means there are even more stories here.

First, we need to remember that a huge chunk of western Poland was part of Germany up until Versailles.  So Polish names in the WWI section shouldn’t be so surprising.  And Berlin, after all, is quite close to the border.  So at least for these guys – the ’14 – ’18 gang – it’s probably safe to assume they were German citizens of Polish descent.

But what about the Polish names in the WWII section?  Were they also German citizens, long settled in or around Berlin?  Could they have been POWs or other Poles forced to fight, forced to defend Berlin in the last days of the war?  Was that even a thing?  Or did they see themselves as “German” as the guy buried next to them?  And if so, what did they make of the war, of German aggression against Poland, of the Nazi position that the Slavs, the Poles, were subhuman?  How could they take up arms in defense of that regime?  Questions.  But no answers.

And then, going back to the WWII stones, the ones showing deaths in April-May ’45.  The dates are very clearly Battle of Berlin, and I think it’s a safe assumption given where they’re buried.  Right in the path of the advancing Red Army.

But even then, what does that tell us about them?  Almost nothing.  The Russian Army was brutal.  “The Big Red Rape Machine” would be un unflattering but historically not inaccurate epithet.  So even if you hated the Nazis, do you take up arms willingly, when these guys are knocking down your door; knocking down your house; knocking down your whole block?  Do you defend your family, even as you pray for the end of the Nazis and all the madness they’ve wrought?

Or were some of these guys true believers?  The younger ones especially would have known nothing else.  They would have been indoctrinated almost from birth.  How many of them willingly gave their lives for The Führer?  Again, questions.  No answers.

And another point of interest.  While all the WWII stones that I inspected showed 1945 death dates, some of them were as late as September, October, November.  The war was already over.  How did they die?  In POW camps?  As war criminals?  From wounds or sickness sustained in battle?  How does somebody die 4, 5, 6 months after the war is over and still get buried beside the fighting dead?  (Again, assuming these are the fighting dead).  More questions.  Still no answers.

And then, finally, some answers.  But answers that beg more questions.  All the way in the front of this little area, I find a plaque with the following inscription:

In diesem Grab ruhen über 60 unbekannte Frauen und Männer, die infolge von Kriegseinwirkungen verstorben sind.  Die Toten wurden im Jahr 2009 vom St. Laurentius-Friedhof in diese geschlossene Gräberanlage des kommunalen Friedhofsteils Rudower Straße verlegt.

In this grave rest over 60 unknown women and men, who died due to the effects of war.  The dead were lain here from the St. Laurentius Cemetery in this separated grave area in 2009, by the Rudower Steet community.2

Well, the only thing I know for a fact after reading this is that this special section was only dedicated in 2009.  The cemetery itself is St. Laurentius, so I gather that before ’09 all these people were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery.  Oh, and women also?  I didn’t see any lady names, but then I didn’t inspect every stone.  And also, this plaque seemed only to be about the 60 unknowns.  What about all the “knowns”?

And what about the Kriegseinwirkungen – the “effects of war”?  Did they fight?  Or were they just poor civilian bastards who bought it in the Battle of Berlin?  From shelling or bombing or gods know what?

Indeed, now that I think about it a second time, was this plaque for the “unknowns” who were under “unknown” stones or was this a separate 60 people who didn’t even get that much?  So that was good for like two answers and a shit-ton more questions.

So much of this was unexpected and unexplained.  But the most unexpected, and the most wanting for explanation were the final two stones I found, set apart from all the others.  Just two.  The stone themselves looked just like all the others.  Name, birthdate, deathdate.  Only instead of the war dates across the bottom, were these words: NS – OPFER.  Nazi Victim.

Well, shit.  What does that mean?  Political victims?  Resistance fighters?  Jews?  Probably not Jews.  I can’t imagine any Jews would find their way into this cemetery.  But then again, who knows?  I mean, maybe.  So what was their “crime”?  Why were they victims of the Nazis?  Again, no answers.  But whatever the reason, here they lie.  And for them, for these two poor bastards, I’ll give their inscriptions.  It seems worth it.

GOTTFRIED KILIAN
* 7.10.1892
+ 6.8.1940
NS – OPFER

ERICH JANITZKY
* 21.7.1900
+ 21.6.1938
NS – OPFER

I don’t know what you did, fellas.  But you pissed off those Nazi bastards enough to get yourselves killed.  So here’s to you.

Anyway, that was my detour to the cemetery.  I grabbed my döner on the way home.  From the first shop.  And it was quite good.  Not too greasy and with a little bit of crunch.  Just how I like it.

A few weeks ago, my friend-former student Margit asked me if I would do a bit of tutoring with her daughter.  I’ve written about Mag before.  She’s awesome.  Half buddy, half my Berin-mom.  Total wiseass.

I had written a whole thing about this, but I wasn’t happy with it.  So here’s the short version.  The tutoring itself was great.  Super easy.  Sarah, her daughter, is very smart, very good with English.  But more than that, we just had fun.  Not just me and Sarah.  But also Margit, her husband, the other two kids; even Sarah’s French boyfriend visiting from France.3  They’re just good people, you know?

But good people can also be boring people, amirite?  No fear here though.  Everybody in that family is a total wise-ass.  And I mean that as a compliment.  They’re all very sweet.  You walk in the door, and you know right away there’s a lot of love in that house.  But everybody’s just giving everybody else shit all the time.  I fit right in, is what I’m trying to say.

Mag is also taking classical guitar lessons.  So I asked if I could try her axe.  She gladly let me.  It’s a great instrument.  I ran through a couple of Bach preludes and the Sor variations.  Thoroughly enjoyed that, I tellya.  But even more fun was the Edith Piaf.

See, the kid is also studying French and has a bit of culture.  So during the tutoring time, she was goofing around with Je ne regrette rien.  So I’m like, “Hey kid, come here and sing this with me.”  So we sat together and jammed out on that for the fam.  Crazy fun.  Seriously.

Like, Mag is already one of my favorite people.  And not just in Berlin, either.  I think I said last time, she reminds me a lot of my mom.  Which, when I told her, I think she found alternately flattering and annoying.  Annoying if only because who wants to be thought of as a mom by their friends?

But flattering because this.  We went out for drinks around Christmas.  And we wound up at some not-so-cheap (for Berlin)4 German restaurant on Unter den Linden.  And she insisted on paying for the whole thing.  So next time we met up, we went to a Vietnamese spot.  Whereupon I insisted on paying.  At first, she wasn’t having it.  But I reminded her that she had paid last time and that it couldn’t have been cheap, so really she didn’t have a choice.  At which point she relented, and said, “You know, your mom did a good job with you.”  Which I’m not writing here to brag.  Only because I know my mom reads this shit and I thought she’d like to hear the compliment.  All to say, I think Mag is OK if I happen to notice some similarities between her and one Cindy A. Starr.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of this whole family.  Add a few more to the list of awesome people I’ve met in this town.  I mean, I’m still always wondering how much of this is luck, you know?  What if I went to a different city?  What if I worked in a different school?  No Anne.  No Margit and fam.  No Jan and Zibs.  No J-Dawg.

Would there be other awesome people?  As awesome as these people?  Maybe.  I dunno.  What I do know is, I think I’m pretty fucking lucky here.

Could I still kvetch?  Sure.  But it’s baseball season.  Why would I?

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. Highly recommended, btw.  It’s a BBC science/comedy pod. []
  2. My translation.  It may not be perfect, but it’s close enough. []
  3. He had virtually no English and even less German, so it was a good opportunity to speak some French; though I did get my wires crossed quite a bit. []
  4. Which means cheap anywhere else. []