The Federalist Project – #3

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 3

Jay

3 November, 1787

The third Federalist, as the second, is composed by John Jay.  This essay is more squarely in J’s wheelhouse, as it deals with the advantages of Union (again, almost always capitalized) vis-à-vis foreign affairs; and to a lesser extent vis-à-vis internal stability.  The essay is more firmly grounded in the real world, rather than theory, and is, in my opinion, the stronger for it.  As in my previous essay, we will proceed through his arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:

 

  • “It is not a new observation that the people of any country (if like the Americans intelligent and well informed) seldom adopt, and steadily preserve for many years in, an erroneous opinion respecting their interests.”
    • Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure…
    • Anyway, J opens again with a ‘we can all agree’ position.
  • “…the high opinion which the people of America have so long and uniformly entertained of the importance of their continuing firmly united under one Fœderal Government…”
    • ipso facto: “intelligent and well informed” people don’t keep bad opinions for long; Americans are “intelligent and well informed” and have had this opinion for a while…therefore it must be right and good.

 

In the third Paragraph, J introduces the main theme of the essay: Safety:

  • “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first.”
    • There’s something interesting going on here. J stipulates that the people must first be “free.”  That is, “safety” can’t be addressed until independence (in this case from Britain) is secured.  However, it strikes me that this argument cuts both ways.  For surely, the opposition would view themselves as being ‘unfree’ under one (in their eyes) too-powerful Fœderal Government, and would themselves be in no position to address their own (and ‘sovereign’) “safety.”
    • Be that as it may, J will, in the the next paragraph, define safety “precisely and comprehensively.”

 

Paragraph Four sets out that definition:

  • “At present I mean only to consider it [i.e. safety] as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes.”
    • Now J moves into an area where he can, and does, speak with greater clarity and authority – real world policies (opp. theory). As we will see, his reasoning is largely based on history and practical experience as well as America’s current geo-political relationships.
  • “…a cordial Union under an efficient national Government, affords them [the people] the best security that can be advised against hostilities from abroad.”
    • In Fed.2.2 (and echoing Rousseau), J writes: “the people must cede to it [the Government] some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.” Here, he is essentially substituting the States for the People.  For, as we will see, his arguments all revolve around the efficiency of the Union in these matters, as opposed to the thirteen States or three or four confederacies.

 

Paragraph Five addresses advantages of Union with respect to the causes of war:

  • “The number of wars which have happened or will happen in the world, will always be found to be in proportion to the number and weight of the causes, whether real or pretended, which provoke or invite
    • I suppose this is more or less true, if a bit circular. But more interesting – to me, anyway – is that this is another example of J beginning an argument with what he posits to be a universal truth, or at least, a universally agreed upon principle.  It seems, at those early stage, to be a marker of his rhetorical style.
  • “…it becomes useful to enquire, whether so many just causes of war are likely to be given by United America, as by disunited America…”
    • Now we embark upon one of the two main arguments of this essay: that Union will better promote peace and security on the international stage.
    • On an orthographic level, what, if any, is the significance of capitals and italics for “United America” v. non-italic, lower case “disunited” (and not “America”)? Does he mean to imply that one is more legitimate – more “proper,” so to speak – than the other?  Or am I reading too much into it?
  • “…for if it should turn out that United America will probably give the fewest [just causes of war], then it will follow that, in this respect, the Union tends most to preserve the people in a state of peace with other nations.”
    • “Useful to enquire,” “if it should turn out”: A change in rhetorical style here. Now he proceeds from inquiry, thesis.  In the following paragraphs, he will set out to prove these.

 

Paragraph Six sees J leave theory behind and enter the upon the ‘real world’ with special attention to America’s actual relationships with other powers in the real of geo-politics.  Nor should we forget J’s experience as a diplomat, which lends weight and expertise to his arguments and analyses.

  • “The just causes of war for the most part arise either from violation of treaties, or from direct violence.”
    • I read this as simple analysis rather than the rhetorical ‘first principles’ we have previously seen.
  • “America has already formed treaties with no less than six foreign nations, and all of them, except Prussia, are maritime, and therefore able to injure us…”
    • This information is no doubt as useful to the modern reader as to the contemporary.
  • “She also has extensive commerce with Portugal, Spain, and Britain, and with respect to the two latter, has in addition the circumstances of neighborhood to attend to.”
    • Somewhat tangentially, perhaps, J reminds the reader that not only are war and peace at stake, but trade and commerce as well; surely no small thing for the sate of New York in particular, to whom these essays are, after all, primarily addressed.
    • “Neighborhood”: I assume, Spanish Florida and British Canada, as well as the various holdings of both states in the Caribbean. That he does not identify these means, presumably, he well expects the reader to know exactly what he means.
      • This may contradict my earlier note about separation/protection by ocean (cf. Fed.2.4). For if the Spanish are in Florida and the Brits in Canada; and both in the Caribbean, than perhaps the Atlantic is not so great a barrier and protection as I previously allowed; even if it is not wholly insignificant.

 

We the readers – both modern and contemporary – tend to focus our analyses of the Federalist essays and the debate over adoption of the constitution on how empowered the federal government should be.  But in Paragraph Seven, J reminds us that America’s legitimacy on the international stage was very much at stake here:

  • “It is of high importance to the peace of America, that she observe the laws of nations towards all these Powers…”

 

In Paragraph Eight, J argues that one national government will necessarily lead to the election and appointment of the best people and those most suited to manage national affairs (as opposed to local), both foreign and domestic:

  • “Because when once the efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve; but also be generally appointed to manage it…”
    • So much to unpack here. First, “men” only and white men at that.  Second, it’s optimistic, although perhaps not unfairly so.  After all, the quality of the members of the Continental Congress and the Convention was at an extremely high level.  But is it unfair to think that this was a time when much greater emphasis was placed on public service?  Furthermore, those assemblies may have been the greatest collection of minds in our history.  Is it naïve to think such constellations would be easily repeated?  I don’t’ know.  In any case, it does seem that today, our best minds do not go into public service.
  • “…for altho’ town our country, or other contracted influence may place men in state assemblies, or senates, or courts of justice, or executive departments; yet more general and extensive reputation for talents and other qualifications, will be necessary to recommend men to offices under the national government…”
    • Again, I don’t know if this reasonably optimistic or foolishly naïve. Additionally, I wonder now how one is able to acquire “more general and extensive reputation” outside of military service.  Outside of the one-time initial Continental Congress, must not all politicians make their names locally before they can aspire to national office?
  • “…especially as it will have the widest field of choice, and never experience the want of proper persons, which is not uncommon in some of the States.”
    • Even if this can be said to be generally true – and I’m not sure that it can – it is certainly not nearly always true, as the election of 2016 made painfully clear.
  • “Hence it will result, that the administration, the political counsels, and the judicial decisions of the national Government will be more wise, systematical and judicious, than those of the States, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations, as well as more safe with respect to us.”
    • But this has not always been true. Sometimes the national Government is “more wise [etc.]” than the States (e.g. Brown v. Board of Education).  But sometimes states take the lead (e.g. California with environmental standards).  And even on the international stage, it is now states (and cities) which must take the lead on environmental issues after national withdrawal from the Paris agreements.
    • Earlier, I mentioned military service as a way to gain “general and extensive reputation.” It occurs to me hat success in business is another avenue.  But in our history, businessmen have tended to stay in business, while politicians seem to run a sort of cursus honorum beginning at the local level.  But perhaps this is a post-industrial view?  Hancock and Jefferson were both ‘businessmen,’ albeit of very different sorts.  And Adams would have gained national notoriety as a lawyer for defending the accused in the Boston Massacre.  But in modern times, names like Perot and Trump come to mind, and I don’t think either can be said to have been (or be) successful, despite the latter’s electoral victory; certainly not in the ways that J here describes.

 

In Paragraph Nine, J addresses the efficacy of “committing such questions to the jurisdiction and judgment of courts appointed by, and responsible only to one national Government.”  Such questions include:

  • “…treaties and articles of treaties…”
  • “…laws of nations…”
    • The importance of doing so “cannot be too much commended.”

 

Paragraph Ten continues to present the advantages of one national government:

  • “Because the prospect of present loss or advantage, may often tempt the governing party in one or two States to swerve from good faith and justice; but those temptations not reaching the other States, and consequently having little or no influence on the national government, the temptation will be fruitless, and good faith and justice be preserved.”
    • This is a very sound argument, I think. Thirteen states acting under one federal government should, in theory, only arrive at decisions which benefit the nation as a whole, even if certain aspects of a treaty may be found to be harmful to a particular state or region.  Perhaps the nature of trade or relations with England or France might be examples of this.
  • “The case of the treaty of peace with Britain, adds great weight to this reasoning.”
    • Though this is surely right, J is hardly a disinterested party here, having been a principal negotiator in that treaty. But this, I think, serves to lend weight and expertise to the argument.

 

Paragraph Eleven paints the proposed national government as a counterbalance to the “temptations” and jealousies of local and regional politics.  And while the two-party system had yet to manifest itself, it is easy to read this paragraph as presenting the proposed national government as a counterbalance to the “temptations” and jealousies of party politics as well:

  • “Because even if the governing party in a State should be disposed to resist such temptations, yet as such temptations may, and commonly do result from circumstances peculiar to the State, and my affect a great number of the inhabitants, the governing party may not always be able if wiling to prevent the injustice mediated, or to punish the aggressors.”
    • And now J returns to theory, where I have so far felt him less strong. In nay case, while this may be true to an extent of the “governing party,” nevertheless, it has not seemed to hinder the independent judiciary.  If we take NY as an example, the state Attorneys General have shown themselves equal to the task of taking on members of their own party as well as of the opposition.  And this has been no less true of the Federal prosecutors (e.g. Preet Bharara).
  • “But the national Government, not being affected by those local circumstances, will neither be induced to commit the wrong themselves, nor want power or inclination to prevent, or punish its commission by others.”
    • I’m not sure that the national government isn’t affected by “local circumstances,” first of all. But let us stipulate this for the sake of argument.  I find the notion that the national government wouldn’t be “induced to commit the wrong” somewhat laughable.  And when those wrongs do happen on the national level, it is here, I think, that politicians have shown themselves least willing to go after members of their own party.  Indeed, they seem all too ready to defend the wrongdoers – and indeed the wrongs themselves – in the interest of protecting the “brand.”  But perhaps this is too modern, too current, a view.  And if so, should J be held to be in the wrong on this account?

 

Taking Paragraphs Twelve & Thirteen together, we say J return to the causes of war:

  • (12) “So far therefore as either designed or accidental violation of treaties and of laws of nations afford just causes for war…the former [i.e. “one general government”] most favors the safety of the people.”
  • (13) “As to those causes of war which proceed from direct and unlawful violence…one good national government affords vastly more security against dangers of that sort, than can be derived from any other quarter.”
    • ¶12 is based on his arguments in ¶11, which read to me as being more relevant to domestic concerns. I do not alter my commentary however, where we might cite Benghazi as an example of the politicization of an external matter on the one hand, and defense of torture on the other.  Though the decision to go to war in Iraq was blundered into on both sides, which shows that one “general government” is hardly infallible or incapable of giving “just causes” of war.  But perhaps this is more relevant to ¶13-14.
    • As ¶12 depends on ¶11, by a sort of chiasmus does ¶13 depend upon ¶14…

 

Paragraph 14 sees J attempt to show that one national government could hardly be expected to give “unjust causes” for war:

  • “Because such violences are more frequently caused by the passions and interests of a part than the whole, of one or two States than of the Union.”
    • He may be right here, when the question of adoption is still unresolved and the States had more power to act independently outside their own borders. The fact that this point seems hardly relevant today may actually prove him right.
  • “Not a single Indian war has yet been occasioned by aggressions of the present Fœderal Government, feeble as it is…”
    • But perhaps no such war had “been occasioned” precisely because of the federal government was so “feeble.”
  • “…but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States, who either unable or unwilling to restrain or punish offences, have given occasion to the slaughter of many innocent inhabitants.”
    • Yes, well, his concern for the “innocent inhabitants” is touching. Perhaps he’d be willing to re-negotiate of Manhattan with those “innocent inhabitants” on more favorable terms, or give back other appropriated lands unjustly taken.
    • In any case, president Jackson would soon put the lie to this argument, nevermind the “general government”’s dealings with the “innocent inhabitants” during the course of the following century.

 

In Paragraph Fifteen, J argues that local interests might be more likely to entangle single states or regions in wars with Great Powers and that, consequently, one national government would be more likely to prevent such occurrences:

  • “The neighborhood of Spanish and British territories, bordering on some States, and not on others, naturally confines the causes of quarrel more immediately to the borderers. The bordering States if any…will be most likely to direct violence, to excite war with these nations…”
    • J returns again to present real world affairs, and again – I find – his arguments are stronger for it.
  • “…and nothing can so effectually obviate that danger, as a national Government, whose wisdom and prudence will not be diminished by the passions which actuate the parties immediately interested.”
    • That a strong central government can – and will – provide a moderating influence on local passions is almost certainly true, at least within the scope here addressed. However, when those passions become regional – e.g. slavery – a strong central government can, and will, exacerbate those passions.  But clearly the Founders/Framers were aware of this and decided to leave that particular problem for another day and another generation.

In Paragraph Sixteen, J argues that one national government will be better suited to settling (violent) disputes when they do arise:

  • “But not only fewer just causes of war will be given by the national Government, but it will also be more in their power to accommodate and settle them amicably.”
    • Certainly true vis-à-vis foreign affairs.
  • “The pride of States as well as of men, naturally disposes them to justify all their actions, and opposes their acknowledging, correcting or repairing their errors and offenses.”
    • An astute observation of human nature. And insofar as States are made of men, then of States as well.  Whereas one national government should (or would, J argues) dissipate such “pride” (cf. ¶11).
  • “The national Government in such cases will not be affected by this pride, but will proceed with moderation and candour to consider and decide on the means most proper to extricate them from the difficulties which threaten them.”
    • Perhaps true in the case of local border disputes. But if the national government perceives itself wronged, surely it too is capable of (self-destructive) “pride.”  Or does this register as a “just cause” of war?

 

Paragraph Seventeen suggests that one national government will have more credibility abroad:

  • “Besides it is well known that acknowledgements, explanations and compensations are often accepted as satisfactory from a strong united nation, which would be rejected as unsatisfactory if offered by a State or Confederacy of little consideration or power.”
    • Is this a ‘might makes right’ argument? Does he mean to imply that a united government can get away with more “unjust” causes of war?  Or simply that they are less likely to be persecuted, hassled, etc. if they are stronger?  That unintentional errors can be more easily forgiven?  Or perhaps even more simply that a united government is less likely to be ‘taken to the cleaners’ in any negotiation with a foreign power?

 

J continues the argument in Paragraph Eighteen, after citing the example of Genoa vis-à-vis France in 1685:

  • “Would he [Louis XIV] on any occasion either have demanded, or have received the like humiliation from Spain, Britain, or any other powerful nation?”
    • So perhaps for J, it’s just about respect and not getting ‘taken to the cleaners.’ Still, the idea that powerful nations can more or less do as they please, even unjustly, should not be overlooked.  And lest we think that modern norms or NGOs have dealt with this, we need only consider the examples of Russia in Ukraine/Crimea or North Korea’s nuclear program to see that “powerful” nations continue to have a much longer leash.

The full text of Federalist No.3 may be found here.

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 July, 2017

Wow, what’s it been? Like two months since my last (non-Federalist related) blogue post? That’s some weak tea. So lots to catch up on. But before going any further, let me first just say – and I cannot overstate this – fuck cancer. Fuck it bigly.1 But more on that later.

Since my last post, the two most note-worthy adventures over here have been my roadtrip to Bavaria with Joschka and then Rock Harz, the yearly metal festival. In fact, I had started a post on the Bavaria trip not long after I got back, but I never finished it. Maybe I’ll get back to it at some point and give a fuller accounting of that sojourn. But for now, a super-short recap will have to do.

The weekend after my trip to the Baltic with Jan, Zibs and M, Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria to visit some of our friends from the afore-mentioned yearly metal festival. One of Joschka’s friends from his hometown (and fellow festival-goer) also met us down there. It was a great time, an absolute blast. We ate, we drank, we played German Cards Against Humanity and we ate and we drank.

It was also a high-water mark for my German. Basically, we spoke German the whole weekend. Apparently I’ve gotten good enough where nobody ever felt they had to switch to English for my sake. Which was fantastic. It’s also not to say that I understood everything. I asked plenty of questions, and certainly whole topics simply went over my head. But I was more or less able to keep up.

That said, it was mentally exhausting. And whether it’s causation or simply correlation, I came back from that trip with a severe case of writer’s block; which is why I haven’t posted in so long. It’s only in the last two weeks or so that I’ve slowly gotten back to putting proverbial pen to paper; or literal fingers to keyboard, I suppose.

The festival was the first week of July, Wednesday to Sunday. “Same procedure as every year,” to quote from the German-beloved, traditional New Year’s flick Dinner for One. Drink a lot, sleep a little, see great bands, hang out with friends. Rinse, repeat. If the trip to Bavaria was mentally exhausting, this was physically so. I love going to this festival, I love seeing the amazing people in our group. But it definitely gets harder every year, and I wonder how many of these things I have left in me.

So much for Bavaria and Rock Harz.

If I have, of late, been suffering from writer’s block on the creative side, I have nevertheless been able to keep myself productive. And that is quite important to me. I rather abhor the idea of coming home from work and just laying around, watching TV. “Be productive” is a mantra I keep repeating to myself.

The key to this, for me at least, has been routine. Just, get in a routine. Let the momentum carry you through. Well, it works for me anyway. So the routine is something like this: Hebrew after work; nap; dinner; more work – whether it be Greek, my Federalist Project, or something else.

First the Hebrew. I’ve just lately finished reading the Purim story, and the subsequent set of prayers that go with it. The, uh, ‘whole Megillah,’ if you will.2 Anyway, this marks the first real Hebrew text I’ve read in its entirety. Most definitely an enjoyable experience, and I certainly learned a lot. One thing surprised me though. We learn as children that when the Persian king was looking for a new wife, all the other broads showed up dressed to the nines, but our heroine Esther simply showed up dressed in white; which apparently made quite an impression on the king. However, this detail is not to be found in the Megillah. So I don’t know where, or from what source, that enters the tradition. All in all, though, it was a cool experience.

In any case, my goal continues to be to try and keep pace with the weekly parsha readings once the new year rolls around in September. So until then, I’ve decided to keep myself busy working my way through the haftaros. These are selections from other books of the bible which accompany the actual weekly Torah readings. I won’t get through all of them before Rosh HaShanah, and that’s fine. The important thing is to keep working. I’m not nearly good enough at Hebrew yet to be able to afford taking a month or two off.

As for the Greek, I’ve just finished Aristotle’s Poetics. Largely fascinating, though at times boring. Either way, though, it’s good exercise. Good, straight, direct Attic prose. Worlds away from Homer, but that’s OK. If the only thing I ever read is Homer, then my skillset with regard to that language will atrophy and narrow, perhaps irreparably. So it’s important to keep one foot in different styles. To that end, I’ve decided that my next undertaking will be Oedipus at Colonus; tragedy by Sophocles.

The one downside is, since I’ve been here, I’ve read precious little Homer. Which is, honestly, inexcusable. Even ten lines a day would be enough. So my goal, which I’ve yet to be able to implement, is to add a little bit of Homer every day between the Hebrew and my naps.

I do want to say something more about Homer, however. Homer, who we should remember is a) just the fucking best and b) the very foundation of Western Lit already. It’s very strange for me to be reading Homer alone. It’s always been a social thing. For five years, I read Homer with Daitz on Saturday mornings. And then, for the last year or so before I left, I was reading with Nat again (and some others). And this is the way Homer should be read. It’s an oral medium. It is, at its core, campfire storytelling. In the same way that you can read Shakespeare, but it’s really meant to be seen in performance; so it is with Homer. It’s better to sit in a circle, trade off lines, to hear it, feel it, and yes, perform it. Reading it alone in your room, it’s just not the same.

Also, every time I read Homer it makes me miss Daitz. And so, sometimes, it’s easier just not to do it; not to deal with that feeling of loss. It wasn’t so bad reading with Nat, who was the other central figure of the Daitz group anyway. And when we would read together, we’d always be saying “Well, Daitz would say so-and-so here,” or “Daitz always thought x about y.” So even though he was gone, he was always with us and we could rely on each other to keep him there. But now, when I read Homer alone, that burden is entirely mine, and it’s not easy. The one thing I know though, is that if Daitz ever new I had stopped reading Homer, he’d be rolling in his grave. So I’ve got to find a way to keep it going on my own, and to keep the Old Man with me as I do. His memory – and all the time he put in with me – demands nothing less.

Anyway, fuck cancer. Fuck it bigly. My uncle Steve, this time. I know what I want to say about the man, but I’m not sure how to tell the story. So I’ll just do my best, and beg your indulgence if it’s all a little disjointed.

So I get a message from my brother one day, completely out of the blue. Steve went to the doctor with some pretty serious back pain, and the doctor (well, like the third or fucking fourth doctor) was basically like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not sciatica, that’s cancer. And it’s fucking everywhere. You’ll be wanting to get your shit in order. And no time to lose, not to put too fine a point on it.”

Interpolationally, this seems like a good opportunity to say, “Fuck you, American health care system.” Because, as I indicated, he had been to several doctors, and they were all saying ‘sciatica.’ But my understanding is, he either had no, or else poor, insurance. So proper testing and whatnot just wasn’t done. I may have that wrong, but as I say, that’s my understanding of it. And not for nothing, even if it is wrong, still fuck you, American healthcare system. But more on this later.

Anyway let’s back up and figure out who Steve is. Because just saying he’s ‘my uncle,’ doesn’t even get at it nearly. In order to understand the relationship, some family history is required. The short version is this: My mom was essentially raised by her aunt and uncle. Steve was their son. So while technically my mom’s cousin, he was, in any way that mattered, her brother; and so my uncle.

He was around a lot when I was kid. But the truth is, as a kid, I didn’t get the guy. Not in the least. He was just so different. He smoked cigarettes. He drank beer out of cans. He wore tinted sunglasses. He used double negatives. He was the kind of guy that had a carpeted toilet-seat cover. My dad once said, “If it’s nailed down, Steve will carpet it over.”

I don’t know if this is factually true, but so far as impressions go, I also remember him as a guy who would wear sleeveless shirts. Not wifebeaters, mind you. Just, you know, T-shirts that didn’t have sleeves. He was also a guy, that as I got a little older would ask me about “broads;” I word that I often use ironically, but which he used earnestly. And he would ask me if I wanted him to “talk to them” for me. Uh, no thanks, Steve.

My point is, whether as a child or an adolescent, I had no idea what to make of this guy; no idea what to do with this guy. None of this is criticism, by the way. It’s simply description. We inhabited two very different worlds. In my world, nobody ever said “ain’t.” Whereas this was the standard negation in his. And as a yung’un, I didn’t yet possess the social skills to bridge the two. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like, or even love, the guy. He was family. I just didn’t get him.

Anyway, around the time of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, there was a falling out. Not just with Steve, but with that whole family. There were reasons. Some were stupid, some were quite serious. But the point is, the families didn’t speak for several years. Then, at some point, my mom re-established the connection. I, however, did not.

My problem was with my mom’s aunt, not with Steve. I won’t go anywhere near the details here, but suffice it to say, I let my problem with one person affect my relationship with that whole clan. And so, from around the time I was 15 until I was 30 (or so) I had nothing to do with Steve.

Then Edie, my mom’s aunt, died. Personally, I had no interest in going to the funeral. But it was important to my mom, and I told her that if she wanted me there, I would come, no questions asked. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I made it rather clear that I didn’t want to go. So she would have to say so. But she did say so, and so I went, no questions asked.

Anyway, this was 2011. So that’s roughly 15 years that I had nothing to do with Steve. And I didn’t know what to expect from the guy; at the funeral, I mean. Maybe I wouldn’t have to talk to him at all. But maybe, he would be wanting to give me a piece of his mind. I was playing it out in my head. “You’ve got some nerve coming here,” he would say. “She was your grandmother and you just walked out of her life; never looked back. And now she’s dead, you think you can just show up at her funeral like nothing happened?” This was his mother, after all. He would have every right to say that. And worse. And I would have had to stand there and take it, because he wouldn’t have been wrong.

And yet, that’s not what happened at all. Look, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t avoiding him at the funeral. But at the cemetery, he came and found me. He sought me out. And I braced myself. Here it comes, I thought. And what does the bastard do? He shakes my hand. He shakes my fucking hand. And he says, “Thank you so much for coming. It would make my mom so happy to know that you’re here.” Not a hint of malice. Not the slightest touch of ill will. If it’s not already clear from my earlier description, this was not a man who knew how to bullshit. This was a man who only knew one way of talking, and that was straight.

So when he said those words, they were honest, from the heart, no bullshit. And I was floored. I mean, in no way whatsoever was I prepared for that. And he taught me something that day. With those few words, he taught me how to be a mensch. No, ‘taught’ is the wrong word. He showed me how to be a mensch. Because, in his mind – I believe – he wasn’t teaching me a lesson. He was just being. This is the sort of guy he was.

And I remember thinking, shit, this is a good man. Which isn’t to say he was perfect or that he didn’t do bad things. Facts to go undescribed in this post, Steve straight up did things that were not cool. He made mistakes, right up until the end, as I’m sadly still learning. But he didn’t hold a grudge; not with family at least. Even as I’m writing this paragraph, I’m realizing that I still don’t fully understand the guy.

The point is, I’ll never forget that encounter. Because I don’t think I could have acted as he did in that situation. I remember walking away from that exchange feeling like that man was a giant; and, not for nothing, like I was an ant. And I remember saying to my mom afterwards, that I was done with the grudge, that it was all over. I told her that if she wanted to have a relationship with Steve, I was all in. Anytime they wanted to drive out to Pennsylvania (where he lived), to count me in.

Only, that never happened. I never saw Steve again. Not in person, anyway. My mom would talk to him on the phone all the time. And she’d keep up with him on the Facebook as well; which anybody who knows me, knows is something I don’t do.

But from the time of Edie’s funeral until 2015, I worked in the same office as my mom. And I always asked about Steve, what was the news. And I always rooted for the guy. This is going to sound awful, but I rooted for him in the way you root for a recovering drug addict. He’d fucked up a lot – and maybe still was – but he had a good heart. You had to root for him. You couldn’t not.

Be that as it may, the stars never aligned for a visit. And yeah, while I was always open to seeing him again, I never really went out of my way either. And then I went to Germany. And look, I’d be lying if I said that this was something that was on my mind. It just wasn’t. He wasn’t a guy that I had a lot to do with, even if it was more circumstance at that point than anything else.

But then I get the news that he’s sick. And my first thoughts are for my mom. I mean, come on. Mike, my father’s brother, has only just recently died from cancer.3 And they – my parents and Mike & Mag – were really close. Risa, sister to Steve and cousin/sister to my mom, died in a car crash in ’05. And Edie, as we saw, in ’11; although she was at least old. So yeah, my first thoughts were for my mom, and what kind of bullshit is this that she has to go through all this again.

And then, later, I was sad for myself too. I can’t overstate how much respect I had for the guy after his mother’s funeral. And I was so open to reconnecting, to putting all the bad shit behind us. And now, apparently, nope.

Anyway, towards the end (it all happened so fast), I get a text from my brother that Steve wants to talk to me via video chat. He gives me the Whatsapp info for Steve’s daughter; that’s how we’d do it. And look, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this. What would I say to the guy? Remember, the last time I saw him was at his mother’s funeral; six years ago. Sure, we had a connection. But relationship is probably too strong a word.

But the guy wants to talk. So you talk. And I didn’t know what to expect. The video crystalizes on my phone. And there’s Steve, lying in a hospital bed, no shirt. And it’s the same fucking Steve I’ve known since I was kid. Double negatives. Talking about broads. Funny.4 Easy. Uncomplicated.

Now to be honest, I was once again expecting some kind of reproach. “How come you never fucking visit?” Something like that. But of course, nothing of the sort. He wants to know how’s Germany. How do I like what I’m doing. And also, no admission of what’s actually going on. The closest he came was something along the lines of, “Yeah, so there’s some bullshit happening, but we can talk about that later.”

So we just chatted for a while. And I could hear his wife and daughter laughing in the background at times. Because we were just shooting the shit, cracking jokes. Yeah, there was some serious stuff, but not much.

One thing that stands out, he asked me to write him a letter. He seemed a bit annoyed that people don’t write letters anymore. I remember he said something about “Your uncles don’t write anymore.” And I remember wondering who the fuck he was talking about. I mean, I’m pretty sure he knew who he was talking about. But he was the extent of my relationship with that family by then. What fucking uncles? Anyway, sure.

So the next day I wrote him a letter. And I sent a picture of it to my mom, so he could read it on the iPad. Because, godsdammit, by the time it would get to him by mail, he’d be too far gone to read it.5 And that was it. That was the last time I spoke to Steve.

But he left the same impression on me which he left at his mother’s funeral. There were no questions asked. It was just, “we’re family.” Like, that’s how you’re supposed to act. That’s how you be a mensch. And I walk away from that last video chat with the same feeling I walked way with from Edie’s funeral. That this outwardly crass and uncouth, cigarette smoking, beer swilling, double negative using guy knew something about being a decent person than I’ve yet to figure out.

So that was Steve. A guy I never fully got. A guy I never felt particularly close to. And also a rôle-model. And the loss of him has affected me for more than I had expected or was prepared for. But that’s about as far as I can get with it now. I’m still processing.

Right, well, I hate ending these things on a downer. So I’m gonna tack on one little story before the end. It’s not necessarily a happy story, but I think it’s at least a bit uplifting.

So look, I don’t really get emotionally attached to rock stars, even my favorites. My connection is to the music, not the people. But one exception to this has always been Dio. The best way I can explain it is, perhaps strangely, by analogy with FDR.

The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells this story, that when FDR’s funeral train was passing through a town, a guy is standing there watching. And he’s crying. So the guy next to him says, “Excuse me, but did you know him?” And the guy says, “No, but he knew me.” And that’s how Dio made me feel. I told this to Jared once, also a big Dio fan by the way. And his response was, “Wow man, that gave me chills.” So it’s not just me, is the point.

Anyway, just recently, Mag is visiting with my parents. And, spending the night, they give her my room. Now apparently, her and Mike had a thing with rainbows. And of course, she’s still having a hard time dealing with that loss. Anyway, I guess she had a pretty rough night. And so, she wakes up in pretty bad shape. And she’s saying to herself, “Mike, please give me a sign. Just give me a sign!”

And then she looks up and sees on the wall, my framed LP of Rainbow Rising. The cover of this LP is a giant fist rising out of the waves and it is clutching this huge rainbow. And that was her sign. Mike was still looking out for her. And so was Dio.

And it made me very happy – in a very melancholy kind of way – to know that this record, which has been so important to me for so many years, and which may be the very best record Dio ever made, was able to help her in a time of distress.

Because Dio has always been there for me when I’ve felt said. And he still is. So let me end this post by saying, Thank you Dio.

זיי געסנט
And fuck cancer.

  1. Also, why is Microsoft’s spell-checker OK with “bigly”? And isn’t this interesting. It seems bigly is attested as early as the 14th century. (Thanks, dictionary.com). I’ll admit I’m surprised to learn that. []
  2. “The whole Megillah” is the Jewish version of “the whole enchilada.” But the actual Megillah is the story of Purim; a sort of Jewish Halloween. That’s an oversimplification, but I don’t want to get into it here. []
  3. Fuck cancer. []
  4. My mom tells this story from when they were kids. I guess he had been using some foul language, so Edie chastises for his “toilet mouth.” So he just ups and goes into the bathroom and flushes the toilet. What the hell was that about, Edie asks. “Oh, just clearing my throat.” []
  5. Of course, I mailed it all the same. []

The Federalist Project – #2

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 2

Jay

31 October, 1787

The second Federalist essay is composed by John Jay, who picks up the pen of Publius from Hamilton.  The main thrust of the essay is twofold.  First, to remind the reader that the Union (almost always capitalized) is of vital, even existential, importance.  And second, that it is the proposed constitution on which the fate of the Union hinges; that the constitution is the only thing that will guarantee its survival.  As in my previous essay, we will proceed through his arguments paragraph by paragraph, beginning with the first:

  • “…a question, which, in its consequences, must prove one of the most important, that ever engaged their [i.e. ‘the people of America’] attention…”
    • “one of”: J goes on to compare it to the importance of the question of ’76 and of adopting The Articles of Confederation. Already, this seems to differ from H, who presents the question as not just of being THE question for Americans, but indeed as of being of global importance (cf. Fed.1, par.1).
  • “…the propriety of their taking a very comprehensive, as well as a very serious view of it, will be evident.”
    • Again, his language is not nearly as strong as H’s.

 

Paragraph Two:

  • “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government…”
    • J begins with premises that everyone can agree on, striking a moderate and rational tone. He continues…
  • “…and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.”
    • This is straight out of Rousseau (du Contrat Social).
    • It is also a rhetorical choice. He is forcing people to concede at an early state – of the essay and of the series – that the government must have some powers; that we do not live in a ‘state of nature.’
  • “…whether it would conduce more to the interests of the people of America, that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one fœderal Government, than that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies…”
    • It is only at this point that J introduces the main theme of the essay.

 

In Paragraph Three, Jay deals for the first time with the opposition:

  • “It has until lately been a received and uncontradicted opinion, that the prosperity of the people of America depended on their continuing firmly united…”
    • Appealing to ‘received and uncontradicted opinion’ strikes me as a weak argument. Perhaps it is no weaker than ‘nothing is more certain’ or ‘equally undeniable’ (cf. 2.1).  But in the former cases, he speaks to questions which have already been decided.
  • “…and the wishes, prayers, and efforts of our best and wisest Citizens have been constantly directed to that object.”
    • And now, the appeal to authority (the first of several) – ‘the best and wisest.’ In other words, people better and smarter than you think this – who are you to argue?  This also strikes me as not the best argument.
  • “But Politicians now appear, who insist that this opinion is erroneous…”
    • The contrast between ‘Citizens’ and ‘Politicians’ cannot be missed nor overstated. The former put country ahead of personal interest; the latter do not.
  • “…and certain characters who were much opposed to it [i.e. ‘division’] formerly, are at present of the number [of advocates of division].”
    • To my eye, in 2017, this essentially reads as “beware of flip-floppers.”
  • “…it certainly would not be wise of the people at large to adopt these new political tenets without being fully convinced that they are founded in truth and sound Policy.”
    • In contrast to H’s use of ‘truth’ (cf. Fed.1), J pairs it with ‘good Policy.’ I’m not yet sure what this contrast means, but I feel sure it is not insignificant.
    • In any case, H argues that ‘motive’ is not nearly as important as ‘truth’ and ‘sound Policy.’ J seems more ready to equate them.

 

Paragraph Four is a description of America and the subsequent advantages bestowed by ‘Providence’ when the country is considered as one whole.  These include:

  • “…a variety of soils and productions…”
  • “…watered […] with innumerable streams…”
    • All of which exist “for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants.”
  • “…a succession of navigable rivers…[which form] a kind of chain around the borders…”
  • “…the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances…”
    • which “present them [i.e. ‘the inhabitants’] with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.”

For J, this is no accident.  He notes:

  • “Independent America [is] composed…of one connected, fertile, wide spreading country…the portion of our western sons of liberty.”
    • The term ‘sons of liberty’ seems an intentional effort to harken back to the pre-revolutionary period and the banding together of the colonies in opposition to perceived British tyranny. However, I’m not sure what to make of limiting the term with ‘western.’  Unless he sees the Brits – with Magna Carta, etc. – as the original ‘sons of liberty’ and seeks to draw a line there.  But whether the notion of the Brits as ‘sons of liberty’ as a phrase/idea with any currency at the time, I have no idea.
    • Of note also, is his use of ‘portion.’ Certainly, it can simply mean one’s share of the division of a whole.  But in classical mythology, one’s portion is very often a function of Fate.  Indeed, the Greek word for fate – μοῖρα – derives from the verb μείρεσθαι – “take/receive one’s share/due; divide” (LSJ).  In any case, he is more explicit in the next sentence:
  • “Providence has in a particular manner blessed it (with a variety of soils, etc.)…”
    • So the nature and composition of the land are down to Providence. Does this tie in to ‘portion’?  Is it by divine workings that it is the ‘western sons of liberty’ who have received these lands?  I think that’s how we have to understand it.  Certainly this was a notion that had currency among more than a few of the Founders.

Ultimately, although he paints a pretty picture amd makes mention of ‘delight,’ his argument is, at heart, an economic one, and to a lesser extent, one of national security, insofar as the rivers provide “a kind of chain round its borders.”  (Though, perhaps strangely, he makes no mention of the vast ocean that separates America from meddling Europe).

 

In Paragraph Five, J praises the makeup of the American body-politic, in ways that, in 2017, you’re either going to love or hate.

  • “…Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to…”
    • No longer splitting hairs. We’re still a ways away yet from Manifest Destiny, further still form American Exceptionalism.  But the idea, in some form, was always present, it seems.
  • “…to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attracted to the same philosophy of government, very similar in their manners and customs…”
    • This is a mixed bag, to say the least. On the one hand, we can see the roots of some of the very ugly ‘white nationalism’ currently afflicting us today.  But I wonder if that is reading it out of context.  Though certainly not to so homogeneous as J paints it, America had yet to experience the myriad waves of immigration from a multitude of nations that would follow in the succeeding centuries.  On the other hand, there were of course already Catholics and Jews in the country; to say nothing of (non-voting) Blacks and women.
    • That said, “attached to the same principles of government” is surely the key point here (though maybe that’s also a modern reading?). But this – and to a lesser extent, assimilation of language and culture – is what would bind those future heterogeneous peoples together.
  • “…and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.”
    • An appeal to the strength – and previous success – of unity.

 

Paragraph Six continues the appeal to unity:

  • “This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient…”
    • ‘Providence’ again. And now the word ‘inheritance.’  Which strikes me as a bit odd.  In the preceding paragraph, it was hard won through “bloody war.”  Now it is an “inheritance.”  I suppose thre are biblical grounds for being ‘given’ something by God/Providence and still having to fight for it.  (I’m thinking of the Israelites returning to the ‘promised land’ and having to take it by force).  And then again of sons of kings warring with each other for the crown of England; their ‘inheritance.’  But there is definitely a ‘chosen people’ vibe here, to my eye.
  • “…should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.”
    • J does not leave open the possibility that separate sovereignties could be successful. If they split, he argues, this is how it will be.

 

Paragraph Seven continues the “e uno unum” theme:

  • “Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us.”
    • Compared with ¶5: same ancestors, language, religion, etc. To what “orders and denominations” does he refer then?  Surely not class, with suffrage being at this time so limited.  I can only imagine he means political “orders and denominations.”  But even then, in ¶5, he also says, “attached to the same principles of government.”  Indeed, in the very next sentence of ¶7, he says:
  • “To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people…” and
  • “…each individual citizen every where enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protections.”
    • Is it even worth pointing out the obvious, that this excludes, Blacks, women, non-landowners, Indians, etc.?
  • “As a nation we have:
    • “vanquished our enemies…
    • “formed alliances and made treaties…
    • “and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign States.”
      • “As a nation” – I take this to mean as 13 united States; or else as a collection of only those making decisions as a Continental Congress, etc. For clearly, huge parts of this “nation” are excluded from the process.  But again, if the argument here is for unity (and adoption), I take “nation” in the broadest possible sense of ‘the States.’  That is to say, not as New Yorkers or Virginians, but as Americans.

 

In Paragraph Eight, J proceeds from the more general concepts of ‘unity’ and “nation” to the narrower concept of “Union.”

  • “A strong sense of the value and blessings of Union induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a Fœderal Government to preserve and perpetuate it.”
    • It’s not hard to feel like J is sort of writing his own history here. Jamestown, 1607; Plymouth, 1620.  It was a rather long time before anybody was thinking about “Union.”  Unless he’s strictly counting from the 1770’s; which he may be…
  • “They formed it almost as soon as they had a political existence…”
    • e. a “political existence” separate from England. For of course, the colonists had political existence of a sort – with their own legislatures – well before the Revolution.  But he proceeds to narrow his argument further:
  • “…at a time, when their habitations were in flames, when many of their Citizens were bleeding…:”
    • Very well then. This “very early period,” this point of “political existence,” is no earlier than the war.  He then proceeds to an apology of sorts for the Articles and the present government:
  • “It is not to be wondered at that a Government instituted in times so auspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.”
    • So basically, despite the “strong sense of the value and blessings of Union,” present from the point of “political existence” or a “very early period,” they essentially knocked together a not-very-good system on the fly and under pressure; and it really wasn’t very good at all; and this was to be expected!

 

Paragraph Nine serves to introduce the Constitutional Convention:

  • “This intelligent people perceived and regretted these defects. …they, as with one voice, convened the late Convention at Philadelphia, to take that important subject under consideration.”
    • Again, playing fast and loose with the facts (as I read it). The convention was extra-legal and held behind closed doors.  It could hardly be – I think – said to be called for “with one voice.”  Perhaps I myself am not so well versed in the history as I ought to be, but this seems an over-happy and over-simplified version of events.  If it was as J paints it, I think, ratification would be a fait accompli and there would hardly be any need for the Federalist papers.
  • “…and being persuaded that ample security for both [union and liberty], could only be found in a national Government more wisely framed…”
    • No doubt; but attributing this an “intelligent people” speaking “as if with one voice” seems rather a stretch.

 

Paragraph Ten brings more whitewashing and edge-smoothing:

OF those involved:

  • “…men who possessed the confidence of the people…”
  • …and many of whom had become highly distinguished by their patriotism, virtue and wisdom…”
  • “…without having been awed by power, or influenced by any passions except love for their Country…”

OF the circumstances:

  • “In the mild season of peace, with minds unoccupied by other subjects…”

OF the manner:

  • “…they passed many months in cool uninterrupted and daily consultation…”
  • “…the plan produced by their joint and very unanimous counsels.”
    • “Cool” is an interesting choice of word. The meaning is clear, but we know it was hot as hell, all the more so with the doors and windows shut to preserve secrecy.  In any case, the idea that the debates were cool and dispassionate rather than (at least at times) heated and contentious is hard to swallow.
    • “Very unanimous” – the lady doth protest too much, methinks. Anyway, we know, e.g., that of the New York delegation, only H was in favor of it.  And as for the “one voice,” we know, e.g. that governor Clinton (NY) was opposed.  So J is really painting a rather rosy – and not all that accurate – picture here.  But then, the proceedings were closed and M’s journals not yet published, so he can – at least to a certain degree – get away with it.  Synchronically, anyway.  Diachronically, this argument doesn’t really stand the test of time, in my opinion.

 

Paragraph Eleven seeks again to undermine the opposition by attacking their motives:

  • “…this plan is only recommended, not imposed…[recommended] to that sedate and candid consideration, which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand…”
    • Like H, a call for calm and rational discussion.
  • “Experience on a former occasion teaches us not to be too sanguine in such hopes. …yet it is fresh in our memories how soon the Press began to teem with Pamphlets and weekly Papers against those very measures [i.e. the measures ‘recommended’ by the “Memorable Congress of 1774”].
    • A perhaps not unironic argument given that this is the very method Publius utilizing to remonstrate for adoption. In other words, ‘Don’t trust the Press…but these “Pamphlets and weekly Papers” are alright.’
  • “Not only many of the Officers of Government who obeyed the dictates of personal interest, but others from mistaken estimates of consequences, or under the influence of former attachments, on whose ambition aimed at objects which did not correspond to the public good, were indefatigable in their endeavours to persuade the people to reject the advice of that Patriotic Congress.”
    • This seems in direct contradiction to H’s call not to impugn the motives of the opposition, who admitted of “sources, blameless at least, if not respectable,” and “good and wise men of the wrong as well as of the right side of questions” (1.4).
    • Furthermore, by casting the Congress as “Patriotic,” he implies that any opposition is necessarily unpatriotic. This, to me, is an ugly strain of political discourse, which continues to this very day.

 

Paragraph Twelve reads like a veritable hosanna to the “Memorable Congress of 1774”:

  • “…wise and experienced…”
  • “…bringing a variety of useful information…” from “…different parts of the country…”
  • “…enquiring into and discussing the true interests of their country…” having “…acquired very accurate knowledge on that head.”
  • “…individually interested in the public liberty and prosperity…”
  • “…not less their inclination, than their duty, to recommend only such measures, as after the most mature deliberation they really thought prudent and advisable.”
    • To borrow from the film Amadeus, he makes them sound as if they “shit marble.”

 

Paragraph Thirteen is an appeal to the authority of the Framers:

  • “…it is well known that some of the most distinguished members of that Congress, who have been since tried and justly approved for patriotism and abilities, and who have grown old in acquiring political information, were also members of this convention and carried into it their accumulated knowledge and experience.”
    • In other words, ‘If you can’t approve the constitution on its own merits, take it on faith in those who drafted it.’ Or, more cynically, ‘Who are you to take up a position against men of such intellect and character?’  Or, at the very least, ‘You can’t possibly prefer the judgment of the opposition to that of the Framers.’

 

The Fourteenth and final Paragraph returns again to the praise of Union:

  • “…the prosperity of America depends[s] on its Union.”
    • Union above all else. This is the thrust of the closing argument.
    • No attempt is made, as yet, to address the particular merits of the proposed constitution, or even to show how it would guarantee Union; it is simply implied that those opposed would “[suggest] that three or four confederacies would be better than one.”
  • “I am persuaded in my own mind, that the people have always thought right on this subject, and that their universal and uniform attachment to the cause of the Union, rests on great and weighty reasons…”
    • J seems always comfortable in asserting the will and wishes of “the people,” and always in terms of unanimity and without dissent. This is what “the people” want, he seems to say, and those opposed are not of the people.
  • “…I sincerely wish that it may be as clearly foreseen by every good Citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim in the words of the Poet, “FAREWELL, A LONG FAREWELL, TO ALL MY GREATNESS.”
    • The quote is from Henry VIII, 3.2.351.

 

Closing Remarks:

To my eye, J isn’t half the writer that H is.  His arguments are starker, less nuanced, and he more readily ascribes malignant intent to the opposition.  He sees “Patriots” and enemies.  He too easily ascribes unanimity both to the Framers and “the people,” the latter of which he too easily claims to speak for in their entirety.  He also points to the homogeneity of race and religion as virtues, in a way that is uncomfortable to the (or, at least, this) modern eye.  Nevertheless, he is devoted to the cause of Union, which, at the time, was of prime importance, and in whose name, at least one odious compromise would be made.

The full text of Federalist No.2 may be found here.

The Federalist Project – #1

A brief word, as this is the first post in my series on the Federalist Papers, which I’ve previously outlined here.  Going forward, I’ll simply post these as I finish them, with no extra commentary.  Those who are interested will read them, those who are not are free to skip them.  I’ve not yet settled on a format.  For this first post, I’ve decided to go with a sort of outline/bullet point style.  To this end, I welcome any feedback regarding style, organization, clarity, etc.  I also welcome any debate with regard to my analyses, limited though they be.
–DES, 7/28/17, Berlin

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 1

Hamilton

27 October, 1787

The first Federalist essay goes to Alexander Hamilton, and we essentially begin in medias res, with the self-evidently failing Articles of Confederation, which he refers to as the “inefficiency of the subsisting Fœderal Government.”1  For him, the importance of the proposed constitution is also self-evident.  Its consequences include:

  • “Nothing less than the existence of the Union…”
    • We read later that the “Union” is hardly to be taken for granted. This is, after all, the time of “The United States are” and not “The United States is.”
  • “…the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed…”
  • “…the fate of an empire…”
    • My initial impression was that this was a most remarkable choice of words. We must ask, I think, whether seeing America as a nascent “empire” is a particularly Hamiltonian vision.  Do opponents see, or even want, this?  But we must also ask if H. even uses the word as we understand it today.  Later usages of “empire” in this essay may shed some light on this; but I will deal with them as they arise.
  • “…, in many respects, the most interesting [empire] in the world.”
    • A common view among many of the “Founders,” to be sure; what we today might call “American Exceptionalism.”

He continues:

“…it seems to be reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

  • “…to the people of this country…”, “…reserved…”
    • Though he doesn’t use the word, he surely makes reference here to “Providence,” a favorite theme of the “Founders.”
  • “…by their conduct and example…”
    • Presumably the Revolution and the principles thereof. Otherwise, what can he mean by conduct and example?
  • “…capable…of establishing good government from reflection and choice…”
    • He presents the situation as unique and unprecedented, as I read it; though whether this is true is debatable. Though direct democracy on the Athenian model was not much in favor, they did seem to have a reverence for the Roman Republic.  Was this, at least for a time, not “good government from reflection and choice?”
  • “…on accident and force.”
    • Force is obvious. Of what he has in mind by accident, I am less certain.  Though I might hazard to guess: The chance or accident of having a good king or bad.  But this is not quite the “question” of the constitution.

He concludes the first paragraph with strong words indeed:

  • “…a wrong election…may…deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
    • In other words, the scope of the choice goes far beyond the borders of the state (i.e. New York), or even the country.

 

The second paragraph sets up the questions of interest and motive as well as the way in which the question ought to be approached.

  • “This will add to the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism…”
    • In other words, don’t just do this for your country, but for all humanity!
  • “…unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good…more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.
    • A dose of realism.

He then proceeds to a bit of warning, noting that “The plan…affects too many interests,” among which may be counted:

  • “…innovations upon too many local institutions…”
    • This is an older usage of innovate, which here means: to “make changes to anything established.”2
  • “…not to involve…a variety a variety of objects foreign to its merits…”
    • Introducing the question of interest, to be dealt with more fully in the next paragraph.
  • “…and the vices, passions and prejudices3 little favorable to the discovery of truth.”
    • Hamilton’s truth, surely.
    • Introducing the notion that the question should be dealt with rationally and not emotionally (to be dealt with fully in paragraph four).

 

Paragraph three, then, address interest and motive.  Indeed, he argues that “Among the most formidable of the obstacles [will be] the interests of:

  • “…a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the State-establishments…”
    • For H., there always was and always will be an entrenched class who seek to preserve, or even grow, their own power/wealth at the expense of the state; an argument which I find no less true today. That he speaks here of emolument, is striking, to say the least.
  • “…and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country…”
    • Some things never change…
  • “…or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.”
    • Frighteningly prescient, especially with regard to his choice of the word confederacies – though perhaps this word was not so freighted in 1787. But more on this later.
    • Empire But here it seems fairly innocuous and hardly seems as though it should be taken with the modern usage; however striking it might have seemed in paragraph one.  Perhaps it is best to read it as a simple 1:1 translation of Latin imperium.4  Still, it will be interesting to note if/how Madison &/or Jay use this word.  And also to remember that some would later see H. as having ambition of becoming an “American Napoleon,” due in large part to his desire for (and to lead) a standing army.5

 

In paragraph four, he calls for an enlightened and rational debate on the subject:

  • “…it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition…will spring rom sources, blameless at least, if not respectable, the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears.”
    • An admirable – if merely rhetorical – show of respect for the opposition; and sorely lacking from today’s discourse, I might add.
  • “…that we upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as the right side of questions, of the first magnitude to society.”
    • A fair bit of caution…
  • “And a further reason for caution…we are not always sure, that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question.”
    • At first, this seems reasonable and moderate. Yet he never actually admits that his position might be the wrong one.  Note the use of truth and the right side of a question.
  • “Were there not even these inducements to moderation…”
    • The second time he uses the word moderation. seeks moderation as the mode of discourse, but not that it might lead to an opposing conclusion.  Only as a strategy, only as the best way to convince people of the truth, as we see in the closing of the paragraph:
  • “Nothing could be more ill judged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterized political parties.”
  • “For, in politics as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
    • Man, this guy can write! But we might add that in politics as in religion, for H. as for so many others throughout history, there is only one truth.  All that remains is how to convert people from wrong to right; the question of wrong and right having already been decided.

 

H. begins paragraph five with a few more words against passion:

  • “…it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torment of angry and malignant passions will be let loose…”
    • At no time, apparently, did (popular) politics not bring out the worst in people.
  • “…hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations, and by the bitterness of their invectives.”
    • One might be tempted to see here a parallel with right wing talk radio, &c.

The rest of the paragraph is largely an (elegant) warning against δημηγορία, demagoguery.  But first follows a defense of “energetic” and “efficient” government in a very abstract way.  And even then, it is more of a defense – or even a counterattack – against the sorts of arguments to be encountered, rather than a defense of the thing per se:

  • “An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized, as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty.”
  • “It will be forgotten…that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust.”
  • “…it will be equally forgotten, that the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty…”
    • Though this argument can surely be used to defend nearly any position, the Trump DoJ comes to mind in 2017. Though this could just as easily be used, I suppose, to defend Trump’s executive orders regarding immigration, &c.  On the flip side, the New Deal/Great Society readings are self-evident.
  • “…a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.
    • This can only be read, I think, as an attack on populism. However, I doubt he ever had in mind the sort of populism which calls for, among other things, universal health care; surely an example of “energetic” government.  In any case, with this, he transitions to his warning against δημηγορία.
  • “History will teach us, that the former [i.e. zeal for the rights of the people] has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter [i.e. zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government], and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”
    • For H. and the “Founders,” presumably Caesar was most prominent; but also surely Cleon, inter alia. Reading this today, I think first of Erdogan, but also of Putin, Hitler, Stalin…and not a little bit of Trump.
    • “By paying an obsequious court to the people” stands out to me as a particularly sharp turn of phrase.

 

In paragraph six, H. urges caution against all arguments but those “which may result from the evidence of truth.”   But here, finally, he openly admits that he has already made up his mind:

  • “I am convinced, that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.”6
    • Liberty and happiness, yes. But dignity is an interesting choice, and I must confess I’m not entirely clear what he means by it here, except perhaps that he sees the proposed form of government as the most “dignified” yet proposed by man.  But that is, at present, only speculation.
  • “I effect not reserves, which I do not feel.” “The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity.”
    • This is how you say, “I know I’m right,” with class and eloquence.
  • “My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast: My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all.”
    • On keeping his own motives private: On the one hand, he warns against all foul manner of motivation on both sides of the question. Should we not know his, that we need not fear he will personally profit by adoption?  On the other, he has made clear that motivation is not at issue – the only thing that matters is getting to the “truth.”
    • I love the construction: “something may be judged of by somebody.” It’s archaic, but it’s also kind of gorgeous.

 

In paragraph seven, he simply lists the topics that he plans to address in the course of the Federalist.  By the very names of the topics, he gives indication that they are all to the good and by the very merits of their names, argue for adoption from a position of already having been decided [i.e. being self-evidently “true”].

If this [i.e. paragraph seven] is not enough, he will also seek to “answer all the objections…that may seem to have any claim to your attention” in paragraph eight.  He does seem to recognize that simply laying out his own arguments, no matter how elegant and exact (and “true”), may not be enough.  I personally doubt that H. thinks there can be any objection that might fairly have a claim to anyone’s attention.  Nevertheless, he knows that such objections are out there and will, apparently, meet them head on.

He closes Federalist No.1 with this ninth and final paragraph, in which he argues for the “utility of the UNION”:

  • “…the utility of the UNION…which it may be imagined has no adversaries.”
    • It is not just a question, then, of the type of government, but of the very Union itself. In theory, one could support the Union as prescribed by the Articles of Confederation and still oppose the constitution.  And surely he means this to an extent.  But he goes further:
  • “But the fact is, that we already hear it whispered in the private circles of those who oppose the new constitution, that the Thirteen States are of too great extent for any general system…”
    • Interestingly, this is not an argument we ever hear today, even in the context of “states rights” or a too-powerful federal government. I’m not even sure it was still relevant by the time of the Civil War.  But it was certainly a concern at the time, even amongst the Founders.  He continues:
  • “…and that we must of necessity resort to separate confederacies of distinct portions of the whole.”
    • To the modern eye, the word “confederacies” is striking, if not outright alarming, and seems to lend a certain perspicacity to H.’s words. But I think it should not be so.  Small-“c” confederacy obviously predates The Confederacy.  Indeed, the nation was already operating under the Articles of Confederation.  And yet, this is exactly what would happen.  And while the reason would not be the size and power of the federal government per se, it is that which would underlie the question of slavery to a great degree; and from the Southern perspective, more so than any question of right/wrong vis-à-vis that awful institution.
  • “…the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution, or a dismemberment of the Union.”
    • These, and nothing less, are the stakes.
  • “…begin by examining the advantages of that Union, the certain evils and the probable dangers, to which every State will be exposed by its dissolution.”
    • This will “constitute the subject of [his] next address.”

 

PUBLIUS: All essays are signed with this name.  H/M/J speak with one voice.  But whereas today we might take a dim view of anonymity in such writings, I think here the idea is, the arguments stand on their own merits and need not the endorsements of their authors’ names; though I think the authorship was no secret.7  But we should also remember that this was a common practice of the time, and on all sides; the opposition signing essays as “Cato” and the like.

 

The full text of Federalist No.1 may be found here.

  1. I preserve the original spellings and punctuation as reproduced in the Bantam edition of 1982, edited by Gary Wills. []
  2. dictionary.com []
  3. No fan of the Oxford Comma was Hamilton.  #myboy []
  4. Lewis & Short give the following: B.1: supreme power, sovereignty, sway, dominion, empire; b) dominion, government; (a). dominion, realm, empire; 3.(g). the government. []
  5. I’d dig through Chernow’s book for a better citation here, but alas, it is in NY. []
  6. Wait, now an Oxford Comma?  #wtf []
  7. I could be wrong about this. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 May, 2017

I must confess to feeling a bit burned out these last few days.  Two roadtrips in two weekends will do that to you.  The first trip was up north to the Ostsee, the Baltic sea.  Last weekend was down south to Bavaria.  Two totally different experiences that were, in fact, not all that different in the end.

The trip to the Ostsee, that was with Jan and Zibs and Zibs’ friend Marianne, from Norway.  I was the driver on this trip, as we rented the car under my credit card.  It was, in all likelihood, my last time renting a car in this country.  Apparently, after living in Germany for six months, one is required to get an actual German license; you can no longer legally drive on a foreign one.  I learned this fact accidentally, when I made the mistake1 of updating my address information with the rental agency.  Fortunately, I came in just under the wire, as I was a week short of the six-month mark according to my Anmeldung.2

So we pile into the car, the four of us, and off we go.  Me, two close friends and a complete stranger who was about to get thrown head-first into my awful jokes, my worse advances, and just general Dave-ness.  The poor thing.  Or so I thought.  But we’ll come back to that later.

The drive was more or less uneventful, if pleasant.  It’s always nice to take roadtrips, to just hit the open road and go.  Plus, I mean, Germany.  Autobahn.  No speed limit.  Which isn’t to say that I drove recklessly; I didn’t.  But you can definitely go.  The countryside was pretty, albeit mostly flat and covered in fields of rapeseed, which has its own unique smell.  Ah, rapeseed.  There’s a name for you.  We’ll come back to that too.

Anyway, we finally got to our little cottage, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it hardly seemed as if anybody actually lived in the area.  It seemed to be entirely composed of rental vacation homes.  My old dad sometimes talks about how they used to go to a “bungalow colony” when he was a kid.  To this day, I have no idea what the actual fuck a “bungalow colony” is,3 but I imagine it must not be too far off from this.

The house itself was adorbs, being all wood everything on the inside.  The first night, we went shopping for the essentials.  You know, beer & wine.  But also food.  I cooked us a late-evening meal of beef stew, in which, for lack of mushrooms, I added an eggplant.  Never did that before, but it added a really nice flavor, I thought.  Anyway, everybody seemed quite happy with it, as there were no leftovers.

After that, the drinks started flowing.  Jan and I both brought our guitars, so we had a nice little jam sesh.  Beyond that, it was just the usual good-times hanging out stuff.  I quickly became a fan of the new girl.  She was very quiet in the car, so I really didn’t get to know her until this point.  Turns out she’s got a razor-sharp wit and gives as good as she gets.  “Impressed” wouldn’t be too strong a word.  In fact, she even succeeded in leaving me speechless with some of her well-timed, whip-smart comebacks.

I don’t know how to describe her exactly.  She’s Norwegian, yes, but also Nordic, if that means anything.  In other words, she doesn’t say much.  But when she does speak, it’s always very soft, as few words as possible.  But she can make those words cut like a knife.  And funny as hell.  So she was a good fit, for sure.  I’m glad she was there.

I’m also glad she was there because without her, I would have been a third wheel.  I hang out with J&Z all the time, and they never make me feel third-wheely.  But for a whole weekend?  That could have been different.  In any case, that potential problem was neatly avoided by the addition of their diminutive Norse friend.

The second day, we took a trip to the nearby vacation/resort town of Boltenhagen.4  Absolutely gorgeous and right on the water.  It was a lovely place to walk around.  I even made up a little fairy tale there, just based on the random things we were seeing.  It started at the end of a long pier.  Over the railing, was a shorter wooden post sticking out of the water, with a copper plate on top.  On that plate were two dozen or so pennies that people had thrown.  That was the starting point for the story.  I’ll give a short version here, because why not?

There once was a king in these parts, and he had a daughter of surpassing beauty.  Every man in the kingdom wanted to marry her.  So the king offered a challenge.  Any man who could toss a penny from the end of the pier and land it on the copper plate could marry his daughter.  Only, as evidenced by all the pennies, the challenge wasn’t nearly hard enough.

Whereupon did he contract the local witch to add some danger to it all.  Now, anybody who failed to land a penny on the copper plate would be turned to stone.  Proof of this, all the stone statues scattered throughout the area.  But if they did manage to land the penny, they would first be turned into a swan.  Proof of this, all the swans in the area.  In the end, only a man with true love in his heart, who also managed to land the penny, would be able to marry the princess. 

So every day, the princess would go down to the pier and await her true love.  But many years passed and she grew tired of waiting.  Still, she did not wish to forsake hope.  Yet neither did she wish to grow old in her waiting.  So at last, she asked the witch to turn her to stone until her true love should appear.  Proof of this, the stone statue of a young woman at the foot of the pier.  And so, she waits to this day.

Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write that out into a proper story.  But for an on-the-fly story, made up on the spot, I thought it was pretty nice.  The others thought it was alright, I guess.  But it made me think for a moment of Charlotte, who always loves this sort of silliness.

After this, we sat down for lunch.  We got Fischbrötchen, fish rolls, which is apparently the thing to do at the German seaside.  It’s basically a piece of whitefish, breaded and fried, inside a roll, with some kind of tartar sauce I guess.  It was pretty perfect, to be honest.  So after we’d all enjoyed our lunches, I collected the empty plates to throw them out.  Marianne said something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s very nice of you.”  To which I replied, “Honestly, it’s just an honor for me to touch anything where your mouth has been.”5  To which she then replied in perfect Nordic deadpan, “Wow.  That’s like 30% creepy…but 70% charming.”  Which may well be the nicest thing any girl has ever said to me.

On the way back, we hit the supermarket again, as our plan for the evening was to make a little BBQ.  The house had a grill, after all.  And this being Germany, we were obliged to buy at least two different kinds of sausages as well as potatoes and probably something green.  No wait, definitely something green.  We bought asparagus, which we proceeded to wrap in bacon.  And also salad.  Jan worked the grill, while I did some variant of my oven roasted potatoes.  The girls took care of the salad.  Oh, and we also bought a bottle of whiskey, because Jan wanted whiskey sours.  To which I wondered, why spoil perfectly good whiskey?6

So dinner was fantastic.  Apart from the obligatory bratwurst, we also had Krakauer sausage, which basically tasted like the American version of kielbasa.  It was a gorgeous feast.  Jan was a master on the grill.  Everything was delicious.  Not least, for me, because I insisted on the spiciest mustard we could find.  It was funny to watch all their faces go red as they tried it, while I put it away effortlessly.

Upon which, I shared with them the story of my family’s Passovers vis-à-vis horseradish.  Because, as you know – or should know – mustard isn’t spicy like peppers.  It doesn’t burn in your mouth.  It goes straight up to your sinuses with a bomb strapped to its chest.  So I told them how Uncle Art and Uncle Don usually make their own horseradish; how I usually bring a jar from The Pickle Guys; how all the men pass it around the table, testing themselves in the most macho way Jewish men are able, namely to just eat straight horseradish and try to handle it with as much dignity as you can mustard muster.  In other words, it was a very long way of saying, “Y’all are pussies for not being able to handle your mustard.”  I think they appreciated the story, if not the sentiment.  But after the first bite, they steered pretty clear of that yellow fire, while I devoured it.

After dinner, we moved to the living room for drinks and music.  First, we jammed out for a bit, which was obvi a good time.  But then they wanted to watch Eurovision.  This, apparently, is Europe’s version of American Idol.  Which is an incredibly arrogant and Americo-centric way of describing it, since, apparently, it’s been around forever.  But I didn’t know that, and I’m guessing you didn’t either.  It reminded me of back in the day, back when Amanda was still hosting Wednesday Night Dinners, and we’d retire to the living room to watch American Idol.  Yeah, I didn’t love it then, either.

Two short remembrances from this Eurovision experience.  First.  Each country had a representative video in to deliver their countries votes.  And invariably, each representative would say a word or two in Ukrainian, as that’s where the show was being held.  But it was always something generic, like, “Greetings!”  Then the Israeli guy gets on, and speaks like a paragraph of flawless Ukrainian.  And you just know that, somewhere, his mother was kvelling.

Second.  It was fascinating to see English function, in real-time, as a lingua franca.  What I mean is, everything was conducted in English.  And yet, outside of Australia, England and maybe Ireland, English was the native language of none of these countries.  Nevertheless, that was the standard.  And at first, it was super interesting to watch.  To observe the type of English they used, to see how they used it.  Because it was full of “mistakes.”  None of which mattered, of course, to the people speaking it or hearing it.

By this time, I was hitting the whiskey pretty hard.  And at some point, this went from fascinating to frustrating.  Because they were saying things where I felt, “Wait, was that a passive-aggressive insult, or is that just a function of your un-nuanced use of the language?”  I suppose I could have just let it go.  But it’s hard for me to turn my brain off with this stuff.  I can’t hear it passively.  I’m constantly analyzing it.  And it became exhausting.  So eventually I went outside to have a pipe and just sit in the grass and look at the dark night sky.  Which was very serene and just what I needed.

I want to clarify my remarks on English for a moment, because I’m not sure how they read.  Under no circumstances do I take a parochial view of my language.  I don’t think it “belongs” to native speakers.  Nor am I a prescriptivist.  I take a dim view of the words “right” and “wrong” with respect to English.  In fact, I love the myriad ways non-native speakers use the language, and how that usage reflects their own language and culture.

My point is simply this.  It’s so completely fascinating that I often can’t hear the forest for the trees, so to speak.  I get so focused on the little things, that I lose sight of the actual content.  Every odd turn of phrase, every “misplaced” adverb, raises a question.  Add to that a fair helping of scotch, and it becomes exhausting.  That’s all I meant.

If Sunday taught me anything, it’s that I handle my spicy mustard better than I handle my whiskey these days.  I woke up around three, and I was not feeling well.  The plan was to return to Boltenhagen for dinner.  Technically, only I was allowed to drive, as the car was under my name, and we didn’t sign up for a second driver.  But Jan was sufficiently worried to the point that he offered to drive.

But I was fine.  Or would be.  I just needed to puke, and I’d be better.  I knew that from experience.  Γνῶθι ϲεάυτον – know thyself.  I’ve done this enough times by now to know.  So I went and had a very lovely throw-up and I was good to go.  I hope that doesn’t read as a brag.  It’s rather a bit embarrassing, actually.  But, you know, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

So we went to a nice Italian joint in Boltenhagen.  It was great.  My state solved the problem of being the designated driver.  The day before, it had struck me as an awful proposition.  But in the moment, I was happy to do it.  So I had an Apfelschörler – apple juice with seltzer – with my meal, and it was perfect.  After dinner, we went back out to the pier for sunset, which was lovely.  And then back to the house.

There we had more music and more drinks; I had, by this point, returned to myself.  But we all took it pretty easy, as Monday was a travel day.  On the way back home, we stopped into the city of Schwerin.  It was gorgeous.  Had a castle and everything.  In fact, the local government conducts all its business in the castle.  It’s functionally their city hall.  You have to admit, that’s pretty cool.  So we spent a few hours wandering the castle gardens before having lunch.  And then it was back to Berlin.

Funny thing.  The reason we rented the car on my credit card, was because my card provides free auto-rental insurance.  But when it came time to making the reservation, I could tell that Jan was a bit nervous about not taking the actual insurance offered by the rental agency.  So I said, fuck it, let’s just do it.  Because, the way I see, if you’re going to be worrying about something, then you’re not actually on vacation.

Well, this proved a wise choice.  Because about 15 minutes from Berlin, a little stone got kicked up by a truck in front of us and smacked into our windshield, leaving a nice little crater.  Now, maybe my cc insurance would have covered this anyway.  But it would have been a process.  Now, we were simply covered.  No worries.  So that worked out just fine.

And so, yeah, 15 minutes later, we were back at the airport, dropping off our car.  And that was the end of our trip.  Personally, I thought it was a success.  I had a blast.  It’s always hard to know, though, right?  And maybe this is just me being self-conscious.  But you never know how other people see it.  I mean, I’m a very “sleep-til-whenever, we don’t need a plan” kind of guy.  And not everybody is that way.  So maybe they walked away thinking, “Geez, let’s not travel with a guy who doesn’t have his shit together again.”  I dunno.  But for me, I had a great time.  And there was some talk of making a trip to visit M in Norway.  Which, I would fucking love to do.  I mean, FJORDS, you guys.  Fucking fjords.  So we’ll see.

OK, so that went longer than I thought.  I’m not about to now start in the whole Bavaria trip.  That will have to be another post.  Instead, I want to take a few minutes to ruminate about German.  More specifically, my German.

What does it mean to make a language your own?  What does it mean to speak a language your way?  Certainly I have my own way of speaking English.  I definitely have my English.  As does every native speaker.  But German is not my native language.  And so, yeah, of course I have my German, my own way of speaking the language.  And obviously, some of that is just down to the routine mistakes that I make.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

You can learn the “textbook” version of a language.  And this is good for writing.  But nobody speaks this way.  Everybody has their own idiosyncrasies.  Some of that is down to word choice and phrasing.  Some of it is down to dialect and regionalisms.  But what does that mean for me as a non-native speaker?  What is “affectation” and what is “real”?  What do I choose and what happens naturally?

The question of “what do I choose” is what interests me.  Because I’m reaching the stage now where I find that I’m making choices.  By which I mean, I’m consciously suppressing things I naturally do/say in favor of things I choose to do/say.  At the moment, this manifests itself in two ways.

The first is what I call “Berlinese.”  There is, in fact, a Berlin dialect and a Berlin accent.  In terms of dialect, there are slangy things that Berliners say that don’t show up in textbook Hochdeutsch, never mind the rest of the country.  I’ll give one example, out of many.  In German, when something is far away, you can simply say that it is weit weg: literally, “far away.”  But in Berlin – and apparently only Berlin (& Brandenburg) – you can say that something is JWD (pronounced: Yod-Weh-Deh), an acronym which stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  I try to use this whenever possible.

But already this gets complicated.  Because, much like New York, most of the people that live here aren’t actually from here.  So it’s entirely possible that when you say JWD to somebody, be they German but from somewhere else or simply from another country, they won’t understand you.  And the point, after all, is to be understood, isn’t it?  So on a practical level, it may not serve me that well.  It’d be like, if you were from, I dunno, Pakistan, and showing up in New York you asked for directions to “toity toid ‘n’ toid.”  Yeah, you can find people that speak this way.  But most people don’t.  And your cab driver from Gana might have no idea what you mean.  It’s an affectation.  An attempt to be “authentic,” whatever that means.

So that’s on the level of idiom.  But it also operates on the level of accent, or dialect.  Born Berliners tend to pronounce their “g”s as “j”s (or “y”s to our ears).  Take the above example.  JWD.  As I said, the acronym stands for Janz Weit Draußen.  “Janz” is how Berliners pronounce “ganz.”  So they take their pronunciation, and create an acronym not from the actual words but from how they say those words.  Which I love, by the way.

Anyway, I find myself making an effort to change all the “g”s I learned into “j”s.  I find myself making an effort to say “schlaff jut” instead of “shlaff gut” – sleep well.  Or “jut jemacht” instead of “gut gemacht” – well done.  And I know it’s an affectation.  But my question is, is not the totality of my German an affectation?  Aren’t I always trying to mimic something?  If the answer is yes, then why not try to mimic the speech patterns of the place that I live, as opposed to the speech patters of some generic “neutral” German?  For me, I think, it’s all a part of trying to make this place my home, of trying to be a part of this place.  Maybe it’s bullshit.  But at the moment, I tend to think it’s no less bullshit than anything else.

I said there were two ways I was making choices.  The first is the adoption of at least some elements of Berinese, as just discussed.  But the second, and more complicated, is the conscious effort to sprinkle in Yiddishisms.  And the reason it’s complicated, is because while the vast majority of the Yiddish lexicon is German, the words don’t always have the same meaning.

Let’s take the word verbissene, for example; which we might spell farbissine in Yinglish.  Having learned this word from my mother, it seems the perfect way to describe the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs, who knocks on the door when my music is too loud.  But in German, verbissene, simply means somebody who is super-dedicated and hardworking.  The root is the verb bissen, which means “to bite.”  In German, this goes in one direction: somebody who bites down hard and gets to work, and doesn’t “unbite,” so to speak, until they finish the task at hand.  In Yiddish, it goes in another direction.  It’s somebody who maybe is always biting their lower lip out of frustration or annoyance.  I mean, you can picture it.

So, in German, I often want to refer to “Die verbissene drunter” – the sour, grumpy old lady who lives downstairs.  And yet, if I say that, people raise an eyebrow.  “Wait, what?”  And I need to explain.  Same goes for the word “menschlich.”  In Yiddish, this means basically, ‘decent,’ ‘kind,’ ‘good.’  For example, you bring your sick friend a bowl of chicken soup.  The response is, “Thank you, that’s very menschlich.”  But in modern German, it simply seems to denote something of human – as opposed to animal – quality.  So when I say, “Danke schön, das war sehr menschlich” – Thank you, that was extraordinarily decent of you,” well, the heartfeltness of it tends to get lost.

One more example, one that is more day-to-day.  German has two words for “remember.”  There’s gedenken and there’s erinnern.  Now, it’s been my observation – and it’s always important to remember that I don’t speak  the language, I just know words and phrases – it’s been my observation, I say, that Yiddish uses gedenken exclusively.  Whereas in German, there’s a distinction.  Erinnern is your everyday “remember,” but gedenken is reserved for serious matters, as in “Let us remember those who have fallen in the war,” as opposed to “I don’t remember where I left my keys.”

So on a very basic level, I can use these Yiddishisms.  They will, if only after a question or two, be understood.  But they will sound off, there’s no two ways about it.  So does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to choose to use them?  Some words, like verbissene or menschlich I would use even in English.  But others, like gedenken, only function – for me – as “German” words.

So the question, again, is, does it make sense to use them?  Does it make sense to go out of my way to use them, to make a conscious decision to choose the Yiddish word over the German word?  I don’t know.  Clearly, in some way, it’s a manifestation of my trying to assert my own identity over the language.  Fair enough.  We all assert our own identities over whatever language we speak.  I just wonder, if it’s more conscious and less organic, is that OK?  Is that less “authentic,” for lack of a better word?  And is it practical?  Just some of the things that have been on my mind as I continue my journey – and hopefully progress – with the German language.

Right, so that’s enough for tonight.  Next time, Bavaria.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. I say “mistake,” because I wonder, had I just let them run with my New York address, could I keep renting indefinitely? []
  2. Remember that thing?  It just keeps coming back. []
  3. Let alone a bungalow; apart from it’s being a silly looking and sounding word. []
  4. The “town” where we were staying, Zierow, had literally nothing in it.  Even my German spell-checker has never heard of it. []
  5. #davestheworst []
  6. It was not perfectly good whiskey.  It was cheap scotch.  But I stand by my question. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 May, 2017

A busy week, indeed.  I must admit, I’m not entirely sure that I want to sit down and start writing now, at 2am.  But the longer I put it off, the more I will have to jam into the next post, and I’m not really keen to do that either.  So I’ll at least make an effort to begin this evening morning.

A busy week, indeed.  A week ago, that is, last Saturday, I was over Joschka’s for dinner.  We ate comparatively early; in other words, before midnight.  I’ll come to the dinner later.  The big news is, he went out and bought this Virtual Reality system, Oculus.  Let me tell you, friends, I was absolutely blown away.  Maybe because I went in with pretty low expectations.  Maybe because the damn thing really was so incredibly impressive.  Maybe a little bit of both.

But I honestly felt like I was in a different world.  It was like being in the holodeck on Star Trek.  I really felt like I was in a huge space.  Everything seemed so real.  In one of the demonstrations – where you can just look around, but not actually do anything – they have you on top of a skyscraper, right on the edge.  And you can look down.  And when I looked down, I actually got a pit in my stomach.  I really felt like I was in danger of falling.  My body couldn’t tell the fucking difference.  That’s how real it was.  I was floored.  Still am, to be perfectly honest.

A bit later, Cindy came over.  She approached it with the same “yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s great” attitude that I’d had.  And she came away equally impressed.  For dinner, we knocked something together just with whatever was in the house.  I tried something with sautéed eggplant, sprinkled with cinnamon.  It didn’t really work out.  Nonetheless, dinner was perfectly fine and we all had a good time of it.

Later in the week, I tried again with the eggplant and cinnamon.  But this time, I did it a bit different.  I chopped up some bratwurst, and cooked that up first.  Then I added onions, string beans and eggplant.  Once they cooked down a bit, I did up a bit of a sauce with white wine, pork stock and tomato paste.  Only once the sauce started to take shape did I finally add the cinnamon, and also caraway seeds.  At the end, I mixed in some rice.  And this came out really quite nice.  In fact, I think I’ll do it again.

On Wednesday night, Annett invited me to go see a band.  Anne was there too.  Anyway, the band was English; she was friends with them from her time living in that country.  It wasn’t really my kind of music.  It was kind of just a wall of very loud sound, very little melody, lots of screaming and a bit of electronic stuff mixed in.  Well, she loved it, which is what matters.  And it was fun to get out and see some live music.  Plus it was just nice to see Annett again; I don’t think I’d seen her since January or so, as she’d been out of town on an internship.

The highlight of it all, though, was when she got on stage with them for the last song (or two; it all kind of blended together).  She rocked out and “sang;” more screaming, really.  But it was very cool to see, and you could tell she was loving the shit out of it, which was the most important thing.  The guys in the band were very nice as well.  We chatted and had a few beers before the show.  Funny thing though, I often enjoy talking to other native English speakers, because I can speak my own English as opposed to the moderated English I usually have to speak here.  But they, being from Manchester, well, their English was sufficiently different that I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.  I mean, it was nice chatting with them.  But from a language perspective…meh.

It was also pretty great to see Anne again, as it was only the second time I’d seen here since before I went to the States.  Since this wasn’t a language-exchange meetup, we only spoke German.  Our German is pretty funny though.  We both make plenty of mistakes, and when we don’t know a word, we usually ask for it in English or French.  But the point is, we always seem to understand each other.

What I don’t think either of us was quite prepared for, however, was how screwed up our version of the language sounds to actual Germans.  Because it wasn’t just the two of us, Annett was chatting with us as well; Annett who is a native German.  And she was basically like, “OMG you guys, what the hell are you even talking about?  That’s not even German!”  To which we replied something along the lines of, “Well, we know what we’re talking about.  And if it’s not properly German, it’s our German.”  To which Annett, “Tja, pidgin German.”

Of course, it wasn’t that bad.  And it was all in good fun.  I mean, the three of us could obviously talk together with no problem.  But it did get me thinking a little bit.  Because lately Joschka has been giving me shit about my German.  I don’t know if it’s actually gotten worse, if he simply expects more of me at this point, or if it’s just good-natured ribbing.  Anyway, it did get me wondering if Anne and I are developing, and then reinforcing, bad habits.  Maybe.  But if so, it just means I need to spend more time talking with native speakers.  Which brings me to Thursday night.

Cindy invited me to a little dinner shindig.  In fact, it was the same crew as was at her Christmas party.  First of all, she invited me directly, which was super nice.  Somewhere along the line, we had exchanged phone numbers for logistical purposes; we don’t normally talk to each other otherwise.  But she just as easily could have invited me through Joschka.  So the fact that she invited me directly, well, I thought that was really sweet.

The dinner was a lot of fun.  And here was a night speaking German with three native speakers, as well as an Italian dude who is way above my level.  I was able to keep up; even crack some well-received jokes.  And Joschka didn’t give me any shit.1  Though perhaps that was more not to embarrass me in front of the others rather than any kind of reflection on my ability.  Still, I’m going to count going to a dinner party and not using English as some kind of success.

The dinner itself was centered around white asparagus, which apparently is a very big deal here and has just lately come into season.  The whole meal was really quite good.  Also good were the cocktails.  It was a lovely evening, although one which I had to cut a bit short, as apparently I was the only one who had to get up for work in the morning.

Work on Friday was pretty cool.  For the first time, I had planned my Thursday-Friday lessons as a pair, building the latter off of the former.  The central idea was to spend some time focusing on style.  Thursday, we spent a lot of time on relative clauses.  But Friday, I led this to a larger discussion of parataxis and hypotaxis, how those work, what kind of feeling you can get from them, the merits and disadvantages of each, and so on.  But the ultimate point was to wind up comparing a bit of JFK’s Inaugural with Trump’s Inaugural.  I think it was pretty fun.  And the students seemed to enjoy it.  Or, at least, they seemed to enjoy the end of it, when I read off a bit from each speech.  My terrible JFK accent was good for a laugh or two as well.

Technically, we’re supposed to pay more than a little attention to “business” English.  And my boss is a grammar nut, so he prefers a focus on that as well.  And obviously I love that.  But sometimes, it’s nice to look at the more artistic side of the language.  Style, poetry, literature, whatever.  It’s a big ask for the students.  Even if they are interested – and most of them are, though not all – it’s pushing them to their limits in a lot of ways.

But I do think it’s good for them.  And it’s not like they can’t use this stuff with respect to German; a fact I’m sure to remind them of.  After all, the languages function in much the same way.  So when they read a book in German, or listen to politician’s speech, I think – or hope, at least – that I’m giving them some new tools with which to interact with their own language.

You can’t do this stuff every week, of course.  And maybe it’s a little bit selfish on my part.  On some level, it’s about me finding a way to teach the sort of class I want to teach.  On some level it’s about the part of me that would rather be teaching a university class than an ESL class.  That doesn’t make it a bad thing, either.  I don’t think it does, at least.  Like I said, I try to find ways to make it useful to them in English and in German.  The key, I think, is not going overboard; which is very easy for me to do.

So it’s a process.  But I think it’s a process that’s headed in the right direction.  And also, I like to think that when we do these kinds of things, I’m giving them something they (likely) won’t get anywhere else.  I mean, I doubt the Unemployment Office is paying the freight on these English classes so they can read Shakespeare.  But I’m prepared to argue that the world would be a better place if more people would spend some time with The Bard every once in a while.

Friday evening, I met Anne for an actual language exchange.  I was a little nervous about this, insofar as I hadn’t spoken a word of French since the beginning of March or maybe even the end of February.  Well, apart from a bit of nothing at that Theatre evening a few weeks ago.  And I haven’t been reading as much French either, lately.  I mean, I’ve been reading Rousseau, but that’s dense as hell, and probably doesn’t help very much in the way of conversational French.  And I’ll come back to JJR a bit later, because I’m having some thoughts on that mofo.

Anyway, it was fine.  The French, I mean.  We did our usual routine.  One beer in English, one beer in French.  All subsequent drinks in German; and these were manifold.  All to say, it came back pretty quickly.  I didn’t have too much trouble expressing myself.  Harder was understanding, as I hadn’t actually listened to any French at length since our last exchange, several months ago.  And while I certainly missed more than a few things, I was never really lost.  So I was quite pleased about that.  And yeah, after that, several more beers topped off with a couple of shots of Berliner Luft, which is a kind of peppermint schnapps.  Just good times, you know?

Tonight, Saturday night, was family dinner with the roommates.  Lucie cooked a pork goulash with potatoes and red cabbage.  Delicious.  As always, we eat, we sit around, we drink, we chat.  They’re really great.  I mean, everybody always gives me shit about living all the way out here in the sticks, but the truth is, it’s hard not to feel like I really got lucky with these two.

Once nice thing is, we’re all interested in each other’s languages.  So there’s a lot of “how do you say this in German” and “wie sagt man das auf englisch”?  Also, they now both need English for school.  So whereas before, these nights would be almost entirely in German, it’s now more of a 70/30 or even 60/40 split.  Which, on the one hand, is maybe not the very best for my development.  But on the other hand, it gives my brain a bit of a break, and makes the whole affair less stressful.

Nicer though than simply being interested in each other’s languages, they both have a clear interest in word play, in puns.  So I’m always trying out puns in German.  Sometimes they work, sometimes not.  But often when they don’t work, Marco suggests a correction.  And from there, he’ll offer up a variation or two as well.  I was thinking tonight, it reminds me a bit of Thanksgivings back in the day, when the Starr family would just go around the table, each person punning off the last person’s pun.  I feel pretty at home with it.  I think I’ll try to put down an example.

So the German word for toy is Spielzeug.  And the word for train is Zug.  And the word for to show is zeigen.  So I tried something like, “So a toy train is a Spielzeug Zug.  And when a boy shows you his toy train, er zeigt dir seinen Spielzeug Zug.”  Which was OK.  But Marco improved upon it with, “Better, when he wants to show you his toy train, Er will dir seinen Spielzeug Zug Zeigen.”  He then went yet a step further by pointing out that a toy airplane would be a Spielzeug Luftzug, which has a lovely trochaic bounce to it.

I don’t know how well any of that comes across in written English, especially to people who don’t speak German.  But the point is, it was very funny to us, and a whole lot of fun.  I nailed some puns at Cindy’s dinner party as well, some of them even bilingual ones, though I don’t remember them now.  This rather impressed the other guests; even Joschka, who is often not easily impressed.

Funny thing was, the two guests who I’d only ever met that one time at Christmas were sufficiently impressed as to tell me that my German must be really quite good if I can pull off puns like that.  I tried to explain that this was hardly true.  I mean, I see their point that being able to pun would seemingly require a certain degree of mastery of the language.  But for me, having grown up with puns, it’s all second nature.  You have two words that sound similar and you jam them into a sentence.  It’s childsplay simply because I’ve been doing it since I was a child.  The fact that the words happen not be English is almost irrelevant.  So to me, this doesn’t require any mastery of the language at all; not that they were buying this argument.  But I mean, ask me to explain in German what I did at work that day, and forget it.  I can’t do it.

I’ve talked about this whole pun thing with Charlotte in the past.  I mean, I can do (admittedly bad) puns in French as well, even bilingual Franglish puns.  So at some point, she asked me about the how, about the process.  And I think it’s like a muscle.  When you exercise it, as I do – to the chagrin of my friends – it doesn’t take much effort.  I think my ear is always listening to words, what they sound like, what they mean, making connections with other words.

Remember my Yankee fan Greek professor?  We hardly talk at all during the offseason.  But come Spring, we’re always going back and forth about the Bombers.  And mixed in with these baseball emails are a never ending series of puns.  It’s like playing verbal catch, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, he’s in Abu Dhabi.  So a few weeks ago, he sends me an email.  The email was a sort of transcription from a dinner party he attended in which they spent the whole night making bilingual puns in Arabic/English.  It was super fucking impressive, if we’re being perfectly honest.  But what was extra nice was, he wrote in the email, “we could have used you.”  It’s one thing when you can impress your friends.  But when your NYU Ancient Greek professor friend respects your punning ability, that’s something else.

Anyway, that’s enough of that nonsense.  If I don’t stop tooting my own horn, I’ll wake the neighbors.  I said I wanted to say something about the Rousseau I’ve been reading, namely On the Social Contract, du Contrat Social.  I’m not sure I’m ready to say anything about the content itself yet, though at some point I think I’ll want to.

What I do want to talk about is the language.  This shit is not easy.  I mean, it is easy, in a sense.  The vocabulary is no problem.  And the grammar, the syntax, the style – all of it is fine.  The difficulty arises in trying to understand what he’s saying.  I find that I have to read each paragraph twice at a minimum, sometimes five or six times before I get it through my head.  I mentioned this to Anne, and she said, “It’s the same for French people, don’t worry about it.”2

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m reading it.  It is most certainly fascinating.  But it’s also most certainly a challenge.  But Aristotle is a challenge.  And Hebrew is a challenge.  And when I finally finish with this, I’m going to want to read – and honestly just enjoy for the sheer pleasure of it – some Jules Verne.

Staying in the vain of political literature, this whole Federalist Project is proving to be more intense than I’d anticipated.  I sort of thought I’d just read an essay and than write a page or two in response to it.  Instead, I find I’m taking copious notes, copying down quotes and passages, adding bits of commentary all over the place.  And all this for Federalist No. 1, mind you.  It’s very slow going.  When I outlined this project a couple of posts ago, I said my goal was to try and knock out one or two a month.  And that was based simply on the fact that I’m so busy with other projects.  But in fact, at the moment, it seems like I’ll be able to do one a month, yes, but only with a great deal of effort

And maybe that will change.  Maybe I’ll find a better method of approaching this.  But at the moment, the only way I can see of doing it is the way I’m currently doing it.  Eight-five Federalist essays.  At one a month, this will take me seven years.  And look, if it takes seven years, then that’s what it takes.  But wow, that’s a big fucking project then.

Which isn’t to say I’m not enjoying it.  Because let me tell you this.  Alexander Hamilton is a gorgeous writer.  I haven’t seen the play, let alone heard the soundtrack.  I don’t know how his words are presented there.  And in a sense, I don’t care.  I’m not trying to be snide.  I think the play has great artistic merit in its own rights.  And if it brings more people to American history, if it revives Hamilton’s image, then that’s all for the best.

But I suspect there’s a great difference between Hamilton the Musical and Hamilton the writer.  And holy cow can this guy write!  I want to talk about this here for a bit, because I don’t want to clutter up my eventual Federalist post on issues of style; that should be about substance.

So his writing is gorgeous, as I’ve said.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy.  At least, not in a modern sense.  It’s dense af.  The man is capable of packing a tremendous amount of information into a single sentence.  And those sentences aren’t short either; it’s very hypotactic, returning to an earlier theme of this post.  Nevertheless, it’s clear, it’s direct, it’s to the point.  And for the length of his sentences, he’s nevertheless concise.  He’s plain, in the sense that he doesn’t waste words, but he’s ornate, in that the words he chooses are precise and elevated.  He’s also plain in the sense that in the whole of Federalist No.1, I think there’s but one extended metaphor.  He’s writing to be understood.3  He’s writing artfully, but he’s not writing art, if that makes any sense.

And yet, it is a sort of art.  I think that the way I’m describing his writing is the way Latinists4 tend to describe Caesar.  Which is twice ironic.  Because on the one hand, there was a bit of Caesar in ol’ Alex.  But on the other hand, The Founders reviled Caesar as the murderer of The Great Roman Republic.  To tie all this together, I’m going to give here a passage from Federalist No.1 in which he attacks demagogues.  And let us try to bear in mind that he is quite implicitly attacking Caesar himself while very much writing in a style really quite similar to Caesar’s own…

…A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but this guy wields the English language as if it were a fucking sword.  One the one hand, he turns a beautiful phrase: “the specious mask of zeal,” “paying obsequious court to the people.”  On the other hand, there’s no ambiguity, he’s perfectly clear, when he talks of “the introduction of despotism,” “men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” and “commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”  To put it another way, he uses fancy words when they serve to illustrate his point, but he never lets his point get bogged down in loquacious blather.

My point is, he’s a pure joy to read.  Not for the content, which is integral to the very understanding of our constitution and which stands firmly on its own two legs already.  But for the style.  For the elegance of it, for the clarity of it, for the so-well-orderedness of it.  It wasn’t my intention to set out on a project that could take me half a dozen years to complete.  But if it means reading Alexander Hamilton closely for seven years, well, there’s worse things.

Right, well, I think that’s enough for tonight.  It’s 4:15 and I still need to proofread and publish.  And I want to go to bed.  So until the next time.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. A side-thought for the one French person who reads this.  I had originally written, “And Joschka didn’t give me shit about my German.”  But then I replaced “about my German,” which was already understood, with “any.”  And, I think, this is how French uses “en.”  Compare (and I hope this is right): Il n’a moqué de moi pour mon Allemande with Il n’en a moqué de moi.  So I’m wondering if there’s a relationship between the way English uses “any” in this situation compared with the way French uses “en,” which, by the way, don’t sound entirely indifferent.  Anyway, I’m sure the French reader will have something to say about this. []
  2. Also, apparently, she’s not a big fan of Rousseau.  Apparently he was a very “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy.  So I can get that.  But he’s a pretty big figure in the Enlightenment and certainly had an impact on the American Revolution.  So the fact that he might personally have been a cunt doesn’t interest me so much. []
  3. And this is in stark contrast, it seems to me, with Rousseau, I must say. []
  4. And even Cicero, for that matter. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
2 May, 2017

Who are we?  That’s an easy one, right?  Let me narrow that down.  How do we define ourselves?  As individuals, I mean.  What makes you you?  What makes me me?  In our own eyes, I mean.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.  And I think – I hope – I’ve been drawing nearer to an answer; for myself at least.  On more which shortly.

I was listening to an interview on NPR a while back, with an author – the name escapes me – who was talking about what he thought the economies of the future would be like.  Specifically, what would happen when, due to ever-increasing mechanization, there simply won’t be enough jobs for everybody.  In fact, I think we’re already entering that world.  But it’s not yet reached a scale where we can’t overlook it; as many, nay most, governments still seem content to do.  Ultimately, this led the author to the inevitable conclusion of Universal Basic Incomes.

In his mind, this would be a wonderful development as it would allow people to pursue their passions without the hindrance of being forced to work a job one dislikes, simply to pay the rent and put food on the table.  But then a caller asked, what about those of us who have jobs we love?  To which the author replied with something along the lines of, identifying yourself by your job is an outmoded way of thinking.  In a future of UBIs, he argued, people will no longer say, “I am a sanitation worker,” or “I am an office clerk,” or whatever.

The caller, however, found this unsatisfactory.  After all, some of us, she argued, do we what we do because that’s how we identify ourselves.  Doctors, teachers, artists, were some of the examples she gave; or if not the specific examples, at least the sort of examples.  Anyway, this got me thinking.  Am I “a teacher”?  Surely that’s my job.  It may well be my career.  But is it who I am?  Certainly other people have said that about me.  “Dave, you’re a natural teacher.”  Meaning, there’s something in my nature that makes me “a teacher,” as opposed to simply that being the job I happen to have.  And perhaps that’s true.  I’ll come back to it.

I have a friend who keeps a really quite wonderful Instagram feed.  The pictures are of course lovely, to be sure.  But when I say “wonderful,” I mean more the comments she attaches to the pictures.  For, there seems to be a tension – and I don’t mean the word negatively, but I can’t think of a better one – between two concurrently existing identities.  One is that of an independent person who also happens to be an artist.  The other is that of a mother and wife.

And what I read in the comments, is that she struggles to find time to be both.  I also think she succeeds wildly at both.  But it seems not to be easy, as I read it.  One picture will be of her kids playing outside, and the caption will express the sheer joy of raising these children, at seeing them grow, and all the rest of it.  And she seems to be saying, “This is who I am, I am a mother.”

And then she’ll post something as simple as a cup of coffee.  And the caption will be something along the lines of, “It’s so nice to have a few quiet moments to myself, to be free to be me.”  I paraphrase, of course.  But my point is, in all of that, she seeks her own identity.  A proud mother, who nevertheless must be a strong and independent individual.  I hasten to add; this is how I interpret her Instagram.  I’ve not yet had the chance to have this conversation with her; and gods know when I’ll next get home to do so.  And so, obviously, I imprint my own experiences onto my reading of her timeline.  Nevertheless, even if I may be wrong in some of the particulars, it helps me in my quest to answer this question for myself.

So then, who am I?  Am I simply a teacher?  I don’t seek to deny it.  Yet neither do I think that this is a complete answer.  What gets me a little bit closer to my answer is an examination of how I choose to spend my free time.

Until this month, all of my free (productive) time had been bound up in my efforts to complete my Hebrew course book.  Now that I have, I find I have the freedom to apply myself to a broader range of interests.  I continue, of course, with my Hebrew studies.  But to this, I have added a (long-overdue) return to Greek.  At the moment, I’ve undertaken to read Aristotle’s Περὶ Ποιητικἢϲ (Poetics).  And I’m already thinking I’d like to move on to Sophocles when I finish this, to read Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone; I’ve already read Oedipus Tyrannus twice.

If that’s not enough, I’ve finally got to work on my Federalist Project, which I explained in my last post.  And I’ve started reading Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract).  All that to say nothing of keeping this blogue a going concern while trying to find the time to write creatively, i.e. the odd bit of silly fiction.

And so, most days look something like this.  Go to work and read French on the subway.  Teach.  Come home and nap.  Ease back into life with a bit of Netflix before cooking something for dinner.  But after dinner, it’s down to work.  An hour or two of Hebrew followed by an hour or two of Greek.  Lesson planning, if necessary.  Do up a blogue post of there’s time.  Some days I’ll switch out the Greek or the Hebrew to work on the Federalist.  Oh, and squeeze in some time for the guitar if nobody’s home.

But lately, when I climb into bed at the end of it all, I’ve been feeling rather good about myself.  Something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m (finally) doing the things I want to do.  This feels right.”  Or, at least, most of the things I want to do.  Because I’m still not finding any time to actively improve my German.  Though lately, I’m thinking, if I can find the time for all these other things, I ought to be able to schedule in 20-30 minutes a day to do the hard work of reading some German.

And it is hard work, I say by way of a slight detour.  The problem with German, for me, is not one of difficulty, per se, nor is it one of grammar.  It is, quite simply, a question of vocabulary.  There are just…so…many…fucking…words.  The French lexicon is a fraction of the size, which is why I actually can simply read it on the subway.  But with German, I find I must constantly be looking up words.  And I know that if I would simply do a little bit every day, my Wortschatz would grow of its own accord.  But to try and read something and have to look up every third word is, not to put too fine a point on it, frustrating as all hell.  But if I’m ever going to get beyond my present level, I shall simply have to do the hard work.

And yet, I’m working hard already, I say by way of brining it back around.  I make the time every day to study Hebrew and/or Greek and/or to write.  Surely I can make the time – a mere 20-30 minutes – to grind through a bit of German; until it stops being a grind at all.

So who am I? I ask again.  And I find that “teacher” is too narrow, even if it fits seamlessly into all of the other things I’ve just touched on.  “Academic” sounds nice to my ear, but I don’t have a PhD, much less a University position, much less do I publish academic articles.  So that’s out.  “Intellectual” sounds pretty good to my ear too.  But I think calling oneself an “intellectual” sounds a touch arrogant; though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t facny the idea of other people seeing me that way.  But two steps down from “academic” and one down from “intellectual” we find “dilettante.”  Which, let’s face it, sounds a bit foppish.

Nevertheless, dictionary.com defines dilettante this way: “1) a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler.  2) a lover of an art or science, especially of fine art.”  Foppish though it may sound, that does seem to fit the bill.

It also seems to match up pretty well with who my friends are here.  And we must add, that however much time I spend on these pursuits when I’m alone, I am also a social creature.  Or, at least, as social a creature as a misanthropic sonofabitch like myself can reasonably be expected to be. But as I say, look at my friends here.

There’s Zibs & Jan, who all along I’ve been referring to as my “intellectual” friends.  And Annett and Jan, my “artist” friends.  Also an artist, my friend/conversation partner/stranger-in-a-strange-land comrade, Anne.  And Joschka – who, along with Dale, is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I know – is a computer programmer by trade (which is both an art and a science), but also a music lover.  And I don’t know how you classify the person you can drunkenly talk politics with over a game of chess at 3:30 in the morning, but “intellectual” has to come pretty close.

Now, admittedly, who my friends are here in Berlin owes as much to accident as anything.  And yet, you’re always going to be friends with the sort of people you’re going to be friends with.  Which, I grant you, is tautological.  But I have to admit, I’ve really lucked out in that department.  My friends match up really quite well with the person I think I am, the person I’m trying to be.

So, finally, to answer the question, “Who am I?”, well, I guess “dilettante” is the best I’m going to do for now.  Maybe one day I will have the good fortune to be able to add “father” to that.  But that’s a question for Κλωθώ, Λάχεϲιϲ καὶ ¨Ατροποϲ, who are the Fates, for you lay-people.

So much for that bit of self-indulgent solipsism.  I’ve been wanting to put down some thoughts about living in “the East” for a while now.  So let me hit on that for a bit.

The thing that strikes you about East Berlin in 2017 – or that strikes me, anyway – is that there’s a certain degree of romanticization with the whole thing.  In fact, German even has a word for it.  Because of course it does.  The word is Ostalgie, which is a portmanteau of Ost and Nostalgie – ‘East’ & ‘nostalgia.’  It’s not a just a vibe, it’s something that’s actively marketed.  As a transplant who’s only been here a scant ten months, I surely can’t cover the full semantic range of this word.  But it seems to be a fondness for a bygone time, a bygone way of life, when (and obviously where) things were simpler.

For example, we still have the tram here; which was torn up in West Berlin after the war.  And trams/trollies/street cars are romanticized everywhere: Brooklyn, Roger Rabbit, etc.  They’re seen – I think – as symbols of a time from before Big Auto remade our cities for the worse.  But anyway, my first impression of the tram was a positive one.  I like having the tram around.  And the fact that it’s only in the East, well, that’s kinda cool.  And while it would be silly for me to self-identify as an East-Berliner – whatever that even means in 2017 – it’s nevertheless where I live.  And so I want to find things I can like about living here, things I can be proud of, even.  The tram, generally, is one of those things.

Hell, even the pickles have been made into…well, if not a big deal, then, at least, kind of a big deal…or, at the very least, a deal.  If you go to the right shops, you can find Spreewaldgurken, which – to my understanding – are held to be a holdover product, one of the few consumer goods that was born in, and subsequently survived, the DDR.  Like, “Whoa, actual communist German pickles!  That’s so oldschool!”

Ugh, fucking hipsters ruin everything.  But that’s what it is, though.  It’s the hipsters that have created this cool “vibe” around The East.  Because here’s a thing I’ve learned.  (Or, at least, an observation I’ve made in my limited and self-selecting experiences).  There’s three kinds of people, when it comes to The East.1

First, there’s the hipsters, just mentioned.  Either transplants like myself,2 or else just people who, even if they were born before the wall fell, are nevertheless too young to have any meaningful memories of what life was like in the DDR.  These people can cherry-pick all the nice things and dither around in rose-colored nostalgia.

Then there’s the people who actually lived in the DDR, and hated it.  Hated the oppression, the spying, the economic stagnation and lack of opportunity.3  With them, go the people from The West.  Though obviously they don’t have the same emotional investment going on.  I’ll give the example of two former students: one grew up in the East, one in the West.

The one who grew up in the East, man did she hate it.  Any time I’d ask her about it, she’d make a face and say it was terrible and immediately try and change the subject.  In fact, I was able to learn very little of substance from her on the topic, so unwilling was she to speak of it, so bitter (apparently) were her memories.  But that’s not nothing.  Her visceral, emotional reaction to the subject of “East Germany” spoke for itself.

My student from the West comes at it from a totally different perspective.  I’ve written about her before.  This is the one who gave me a map of the city and a list of things to check out in West Berlin; the one who gave me a book before I left for New York.  Apparently she had family in the DDR.  She told me stories of how difficult it was to travel between West & East, how you’d have to change your money at bend-you-over-a-barrel rates.  And she told me that when her relatives would visit, they would give them oranges as gifts.  This struck me.

It struck me, but apparently I gleaned the wrong impression from it.  I understood this as, “Shit, how bad must life be in The East when something as simple as a fucking orange becomes a meaningful gift?”  However, when I mentioned this to Joschka, he told me that I’d had it all wrong.  It wasn’t a question of life being bad, he said.  It was simply that you couldn’t get oranges in The East; it was a novelty.  No different than a uniquely Chinese food product that you can’t find in America.  It doesn’t mean life is bad in America.  It just means you don’t have access to that particular product.4

I mention this thing about the oranges to illustrate the point that my impressions are, per se, superficial.  I don’t have – I can’t have – the full picture.  When I report my impressions here, that’s all they are: impressions.  It doesn’t mean they’re invalid.  But we – I the writer, and you the reader – should always be aware that there may be more to the picture than I can see.

Anyway, I asked her once – my West German student – if, growing up, she thought of the DDR as a different country, the same way she might think of France, or Italy or China; or if she conceived of one Germany that had had a division forced upon it from the outside.  After all, as an American, born in 1981; as a metic living in Berlin but not a proper Berliner (and certainly not a German); after all of this, I say, I’ve only ever thought of Germany.

Germany as an idea, as a country, was always, for me, a simple fact.  America was a country.  France was a country.  China was a country.  And Germany was a country.  It was just that, after the war, we split them up for a while, as a precaution.  A unified Germany always seemed to me to be a fait accompli.  Nevermind the fact that I actually remember my father sitting me down in front of the TV and making me watch the wall come down, because it was “important.”

All to say, that’s what I was bringing to the table when I asked my student how she saw things.  And her answer surprised me.  For she told me that, to her, the DDR was a foreign country, just as surely as China was a foreign country.  Yes, she happened to have family there.  Yes, they also spoke German.  But they speak German in Switzerland and Austria too.  Fine.  The point is, you had Germans in the DDR who hated it.  And you had Germans in The West who thought it was sufficiently different as to be a genuinely different country.

Then there’s the third group.  These are the people who genuinely liked the DDR.  Some of them even want it back.  And that’s a whole different sort of Ostalgie.  To them, life was better.  You were guaranteed a job, even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do.  You were guaranteed a home, even if it was a boilerplate Plattenbau.  You were guaranteed a car, even if it was a shitty Trabi5– which you might have to wait years for, not for nothing.

I’ve never met any of these people.  But I’ve read about them.  I’ve written previously about a former student who was studying “memory and the DDR.”  We read many articles together about people who miss the “good old days,” as improbable as that may seem.  Most of them missed the DDR for the reasons given above.  But we also read about people who were part of the system.  People who were either outright Stasi informants; others who would simply benefit from an anonymous tip at their neighbor’s expense.  Look, I won’t split hairs.  To my mind, it was a twisted system, and good riddance to it.

But there were people who profited by it.  Well, there’s people who profit by any system.  More troubling to me, there were people who did perfectly alright by it.  And many of these people are not doing alright by the current system.  At the risk of injecting my own politics into this – which as I rule, I try to avoid – we’re all getting screwed by the current system.  But to me, that means, fix the current system in accordance with the ideals of free speech and economic mobility.  I’m troubled by people who recognize that they’re getting screwed but who then think that the answer is totalitarian government enforcing a minimum baseline of survivability hand-in-hand with a secret police that promotes neighbor-on-neighbor, even family-on-family, surveillance.

So no, I don’t personally know any people like that.  But I know they’re out there.  And more to the point, they’re out here.  In East Berlin, where I live.  In Köpenick, where I live.  Hell, apparently the NPD – the current day Nazi party – has their headquarters in Köpenick.  And no, I’ve never seen it.  I’ve never seen any public displays of rightwing activity here.  But it is here, all the same.  And in a broader sense, the right-wing nationalist stuff tends to be concentrated in the East.  AfD, for example, is big in Dresden.

And so, fairly or not, I do walk around my neighborhood with a bit of a skeptical eye.  Especially when I look at older folk.  I do wonder, “Have you lived here your whole life?  Do you miss the DDR?  How do you see the world?”

I also wonder, why is it that nationalism takes deeper root in the East.  I mean, sometimes I wonder, “What does 60 years of Gestapo and Stasi do to a people?”  And I know it’s not fair to paint with that kind of broad brush, to look at old people on the street and just start wondering.  But sometimes it’s hard not too.  It’s got to warp people, doesn’t it?

But then I look at people my age.  I have students, my age or younger, who’ve lived their whole lives in Berlin.  Some were born in East Berlin before the wall came down.  And they seem to be entirely unaffected by it.  For them, Germany is Germany and they don’t know anything about the DDR; don’t care to, even.  So even if it has somehow warped the older generations, young people seem to be remarkably free from it all.  And that, I think, is a great cause for optimism.

I surely have more to say on the subject.  But what’s the rush.  I’ll no doubt return to this in a later post.  This, at least, gets down some of the impressions I’ve formed of the whole East/West divide, to the extent that it exists at all; which, as I hope I’ve shown, is no sure thing.  But politics is a shitty note to end on.

So I’ll close with this.  Of the six tomato seeds I’ve planted, five of them have sprouted.  Not much, so far.  Just tiny little sprigs of green with two tiny little leaves at the ends.  And I know that for people who normally do this shit, it’s totes nbd.  But to me, it’s amazing.  You see them stretching towards the window during the day, leaves wide open.  But at night, those little tiny wings fold up and their stalks straighten out.  Nature is incredible.  They’re actually growing, right before my very eyes.  They’re alive!!!6

I showed them to Marco and he was quite pleased.  But also cautious.  It’s a good start, he was saying.  But it’s far too soon to tell if we’ll actually get tomatoes from them.  So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  Nevertheless, it’s 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean a good start.

It’s still a bit chilly here.  Spring hasn’t quite sprung yet.  But maybe my tomatoes have.  So here’s to finding out what you’re going to grow up to be.  Here’s to growth.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Three kinds of people?  That’s a nice break from the usual, “There’s two kinds of people” duality that we construct around every blessed issue. []
  2. Though, “No hipster am I,” I say defiantly behind my overgrown beard and stupid hat, disproving myself in the very act. []
  3. As they see it. []
  4. This, btw, is why I loved living in Chinatown. []
  5. The Trabant, as I understand it, was basically communism in car-form.  Ugly and underpowered, yet practical and utilitarian.  There was only one model.  Everybody got the same damned car.  I once passingly insulted the Trabi to another student of mine (roughly my age), and she chastised me for it.  If I understood her correctly – and I’m not at all sure that I did – what I derided as nothing more than a jalopy was, for generations of Germans, something to aspire to. []
  6. Where’s Colin Clive when you need him? []

The Federalist Project

The Federalist Project
Introduction

For the usual readers of this blogue, who are accustomed to finding here either stories about my travels and experiences or the odd bit of silly fiction, a few words of explanation are probably in order.  The following will be the first in a series of short postings about a collection of documents generally referred to as The Federalist or The Federalist Papers, a group of essays written in the late 18th century to defend, and to argue for the ratification of, the United States constitution.  I shall give my reasons for embarking upon this new series of posts shortly.  Suffice it to say, this subject matter may not be for everybody.  If that should be you, do feel free to skip the rest of this post as well as any future posts with the word “Federalist” in the title.

Right.  So why do this at all?  Well, if you haven’t noticed, we Americans tend to be pretty proud of our constitution.  This despite the fact that no two people seem to have the same view as to what the constitution actually means.  Like the bible, people tend to find in it what they want.  The constitution itself is sparsely worded and really quite short.  And, generally, it must be taken together with its first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

And while today, the ratification of the constitution is generally seen as a fait accompli, back in 1789, it was no sure thing.  The people, or rather the several states, needed to be convinced of it.  After all, at the time of its drafting, the United States were operating under a different charter, the Articles of Confederation.  Indeed, there was no legal provision for ditching the Articles and starting over with a new constitution.  This made the constitution itself, if not an illegal charter, an extra-legal one.  That is, it was born outside of the existing body of laws.

The deal was, if any nine of the original thirteen states agreed to make the switch, then the Articles would become null and void and the new constitution would take effect.  But as I said, the states needed convincing, and some more than others.  None more so, apparently, than New York.  Because even back then, what’s America without New York?

In any case, New York was iffy, at best, at the outset.  How then to convince the Empire State?  The answer came in the form of 85 essays, published between October 1787 and May 1788.  The essays would serve two main purposes.  The first was simply to allay fears that the new proposed federal government would be too powerful, at the expense of the states.1  The second was to explain the purpose and meaning of the constitution; something which the constitution itself noticeably does not do.

And who was behind this effort?  Well, it was primarily the work of two men.  One was the very “father of the constitution” himself, Virginian and fourth president, James Madison.  The other, of course, was that brilliant – and lately quite popular – New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton.  Of the 85 essays, Hamilton wrote fully 51 of them to Madison’s 29.  John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also a New Yorker, wrote the remaining five.

Most American students will have at least learned of the Federalist in high school social studies class.  We learn, roughly, of the role they played in getting the constitution ratified.  We may also learn that they are still read today by constitutional scholars and lawyers, especially when the constitutionality of a given law comes before the Supreme Court.  We may even have read, perhaps in college, selected essays; or at least parts of essays.2  But I suspect that very few of us who do not go into careers as constitutional scholars or lawyers have read them in their entirety.

And yet, they are often in the news.  As I just mentioned, when a new law is argued in front of the Supreme Court, the relevant essay might be trotted out for public consumption.  When it is suggested that president Trump may be doing some thing (or, let’s face it, many things) that were never intended by “the Founders,”3 some or other Federalist argument is often presented to make the case.

Which brings me to this, my so-called Federalist Project.  My goal is to read each of the 85 essays in their turn and to publish a short blogue post in reaction.  I shall do my best not to bring any personal ideology to this project, to not inject my own opinions into these posts; though, on some level, that is surely impossible.  I simply wish to read them and to understand them.

To the extent that I am able, I wish to do this both diachronically and synchronically.  In other words, I wish to understand them as best I can both in terms of how they read today but also in the context of their own times.  In the case of the former, though I shall try my hardest, I suspect it will be impossible to leave my own views at the door.  As for the latter, I shall surely make errors in my knowledge of history.  I beg forgiveness in advance for both of these inevitable failings.

I set no specific timetable for the completion of this project.  That said, I will hope to tackle at least one or two essays each month.  Even at that pace, it will take me upwards of four years to finish this.  But what’s the rush.  These documents have been around for more than two-hundred years.  And I’ve so far gone thirty-six without reading them.  So it will take as much time as it takes.

As for the text, I will be working from the Bantam edition, published in 1982 with an introduction and commentary by Gary Wills.4  Direct quotations will be taken from this source.  That said, The Federalist Papers are obviously in the public domain.  And so, I will add a link in each post to the relevant essay in order that the interested reader (if he or she should exist) may read the document for themselves, stripped of my own opinions and necessarily cherry-picked quotations.

We Americans love our constitution.  Yet often, I fear we are over-proud and under-learned of it.  In the course of this endeavor, I hope to come to know our national charter more intimately, to better understand what is at the very heart of American political identity.  I hope, too, that some of you will choose to join me on this journey; will argue with me when you don’t agree; will set me right where I am wrong.  In these times of sound-bites and growing ignorance, we could all do with a little more learning, a little more thought.  Let this be a small step towards those ends.

  1. Remember, we had just revolted from monarchical England. []
  2. Madison’s discussion of ‘faction’ in No. 10, for example. []
  3. I’ve put “the Founders” in quotes because I think it’s ridiculous that we refer to them as one block of people, as if they all shared the same views and opinions.  They most certainly did not. []
  4. On a personal note, I ordered this book from Amazon way back in 2001, while I was studying early American history in college.  (I did my senior thesis – which was not at all good – on Hamilton, Adams and the Federalist party).  Anyway, years later, I was looking over my purchase history and discovered that I’d ordered the book on September 11, 2001.  I surely didn’t go shopping that day, so I can only assume it was sometime after midnight of the 10th.  Still, that’s always struck me as an eerie coincidence of history, as a serious dose of jingoistic patriotism was on the very verge of being ginned up… []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
24 April, 2017

April, April, der macht was er will.  This is a little saying that they have here in Berlin.  It means, basically, April does whatever the fuck it wants.  The beginning of the month was lovely and warm and all Spring-like.  But the last couple of weeks have been cold and windy and generally rubbishy.  The sun sets much later, and during the day, if you manage to find a spot of direct light, it’s actually quite nice.  But cross the street, or step into a shadow, and you start to shiver.  Well, friends, I’ve had enough.  I’m ready for Spring.  So come on already!

Anyway, I’m settling back into life here.  Things with the roommates are good.  We’ve had two “family dinners” since I’ve been back.  And it’s a good vibe here, when we see each other.  Although during the week, we don’t see each other all that much.  I’m out at work during the day and napping when I get home.  They’re usually in their room by the time I’m ready for dinner.  So, for me at least, it’s a very nice blend of time together and time to myself.

For years, he wrote, changing gears, I’ve dreamed of having my own little herb garden.  What could be better than picking my own fresh basil or dill or whatever?  So last weekend, I went to Hellweg, which is the German version of Home Depot1 and I bought a bunch of seed packs, two window boxes and some dirt.  Only thing was, I don’t know the first thing about gardening.

Fortunately, Lucie and Marco are big fans, and I guess Marco has sort of grown up around this stuff.  So they helped me get started, teaching me how to plant the seeds and so on.  They even gave me some soil, as apparently I’d bought soil for flowers, which I guess you shouldn’t grow things you want to eat in; I’ll have to get more.  They also gave me some extra flower pots to get started with.

I don’t know how well this is going to work out, if at all.  On the one hand, my balcony is South-facing, so it gets plenty of light.  On the other hand, there’s no shade, so maybe it gets too much light?  We’ll see.  But I’ve got cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, dill, coriander, peppermint and rosemary.  I dream about coming home in the summer, walking out to the balcony, plucking a fresh tomato and wrapping a fresh basil leaf around it.  Or cucumbers with fresh dill.  Or cooking with fresh parsley.  Or making fresh mint tea.  Or getting some fresh coriander into my beef stock for homemade Pho.  All that, and also just looking out the window and seeing green; living things that I planted.  So either that, or it’ll all burn to death in the sun.  Like I said, we’ll see.

Zibs, Jan and I finally booked our little roadtrip.  We’re going for a three-day weekend, along with some Norwegian friend of theirs from college, up to a little vacation house on the Ostsee, which in English is the Baltic.  This will be the second weekend in May.  Hopefully it will have warmed up by then.  Anyway, the house – which we booked through Airbnb – seems to be right on the water.  So I’m thinking it will be quite nice.

Then, the next weekend, Joschka and I are planning to drive down to Bavaria to visit our friends from the metal festivals.  Another festival mate, from Joschka’s hometown, will be meeting us there too apparently.  I’m definitely looking forward to this.  I’ve never been to Bavaria, and I’ve never seen this crew outside of the festival.  The kids – and they are kids; they’re all in their early 20’s – are just all around good people, to say nothing of fun.

But in addition to the kids, I’m also looking forward to seeing the dad of one of the girls.  He also comes to all the festivals.  I guess he’s probably around 50 or so.  But at the last festival, we bonded over our love of old school classic rock and metal, which the young’uns don’t seem to be into so much.  He’s probably the only guy I know who’s into Gary Moore, for example.

So that will be two trips in two weekends.  And after that, I think I’ll just stay home for a bit and not spend money.

I’m settling into my new work schedule too.  Now it’s three days a week at the heretofore “Friday school,” which I guess I’ll just call my “main school” going forward.  At the moment, I’ve got beginners on Tuesdays and the advanced on Thursday/Friday.  The beginners are absolutely sweet and motivated and hardworking.  But two or three of them barely speak any English at all, so in that sense it’s quite challenging.  And then there’s another guy in the class who, while not quite ready to move up to the intermediate group, is nevertheless well ahead of the others.  The upshot being that you’ve got to find different work for him.  Meaning, basically, that you’re teaching two classes at once.  I enjoy working with them, but it ain’t easy.

Having the advanced group two days in a row, though, is pretty great.  It means I get to connect my lessons; use Friday to build on what we did Thursday.  I think – or at least I hope – I’ll be able to get a lot more out of them this way.  And of course, the material is just more interesting.  This week, for example, I did Shakespeare Sonnet 116 with them.2  The language is tough, but I walk them through it.  The real point, though, is to get some conversation going.

Basically, the poem is about “true love.”  But from there, everybody has their own ideas and opinions and they’re usually pretty good about expressing them.  Some people think it’s beautiful, others find it naïve.  Some think it’s a worthy goal, others find it constraining.  But they talk, is the point.  And there are some pretty smart people in that room, which makes it a lot of fun.

Not to say there aren’t smart people in the beginner group.  There certainly are.  But they don’t have the tools to handle that kind of discussion yet.  It will be cool, though, to do this with them, when, several months from now, they find their way into the advanced class.

Anne, my French tandem partner/stranger-in-a-strange land friend, is back in Berlin.  So Friday, she invited me to this little theatre piece she was working.  It’s a French company, in Berlin.  So the show was in French with German supertitles.  The show itself was very cool.  It was a one-woman spiel, in which she played the characters of several social workers3 who work with refugees.  The actress was very good indeed, and the text itself was both touching and terribly relevant.  Though in the case of the text, I couldn’t feel the full force of it.

Despite the fact that the actress spoke her lines quite clearly, I was really up against the limits of my French.  And so, while I could follow the story and generally knew what was going on, I wasn’t getting the nuance.  The supertitles weren’t much help either.  See, to watch something in German or French with English subtitles is one thing; that’s no problem.  But to try and grab the German supertitles at the same time as the French sound, well, 1) I’m too slow and 2) it’s an extra step, because I’m filtering it through English either coming or going.  Going direct between two foreign languages – both of which I’m functional in, but neither of which I’m fluent in – that’s hard work.

So hard was it, in fact, that I found myself either listening to the French or reading the German.  Not, as I’d hoped, filling in the French gaps with German when I needed it.  Because once I switched my attention to the second language, the first had moved on sufficiently that I could no longer catch up.  So I needed to wait for a pause before I could switch back.  But even with all this, it was a pretty cool experience; and not anything I’d ever tried before.  And I was fairly pleased with myself to have been able to keep up as well as I did.  It just wasn’t easy.

After the show, Anne asked me if I cried; I guess a number of people did.  But I didn’t.  It was all I could do to simply understand.  Interacting with the show on an emotional level was beyond me.  Which is instructive too.  It’s something to keep in mind when I put 16th century English poetry in front of my students.  Granted, we have the freedom to stop and discuss and explain.  But on some level, there’s going to be a wall there.  In that sense, I’m all the more impressed with what they’re able to give me.

So I mostly hung out with Anne after the show, and we mostly spoke German.  Ostensibly, we were also hanging out with her colleagues – the writer, admin people from the theatre, etc.  But since they’re all French, and were speaking French, I couldn’t really participate.  Listening to one actress in a quiet theatre is one thing.  Keeping up with a conversation in a noisy bar, that’s a horse of a different color.

Anne’s boyfriend was also there.  He’s a lovely chap; a sound engineer by trade, and often not in Berlin.  I’d only met him once before.  He hardly speaks any English and his German is pretty rudimentary.  So one-on-one, we were mostly doing French, with a smattering of the other two.  But he’s sweet as can be, and – thank the gods – speaks quite slowly.  So with him, I could manage.  In the end though, it was just great to catch up with Anne.  I probably hadn’t seen her in at least six weeks.

Around midnight, everybody started going their separate ways.  My way led me to Joschka’s, as the theatre was literally a three-minute walk from his apartment.  I hadn’t seen him in at least six weeks either, but for the one time at Vinny’s while I was home.  I’d say it was classic times, but we didn’t really drink much.  We had a couple of very nice beers, but no cocktails or scotch.  On the other hand, we made dinner (or breakfast) around two or three in the morning, and that’s not not classic.  I think I must have got home around six.

Saturday night, we – Joschka and I – went to go see this Austrian metal band, Harakiri for the Sky.  He’s a big fan.  I thought they were alright.  They’re very “soundscape-y.”  What I mean, I think, is that their music, while melodic, kind of drones on.  It’s very nice and atmospheric when you’re listening at home, but I think it’s not so great for a live show.  They weren’t bad, mind you.  Just not very exciting, to my mind.  Also, I found the bass player kind of disappointing.  He was clearly extremely talented, wielding a six-string axe.  But there was a lot of open space in the music where he really could have added something special; and he never seemed to.

Taken altogether, though, I went to the theatre on Friday and a metal show on Saturday.  I spent time with two of my Berlin besties whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.  It was a pretty good weekend, any way you cut it.

The difficulty now is finding time to work on all my “projects.”  I’ve put off getting back to Greek long enough.  For a while, I’ve been debating with myself what text I should read.  Thucydides is wonderfully relevant – to say nothing of being the best prose in any language ever – but also quite difficult.  Herodotus is a wonderful story teller, and quite readable, but also quite long.  So I’ve decided I’m going to do Aristotle’s Poetics.  It’s not that long, and his style is pretty clean.  I think that’ll be a good way back in.  I’m off Mondays, so I’ll start that tomorrow.

Then there’s my “Federalist project.”  I wrote about this in my New Year’s Resolution post, but in short, the plan is to read each Federalist essay and write a short post reacting to it.  I’ll give a full explanation as an opening post.  The difficulty lies in the fact that this becomes my third on-going writing project.  The first, obviously, is this blogue.  The second is another silly fairy tale I’m working on.  So when I sit down in front of the computer, which do I write for?  I do want to get that under way though.  Hopefully this week or next.

And of course, there’s the Hebrew.  After I finished the course book, I bought a new workbook by the same authors.  If the course book is designed as a first-year Hebrew course, then this new workbook is designed as a second year text.  It’s got about thirty or so biblical passages of varying length.  But they’re all unabridged, real-deal readings.  So I’m working on that as well.

And, frustratingly, it’s giving me second thoughts about my original goal of keeping up with the weekly parsha readings starting with the new year in September.  I don’t mean that the language is so difficult that it’s beyond me.  It’s not.  But it is difficult, and it’s slow going.  So on the one hand, I’ve no doubt that I have the skills to read The Five Books.  On the other hand, I’m far less certain that I have the skills to read so much so fast.  It’s a question of pace.  But that’s still four-plus months away.  I’ll reassess again when I finish this workbook.  I’m still going to try, but I may have to modify my goal a bit.  We’ll see.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at an Eisbein, which is a sort of German ham hock.  It’s a part of the pig’s leg, with a giant bone in the middle of some rather tough meat.  Traditionally, it’s roasted and served with Rotkohl (red cabbage) and kraut and maybe potatoes.  However, I did it as a braise with leeks and pears.  The meat itself was pretty fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.  The difficulty, for me, lies in the skin.  We don’t usually buy pork products with the skin attached.  After all, pork skin is quite think and quite chewy.  If you roast it right, you can get it to crisp up pretty nice; which, I guess, is why they do it that way.  But I chose the braise, because it seemed to me that this would be the best way to get the meat tender.

But what to do about the skin?  The first problem is, we have an electric oven.  In other words, no broiler, no direct flame.  If I had a gas oven, I’d have just finished it underneath broiler and that should have crisped up the skin just fine.  So I experimented.  After about four hours, I removed half the skin.  Removing the cover, I put the rest of it back in under high heat for 15-20 minutes.  That didn’t do much of anything, and that part of the skin remained rather chewy and flavorless.

But for the skin I removed, I cut it into little squares and fried it up in olive oil.  First of all, man did that shit pop and dance around in the pan!  That’s what aprons are for, my friends.  Also, I don’t have an apron.  However, the end product was pretty fantastic.  It was crispy and crunchy and full of flavor.  I guess it’s a take on pork rinds?4  I dunno.  I was inspired to try it from something I saw in Anthony Borudain’s No Reservations.  I don’t think that’s exactly what he did, but it gave me the idea, anyway.  In the end, I was damned pleased with that, and it’s just what I’m going to do the next time.

The only other thing, then, that still requires some experimentation is the braise itself.  The idea behind the leeks and pears is that pork has an inherent sweetness, and I thought they would pear pair well together.  And they still might.  But I found them to be somewhat bitter.  So maybe I need to put them in closer to the end?  Or maybe just do it with something else entirely?  I dunno.  Like I said, I still need to experiment there.

But that’s enough of that.  To the extent that anybody actually reads this thing, I don’t think people are coming here for my rambling thoughts on cooking.  In fact, I think that’s enough for this post in general.  I keep wanting to put down my thoughts about this whole East Berlin/East Germany thing.  But it’s a lot to go into now.  And also, it’s not that late, so I’m thinking I may take another crack at that silly fairy tale or even get started on this whole “Federalist Project.”  So until next time…

זיי געסונט

  1. Or, “Home Shithole,” as my old electrician-boss Gerry used to call it. []
  2. …Love is not love / which alters when it alteration finds… []
  3. Or possibly just one social worker. []
  4. But not the gross shit they sell in plastic bags at the supermarket as junk food. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
19 April, 2017
A Berliner in New York, Part III

Right, so Part The third of my time in New York; and hopefully Part the Last as well.  After lunch with Uncle Art, we dropped him back off at the factory/office.  It’s always great to see that guy.  That said, it’s also a touch bittersweet.  You see him slowing down, you know he’s 90.  God willing, he’ll be around for a long time yet.  But you don’t take these visits for granted.  It was important to me to see him while I was in, so I’m glad I got the chance.

He asked me at one point during the visit if I’m living in “East Germany.”  And I honestly wasn’t sure if he just meant the east of the country or the DDR.  My impression was that he meant the latter.  So I started to say that it’s all just one Germany now.  But than I realized that if he was going to ask about what life is like in Berlin (and East Berlin, at that), I’d soon find myself saying something like, “Well, things are pretty different in the East, actually.”  Which they are.  In the end, though, the conversation didn’t go much further than asking about my job and if I was happy there/here.

Anyway, as I said, it was great to see him.  After we dropped him off, we drove down to Jersey to visit Aunt Cookie, my mom’s sister.  As it happens, I’m probably closer with her than any of my other aunts and uncles.  This despite the fact that she doesn’t travel anymore with the result that I only see her maybe two or three times a year.

But when I was living in the city, I’d usually call her about once a month or so.  I was in the habit of calling during my walks home from work, which as a general rule was a great time to catch up with people.  Anyway, I’d ring her up and our chats would usually last the whole of my walk, which is to say about an hour.  So that was a lovely thing.

Anyway, we drove down – me and the ‘rents – for a visit; this was the Tuesday before I flew back to Germany.  We had a very nice time.  Just the usual catching up and joking around.  She’s always excited to have company, so she tends to fuss over me/us rather a bit.  I’m not generally one to be fussed over, but that’s her way and you’ve got to let her have it.  And anyway, she puts up with my surly, sarcastic, deadpan ass, so I’m certainly not going to throw stones from my glass house.

Also, she’s great about respecting my boundaries.  What I mean is, she’ll ask me any question on any subject, but if she senses that I don’t want to talk about something, she’ll dead it, no questions asked.  So that’s something I definitely appreciate.  Add to that the fact that I can speak pretty candidly with her and never have to worry about offending her.  She’s good people.  And as I said, it was a very lovely – if short – visit.

After that, my next stop was Queens, to have dinner with Flare1 and Garth.  Shout-out to my dad for driving me to Astoria on their way home.  Anyway, Flare is another one of these people I’ve known since High School; though we didn’t go to the same HS.  She’s another one who fits the “friends as much as family” schema.  Indeed, the family thing goes a bit further with her.  See, I’ve spent every Christmas with her and her fam from 2010 to 2015.  And this past Christmas, they Skyped me in.  That’s a pretty special thing for me.  I mean, they don’t treat me as a guest, they treat me like part of the family.  And this past year, her mom, her uncle, her cousins, they all got on the Skype and said some variation of, “It’s weird that you’re not here; you’re a part of our Christmas.”  That’s pretty fucking special.  And for a Yid, it beats the hell out of Chinese food and a movie, don’t it?

When I got there, Garth hadn’t come home from work yet, so we had some nice one-on-one time to catch up.  But it was a little different than the usual catch-ups.  By which I mean, we’ve had a lot of the same experiences.  She did a year in Spain, so she’s a) got the living in Europe thing and b) the learning a foreign language in a foreign country thing.  She’s an art teacher now and has done ESL teaching in the past.  So while there was of course just regular catching up, we also did a lot comparing notes, which was really cool; and not something I was really able to do with anyone else.

For dinner, we ordered in Chinese.  Halal Chinese.  Which, I mean, I fucking love New York.  That was my first reaction, right?  Like, where else in the world do you get halal Chinese food?  My second reaction was, “Well, fuck, that defeats the purpose of getting wanton soup.”2  Garth Vader3 picked up the food on his way home, so we all ate together which was great.

Garth is lovely, gregarious, nerdy, jock-y, funny and wicked smaht.  He also works for the city DEP4 doing waste-water treatment.  Which is fascinating.  He’s another one I just ask questions to and listen to the answers.  I learned a lot about how the city functions, but a part of the city that we a) never see and b) take for granted anyway.  It’s downright fascinating.

Well, it was a late night for both of them and you could tell they were both pretty tired by the end of it.  So I didn’t stay too late, and caught a reasonable train back to the Island.  But it was wonderful to see them.  Two of the sweetest people I know.  And I’ll tell you something else, they’re too of the best huggers.  Seriously.

Wednesday I was supposed to have lunch with Heather (Keith’s wife) and the girls, by which I mean her two daughters and also Mike & Jen’s daughter, whom she had for the day.  But in the event, Jen was able to come along as well.  And then Murp surprised me by showing up too.  We went to the Inn Between, which is the definition of classic with that crew.  I normally get the wings there, because they make the best fucking wings.  But I didn’t want to eat that the day before I was flying, so I opted for the chicken Caesar salad, which is also top fucking notch.

This was perfectly lovely.  Though, as you can imagine, with three little girls at the table, it wasn’t necessarily easy to carry on an in-depth conversation.  But it didn’t matter.  It was just nice to have a little extra time with those clowns.  And little Kelsey is just starting to become an actual talking person, so it was definitely fun to chat with her a bit too.

Dinner was at a pre-grand opening for a new Shake Shack on Long Island.  Jo recently landed a big-deal job with the company, so she got us all invited to this thing, which was otherwise closed to the public.  And yet, it was so fucking crowded!  I have to admit, at first, I was like, fuck this, I don’t want to stand on a line for fast food.  But the line moved pretty quickly, and it turned out to be pretty damned good.  I mean, it’s Shake Shack after all.  Also, it was nice to have the whole fam together for one last dinner before I split.

Afterwards, Justin came back to the house for a final few rounds of NHL; in which I totally thrashed him, btw.  So that was great.  For me.  Which is what matters, right?  No, but seriously, the game itself is only half the fun.  The other half is just the sheer ridiculous of acting like idiots, yelling like crazy people and the general comedy that ensues from all that.  But also I won.  So, you know.  Party all around, points all around.5

And that was my last night home.  Next day, my ‘rents drove me to the airport.  My flight was delayed over an hour, so they hung out with me for a while before I finally went through security.  The goodbyes are always tough, no question.

But also, it felt a bit weird to be going back.  Even with that crazy busy schedule, there were still people I didn’t get to see.  In fact, after I published the first part of this post, I got an email from Amber being all, “Don’t come to New York and not see me.”  Which, she’s absolutely right, and I immediately felt guilty.  I also wanted to visit my old Jewish special-needs school, to see some of my old colleagues and students.  I didn’t get to do that either.

So I left feeling like I didn’t have enough time, not seeing everybody I wanted to see.  I also left feeling not at all rested.  I mean, I basically spent the entire two weeks either drunk, hung over or sleeping.  I really could have used a third week.  But I also couldn’t have afforded a third week.  So that was tough.

Add to that, it was a bit surreal leaving.  By the end, I wasn’t sure if “home” referred to Berlin or New York.  It was surreal leaving Berlin to go back to the states, and now it was surreal in the other direction.

Back in Berlin, I got through immigration with zero difficulty.  Which is how it should be, but I didn’t know for sure.  I was definitely playing out worst-case scenarios in my head with regard to my visa.  But in the end, there were no problems.  Well, other than the flight being delayed and it taking forever to collect my bags.

Amongst which was was a duffel bag filled with about 20 kilos of books; mostly Greek stuff.  I mean, I’ve got a proper book shelf here, and it was distressingly empty.  Also, how could I get back to work on Greek if all my books were across the Ocean?   So now I’ve got my books here, and that is glorious.  Also, my bookshelf looks amazing.  But lugging that bag home was no fun.  It was worth it, but it was no fun.

After dropping my stuff off, I went back out and grabbed a Döner for lunch.  And since that is pretty much the most Berlin thing I could do upon my return, I mark that as the official end of my visit home and my official return to Germany.  And with that, I’ll also end the official recording of my vacation.

זיי געסונט

 

  1. Her name is Jen.  In high school, we called her Jen-a-Flare (instead of Jennifer).  Anyway, Flare stuck and that’s all I ever call her. []
  2. #nopork []
  3. Garth Vader is not a Dave nickname; that’s a real nickname. []
  4. Department of Environmental Protection. []
  5. #ifyouwannabemyturgeon []