An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 January, 2018

Well, well, well, Happy fuckin New Y – oh, wait, I think I did that gag already.  So I flew back to Germany on New Year’s Eve.  My flight was due to land at 11:30 pm.  Which was not ideal, but did at least have the virtue of being over a hundred Euros cheaper.  That said, we touched down at 11; which had me wondering if I’d somehow managed to get myself on the wrong aeroplane.  I still don’t know how we managed to land so early.  Maybe there was no traffic?

Anyway, one cool thing about it, I got to see fireworks from above.  This was very cool.  Small and far away, yes.  But popping off bright against the blackness, it was surreal and gorgeous.  I imagine it’s a rare sight, and so all the more precious.

The plan was to go straight to Joschka’s from the airport.  The timing was such that I was above ground on the S-Bahn, travelling through the middle of Berlin at midnight.  A bit lonely perhaps, but it afforded me yet another great view of the fireworks.

This city is crazy with fireworks on New Year’s.  They’re legal here, though possibly only for the one day.  So people kinda go nuts with it.  Just, like, in the streets.  Setting off all kinds of crazy shit.  Best to have your windows closed though.  You see plenty of rockets landing on roofs and bouncing off the sides of buildings.  I’ve heard stories of rockets going through open windows and starting fires.  It’s all a bit mad, if I’m being perfectly honest.  And “safe” isn’t really a word that comes to mind; at least not without an accompanying negation.  But it’s impressive.  Also loud.

Charlotte and the gang called me shortly after midnight as I happened to be on the sidewalk on Joschka’s block.  The downside of leaving when I did was that I missed what I assume was a killer party.  Anyway, it was very sweet of them to call.  Gallou and Marion took a turn on the horn as well, but to be honest, it was so loud – the fireworks, I mean – I could scarcely hear a blesséd word they said.  Still, it was a nice coda to that whole trip.

Meanwhile, the plan, as I said, was to meet Joschka.  Only he wasn’t answering his phone; neither texts nor actual calls.  Fortunately, I have a key.  So I went up anyway, only to find the apartment empty.  Well, that was weird.  But at least I could put my bag down.  Upon which I went back outside and went for a walk to take in the last of the fireworks shit-show.  Finally, Joschka got back to me.  He was at Cindy’s restaurant.  So I met them there.

I was starving, but sadly, the kitchen had already closed.  However, Cindy, being the absolute doll that she is, went into the kitchen and scored me a baguette.  Which I promptly devoured; not having eaten since something like two in the afternoon.  That was “socca” with C and P.  Socca, I take it, is a bit of a Nice specialty.  It’s like a fried chick-pea bread.  Sorta like if Matzah-meal pancakes and hummus had a baby.  Anyway, I was hungry, is the point.  And the bread was a lifesaver.

Also at the restaurant were the Dinner Party Gang.  These are the people I first met at Cindy’s for Christmas last year and with whom we periodically get together for dinner.  Hence the tag.  That was a happy surprise, and it was nice to catch up with them for a bit.  Also there were two of J’s cousins.  We kinda had the restaurant to ourselves, as they had already shut down for the night, save for one table of old ladies.  So it was cool.

When it was time to go, the Dinner Party Gang went their own way while we – J, C, the cousins and me – headed back to J’s place.  One of the cousins peeled off along the way, so in the end we were down to four.  After an obligatory Döner stop, we went up to chez-Joschka.

The first order of business was the (also obligatory and now traditional) Dinner for One reenactment.  I may have written about this last year, but Dinner for One is a black-and-white comedy sketch from the 50’s or 60’s, about 15m long.  It’s basically mandatory watching on New Year’s in Germany.  And it’s in English, which is weird.

Anyway, the plot is, this rich old lady has a dinner party for herself and her four best friends.  Only they’re all dead.  But that doesn’t stop her from setting a place for all of them.  And her poor servant has to drink all their drinks.  Four rounds.  Times four.  So he’s pretty soused by the end of it.  It’s good slapstick.

Right, so our tradition – J and me – is to also go the four rounds; though only one drink each.  A white wine, champagne, sherry and port.  When the servant drinks, we drink.  It’s fun.  And cultural, so you know, highbrow…in a way.  Funnily, Joschka’s cousin is like 21, and didn’t care a whit for the sherry or port.  Kids, eh?

The rest of the night was spent playing Settlers of Catan.  Which is more and more fun every time we play.  Very good times indeed.  I think I got home around eight.

I think I had to leave Germany and then come back to realize how far I’ve come with the language.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m still a disaster.  Mistakes everywhere.  Gender, word order, general grammar.  It’s a mess.  But at the end of the day, I’m fairly functional.

You know, in France, it took me about three days to even begin to feel comfortable.  And as I said in my last post, I definitely managed.  But with French, I’m missing so much of the day-to-day stuff.  The little filler phrases, the quotidian shit.  On the last day there, I was asking C about all the little things I now take for granted in Germany.  For just one example, I was asking about the words for “change.”  As in, “Sorry, I don’t have any change.”  Or, how do you say “exact change”?  That kind of thing.  And as I said before, my listening skills are basically garbage.

So I was genuinely surprised to see how easily I fell back into things with German when I got back.  Like, I could just understand people.  Now, to be sure, my vocabulary still isn’t great.  I miss words.  Sometimes I miss whole ideas.  But by and large, I get it.  And it was just German the whole night.  Barely any English.1  And I could participate.  I felt like I could be myself again; like I got my tongue back.2  Honestly, it was a huge relief.  However great my week in Nice was – and it was absolutely great – language-wise, it was a real slog.  Now I was free again.

Staying with the language thing here for a minute, I had dinner with Lucie and Marco on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  It was a great example of how far my language skills have come and how far they still have to go.

To the former, we somehow got into a very funny philosophical discussion about the use of the Future Perfect tense.  And I realized, after 18 months in this country, this was the first philosophical discussion I’d ever had in German.  Not because the opportunity never presented itself, but because I simply wasn’t up to it.  So I mentioned this to them.  And Marco said something along the lines of, “Well, yeah, actually we were just saying the other day how in the beginning it was pretty clear that you were just not understanding many things.  But now you seem to be getting most things most of the time.”  Achievement unlocked, amirite?

So much for progress.  And yet, I clearly still have a ways to go.  See, I cooked dinner that night.  Because on Sunday, Lucie asked me if I would cook dinner on Tuesday for Marco’s birthday.  At the time, I thought this just a touch odd.  After all, we have dinner together once or twice a month.  But always its at the instigation of whoever is offering to cook.  No one has ever asked someone else to do the cooking.  But I rationalized it as, well, it’s a birthday thing, so they probably just want to enjoy the night and not have to worry about shit.  And also, that’s a nice compliment, right?  I mean, they must obviously enjoy my cooking enough to actually ask me to do it.

Right, so I get home from work and immediately get to it in the kitchen.  Which, I have to say, was kind of a mess.  And I’ll be honest, I was very very slightly annoyed.  Like, come on you guys, you asked me to cook.  The least you could do is not leave the kitchen a mess.  But whatever, not a big deal.

Anyway, I finally get Big Bertha – that’s my cast iron dutch oven, remember – into the oven.3  And about an hour later, Marco is knocking on my door.  “Hey, how much longer do you need the oven for?”  Probably another hour, I tell him.  “Well, umm, Lucie needs it also,” he tells me.  Which I thought was strange.  “Are we not all eating together at like seven?” I ask.  “Are you cooking for all of us?” he asks.  “Well, yeah, Lucie asked me to.  That’s tonight, isn’t it?”  And he starts laughing.

“Dude, did you honestly thing we would ask you to cook?”  Well, yeah, I did think that was a bit unusual.  So I gave my reasons, just as I’ve given them here.  To which he was all, “Yeah, OK, my wife is demanding, but she’s not that demanding.”4  But I thought…

So we go find Lucie and tell her what’s happened.  And she’s like, “You’re kidding right?  I would never ask you to do the cooking.  All I asked was, if you were free to have dinner with us tonight.”  And I’m like, “Well.  This is embarrassing.”

Anyway, it all worked out, obviously.  And in the end, Lucie cooked her dinner on Thursday.  So Marco got two birthday dinners.  But I was just like, jeez man, just when I think I’m getting good at this language, I screw up something so simple, you know?

Oh, the dinner was great, btw.  I crusted the pork loin with this mustard-horseradish sauce that I made.5  And I used all sweet veggies, plus my homemade stock.  Parsnips, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes and onions.  So the pan sauce was fucking fantastic, if I do say so myself.

Then on Thursday, Lucie made some killer steaks with green-beans and fries.  Terrific.  Yeah, so two darn good dinners this week.  And good times with the roommies.  Which is important, not for nothing.  Because I’m not generally very social when I’m home.  I mean, if I’m home, it’s probably precisely because I don’t want to be social.  So I often find myself feeling annoyed that there’s other people in the house when I want to be alone.  Which is absurd, I know; though true to my general misanthropic nature.

The point is, it’s important for me to spend time with those clowns every once in a while, if only to remind myself that I do actually genuinely like them and to reset my annoyance meter back down to zero.  Yeah, I know.  I’m an asshole.  Everybody knows that.

So.  The Torah.  That continues to be interesting.  It’s calmed down a bit.  By which I mean, no crazy shit on the order of Lot and his “skanky daughters,” as Josh dubbed them.  But here’s a thing I’m noticing.  It’s a very spare text.  What I mean is, there’s hardly any adjectives.  Oh sure, they’ll name like seven different spices and nine kinds of trees.  But like, nobody is tall or short, skinny or fat.  Sometimes somebody is strong.  Somebody had red hair.6  And of course plenty of things are “good” or “evil.”

But at some point, you start to feel like maybe God was slacking off a bit.  I mean, I don’t imagine he gets tired.  And yet, first week on the job, he’s already taking a day off.  Like, you couldn’t crawl out of bed for five minutes on Sunday Saturday for a quick “Let there be adjectives” before going back to sleep?

But OK, at least it makes learning vocabulary easier.  Anyway, I’m in Exodus now.  Just got through the ninth plague.  And I have to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I grasp the premise of all this business.  What I mean is, at the end of each plague, you get this formulaic: “And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he didn’t let them go.”

And OK, if Pharaoh is just naturally stubborn or a dick, fine.  But God is making him stubborn?  Does that not defeat the purpose?  As far as I can tell, it always comes back to what I read as God’s inferiority complex.  I mean, for an all-mighty, he seems rather insecure.  What do I mean?  Well, see, there’s another formulaic bit.  With every plague, Moses says to Pharaoh something along the lines of: “So God says ‘Let my people go, or you will suffer this plague, so that you will know that I am the Lord God.”

What?  Is the point to free the Hebrews or is the point for the Egyptians to respect you?  And it’s not just Pharaoh who has to suffer, but all of Egypt.  It’s very clear.  Lots of “All the land of Egypt”s and “Every house”s.  Are we not shooting a mosquito with an elephant-gun here?

So my current – and admittedly blasphemous – reading of all this is as follows.  God is like some mafia don.  And Pharaoh is not showing him enough respect.  So Pharaoh needs to be taught a lesson.  And not just Pharaoh, but his whole family; and by extension, all his subjects.

So God says, “What a nice country you have here.  It’d be a shame if anything should happen to it.  Let my people go.”  Then he preordains that the people are not let go.  So he sends a plague.  Then he preordains that this will have no effect.  Because he needs to show what a big deal he is.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Meanwhile, the Hebrews are still toiling away in slavery.  And the Egyptian population – who have not elected this Pharaoh, it’s worth pointing out – has to suffer the consequences.  And, I mean, who knows?  Maybe if the question were submitted to a referendum, the Egyptian people would agree to release the Hebrews after the first plague; maybe even at just the threat of a plague.  Who knows?  If they had some kind of recall mechanism, maybe they’d eject the current Pharaoh and replace him with one who was more attentive to their interests.

But no.  Death to all the crops and livestock.  Because Pharaoh is a dick.  And it’s not even clear that he’s actually a dick by nature.  Because remember, it’s God who keeps “hardening his heart.”  It’s weird, is what I’m saying.

So much for Torah.  I went for a long walk on Wednesday.  It was a very foggy night.  I like foggy nights.  It makes everything more mysterious, somehow.  So I just walked in a direction for a few hours.  Wound up someplace I’d never been.  Which is always the goal.

I don’t really know what to say about it.  It was good me-time.  And it was eerily beautiful.  The way the fog hangs out under the street lamps; the way buildings across the water float in smudgy darkness.  Out here, in this part of town, it feels like another world.  It’s hard to believe I’m still in Berlin, some of these places I go.

I wonder what the people are like who live all the way out there, in the middle of nowhere.  What do they do?  Also, where do they shop?  Where do they get Chinese food?  There’s a part of me that thinks it must be very peaceful to live in some of these places, so far removed from the hustle and bustle, so much closer to nature.  It must feel like a kind of luxury to have a whole big house to yourself; or with your family.  But like, what do these people do when they want noodle soup?  Do they even know about noodle soup?

School is good.  Or work.  I don’t know if I’m supposed to call it school or work.  Whatever.  One of my students brought me pickles from Poland.  Before I go on, I need to say something about the pickles in Germany.  They’re all wrong.  Which, I have to admit, came as a surprise.  I mean, in my mind, pickles are a part of the culture here.  Spreewald pickles – local pickles from Berlin-Brandenburg – are kind of a big deal.  But they’re all wrong.  The put sugar in them.  They’re all sweet.  What the actual fuck is up with that?  So I’ve been trying to find proper sour pickles for months now; or proper new pickles.  But with zero success.  My student didn’t know this though.

Right, so I have salad for lunch every day.  It’s boring as hell, and I don’t actually like it.  But I feel like it’s important to get regular vitamins and whatnot.  So I make a point of eating salad for lunch. Anyway, a while back, this student asks me one day for a bit of cucumber.  I guess she loves cucumber.  Sure, OK.  Well, one thing led to another and soon I was just giving her a bit of cucumber every day; she didn’t need to ask anymore.

Fine.  So we get back from the break, and she says, “Dave, I have a Christmas present for you.  It’s just a Kleinigkeit (“a little nothing”).  A joke really.  Because you give me ‘gherkins’7 everyday…I brought you gherkins from Poland…”  And she gives me a little gift bag.  And in the bag is a jar of pickles.  Not just pickles.  Actual sour pickles.

Naturally, the first thing I do is turn the jar around to read the ingredients.  “Please no sugar, please no sugar,” I’m thinking to myself.  And lo and behold: No sugar!!!  And as she’s watching me inspect the label, she must be thinking – well, I don’t know what she’s thinking.  But she says, “It’s just a joke, you know?

And I’m like, “Girl, this is no joke.  This is dead-ass serious.”  And now I think she thinks I’m just weird.  Which, OK, fair enough.  I proceed to do the only logical thing one can do in this situation.  I jump up and give her a big hug.  Which I’m sure she thought was all out of proportion.

So I try to tell her.  “Girl, you have no idea how happy you’ve just made me.”  And it was clear that she literally had no idea.  But I was – and still am – pretty damned over-the-moon about it.  I mean, proper fucking sour pickles.  If I didn’t already know she was married with three kids, I probably would have asked her to marry me on the spot.  Because pickles.  In fact, I nearly asked her to leave her family and run away with me.  I mean, I didn’t.  But it crossed my mind.  Like, let’s just elope to Poland and eat pickles and pirogis and live happily ever after.  Look, we all have dreams.  I’m just saying.

My advanced class is a lot of fun at the moment.  Hands down the most advanced groups I’ve had.  Every one of them is at a super high level.  They were four, but five as of this week.  We verarsch each other a lot – we joke around and give each other shit.  It’s often hilarious.

For example, when we reconvened after the break, I was telling them about my experience in France.  Specifically about my experience with the language.  And at one point, I said something to the effect of, “Well, I felt pretty good about my French with one-year-old Nino.”  And one of the girls was just like, “Yeah, well, you probably speak at his level.”  And I was just, “Nice!  My hat is off to you, my lady.”

The other cool thing is, and I may have mentioned this, there’s an Italian broad in the German class.  She’s very cool and rather a bit goth.  In a number of ways, she reminds me of an older, goth, Italian Niki.  Anyway, she’s helping me with my Italian.  Remember when I came back from Italy and I was all, “I’m gonna learn Italian, bitches!”?  Yeah, well, I’ve been slacking off there.  Between French and Hebrew and Greek I’m just not finding the time.

But she reads with me on the breaks and it’s both fun and helpful.  She’s a ballbreaker when it comes to pronunciation.  But half the fun of Italian is just making the sounds, so it’s totes worth it.  One thing she really gets on me about is double “n.”  OK, in English, if a word is spelled with one ‘n’ or two, we don’t really change the pronunciation.  But in Italian, apparently, this is important.

So the word for ‘year’ is anno.  And if you want to say it right, you really have to linger on that ‘n.’  Because, as she continues to remind me, with one ‘n’ – ano – it means anus.  Which I appreciate, but can’t feel.  To her, it’s hilarious.

Right, so we’re reading this stupid super-beginner-level story about some guy and he’s however-many-years old.  And I read his age, and she’s like, “Annnni.  You said ani, and I think, ‘ah yes, now I’m interested!,’ but that’s not what it says.”  And of course she’s saying all this with her Italian accent, and it’s fucking hilarious.  We’re just cracking up.

Anyway, that’s that.  It’s a nice little side-highlight from my job.  I guess it’ll last as long as she’s in the school.  But it’s very cool.  I kinda love Italian.  It’s just fun for my mouth in a way that German and French aren’t.  And it sounds so cool.  Like, when she speaks, I go all Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda.

Which I just re-watched recently.  What a great film.  Like when Kevin Kline yells “ass-hoooole!!!”  Classic.

Well now I’m just rambling.  Let’s call this the end, shall we?  Until next time…

זײַ געסונט

  1. With the one caveat that when it’s just me and Joschka, we still tend to slip into English.  Probably because that’s just how we know each other. []
  2. Probably to the chagrin of those around me. []
  3. I was doing a braised pork loin with mad veggies. []
  4. Also, Lucie is like the sweetest person ever and not even remotely demanding. []
  5. Homemade horseradish, obvi. []
  6. Maybe it was Isaac? []
  7. In German, Gerken is the same word for both cucumber and pickle.  Which is insane, I don’t mind telling you. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2018

 

Well, well, well.  Happy fucking New Year.  Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way first, shall we?  Resolutions.  Nothing new this year, as I’ve already got my hands plenty full.  However, my goals – if not resolutions – are to keep my hands full with the things I set in motion last year.  Primarily, that’s three tasks.  The first is to keep on keeping on with Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.  The second is to keep on keeping on reading Greek.  I’d love for this to expand beyond Homer.  But since just trying to read a bit of The Poet before bed most nights is all I’ve been able to manage of late, at the moment my goal is to simply keep that going.  The last is to keep on keeping on with my Federalist Project.  This is going slower than I’d anticipated, but it is still going.  So any progress there – as long as there is progress – will be enough.  That was always going to be a long-game anyway.

Right, enough of that.  So I was in France for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, for to visit Charlotte.  Lots to say about that.  Where to begin?  Well, Charlotte I guess.  I hadn’t seen her in over a year.  The last time I saw her was when she was in Berlin last September.  Thereafter, she went to Australia for about a year with a month or so in Japan at the end.  That’s quite a while not to see a dear friend.

But as is common with dear friends, we picked up right where we’d left off.  It was as if no time had passed.  Or at least it was to me.  No doubt she’ll counter that sentiment in a [snarky] comment if she found it otherwise.  The point is, after many months and miles of separation, it was wonderful – though not surprising – to find our friendship as strong as ever.  As with our Great Western Roadtrip and the many other journeys we have together undertaken, I find again that she is one of very few people with whom I can spend so much time in so close quarters and not grow weary of.  Though I do grow weary of saying nice things about her, and so I shall now proceed to an accounting of my visit.

She met me at the airport, which was not the plan.  I was supposed to take a bus and meet her somewhere else.  Since she knew my schedule, there was no real need of communicating my deplaning.  It was only by chance that I turned my phone on and sent a text that I was on the bus.  Upon which she called me and told me to get off the bus, for she was upstairs waiting for me.  Another minute, and it would have been too late; the bus hadn’t left yet.  So I scrambled off the bus just in time.  Though it would have been better comedy – howsoever less convenient – had I not.

Anyway, happy reunion at the airport and then it was off to her new apartment to drop off my bag.  Not long after that, it was Christmas time.  By which I mean, Christmas dinner at her friend’s mom’s house.  Already I was nervous about this.  I mean, I’d only met her friend once, and that briefly in 2103; I’d certainly never met her mom.  Then there would be an uncle of Charlotte’s whom I’d never met.  Then Charlotte’s mom, dad and sister.  These, at least, I knew, had spent time with and already liked.  And finally, of course, Charlotte herself.  Which was…fine.  I mean, she’s fine.

Right, so this would be anxiety-inducing enough in a situation where everybody spoke English; or, dare I say, even German.  But French?  And just off the plane, no time to adjust.  Straight into the frying pan, as it were.  Well, at first it was a bit stressful.  And certainly, I was not understanding very much at all.  But look, friends.  These are problems that are easily rectified by wine.  And of that, there was plenty.  So I settled into a comfort zone soon enough, even if I was in the dark as to the general dinner-table conversation.

Before going any further, let’s put some names to these people, since they’ll all come up again.  The friend is Rapha.  Her mom is, well, Rapha’s Mom.  Charlotte’s dad is Philippe.  Her mom is Carine.  Her sister is Marion.  And the Uncle is Dan.  Also, I may have spelled one or all of those names wrong.  Désolé.

Off the bat, Rapha’s Mom was terrifying.  Try to imagine an old, stone-faced, stereotypical French woman.  And remember, she speaks no English.  And my French is, at this juncture, shite.  And I’m in her home for Christmas.  Like I say: terrifying.  That is, until later in the night – the drunken part of the night – when she puts on a ridiculous hat and feather boa.  At which point I was like, OK, this dame’s alright.  I believe there’s a picture of the two of us like that.

Anyway, it was all great.  The food, the times, the people.  As is wont to happen with that great social lubricant, things loosened up as the night went on.  People tried to speak to me in broken English.  I tried speaking to them in broken French.  We managed.

As a side note, this is now the second family that’s taken me in on Christmas.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I spent every Christmas from 2010 to 2015 with Jen and her family; we skyped last year.  This year, she sent me a picture of her uncle wearing a shirt which read: “Dave’s not here, man.”  Which is amazing.  Anyway, the point is, it’s extremely touching.

I mean, as a Yid, obviously Christmas doesn’t mean all that much to me.  But for the Goyim, it’s quite the big deal.  So when your friends take you in, with their family, treat as you part of the family…well, it means a lot.  That’s a lot of love coming my way, and it’s humbling, not to put too fine a point on it.  But more on this later.

Apparently we crashed in Rapha’s room.  I say apparently, because I woke up around six with an awful allergic attack (owing to two dogs) and not knowing where I was.  Took me a few minutes to get my bearings.  Anyway, it was bad enough, we went back to Charlotte’s place at that ungodly hour, which fortunately was only about two blocks away.

So much for First Christmas.  Second Christmas was with her dad’s family.  Though I was thankful to be included, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.  Possibly Definitely this owed to the severe hangover I was suffering.  Not my best work, but I got through it.

Moving right along then.  The next few days are a bit of a blur, insofar as I don’t remember the exact chronology.  I cooked dinner one night, for just the two of us, which was lovely.  There was a night where Rapha came over to hang out.

Man, that was fun.  This was really my first Rapha experience, even though I’d been hearing stories about her for years.  Simply put, she’s a riot.  We played dice, broke out the guitar, drank a bunch and just generally hung out.  Complete shit-show.  And complete fun.

Rapha’s English is kind of a train wreck.  But she makes it work.  Also my French is kind of a train wreck.  But I make it work.  So we were all able to chat and make it work.  For Charlotte this was hilarious, just listening to the both of us mangle each other’s languages, both of which Charlotte is fluent in.

Here’s another thing about Rapha.  And this is the sort of thing I normally would not write.  But since, in the end, I said it to Charlotte and, eventually, to Rapha, I see no reason to withhold it.  So the girl shows up wearing a black dress and a beige sweater.  Then, rather a bit later on, she took off the beige sweater.  And the neckline on this dress, well, “plunging” doesn’t go far enough.  We’re talking Olympic level high-dive here.  I believe my exact words were, “Her tits are out of control.”  Which, though vulgar, does at least have the virtue of accuracy.

But remember, this is really only the second time I’d properly met the girl and the first where we could be said to be properly “hanging out.”  Way to soon to introduce Inappropriate Dave.  In other words, no leering, no rude remarks.  This necessitated a reallocation of mental resources in the form of constantly reminding myself not to stare and to maintain eye-contact.  Unfortunately, this made conversation rather a bit more difficult.  But I muddled through.  And for that night, at least, maintained the (fraudulent) appearance of the perfect gentleman.

It was also on this night that I first learned of the ridiculosity of my French.  By now, we all know that I read plenty of Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas.  In other words, 19th century stuff.  And it has, theretofore unbeknownst to me, shaped my vocabulary in ways I had not expected.

So Rapha is telling this story of a girlfriend of theirs.  And in this story, the girl apparently broke some guy’s nose at a bar and wound up in jail.  She’s telling me this in her unique brand of English.  So naturally I try to reply in French, repeating back elements of the story.  So I try to say something like, “Wait, so she broke his nose?”

And as I’m organizing this in my brain, I’m not thinking about vocabulary, but grammar.  Because in French, the construction is not “She broke his nose,” but rather “She broke him the nose.”  And I’m getting ready to be pretty proud of remembering that.  So I say, “Alors, elle l’a brisé le nez?”  And immediately, they both start laughing.  Cracking up even.

Oh no!  What did I say wrong?  Did I screw up the construction?  Did I get the vocabulary wrong?  Did I somehow manage to say “She poured him a cabbage” or something equally nonsensical?  “What?  Is it wrong?” I asked flusterdly.1

No, no it’s not wrong they tell me, through unabating laughter.  It’s just, nobody says briser.  It’s sooo 19th century.  Apparently I should have used “casser.”  It would be akin to saying something like, “Verily, hath she smitten him upon the nose?”  Such is the state of my French vocabulary, apparently.  And “mistakes” like this just kept happening; and were always followed by a good laugh.

The next night (I think), we had a bit of a party.  Rapha again.  Laura, whom I know from New York.  She’s great.  We banter.  Magalie – which may or may not be how she spells it – who I also met briefly in 2013.  And Uncle Dan.

This was proper fun.  Music, booze, games, jokes, food, the whole nine.  It would have been fun under any circumstances.  But something about this was extra cool.  These were Charlotte’s besties.  The girls she grew up with.  But I didn’t feel out of place, I didn’t feel awkward.  I felt like I got on with everybody and they all accepted me; not as some random friend of a friend, but almost as a part of the family.  It was really quite special in that way.  Also there was a drunken Queen sing along.  Probably Don’t Stop Me Now.  Which is always glorious.

French-wise it was also interesting.  I’ve spoken about Rapha already.  Laura has been living in New York for years and London before that, so she’s basically native-speaker fluent at this point.  We speak – and banter – in English; anything else would be absurd.  Mag’s English is pretty decent.  But where all the others speak French fast and slangy, she speaks slowly and, dare I say, “properly.”

In other words, when she spoke to me in French, I could totally understand her.  Like, we just chatted away in French and it was totally fine.  Kinda like with Anne.  Which, now that I think of it, is kind of interesting.  Because when Anne and I meet up for our conversation exchange, I feel pretty OK about my French.  I can go for 30-60 minutes with her.  And yes, she slows down to speak with me, but she doesn’t dumb down.

And so that was kind of a cold bucket of water in the face, going to France.  Because although everybody was very patient with me, precious few of them know how to talk to somebody who doesn’t properly speak the language.  As a result, I suddenly felt very stupid, and my confidence with the language dropped like a rock.

But Mag was talking to me in “perfect” French, almost as if she had stepped out of a textbook.  And all of a sudden, I felt like, “Yeah, I can do this!”  Like, “I know this language.”  Well, early on in our conversation, Charlotte comes over and says to Mag something along the lines of, “Umm, you know he doesn’t really speak French?  Take it easy.”  And Mag was all, “Oh, no, he’s doing fine.”  And I was like, “Yeah he’s doing fine.  Kindly fuck off.”  Which to her credit, she fucked off, and kindly.

Next day, though, I was curious.  So I asked Charlotte.  “Hey, so Mag kinda speaks like a textbook.  Very easy to understand.  But I’m curious.  How much was she dumbing things down for me?”  To which Charlotte, “She wasn’t.  That’s just how she speaks.”  In other words, an actual French person was speaking their own actual French to me and it was no problem at all.  Fuck yeah.  Finger pistols.  I’m the man.  Right?

The next night, we had Carine and Marion and Uncle Dan over for dinner.  The good times continued to roll.  And my French was improving, though not as successful.  What I mean is, I felt more confident and was able to accomplish more.  But at the same time, this group was faster and more slangy, so it wasn’t nearly so easy as with Mag.  But again, I managed.

Here’s a funny thing.  My last two visits to Nice, Charlotte was living with her mom.  So that’s obviously where I stayed.  And during those two visits, Carine spoke zero words of English to me.  And to be sure, this time she didn’t “speak” English with me.  But she did break out some vocabulary and some fairly impressive idioms.  And I was damned impressed.  It was very cool.

Marion, on the other hand, speaks like no English.  So with her, I absolutely need to find a way to say what I want to say in French, or I can’t say it at all.  Based on that, you’d think she’d be hard to chat with, hard to connect with.  And yet.  And yet, I kinda love that kid.  I can’t quite put words to it.  All I can say is, something about that girl makes me feel like, this broad is peoples.  The word “cool” is so overused as to have little real value at this point.  But that’s the word I keep coming back to.  She’s “cool.”  Like, she gets it.

Here’s a humorous vignette.  Charlotte has a cat.  I’m sleeping on the pull-out sofa.  The cat insists on sleeping with me.  Fine.  Anyway, Marion says something to the effect of, “So you have to sleep with the cat?”  Well, that calls for a joke.  And it’s the same joke in French as in English, so I’ll give both.  “Je dois me coucher avec le chat…quand j’aimerais bien de me coucher avec une chatte.”  (I have to sleep with the cat…when I’d much rather sleep with a pussy).  Right, OK, it’s a middling joke.  But it had the element of surprise, since nobody was expecting me to able to do that in French.

Needless to say, Marion and Carine were dying.  So I turn to Marion and say, “Il faut pratiquer le français.”  (One must practice their French).  But she puts her finger to her lips, which is the universal sign for “Shut up, Dave.”  So I turn to her mom.  And she says – and this is just fantastic – she says, “Il faut pratiquer la langue.”  Which means, “One must practice the language.”  Except, literally it means, “One must practice the tongue” – the word for tongue and language being the same.  In other words, Charlotte’s mom just made an oral sex joke to me.  And I was just like, I fucking love you people.

Well, Charlotte wasn’t there for any of that, because she’d gone with Dan to pick up Gallou and little Nino from the train station; on more which shortly.  But just to finish up here.  So C goes and runs out for a bit and leaves me alone with her mom and her sister, neither of whom speaks very much English.  And that could have been awkward, you know?  Or difficult.  Only it wasn’t.  It was fun.  I genuinely enjoyed it.  And again, I had that feeling of belonging.

You know what I mean?  Like, I had come to Nice to visit my friend.  And here I am hanging out with her mom and her sister, and I don’t really know them.  And I was just enjoying it, having a good time.  It was easy.  I liked – no, I like – these people.  And yeah, on some level, this is the family of one of my best friends.  It makes sense.  I love Jared’s family.  And Keith’s.  And Rob’s.  And Jen’s.  But I grew up in their homes.  These people are new for me.  There’s a language barrier.  And yet.  And yet, it’s the same thing.  It’s familiar.  And it’s good.

So Charlotte went to pick up Gallou and Nino from the train station.  You remember them from last summer?  Summer of ’16, I mean.  The first time I met them was in the hospital, just after Gallou had given birth.  It was me and C and Philippe and Marion.  And then later we visited them at their home up in the mountains.  Anyway, their visit here wasn’t part of the plan.  She – Gallou – called while I was there and asked if she could come stay for a few days.  Well, of course.

Let’s do Nino first.  Last time I saw him, he was what, two months old?  There’s a picture of me somewhere, holding the baby.  And at the time, it was all very sweet.  But now he’s a year and a half or so.  I didn’t know what to expect.  And look, to be honest, when it comes to children, I’m rather partial to girls.  They’re cuter, for one thing.  For another, they tend to bounce off the walls considerably less.

But there’s Nino.  And he’s walking around now.  And you know what?  What a fucking beautiful child.  And that’s neither platitude nor exaggeration.  In his face, he’s just beautiful.  Great big eyes and that smile.  Man, that smile.  Just so honest and joyful.  And incredibly well behaved on top of it all.  If you don’t instantly fall in love with this child, you are a special kind of asshole.

And Gallou.  What a total sweetheart.  Her particular brand of French is the devil’s own invention.  But she’s a doll, no two ways about it.  Also, she often addresses Nino as mon cœur – my heart.  Which, I don’t know how that sounds to French ears.  But to my ears, fuck, it’s just beautiful.  Anyway, the second night she was there, we were the last two awake.  So we stayed up and chatted a bit.

Before that though, it was her and me and Charlotte, playing dice.  And honestly, I understood precious little of what she had to say.  The way she speaks, I mean, I just can’t.  Not in a group, anyway.  But after C went to bed and it was just us, it got easier.  She’s got just barely enough English to fill in the blanks.  And when she’s speaking directly to me, I can either sort it out or else tell her I can’t sort it out and ask for a rephrase.  The point is, we had a nice conversation.

At one point, I said something about how nice it was to see them again.  Something about how much Nino had grown and what a great kid he was.  And she said something about how, when he was born, her family was far away.  And how much it meant to her that we visited her in the hospital – C and Philippe and Marion; and me.  A lovely thing to say.  And at the time, I thought she was just being polite.  You know, she grew up with the rest of them.  It was just an accident really that I was there.  My presence, I figured, couldn’t possibly have mattered all that much.

Well, I’ll come back to Gallou at the end.  But for now, let’s keep going.  The next night, Philippe invited us over for apero – drinks and snacks.  He also invited another friend of his, Jerome – which, again, may or may not be the right spelling.

I gotta say something about Philippe here.  I kinda love this guy.  I first met him in New York, in 2013, when he and Chloe (C’s other sister) visited Charlotte.  Then we all did that roadtrip together in the summer of ’16.  First of all, C adores him.  She’s a world traveler, right?  And everywhere she’s lived, he’s gone to visit her.  It’s very cool.

Also, he’s a big music fan.  Which is fine.  But more importantly, he’s an AC/DC fan.  His first concert was AC/DC in Nice in 1979, with Bon Scott singing.  Every time I see him, he tells me the story.  And it never gets old.  Seriously.  I feel like a little kid.  Like, “Tell me the story again!”  You know?  It’s great.

Also, there’s this.  He’s the only person who, when he speaks to me in English, I don’t feel like an asshole.  Like, whenever anybody else speaks to me in English, I feel one of two things.  It’s either, “Well, your French is shit, so I’ll just speak English.”  Or else they just want to practice.  But with him, I genuinely feel like when he speaks English with me, it’s because he just wants me to feel comfortable.  Like it’s coming from a place of genuine kindness.  And look, maybe I’m reading that wrong.  What do I know?  All I know is, I don’t feel bad when he does it.

Because also, he takes the time to speak French with me too.  And he takes the time to teach me shit.  Phrases, idioms, etc.  He’s also the person who introduced me to pastis.  The point is, I’m a big fan.

Right.  So anyway, he has us over for apero along with this Jerome character.  And I go into it thinking, “Ah fuck, another new French person who doesn’t speak English and I’m gonna be in the dark and social situations are hard and I’m awkward and gna-gna-gna (which is how one whines in French, apparently).

Except here’s the thing.  This isn’t random.  Jerome is also a guitar player.  That’s why Philippe wanted us all to get together.  Anyway, Jermoe’s thing is Spanish and Flamenco.  So he’s brought his guitar.  And we have Philippe’s too, which he’d lent us for my visit.  But where P’s is a steel string, J’s is nylon.  So I ask if I can try it out.  He obliges.  So I bust through a Bach prelude and then the Sor variations.  And J is properly impressed.

Which is kind, because I’m quite mediocre.  But good enough to at least demonstrate that I can handle the instrument.  And that’s enough.  I’ve earned this stranger’s respect.  Achievement unlocked.  Then he takes the guitar and tears through some flamenco shit.  And his right hand is doing shit I might one day pretend to dream about.  Mutual respect.  Next level achievement unlocked.

Now here’s where things get interesting.  He wants me to take the rhythm section of some Spanish piece while he takes the lead.  Well, OK, show me the changes.  He does.  I get it down.  And next thing you know, we’re rocking this thing.  Gods, that was good.

It’s been years since I’ve been in a band.  I don’t know when the last time I jammed with another person was.  And now, we’re tearing up this song.  And man did that feel good.  I don’t know if I’d realized how much I’d missed playing with other people before that.  With no disrespect to all the wonderful people I spent time with on that trip, that might well have been the highlight for me.  It was fucking good.

I don’t want to oversell myself here, to be clear.  All I did was comp some changes.  But we put it together, and it sounded like real fucking music.  And that was shit-hot.  I was very very happy.  Like, maybe I suck at French.  But, bitches, I can play.

Anyway, Jerome left.  So it was just me and C and P.  And Philippe, gods bless him, put on AC/DC’s live concert video from 1979 – Let There Be Rock.  And what was cool was, you knew that me and P were loving this.  His first concert, my favorite band.  Nobody’s pretending to be polite for the other.  I was a very happy human being, watching that AC/DC concert with Philippe and Charlotte.

When we got back to C’s place, we were both quite happily drunk.  So we hung out for a bit.  And she gave me some spiel about how I’m her best friend and how much it means to her that she can take me to her family and to her best friends and I kinda kick ass.  There may have been something along the lines of watching me succeed with her nearest and dearest made her feel proud to have brought “that guy,” proud of me, even.

Well, she was drunk when she said it, whatever she said.  So I’ll simply take it as an exaggerated version of, “Thanks for not embarrassing me.”  Which is a shame really.  I mean, embarrassing you, Charlotte – if you’re reading this – is all I ever really wanted.  Well, one can’t have everything, can one?

We made a bit of a hike, on Sunday, around the environs; up a mountain.  Nice is beautiful.  And the view from above ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.  And that brings us to the end of this visit.  Chronologically, anyway.  But before I close, I’d like to return to two of our characters.

First, Uncle Dan.  A strange cat.  His French was exceptionally difficult for me to follow.  C told me it’s very visual, perhaps even poetic.  Full of metaphor.  Which, if your French, I imagine must be quite lovely.  Anyway, he did seem a bit a fish out of water.  But then, so was I.  And so, while I’m not really sure I understand the man, it was nevertheless quite nice to make his acquaintance.  And he gifted me a flask he’d made, shrouded in ray-skin apparently.  And if he was a strange cat, he was nothing but kind to me, and for that I am thankful.

And Gallou.  My first impression of her was of a woman who had just lately given birth and who was not shy about constantly breast-feeding in my presence.  But this time around I got to know her a bit better.  And I found her to be a kind and sweet and loving person.  Yet, because of the language barrier, how well could I really say I know her?

Recall, for a moment, that she told me how much it had meant to her that “we” were there, to visit her in the hospital, after she had given birth; how she included me in that we.  When I went to say goodbye to her, at the end of it all, I said that I hoped we would see each other again.  But she cut me off.  I forget her exact words, because she spoke to me in French then.  But what she said, when she cut me off, was, “Of course we will.  You’re a part of my family now.”

Those words hit me hard.  That humbled me.  And I remembered back to when she first arrived.  Because I had said something about Nino probably not remembering me.  And her response was simply, “Just talk to him.  […] the sound of your voice.”  And I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.  But I realized now what she’d meant.  She was telling me that I was there for him when he was a baby, and that that mattered.  And what’s more, it still mattered.  I wasn’t some alien friend of a friend.  I was part of the family.  Her family.

What can you say in the face of that?

I live in a foreign country.  And even as a I make a life for myself here, even as I make wonderful friends, I’m never entirely sure that I belong.  I left New York because I couldn’t make a place for myself there either; was never really sure that I belonged.  And yet, I go to Jen’s for Christmas and her family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Jared in Italy and his family accepts me as one of their own.  I visit Charlotte in France, and there too I am taken in, not a stranger, but a part of the family.

Perhaps I overstate things.  Perhaps I make more out of things than they really are.  I have my own family.  And I am blessed in that they love me, unconditionally.  Some poor bastards don’t even have that much.  I have that.  And then I step beyond my own, and I have a second family and a third and even a fourth.

It is not clear to me what I have done to deserve this.  Indeed, there are days when I think that I do not.  Deserve it.  And yet I have it.  And I am humbled.

I am loved and I am over-loved.  If there is anything that I wish for 2018, then, it is that you all should know such love as I have known.

ז׳׳ געסונט

 

  1. Spellcheck doesn’t care for “flusteredly.”  Personally, I think it’s a perfectly lovely adverb, and much more efficient than “all-a-fluster.” []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
20 November, 2017

Well, shit.  Apparently, this is An American in Berlin #50.  That’s right.  If WordPress is to be believed, this post will the 50th in the series.  And as we so often do with arbitrary milestones which only exist as a function of our base-ten numbering system, it seems fitting to take a moment and reflect.

I first started this series way back in aught-fifteen, when I came over here to do my CELTA training.  At that time, I was alternately living in an Airbnb in Neukölln with Anja and Mischa or up Sonnenallee with Lisa.  That seems like a million years ago now.  I reconnected with A&M for a while when I first came back here in the summer of ’16.  Indeed, I wound up staying with them for another three months.  It was mostly great.  I think the world of them, and it’s a great apartment.  But by the end, I had got to feeling tired of being a “guest,” and from their end, I maybe sorta felt like I was beginning to wear out my welcome.

To be clear, they never said or did anything to make me feel like I was being pushed out.  They were only ever kind.  It was more, I think, that they were – in the end – hosts, and were perhaps tired of having the same person around for so long.  Nevertheless, they will always have a special place in my heart.  For one, theirs was the first place I ever lived in Berlin.  Also, they’re just great people.

Be that as it may,1 I haven’t seen them since I moved out.  Although Anja did just send me a message on the Facebook today wishing me a happy birthday.  Which, you know, my birthday is in March.  But when I first signed up, I didn’t want the Facebookers to know my real birthday.  So I chose Armistice Day instead.  It amused me at the time.  It’s less funny now that I live in Germany.  In any case, I’d like to see them again.  But it’s one of those things I keep putting off.

As for Lisa, that’s just weird.  We were very close when we lived together.  Not in any kind of romantic way.  Just, we hung out a lot and ate and drank lots of wine together.  But I’ve only seen her once since I came back, and that was kind of awkward.  No idea why.  I’d tried to get a hold of her a couple of times, but she always pleaded busy.  So I went to a concert of her a cappella group which she invited me to.  And as I say, it was strangely awk.  She was just like, “Yeah, I’m super busy.  But just keep messaging me; I’ll come around eventually.”  But it left me feeling like, hey, I’m busy too.  If you can’t be arsed, neither can I.  Which is maybe immature of me, I dunno.  That’s that, anyway.

The last connection from those times worth mentioning is The Blonde Girl from Downstairs.  You remember the one?  She lived downstairs from A&M.  After I moved out from their place, we would meet up for coffee every couple of weeks.  But then I went home for a few weeks in March and we never picked up again after that.  Not really sure why.  I keep meaning to reach out, but I’m always feeling too busy or too tired.  Poor excuse, I know.  I keep telling myself I’ll get round to it eventually.  So we’ll see.

Oh, and remember Dafna?  She’s the Israeli girl with whom I did that Shabas dinner the first time around, and then we did Rosh HaShanah last September; Sept ’16, I mean.  Well she’s since moved away.

All this to say, almost all of the connections I made my first time around, in 2015, seem to have been severed; though some of these breaks are perhaps only temporary.  The only ones which are still a going concern are my classmates from the CELTA.

Zibs I see quite often, along with Jan; though I only really became friends with the latter this time around.  In fact, I’m not even sure I had met him in ’15.  Paul, I work with at the school and he’s just lovely.  We each have the beginner class twice a week, so we’re working together now to map out a plan for them.  That’s been very nice.  And I see Alice for coffee every two months or so, and she’s just a treat.

Oh, and what am I saying?  Annett is one of the very first friends I made here, and we’re still close.  I just saw her Friday, in fact.  And she’s just a wonderful person, you know?  I really adore that kid.  “Kid.”  You know, she turned forty in January.  Fucking weird, man.

So here we are, fifty posts into this adventure.  Now I’m living in lovely Köpenick, with my lovely roommates.  I’ve get a steady four-day-a-week gig at a lovely school with lovely people.  Jan & Zibs.  Anne, Annett; the Killer A’s.  Joschel2 and Cindy.  Lovely friends.  Things are lovely, is what I’m trying to say.  Now, if I could only find me a lovely Mädel

Another nice thing is the (perhaps tenuous) connections I’ve made with some of my (now former)3 students.  I talked about the one dude in my last post.  Which, I’m just thinking, would be great if it continues, if for no other reason than that I have very few guy friends here.  There’s Joschel, obviously; but he antedates my arrival.  And Ziba’s Jan, of course.  But I’m kinda short on “mates,” of the variety with whom you go to the bar and drink and possibly hit on dames with.  So there’s him.  But also, I just met up for drinks with another former student.  I’m meeting yet another for coffee on Wednesday.  And there’s still another with whom I do private lessons sometimes.  So we can file all that too under ‘L’ for ‘Lovely.’

I went for another walk again today,4 he said, shifting gears.  I was really in the mood after last week’s sojourn.  So I headed East.  Crossing the river, I found myself someplace entirely new.  Which is always sort of the goal.  Came across some classic East German Plattenbauen, Soviet-era UU architecture.  “UU,” btw, is a term a I coined literally just now.  Stands for Utilitarian and Ugly.  Continuing on, I then found myself in the woods.  Which was kinda cool.  I mean, this is Berlin.  Major world city, capital of Germany, etc.  And yet, here I am, in the godsdamned forest.  And who knows how long I could have gone, just East-ing.  But it gets so dark early now, around 4:30.  So at some point, I turned North.5  Eventually, I got back to the river, and from there it was easy enough to find my way home.

On the way back, I popped into a gas station so’s I could buy a beer.  I’d been walking for two hours, and had had no beer to that point.  And just, fuck that, you know?  So that was a nice coda to the day’s adventure.

At the risk of being repetitive, living way out here in K-nick has its advantages and drawbacks.  The drawbacks are obvious.  It’s mad far.  ADW, as people say: am Arsch der Welt, at the ass[end] of the world.  It takes an hour to get anywhere.  The food options are, generally speaking, nothing to write home about out here.6  And so on.

But also, you know what?  I lived in Manhattan for ten years.  I did the big city thing.  And I did it in the best city in the world.  So like, on some level, yeah Berlin is great.  But also, whatever.  Get back to me when you have real pizza.  Or when I can get tripe in my noodle soup.  Or when your subway has express lines.  Or when the subway runs 24/7.  Well, you get the point.

On the other hand, living out here, I get things you just can’t get in Gotham; never mind Berlin-proper.  Walks through the forest, for example.  Or trams.  Or going into a shop and just knowing nobody speaks English.  But really it’s the nature.  That’s what justifies all the bullshit.

Because Neukölln was great.  It was the only place that felt even remotely like home.  Brown people.  Signs in foreign languages.  Turkish, I mean, and Arabic; not German.  Better food.  Hustle and bustle.  Graffiti.  Filth.  All the finer things in life.  But this place – Köpenick, I mean – is unique in my experience.  And that’s worth its weight in…well, probably not gold.  But something of value, anyway.

Also, the commute…well, actually the commute is a fucking shitshow.  But that’s because Deutsche Bahn is a fucking shitshow.  Nevertheless, it affords me good reading time.  I don’t do much reading at home.  No wait, I do a lot of “reading” at home.  But it’s of the Hebrew/Greek variety.  I don’t do much pleasure-reading at home.  So the commute is good for that.  I get a solid two hours of French most days; or Grant’s memoirs; or whatever.  So I hate the commute, but I love the reading.

Speaking of which, the Three Musketeers is awesome.  I mean, I said that last time.  But also, kinda all of the heroes are assholes.  D’Artagnan is really kind of a twat.  I mean, maybe he’ll step it up at some point.  But he reminds me a lot of Aeneas.7

Oh, pius Aeneas.  There was this dude at Latin boot-camp, one of the teachers.  His name was Akiva.  Weird guy, but super fascinating too.  Also, he had this weird way of sort of hanging off of the furniture while he listened to you try and translate shit.  Like, he was listening 100%, but also he was bored?  And he clearly liked his job, but this was not his favorite part.  And, really rather oddly, I’ve kind of adopted this.

It’s hard to explain; harder to paint the picture.  But sometimes a student will be reading something, and I’ll just sort of be hanging from a bookshelf.  What does that even mean?  Like, my hand is on the top shelf, and my head is half-in a lower one?  I dunno.  But it always makes me think of Akiva.  Also, he had this way of walking out of a room while he was in the middle of a sentence, and he’d just sort of trail off as he mumbled out the door.  Sometimes I wonder if he ever finished those sentences.  I imagine that he did, but like, only in his head.  Like, he gave up on vocalizing them as he crossed the threshold.  But he always saw it through to the end, mentally.  That’s what I imagine.

Anyway, Akiva was trying to describe Aeneas once, what sort of “hero” he was.  “He’s not a shmuck,” he said.  “Nor is he a putz.”  He paused, as if working it out for himself before speaking.  “He’s not really a schlemiel, either.”  He looked at us.  “He’s really kind of a shmendrick.”  And it was clear that he was more pleased with his own analysis and much less concerned with if anybody actually understood what he was talking about.

Staying with Akiva, for just a moment longer, he also had this great line.  But it unfortunately requires getting into the Latin weeds for a second.  To keep it short, Latin has five “cases.”  In other words, it changes the spelling of a word based on that word’s job in the sentence.  English does this with prepositions.  For example, the dative-case of pater (father) is patri (to/for the father).

Anyway, his line was in reference to the Latin words for “custom,” “Mars” and “death”: mos, Mars, mors.  His line was, the datives for these words sound like a gaggle of old Jewish men: Mori, Marti and Mori.  Maybe you had to be there.  Anyway, that was Akiva.

What the fuck was I talking about, anyway?  Oh, yeah.  So basically, D’Artagnan is a shmendrick.  And Porthos is a diva.  And Aramis kinda needs to chill the fuck out.  However, Athos is kinda da man.  Silent, stoic, ass-kicking, loyal.  Also, he has dark secrets and he drinks when he’s down.  Athos is aight.  Also, M. de Treville is a pretty stand-up dude.  This is the guy you want having your back.

Tell you who really kicks ass though, is the villain.  The Cardinal Richelieu.  He is one bad motherfucker.  Seriously.  Next time they make a 3M movie, Richelieu needs to be played by Samuel L. Jackson.  “There’s muthafuckin’ musketeers in the muthfuckin’ Louvre!”  Krass.8

Going back to Latin for a second.  But first, y’all know that German be using mad commas, right?  I mean, these people be like Jackson Pollack with that shit, nah mean?  Anyway, one of my students was clearly displeased by how infrequently (compared with German) English uses commas, and on top of that, how un-concrete the rules seem to be.  So I did a lesson on commas on Friday.  And to illustrate the point, I also brought in an article about how the 2nd Amendment is interpreted vis-à-vis commas; in this case with regard to DC v. Heller, the struck-down handgun ban.

But Latin.  So in examining the text of the Amendment, and in reading the article, it dawned on me.  The first two clauses: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …”.  You guys, it’s an “ablative absolute.”  Remember now, all the Framers were super-well schooled in Latin.  And it’s on-its-fucking-face-obvious that these two clauses are an English version of the “ablative absolute.”  And there can be no question that this is exactly how they understood-slash-wrote it.

So what’s an “ablative absolute” then?  OK, remember the cases?  We looked at the dative case earlier.  The ablative is a different case, and it has its own syntactic functions.  And one of those functions is the “absolute” clause.  Bear with me, I know this is awful.  But basically, every sentence has a subject and verb.  Not basically, in fact.  Every sentence has a subject and a (main) verb.  Lacking these, it ain’t a sentence.  OK, fine.

But sometimes, you want to add information that is relevant, information that has a very important impact on the sentence.  Only this information has a different subject and a different verbal idea.  How do you do that?  Well, the Romans did it with this device called the “ablative absolute.”  They take this secondary subject with its secondary verbal idea, and they kick it all into the ablative case, making the verbal idea into a participle while they do it.9

Now here’s the thing with the “AbAb,” as I call it.  It can do a lot of things.  It can mean “because.”  It can mean “although.”  Or it can just mean “when.”  You need to sort that out for yourself from context.  I’ve probably lost you.  Sorry.  Lemme give an example of what this would look like in English.

“It being a rainy day, I decided to bring my umbrella.”  OK, so the subject of this sentence is clearly “I” and the verb is clearly “decided.”  That’s the meat of the sentence.  The bit about the rainy day is secondary.  But it’s not fluff.  And there’s a huge difference.  It’s secondary because it contains neither the subject nor the verb of the sentence.  But it’s not fluff, because it explains very clearly the reason why I decided to bring an umbrella.

“It being a rainy day, I decided to bring an umbrella.”  That’s a literal translation of what this sentence would look like in Latin.  And just as in Latin, the verb “to be” is in present participle form; the “-ing” form, if you will.  All that would be in the ablative case in Latin.  Fine.  But here’s the thing.  Nobody would ever – and I mean ever – translate it that way.  It would always be translated: “Because it was a rainy day, I decided to bring my umbrella.”

I know that.  Now you know that.  And the Framers sure-as-shit knew that.  So that when they wrote “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …”, they all knew instinctively that there was a causal relationship between the well regulated militia and the right of the people to bear arms.  They didn’t need to write “because”; it was implicitly understood.

Now look, I’m not making a case for or against guns, gun control, or anything else.  There’s strong arguments on both sides for all of this garbage.  And there’s plenty of middle ground for people to meet half-way on, if people would just get their shit together.  Also I have no interest in wading into those arguments here, and even less interest in putting down my own opinions on the subject.

What I am saying, and emphatically so, is that if you’re trying to determine what the text says/means by way of the commas, then you absolutely need to know how Latin works.  And it’s pretty clear from both the oral arguments and the Justices’ opinions, that basically nobody involved had a proper understanding of Latin.  And yet, everybody saw fit to make a big deal out of the commas.  It would be like trying to understand cancer via the four humors.  It’s insanity.  No, it’s worse.  It’s ignorance.

Anyway, that’s my rant.  Also, sorry if that was insufficiently clear.  I’ve never tried explaining that in such detail before.  But I think I needed to get it down for my own peace of mind, if nothing else.  So I hope you’ll indulge me.

I bought an Italian stove-top espresso maker today.10  And also some cardamom pods.  Because I’ve been missing that.  I started in with the stove-top espresso makers towards the end of my thesis, when Vinny put me on to it.  And then adding a cardamom pod to it, that I picked up from Sermad, our Lebanese couchsurfing host when Charlotte and I visited Montréal.  So this post has mostly been powered by that.  Well, and also whiskey.  And my pipe.

Speaking of Charlotte, I just booked a flight to go visit her in Nice for Christmas.  That should be nice.  And I don’t mind telling you, I’m looking forward to getting out of Berlin in December and going someplace warm.  I fly back on New Year’s Eve, landing at 11:30pm.  It’s over a hundred euros cheaper doing it that way.  And there’s no ball-drop here, so who cares?  But I expect I’ll be making a B-line straight up to Joschka’s from the airport.  So there’s a couple of things to look forward to, to be sure.

Right, well that’s surely enough for this post.  Post number fifty.  Fucking crazy, right?  Well, you know what they say.  Time flies.  Or, if you prefer the Latin: tempus fugit.

Post Scriptum:
Sad news this week.  Malcolm Young died.  If you’re asking who Malcolm Young is, I probably don’t know you.  Or you don’t know me.  But I have to say something about that.

AC/DC is my favorite band of all time.  Anybody who has been around me long enough has heard me wax poetic.  I’ve probably even done it here in this blogue.  The greatest rock’n’roll band ever.  They perfected the form.  Every rock record made after 1978 is pointless because Let There Be Rock and Powerage are the apotheosis of the genre.

Mal was the key to all of that.  It was his band.  His vision.  Sure, we all think of Angus when we think of AC/DC.  The little man in the schoolboy outfit running around like a madman and just shredding.  Or we think of the more polished and more commercially successful stuff like Highway to Hell or Back in Black.

But the real backbone of the band was the rhythm guitar, it was Mal.  The easy swinging groove, the empty spaces, the muted beat-keeping pick scrapes.  That’s what drove this most perfect music.  That, and Phil’s drumming.

And we need to take a moment here to acknowledge Phil.  Because they were never the same without him.  Those two, together, were – and there can be no debate about this; reasonable people cannot reasonably disagree about this – they were the greatest rhythm section in all the history of music.

But, and no disrespect here, Phil was a hired gun.  He was the perfect piece.  In a way, so too was Angus.  He was family.  He was integral.  There’s no AC/DC without Angus.  But he was a piece.  The vision, the essence, that was Mal.

Angus was the perfect compliment to Mal.  But that’s the thing I’ve learned.  He was a compliment.  You can listen to an Accadacca track without Angus.  Of course something would be missing, it wouldn’t be the same.  It would suffer for it.  But you could do it.  Without Mal, though?  Nothing.  Try it.  Try listening to a track with only one ear.  With Angus, you’ll just have lots of open ringing chords and some fills.11  Now listen with only Mal.  It still works.

It took me a long time to learn that.  When I was a teenager, when I was learning to play the guitar, I was all about Angus.  And Bon.  But Angus.  My whole stage-shtick was modeled on his crazy antics (and Cliff Burton’s headbanging).  I didn’t really tap into the whole Mal/Phil thing until my early thirties.  Even though Shuman was trying to teach me about it from the day he showed up at SLU.

One of my favorite things to listen to these last few years, especially coming home drunk from a night out, is a live version of Rocker or Let There Be Rock.  Just the end of those songs.  The part where Angus goes up on Bon’s shoulders and out into the crowd.  Which is great theatre if you’re there, or watching a video.

But if you’re listening to the music, the real gold is just listening to Mal and Phil go after an A-chord for ten minutes.  It’s phrenetic.  It’s kinetic.  It’s a freight train.  It’s just…you can’t top it.

And then there’s this.  Sometimes people claim they don’t care for AC/DC.  And they’re always wrong.  Always.  And here’s how I know.  I’ll put some AC/DC on without telling them I’m doing so.  And do you know what happens?  Every single time?  They start tapping their foot.  Because you literally can’t not.  It’s nature.  Hear Accadacca, your foot taps.  You don’t like them?  Fuck you, yes you do.  See?

And this is the real genius of Malcolm Young.  He knew that this simplicity is what makes it all work.  The best compliment he could ever give a song, was to call it “a real toe-tapper.”  That’s it.  That’s the goal.

It’s a goal I’ve set for myself, for the handful of tunes I’ve written.  I don’t claim to write art or to be any kind of poet with lyrics.  I can handle the guitar, sure, but I’m no whiz.  And I’m nothing to write home about as a singer.  But when I used to do the open-mic nights, I would notice that one of my songs always had people tapping their feet.  A little touch of AC/DC.  A little touch of that magic groove.

Charlotte had this friend back in New York, this girl Line.  And Line is one of those special artist people.  You know, the ones who don’t really seem to live in the same world that you and I do.  They just see everything slightly differently.  Anyway, she’s great with music.  Has this really haunting voice.  And this almost Janis Joplin-like energy when she really gets cooking.  And she  could absolutely do some proper poetry with her lyrics.

It was a treat watching her.  And great fun to jam with her.  But she also made me feel very self-conscious about my own stuff.  No, let me correct that.  I made myself feel self-conscious on account of her superior talent.  I always got this feeling like, “Damn, Line makes proper art.  And here I am with my rinky-dink rock’n’roll.”  I felt very small sometimes.  But then I would notice people tapping their feet when I played my stuff.

And you know what?  That’s just fine.  I don’t need to be Queen or The Beatles.  But I think I get proper rock’n’roll.  And to the extent that I do get it, I learned everything I know from Malcolm Young.  If I’ve got “a real toe-tapper” or two in my arsenal, I know who to thank.

Rock in Peace, Mal.  And Ride On.

זיי געסונט

 

 

  1. Election is Friday.  Right, Dad/Justin? []
  2. Sometimes I call Joschka “Joschel” now, just to get some Yiddish flavor up in here.  Although, here’s a funny thing.  Every now and then, I’ll throw out of these little Yiddishisms and people are like, “Why are you talking Bavarian?”  Two examples.  There’s a Bavarian beer, called Büble, which sports a young lad on the label.  Büble, it seems, is a Bavarian diminutive for “young boy.”  Cognate with Bubbela.  And once, when somebody asked me a question, I answered with “a Bissel,” instead of “ein Bisschen” – a little bit.  (Literally, they both mean “a small bite”).  Anyway, my friend answered with some weirdly accented words I’d never heard before.  So I was all, “Wtf, mate?”  And he was like, “Oh, I thought we were talking Bavarian now.”  Neat, eh? []
  3. Always former.  I don’t think it’s approps to start hanging out outside of school while they’re still students.  Apart from the monthly Stammtisch, of course. []
  4. Er, last Saturday, the 11th.  This has been sitting un-proofread for a week.  #soz []
  5. Having a compass in your phone is fantastic.  Because the point here was just to wander and get sort of lost.  So I didn’t really want to know where I was, not on a map.  But I did want – need, even – to know which way I was heading. []
  6. Though this could fairly be said of Germany in general.  2.5 days in Italy reminded me of that; as if I needed reminding. []
  7. The eponymous hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, and founding hero of Rome, Aeneas as was a refugee from Troy. []
  8. Krass appears to be the German word for all things superlatively good or superlatively bad.  Kind of like “sick” in English, maybe. []
  9. They may have been copying the Greeks here – as they so often did – who did the same thing, but only with the genitive, because Greek had lost its ablative case.  Because Greek is better. []
  10. Still last Saturday. []
  11. And yes, glorious blues rock solos.  The best blues rock solos, in fact. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
4 November, 2017

So in the last post, I did a lot of catching up in terms of what I’m up to, what I’m reading, where I’ve been and the ol’ job sitch.  Now I’m thinking it might not be a bad idea to “circle back”1 and talk about Berlin again.  You know, since I live here and whatnot.

There are things I love about this city, and things I don’t love.  And then there are things that are nice, but which are probably not really specific to Berlin per se.  Let’s start with the things I don’t love.  That way, we get the nastiness out of the way and we’ll all get happier as we go, yeah?

So, first of all, fuck the S-Bahn.  I may have said nice things about the transit system here in the past.  But that was when I didn’t need to use it for two hours a day to get across town and back.  Now that I do, I take much of it back.  Look, the U-Bahn may be great.  I don’t know; I hardly use it.  And I still have a soft spot for the trams.  But man, the S-Bahn is just the fucking worst.  If I can quote Vince McMahon – and really, let’s be honest, nobody should ever quote Vince McMahon – but if, as I say, I were to quote Vince McMahon, I’d say that the S-Bahn is “the drizzling shits.”  Gross, I know.  But if the shoe fits.

Look, I think the “S” in S-Bahn stands for schnell – fast.  But really, it should stand for scheiße – no translation required.  I mean, there’s a fucking problem nearly every day.  Late trains, cancelled trains.  My commute requires that I take a tram to one S-Bahn and then that S-Bahn to a second.  And if I make my connections twice in one week, I account myself lucky.

Also, the layout of the cars is simply offensive.  All the seating is blocks of four seats, two facing two.  I ask you: Who was the mutherfucker who decided I need to sit knee-to-knee with a complete stranger?  If I ever get my hands on that SOB…

And it’s just the biggest waste of space.  You have 16 seats – eight a side – between the doors, with just a narrow path between them, taking up a huge amount of space.  So at rush hour, this layout is not just inefficient, it’s offensive in its inefficiency.  And this from the Germans!  So what results is all the people cram into the open square space between the blocks of seats, in front of the doors.  Hardly anybody moves down between the seats.  Because the fucking savages were raised by wolves, I guess.  I know this, because these savages also don’t know to take off their backpacks when they step into a crowded train.  Like, get your shit together already

And yeah, I guess I could just accept it and move on with my life.  But I feel like that’s letting them win.  Better just to be angry about it.  That’s the rational response, right?

A quick note on the metro operations in this town.2  So the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn (and the tram, for that matter) are, from a ticket perspective, one unified system.  In other words, your ticket entitles you to ride on all services.  And you can transfer from one system to the other at many stations; though this often requires going from underground to an el-platform and vice-versa.

However, the U-Bahn is operated by the BVG, which is the Berlin mass transit authority.  Whereas the S-Bahn is operated by Deutsche Bahn, the national rail authority.  Like, they use different track gauges (I think) and different power systems (I know).  Think of it this way.  Imagine if, in NY, all the number trains were operated by one company and all the letter trains were operated by a different company.  And the Number People were good at their job.  And the Letter People were very much not.  The Letter People are Deutsche Bahn.

But enough of that.  The other thing I wanted to rant about is the sandwich culture in this town.  Look, bitches, we need to talk about sandwiches for a minute.  Let’s start with: What’s a sandwich?  For me, broadly speaking, a sandwich is simply one something stuck between two other pieces of something.  That’s it.  And even within that, I’m pretty open minded.  Like, I’m willing to say, if you stuff a pita, it’s now a pita-sandwich.  Because you essentially have a top-pita and a bottom-pita.  Just, in the case of a pita, they happen to be connected.

But here, people give some variation of: A sandwich is two pieces of white bread with perhaps some cold cured meat and maybe some salad in between.  Change the bread, change the filling and it’s not a sandwich.  It’s something else.  Dafuq?  Example: if you slice a roll in half and put a chicken cutlet in it, that’s not a sandwich, that’s a “belegte Brötchen” – a stuffed roll, basically.  No.  No, it’s fucking not.  It’s a sandwich.  Come on!

Riddle me this: What’s the most important ingredient of any sandwich?  The filling?  The bread?  The quality of the ingredients?  No.  No, the most important ingredient of any sandwich is one little four-letter word.  Love.  That’s it.  You need to care, when you make a sandwich.  It’s the guy at the deli who picks up, and then rejects, the inferior slice of tomato.  It’s your mom who lines the chicken cutlet up just right so the maximum amount of chicken is covered by the maximum amount of bread.  It’s the extra three minutes you take to put your creation in the oven.  It’s love, OK?  It’s fucking love.

And nobody in this country loves the sandwiches they make.  You walk into a bakery and they have pre-made sandwiches just chilling in the showcase.  And not, like, for display.  Like, that’s your sandwich.  Take it or leave.  Well, I’ll leave it, thank you very much.

And you can’t even say that whoever made them, however many hours ago, put any love into them at the time.  They’re just slapped together.  Also they’re slathered with this awful herb-mayo confection.  It’s just gross.  Me and Vinny have spoken about this at length.  “The sandwich culture in this country is a fucking joke,” is what we both say, and often.

— Vignette: At the metal festival this year, me and Vinny leave camp in search of breakfast.  We find a little food truck.  We get “sandwiches.”  Now, just looking at them, we’re already expecting disappointment.3  But we get them anyway.  Because we’re hungry, and it’s a festival.  Well, Vin takes one bite and this look crosses his face.  It’s not exactly disgust.  I mean, it’s disgust, but not “this tastes awful.”  It was more of a “what even the fuck is this?” kind of disgust.  Like, “what savage put this together?”

So he opens it up and takes a look inside.  And upon viewing the susdit herb-mayo travesty, says simply, “I can’t eat this shit.”  Whereupon did he promptly drop it into the first available trash receptacle.  Where it belonged.  I, however, ate mine.  Because I guess I’ve been desensitized.  — End Vignette.

While Vinny was here, he was crashing at Joschka’s.  At one point, Joschka was out, but I was over to hang with the Big V.  And we needed to get lunch, but we didn’t want to spend a lot of money.  So we went to the supermarket and bought stuff to make sandwiches.  Real sandwiches.  I forget now what the main ingredient was, but I know we picked out some nice baguettes, cheese and salad-stuff.

And we did it right.  We took our time and we made those sandwiches with love.  Arranging the ingredients just so.  Using good olive oil.  Taking the time to toast them in the oven.  And you know what?  Delicious.  Just fantastic.  And we were so happy with ourselves.  Not just for the wonderful sandwiches we’d made.  But also, we felt like we’d righted some cosmic wrong, howbeit all too briefly.

And honestly, we just looked at each other afterwards and agreed that it was probably the best lunch we’d had the whole time he was in Germany.  We said to each other, “Paisan,4 best fucking lunch we’ve had since you/I-‘ve been here.”  Because it well and truly was.  Then we ranted some more about German sandwiches.  And we talked some more about how love is the most important ingredient.  And then we discussed what worked especially well with these particular sandwiches and what could be improved upon.

By way of a side-note, me and Vin love talking cooking.  Doesn’t matter when or where.  We could be at Duff’s at three in the morning or on the field at the festival.  Out of nowhere, we’re talking about his mom’s red-sauce5 or how it’s criminal to waste pasta-water, or any number of things.  Never gets old.

So now, my thing is, I’m always asking people here: What’s a sandwich?  And I’m invariably offended by the answer.  But it doesn’t matter.  New acquaintances, new students, whatever, I’m always asking.  It’s to the point where my colleagues at work, when I ask a new student, they’re like, “shit, this again?”  Well, yeah, this again.

I remember one time I was making a sandwich at work.  And one of my colleagues, watching me do this with all due care and love, asked, “Mate,6 are you gonna do food photography with that?”  “Huh?” I says.  “It looks like you’re making your masterpiece over there,” he says.  “Umm, this is how you making a fucking sandwich, mate,” I says.  And then I asked to the whole room, “What’s the most important ingredient of any sandwich?”  None of them knew, poor bastards.

Incidentally, when my parents were here, I asked them, “What’s a sandwich?”  And of course they knew exactly what a sandwich was.  I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to see them.  And then, yeah, we talked about sandwiches for like twenty minutes.  Which, btw, is not a long time at all, when you actually give a shit about sandwiches.  I mean, my mom is telling stories about the sandwiches she used to have as a kid.  My dad is telling me about his favorite sandwiches to make.  And I’m reminiscing about the sandwiches Mom used to pack me for lunch back when I was doing electrical work with Gerry.7

Alright, that’s enough about sandwiches.  We may now proceed to some of things I actually like about this town.  Let’s say, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s part the nature and part the spread-out-ness of the place.

I went for a long walk on Tuesday.  Like I used to do.  Just pick a direction and see what’s there.  And it’s getting dark earlier now.  Also the weather wasn’t great.  So most of the walk was in this sort of hazy, foggy, winter twilight.  You know the one I’m talking about.  Where the sky is that special shade of grey-pink that you only get in the winter.  And the fog isn’t thick enough to be totally obscursive,8 but just enough to soften all the lines and give everything a misty mysty vibe.

Anyway, it was great.  Two things I love about long walks in this town.  One is simply just seeing new places, walking somewhere I’ve never been before.  The mystery, the adventure.  The other thing I love is, it’s my long-form podcast time.

Tangentially, I’m always listening to WNYC podcasts.  Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate, specifically.  Which in itself is, well, not weird.  But it’s something.  What I mean is, it keeps me tethered to New York.  Which, on the one hand, I need.  Because on some level, I’m never not going to be a New Yorker.  In my time here, I’ve learned that.  Once you’re a New Yorker, I don’t think you can ever not be.  But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if it keeps me too firmly rooted in a place I’m not living at the expense of getting closer to where I am actually living.

Because I could be making the effort to find some local Berlin podcast that would get my finger nearer the pulse of this place.  And I’m not doing that.  Does staying tied to NY prevent me from really adopting this place?  Or do I not get closer because I already feel like I’m just passing through.  It’s a chicken and egg thing, I guess.  But I do think, if I ever felt like I didn’t have a very clear picture of what was going on at home – because even if I never go back (not something I anticipate), it will always be home – if I didn’t have a very clear picture of it, I think I would feel very lost.  I need it, is what I think I’m saying.

Anyway, I listen to the WNYC podcasts when I’m cooking or cleaning.  Because segments are rarely longer than 30 minutes, which is perfect for that sort of thing.  But when I go for walks, that’s when I listen to the longer stuff.  The Dollop, More Perfect, Infinite Monkey Cage, those would be the big ones.

And it gives me these sort of Proustian memories.  In other words, I remember exactly where I was when I was listening to a certain podcast.  And if I ever return to that place, I can nearly hear it again.  For example, I remember, even now, listening to Infinite Monkey Cage while walking along the Spree by Obermauerbrücke, or More Perfect in Treptower Park and then again in the woods at the end of the 68 Tram Line.  Listening to The Dollop by the Müggelsee, and not for nothing, in my car with the top down on the way up to Maine.  Even an Islander podcast while walking the old runways at Tempelhoferfeld.

All to say, long walks exploring Berlin while listening to podcasts is one of my very favorite things about living in this town.  And when I look at the podcasts piling up in my phone, all I can think is, when can I go on my next walk?

And then there are the things that are quite nice here, but really, I suppose, could – and probably would – happen anywhere.  For instance, there’s the lady in the shop where I buy my tobacco.  One day, I went in and she just pulled by brand off the shelf without even asking me.  And I was so delighted.  And she’s always so sweet.  So now that I know she knows me, we chat a little bit every time I go.

Turns out she was in Venice while I was in Florence.  So the last couple of times we were just chatting about Italy.  On the one hand, it’s not a big deal, obviously.  But on the other hand, it’s really rather nice.  One thing I wonder about, she must know I’m not from here.  Like, I make plenty of mistakes with my German, and I go back and forth between addressing her with the formal Sie and informal du, depending on if I can remember the right form of the verb.  But she never ever switches over to English, which is what might happen more in the center of the city.

And I have no idea if that’s because she simply doesn’t speak English, or because this is Germany and I should be speaking German.  But she never ever makes me feel bad about it.  And when I don’t understand something she says, she never makes me feel like an idiot.  If anything, I think she gets a little embarrassed that she hasn’t put it in a way that my feeble brain can handle.

My point is, my tobacco lady knows me and she chats with me and it’s really nice.  Contrary to what I was saying about the WNYC podcasts and not making the effort to fully assimilate, she makes me feel like a part of the neighborhood.  I feel more a part of this place when I pop in there for two minutes than I do most other times.  It’s something I appreciate each and every time.

— Vignette: One other story about my tobacco lady; which is what I have to call her since I don’t know her name; though I think I’m in enough that I can soon ask.  Last time I was there, when I walked in, she was standing behind a customer zipping up his backpack.  That was the first thing I noticed.  The second thing I noticed was, dude as on crutches and his legs were all bent out of shape.  And she was just chatting with him while she zipped him up.  And I was like, what a mensch!  So yeah, she’s cool.  — End Vignette.

Another example.  I had this student who just finished up.  And we just got on really well.  He’s about my age.  In his thirties, but a bit younger.  Into metal, plays in bands.  Political, philosophical.  We agree on some things, disagree on others.  But very smart, and great to talk with.  He’s one of these (increasingly rare) people with whom you can debate and argue and disagree, but all the while respect.

Anyway, he just finished up, as I said.  So at the end, we traded phone numbers.  And Monday we met up for a few drinks.  And just, good times, you know?  Also, he’s very keen to help me with my German.  Very patient.  Very willing to just keep the conversation going in German, try and get me up to speed.  Which is great, which is what I need.

Now, it’s too soon to say.  But I think, maybe, I’ve made a new friend.  Which is always exciting.  But if we do wind up being friends, he could really be my first properly German friend.  What I mean is, all my other friends who are German, we met speaking English and English remains our primary means of communication.  Annett or Joschka, for example.

But if this continues, it’s pretty clear that the end-goal is to have German as the primary language.  And that’s something I only have with Anne, who, like me, is not a native speaker.  So again, returning to the subject of assimilating and feeling like I’m a part of this place, that would be a big step.  So we’ll see where it goes.

The last example, vis-à-vis nice things I have here, but which could really happen anywhere, is my roommates continue to be great.  I’ve been here with them eleven months.  And you could easily imagine that after that much time things could sour.  But they really haven’t.9  As has always been the case, we don’t go out together.  But we continue to have “family dinner” every couple of weeks.  And there are days when we don’t see each other at all.  But there are also days where we’ll just chat for a few minutes and catch up.  And they’re just the sweetest people.  The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, they just have really good hearts, you know?

Here’s a thing about them.  They both always wear only all black.  They’re not goth or anything.  Just, they only ever wear black.  It’s their thing.  Which is not at all important, other than it helps paint the picture, I guess.  But I bring it up because it will illuminate the next, and last, vignette of this piece.

But first, I need to come clean about something, and it’s probably not going to make my parents happy.  Ugh.  Don’t worry, you guys, we’re not in a poly love triangle.  No, it’s just that they have two dogs.  So yeah, this whole time I’ve been living here, I’ve also been living with two dogs.  And strangely, it hasn’t seemed to be terrible for my allergies.  Obviously they never come into my room.  OK, one of them might come in if the door is open.  But only if it’s a sunny day, and she wants to get out to the balcony.  And generally I don’t touch them or play with them.  Though I’ve been known to get a little affectionate if I have enough to drink.10  But I’m always quick to wash my hands and not touch my face.11  The point is, there are two dogs here, and they’re adorable, but we keep a respectful distance and my allergies are cooperating (knock wood).  Who knows?  Maybe I’m building a tolerance.  Let’s see how I do with Oscar next time I’m home.

Anyway.  The dogs are, generally speaking, extremely well behaved.  Here’s what amazes me though.  They’re very energetic at home.  And if a new person comes in the house, they can go kinda nuts.  And sometimes, they just like to bark for no reason.  Like, when Marco and Lucie are both out, they keep the dogs in their room with the door closed.  But if I come home, and the dogs are in a mood, they ask me to let them out.  “Die doofe Hünden bellen” is what Lucie might say by text – the stupid dogs are barking again.  So I let them out and then they relax.

OK, so that’s at home.  But what’s amazing is, outside, they’re totally silent.  I mean, they could be running and jumping on the sidewalk, but not a peep out of them.  That’s how well they’ve got them trained.  Not that I go for walks with them.  But every now and again, I’ll be getting home just as Luc is coming back from a walk.  And I’m always amazed by how silent they are.  Which brings me to my last…

— Vignette: So one day, not long ago, I was coming home from work.  And it was pretty chilly, you know?  And just as I’m getting to the house, I see Lucie at the corner, with Kessie and Emma,12 the dogs.  And Lucie, comme habitude, is dressed in all black, right down to the black scarf halfway up her face.  And the dogs are sort of running with her but also circling around her feet because she’s not fast enough for their liking.  But when she stops, they stop.  And she holds up a hand, and the go up on the hind legs.  And they’re full of energy and yet completely silent withal.

And I swear to god, you guys.  I could have believed she was an actual witch and that she had a spell over these creatures.  Because that’s what it looked like.  This pale skinned woman, wrapped all in black.  And these beasts, her minions, obeying her every command, as under some kind of witchcraft.  It was creepy and eerie and yet somehow also kind of sweet.  But also, there was a part of me that would have believed: These were my last roommates.  But they were bad.  They didn’t clean the bathroom when they were supposed to.  So I turned them into dogs.  And now they obey me. 

I’m not doing this justice.  I mean, you had to see it.  The way she walked so confidently, with these beasts swirling around at her feet.  And did I mention the all-black?  Honestly, she could have stepped out of a Grimm fairy tale.  But then, you know, we start talking and she’s just the sweetest person.  — End Vignette.

One last thing, has nothing to do with Berlin, and then I’m done.  I had a Skype with Niki the other day.  We don’t talk as often as we should, and most of our communication these days is through Instagram or random Whatsapp messages.  But every now and again, we’ll do a Skype.  And honestly, friends, I laugh so hard.

Just, right from the get, it’s jokes, it’s rants, it’s  comparing notes on living in a foreign country,13 it’s ranting about living in a foreign country.  But it’s also comedy.  And it’s hilarious.  To us, anyway.  But seriously, I can’t even remember the last time I laughed that much or that hard.  Just fantastic.

One example.  We ranted about how in both of our countries, what the fuck is up with the meat selection at the supermarkets?  Like, why the fuck is everything lean af?  Why can you not find meat that has bones in it?  Bones are where the fucking flavor is, people!  What the fuck is wrong with y’all?  And I don’t know what the difference is.  But when me and Vin rant about sandwiches, for instance, it’s very serious.  Gravely serious.  But when me and Niki rant, man, do we just laugh our asses off.

Though if I can depart from this for just a moment: I’m not kidding about the above.  I bought “American style” bacon a while back.  Seriously, they print that on the package, “American style.”  And the only reason I bought it was so I could render the fat.  So I could then later have bacon grease to cook with.  But this shit was so thin, so lean, it just stuck to the pan.  And I got nothing.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  I mean, what the actual fuck?  And forget about finding beef that has an actual bone attached.  I seriously fucking can’t.

But what was I saying?  Oh yeah.  Niki.  Side splitting, physically painful laughter.  For two-and-a-half hours.  I miss that kid.  A lot.  Like, a lot a lot.  And then I remember, sometimes, the old days.  Of pregaming with Niki at her place before meeting Vin and Joschka at Duffs.  Those were the days, boy, I tellya.

But I’m making new those-were-the-days days here too.  Drinking with my new maybe-friend.  Long podcast-walks exploring the city.  Chilling with Zibs and Jan.  Doing the stranger-in-a-strange-land shtick with Anne.  Drinking cocktails and playing Settlers of Catan14  with Joschka.  Living with German roommates and hanging out in German.  Enjoying the shit outa my job.  So yeah, today was a good day.  Lots of a good days here.  And more to come.

זיי געסונט

  1. Jargon shout out to MZ! []
  2. And I say “town,” because until the mass transit here gets its shit together, it’s hard for me to take this place seriously as a “city.” []
  3. Semantic question: Can one expect disappointment?  Is disappointment not, by definition, the failing of something to meet expectations?  So, perhaps what I mean is, whatever we were expecting, we were prepared for it to be even worse. []
  4. We always call each other paisan. []
  5. Red Gold, as I call it. []
  6. He’s British. []
  7. Then my dad caught me upon Gerry, who is doing quite well, I was happy to hear.  Nothing but great memories of my time working with that guy.  I may have told this story before, but I’ll never forget how he explained to me the right way to wire up an outlet.  “You connect this bitch here.  You connect this bitch there.  Badda-fucking-bing!”  Italian Gerry was not being ironic, I hasten to add. []
  8. OK, I think I made that word up.  #logodaedalism []
  9. Or if they have, they hide it extremely well. []
  10. OK, that’s generally true – of people and of dogs. []
  11. I made that mistake but one single time, and yes, my eye swelled shut like Fort Knox. []
  12. Funny thing about the dogs.  Look, I hate – and I can’t stress this enough – I hate the anthropomorphization of dogs.  I’m sorry, Justin, but the dog is not your “baby.”  I’m sorry, Mom & Dad, but Oscar is not your “grand-dog.”  He’s just a dog.  And you can love him, that’s fine.  But dogs aren’t people.  And yet.  And yet, these dogs do have something like personalities.  And Emma is just, well, to me, she’s annoying.  She’s always all over you.  And anytime I go into the kitchen, she comes running.  Like, no, sweetie, I don’t have food for you.  But Kessie is like me.  When I come home, Kessie comes out and sorta says hello.  But that’s it.  Then she’s go back to her room.  And I get that.  We understand each other.  Yes, it’s genuinely nice to see you.  And now, let us leave each other alone.  I’d fist bump you, Kessie, if you could make a fist.  But you can’t.  Because you’re a dog.  Not a person.  Anyway. []
  13. She’s in Australia. []
  14. Yeah, that’s a thing now. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 October, 2017

Well, now.  There’s much to cover since my last writing.  So let’s get right down to it.  I’ve been reading quite a lot.  Working rather a lot.  Throw in the odd bit of travel and a new language project and I’ve well got my hands full.  To say nothing of the writing project I’ve lately finished; or finished for now, anyway.

Reading first.  I’ve just lately read U.S. Grant’s memoirs.  I’ve long read that his writings are held in very high esteem, being championed from the outset by none other than Mark Twain himself.  He’s even been called – with respect to his writing, we should be clear – the American Caesar.  So I figured it was time I take a look for myself.  I was not disappointed.

In terms of style, the Caesar comparison is more than apt.  Grant’s writing is clear and direct.  It is eloquent without ostentation.  And it is distinctly American.  The same is often said of Caesar, though obviously, to the last point, distinctly Roman.  There is one important difference to be noted, however.  And that is that Caesar’s war journals were very much self-aggrandizing propaganda.

Grant, on the other hand, had no real desire to compose his memoirs at all.  This he did at the end of his life, when he was sick with throat cancer and had no money.  And even then, it was done not for himself, but in the hopes that the proceeds therefrom would be enough to support his wife after his death.  This lends a nobility of motive to Grant’s writing that is necessarily wanting in Caesar’s.

I will say here that Grant’s memoirs are not for everybody.  The bulk of it is out-and-out military history.  I would say that, for myself, I have more than a passing interest in the Civil War and its various battles.  And that even for me, it was trying at times.  I can read about only so many troop movements and tactical decisions before my eyes start to cross.  It is interesting, but borders on tedious.

The real merit of the work, as I read it, is Grant’s observations on American society, politics and war itself.  To the latter point, I mean war both as an institution, and the Civil War in particular.  What blew my mind was Grant’s keen insights, and his ability to state truths – as he saw them – without pulling punches and yet without animosity.

I will paraphrase a few of his observations, that I might give some indication of what I mean.  He viewed the Mexican war as inherently unjust and as a land grab by the slave states; and so as a prelude to the Civil War.  He saw the poor whites of the south – he even uses the term “white trash” at times, though rather with pity than scorn – as being as much under the heel of the landed aristocracy as the slaves.  Not to say that he equated their actual condition.  But that he saw the poor whites as being held down politically and economically and as being brainwashed with respect to politics in general and racial attitudes in particular.

He even argues that the South had more to gain by losing the war than the North had to gain in winning it.  By this he means that if there were to be a permanent division of the States, the North would be fine in the end.  But that the South would remain a backwards place for many more years to come and in all respects.  And that the poor whites, who were doing the fighting, would be kept in a condition of “white trash”-ness, while the scourge of slavery would persist to the detriment not only of those held in bondage, but for all.

The above is just a hint of what Grant gets at, and the language with which he gets at it is essentially perfect.  I’m not sure I would recommend this book to most people; indeed I’m not sure I’d recommend it to more than one or two.  But it was a fascinating insight into the man and that part of our history.

I should note that Ron Chernow is coming out with a book on Grant (or perhaps it is already out).  That would be Chernow of Hamilton fame.  So, first, I imagine Grant’s reputation is about to get a major and well deserved boost.  But also, having read the Hamilton book and based on Grant’s own work, I would strongly urge anybody with even a passing interest to pick up his new work on Number 18.  I know I am looking forward to it.

So much for Grant.  I’ve just started in on Les Trois Mousquetaires – The Three Musketeers.  Look, it’s fucking great.  Like, there’s a reason it’s a classic, right?  It’s not necessarily easy, however.  I’m getting back in the groove; it’s getting easier.  But I often need to read a paragraph two or three times before I get it.  Moreso at the outset, but still now to a greater or lesser degree.

But the point is, this book kicks serious ass.  Like, when D’Artagnan joins the group for their first fight together.  It looked like it was going to be five against three.  And then D is like, “Count me in, bitches.”  And they’re like, “Uh, what’d you say your name was again.”  And he’s like, “D’Artagnan.”  And then:

“Eh bien, Athos, Porthos, Aramis et D’Artagnan, en avant!”

And on the train, out loud, I was like, “Fuck, yeah!”  Finger pistols and everything.  I’m not kidding.  This book kicks serious ass.  But also the language is gorgeous.  This is the second book of Dumas that I’ve read; the first being Le Comte de Monte Cristo, which was wonderful and epic and really maybe like the best book ever.  But I forgot how great his prose is.  Like, it was worth learning French just to read that one book.  And now this one.  And I guess Dumas in general really.

I recently lent Anne the last Jules Verne book I read, L’Île à Hélice.  Which was great, btw.  I find I prefer JV’s later stuff – I say by way of aside – as it tends to be rather a bit darker.  Anyway, Anne had read a lot of JV as a teenager, but not much (or any?) since.  And she told me nice it was to read him again.  She described reading his style as putting on a pair of old comfortable shoes.  Which I thought was a great and apt analogy, not for nothing.  Because Dumas and JV have very different styles.  JV is fun and playful and adventurous and (for me) quite easy to read.  Dumas, on the other hand, is dark and serious and purposeful.  And while he writes about adventures, his language doesn’t feel adventurous.

So anyway, Anne says that reading JV feels like putting on a pair of old comfortable shoes.  Well, reading Dumas feels like putting on my Sunday best.  You sit up a little straighter when you read this shit.  It pumps a bit of air into your lungs.  You walk around feeling rather a bit of the “How do you like me now, bitches.”  If that makes any sense.  Anyway, it’s fucking fantastic is the point.

–Interpolation: I’ve taken to referring to Jules Verne as “JV,” which seems right.  Like, that’s the kind of nickname you’d give a buddy.  And JV feels like your buddy when you read him.  Like, he’s cool and you know you’re gonna have a good time.  But it also feels weird to call him “JV,” and it has nothing to do with Monsieur Verne.

OK, so I had this friend in college; and for many years after college.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re still friends.  It’s just we haven’t spoke in a few years.  In fact, this reminds me I need to send him an email.  Anyway.  There’s this friend, Dennis.  And Dennis is the biggest most passionate Red Sox fan I ever met.  And, like, that should have been insufferable.  Actually, it was, at times.  But he was so passionate and knowledgeable and respectful of the Yankees (whom he obviously loathed) that I’ve only ever had no choice but to hold a grudging respect for him in this regard.  (In other regards, the respect need not be grudging; wonderful and brilliant guy, that Dennis).

Anyway, Dennis’ absolute no-question-about-it favorite player was one Jason Varitek.  I mean, he had the official jersey with that (stupid) “C” on it and everything.  Like, he loved Jason Varitek.  Which I hated.  Because, you know, Varitek was one of the few players on those Boston teams that I had a grudging respect for.  What I mean is, I was already prepared to be like, “Yeah, man, Varitek is a good player.  Gotta respect Varitek.”  But he loved him so much, it kinda made me want to hate Varitek just to spite Dennis; whom I love, you know?

All this to say, Dennis obviously had a nickname for that Boston catcher.  And if you haven’t picked up on it by now, that nickname was obviously “JV.”  And to this day, I can still hear Dennis talking about “JV” in conversation.  Fuck, I can still hear him yelling “Jay-Vee!!!” from across the hall anytime that bastard did anything remotely praiseworthy.

And so, to bring this back around, I love Jules Verne.  But, you know, you either have to say his name in English, by which I mean with a hard “j” and pronouncing the “s.”  Or you can try to pronounce it frenchly, and butcher it.  I care for neither of these options.  So apart from the above stated reasons for nicknaming him JV, there is this practical one as well.

And yet, every single time I refer to my (first or second, I’m not sure) favorite French author by this cool and practicable nickname, all I hear is Dennis.  And all I see is Jason Varitek with that stupid “C” on his jersey and that stupid goatee, and the ’04 comeback and the breaking of The Curse and then again in ’07, and on and on.  And I’m just like, “Ugh! Will I never be free of this?”

So to wrap up, I love JV but I can’t stand “JV.”  And I love and miss Dennis, but man do I hate the Sawx.  And I guess that’s just all one more cross to bear.  End Interpolation. —

We move now from French to Hebrew.  Operation “Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year” has officially commenced.  And, umm, I may have bit off more than I can chew here.  It’s not that it’s particularly hard.  It’s not.  In fact, it’s pretty straightforward.  It’s just that there’s a lot of it.  And so, it’s not that I spend a lot of time poring over each sentence trying to understand it.  Rather, it’s that I spend a lot of time in the dictionary.

So one of two things will happen.  Either the vocabulary will become repetitive and I’ll be able to move at a faster pace.  Or it won’t and I won’t.  Time will tell, I guess.  But whether or not I meet my goal of reading the whole thing in a year, I’m doing honest work and that’s enough.  I read everyday when I come home from work for an hour or two.  So that’s good.

But right from the get, the text itself is surprising.  What I mean is, I’m surprised by how sparse it is, how little it actually says.  See, whole stories that get major treatment in Hebrew School turn out to be like, at most, a paragraph long.  One example will suffice.  I give you Cain and Abel.  And I paraphrase, obviously.

“So Abel made his sacrifice, and God thought it was fine.  And Cain made his sacrifice and God thought it was less then fine.  So God says, ‘Bruh, you can do better.’  At which point Cain goes out into the field, rises up and kills Abel.”

And that’s literally it.  Like, that’s the whole story.  The fuck?

Oh, and speaking of “The fuck?”, there’s the whole Sodom and Gomorrah routine.  We all know the story.  God, in his infinite patience, decides he’s had enough of their bullshit.1  Make ready the fire and brimstone, ya know?  Oh, but wait, Lot2 is living there, with his wife and two daughters.  Well, we can’t have that.

So God sends down a couple of angels.  And the angels go to Lot and are all, “Dude, you gotta go.  Like, now.  The Old Man is about to burn this mother down.”  Meanwhile, the Sodomites get wind of there being angels among them.  So they go knocking on Lot’s door.  “We want to meet the Angels.”

But Lot, you know, he’s a good host.  So he says, “Go away.  These are my guests.  I won’t have them disturbed.”  Which, I mean, that’s respectable.  But the Sodomites aren’t having it.  Like, they’re ready to break the door down.

Now, I don’t know how you would handle this situation.  But I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t do what Lot did.  See, Lot opens the door and says: “Listen up, bitches.  I said, these are my guests and I won’t have them disturbed.  But just to prove I can be reasonable, allow me to offer you my two virgin daughters here.  You can have them, if you promise to leave my guests alone.”

Yeah, you read that right.  When I read that, I was sitting alone at my desk and literally said out loud, like fifty times, “Wait, what the actual fuck?”  “No.”  “No, that can’t be right.”  “Wait, what the fuck?”  “What the actual fuck?”  Well, you get the idea.  And I re-read the passage another four times, just to be sure.  I checked every word in the dictionary.  No question about it.  That’s what he said.  And I’m just like, I don’t even know what the fuck to do with this.

But wait, there’s more.  Right, so we all know the part where Lot and his fam leave the city, and the angels are all, “Whatever you do, don’t look back.  No time to explain, just don’t look back.”  But, having apparently not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mrs. Lot looks back.  And turns into a pillar of salt.  OK, fine, nbd.  Listen to God when he warns you, &c., &c.  Which would be fine if that’s how the story ended.3

But that’s not how it ends.  So Lot and his two (apparently unravaged?) daughters eventually settle somewhere safe.  Fine.  But there’s only one problem.  Well, I wouldn’t call it a problem.  I’d call it, “Wow, thank God (?) I got out of there in one piece and at least I still have my daughters, whom are important(-ish ?) to me.”  But from the daughter’s POV, there’s only one problem.  Lot never had any sons and his wife is dead.  So the line ends here.

Which, first of all, does it?  Because, I mean, fucking find a new wife.  How is that not the obvious solution to this problem?  But I think they settled in a mountain or something, so I guess a) there’re no women around and b) they’re not allowed to move to another city?  I seriously can’t.

But OK, the daughters don’t want the family line to end.  So the older sister has a bright idea.  She says to the younger sister, “Hey, I know.  Let’s get dad nice and drunk and then…wait for it…let’s fuck him.  No, seriously, I’m suggesting to you that we fornicate with our father and bear his children.  To keep the line going.  Don’t roll your eyes at me, this is a good plan.”4

So they do!  They fucking do that!  First night it’s the older sister and next night the younger.  They both take a ride on the L Train and they both get all pregged up with daddy’s seed.  And of course Lot has an out, b/c he was so drunk he had no idea.  So, the moral of the story is, women are evil?  Or, women are smart and heroic and problem-solvers?  Like, seriously, what is the takeaway from all this?  And also, how is the pillar of salt thing the highlight here?  Talk about burying the leed.

So yeah, this whole Torah thing is an adventure.  And also, how are we Jews not popular and beloved by all?  #askingforafriend

So that’s where the Hebrew is at.  Oh, I wonder what crazy adventures I’ll read about next.  And then of course, there’s the Greek.  Most nights, I’m doing 50 or so lines of Homer before bed.  Which is great.  Because Homer is just the best, you know?  And it’s so long.  I mean, there’s just so much of it.  So there’s no rush, you know?  Just read a little bit every day.  Great way to wrap up the night.

The Oedipus at Colonus is on a break though.  Partly because I just don’t have the time, and partly because – like I said last time – it’s sadly kinda boring.  Oh, I’m sure I’ll get back to it at some point.  I mean, I’m not gonna not finish it.  Just taking a little break for now.

But yeah, that’s my reading schedule at the moment.  French on the train, Hebrew when I get home and Greek before bed.  It’s good.  I’m happy about it.  Keeps the ol’ brain engaged.  Well, so much for that then.

I was in Italy two weeks ago.  Man, was that fantastic.  For the past several years, Jared’s family does this thing where they rent out their house on Long Island and then turn around and rent a villa in France or Italy.  And then they invite all the friends and family along for the ride.

Well, this year they didn’t do that.  This year it was just the parents and the kids.  Carol and Paul, Jared and Amanda, and of course Josh.  And no fancy villa this time, just a hotel.5  And they didn’t invite any extras this time around.  Really, it was just for the family, for Amanda’s big 4-0.

But one of the nice things about living in Europe is, well, living in Europe.  What I mean is, without making a big deal out of anything, I can just hop on a cheap flight and pop down to say hello for 2.5 days.  Which is great, of course, for the obvious reasons.  But also, it’s kinda my only chance to see these people.  So to the extent that they made an exception in allowing me to show my face, it seems a touch more justified in this latter regard.

Anyway, Florence.  Fucking Florence.  What a beautiful little city.  The last – and only – time I was there was on my very first travel alone abroad trip, back in 2003, while I was studying in London.  My first stop on that trip was Rome, but I was there with some friends.  We split up after Rome and only met up again in Venice for the flight back.  So Florence was my first solo stop.

Stepping off the train was a mind-fuck.  I mean, it was like stepping into a time machine.  Returning to this place I’d only ever been once before, and that 14 years ago.  And all the amazing memories that go along with it.  And I arrived the same way, in the same train station.  The first time, I had taken the train up from Rome, obviously.

This time, I’d flown into Bologna and then taken the train again.  Because somehow it was both cheaper and faster than flying into Venice.  Go fig.  Anyway, just stepping into the train station was crazy.  And wonderful.

Well, what can I say?  We did the museums.  We ate great food.  We drank great wine.  Also, I drank some Talisker, which I don’t do very often and which is my favorite scotch.  And yeah, seeing my friends was nice too.  So, you know, it was OK, I guess.

And look, I love Italy in general and I love Florence in particular.  But really, this was about seeing my friends.  Jared had done his semester abroad in Florence.  So it was a real joy to walk around his city with him, to see where he lived, where he used to hang out, and just pick his brain for memories.

It was great to visit the museums with him and Josh, who between the two of them have so much knowledge and appreciation of all the art and history.  It was great to catch up with Amanda and shoot the shit with Carol.  It was great being together with everybody for meals.6  Just to tell stories and crack jokes and enjoy each other’s company.  If there’s a downside to living overseas, it’s that you so rarely get to see your friends.  So that, when you do, it makes it all the more special.  And then to do it in Florence.  Well, like I said, it was OK, I guess.

But as is so often the case, the best times came at the end of the day.  The first night, the boys hung out in the hotel bar, just having guy time.  Paul and I drank wine, cocktails for Jared and Josh.  The next two nights, we were sans Paul.  And then, Jared went to bed first, which left me and Josh to keep on drinking and chatting.

I have to say here that this was a real highlight for me.  I’ve said before how much I love Josh.  But my one-on-one time with him has always been somewhat limited.  Part of that is down to his just being a mensch.  What I mean is, whenever I’d visit them after moving out of the city, he’d always go out of his way to make sure Jared and I could have our Jared and Dave Time.7  To which Jared and I would always respond, “Ugh, I lived with this bastard for ten years.  Please stay.”

Which is part of the point, I think.  What I mean is, Jared and I lived together for ten years.  We’ve known each other for well more than half our lives already.  He’s still my best friend, and probably always will be, the bastard.  Whereas Josh is, from my point of view, still relatively new.  And most of the time he’s been around, I’ve not been living in the city.  I could go on, but the point is this: I really enjoy hanging out with the lad, and more to the point, talking with him.  Because he’s super smart and well-learnéd and we have many of the same points of interest.

Also this.  He’s got a big religious background.  He’s not religious now, but he’s steeped in the stuff.  So talking to him about what I’m reading is super illuminating.  I mean, look, at the moment, I’m just reading the text as-is.  So all I have is what’s on the page.  But he’s got all the theory and theology and whatnot.  So he’s kinda like my little goyish rabbi, which I realize is a strange thing to say.

Anyway, all this to say, wrapping up the night having a few drinks with Josh, just talking about life, politics, Torah, whatever.  Just a little extra something special tacked on to what was already a special couple of days.

One other thing to come of this Italy trip.  Italian was the first foreign language that ever moved me.  I did Spanish in high school, and tbh, I hated it.  But when I went to Italy for the first time, back in ’03, I just loved the language and wanted to learn it.  It was the first time I ever felt that.  I mean, by that time, I’d probably already had it in my head that I wanted to learn Greek.  But that was in a very abstract way.  I knew I wanted to read Homer and Thucydides and Aurelius in the original, but I had no idea what it meant to learn another language.  Hell, I didn’t even know the Greek alphabet yet.

So Italian was the first language I ever had actual contact with where I was like, “Omg, I want to learn this!”  And then I didn’t.  I learned Greek.  I studied Latin.  I taught myself French and later German and now Hebrew.  But in all of this, Italian always managed to elude me.

And now, when I was there, I found that I was angry at myself that I couldn’t order food in Italian, that I couldn’t ask basic questions, that I couldn’t even pretend to bullshit with some or other native.  And so I decided that, fuck it, it’s time.  So as soon as I got back home, I ordered up a textbook and a graded reader.  In fact, I ordered the counterparts of the same books I used to teach myself French.

Because I figure, I did actually teach myself French, you know?  And now I have French friends, and I read Dumas and Verne and shit.  And anyway, Italian is basically French and they’re both basically Latin.  Just wearing different clothes, so to speak.  So in my mind, how hard can it be?  I mean, we’re basically just talking about morphology and maybe some idiomatic shit.

So I’ve just started.  But I’m pretty excited about it.  Fourteen years after I first fell for that language, and five foreign languages later (two living, three dead), I’m finally taking a crack at it.  So we’ll see where it takes me.  But as I say, I’m pretty excited about it.

Of course, time is the problem.  When do I find time for it?  I have, so far.  And I’m sure I will.  There’s no rush.  But my Federalist Project has been suffering for want of time.  I’ve taken a break from the OC.  And this is my first blog post in a month.  Time, always time.  Never enough.

Oh, and I’m supposed to have a social life.  So every time I’m out with friends is time I’m not studying or writing.  Which, I mean, you can’t complain about.  You’ve got to have a life.  And I’m glad I do.  In fact, I’m sure I’d go crazy if I didn’t.  Just, could the days be longer, I guess is what I’m asking.  Or maybe we could have a nine-day week, but like, no Mondays?  Just a thought.

Ugh, this is already long.  That’s the problem when you don’t post for a month.  So much to cover.  But I’ve finished that writing project; for now, anyway.  So that should free up some time.  I was out with Zibs and Jan last night, and they’re just the best.  I think we’re going to do a Thanksgiving this year.  Classic good times continue to be had with Joschka.  There’s talk of going to his hometown for their Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).  I guess all (or most) of the festival people will be there, so that should be a good time.

And work is very good at the moment.  I’m loving the people in my classes.  In terms of just being fun people to work with, they might be the best classes I’ve had yet.  But it’s always the same.  Old people go, new people come.  So we’ll see how long this particular group lasts.  But it’s good times, which is the point.  I mean, there are days when I just stop and think for a second, “Wow, this is my job.  I’m getting paid to do this.”  But you know, then I get my paycheck and I realize I’ve used the term “getting paid” somewhat liberally.  But such is teaching, I guess.

Well, there’s a million more things to say.  Yet this post is already longer than usual.  So I think it best if I end here.  But before I do, I’d like to close with my new favorite joke.  Anne told it to me, though I don’t remember if she told it in French or German.  I’ve added the second punchline myself.

A guy with two left legs walks into a shoe store.  He asks if they sell…”flip-flips.”
Unfortunately, they only had “flop-flops.”

Thank you, good night!

זיי געסונט   

 

  1. It’s worth noting, the “bullshit” goes unspecified.  There is literally – and I mean “literally” literally – there is literally, I say, nothing in the text that even gives the slightest indication that this is about homosexuality; or anything else for that matter.  All it says is: וחטאתמ כי כבדה מוד.  “And because their sins were very great.”  That’s it.  So, also here, I ask: The fuck? []
  2. Lot, whom, so far as I can tell, we only give a shit about because he’s Abraham’s brother. []
  3. Also, it wouldn’t be fine.  I mean, the ostensible hero of this story literally offered his virgin daughters to an angry mob.  But…whatever? []
  4. Again, I paraphrase. []
  5. “Just a hotel,” he says.  It was a five-star Westin. []
  6. Did I mention the food was insane good? []
  7. OK, let’s be honest.  Dii-Time. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
27 September, 2017

Oh, hey.  Yeah, I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but I’ve been busy.  More on that later.  I had actually written up a post just after Charlottesville.  Which, yikes, that was already like six weeks ago.  And feels like a million years ago.  But anyway, I wrote up a post shortly after Charlottesville which veered into the political at one point.  And I didn’t want to publish it night-off, as I wanted to give it a fresh (i.e. sober) read the next day.  Only, then I got sidetracked and never got back to it.  So this post is going to be a bit of what’s going on now, but also I’ll probably cannibalize that last post a bit.  Though I haven’t decided yet if I want do the political this time around.  I mean, I rather enjoy keeping politics out of this.  Mal schauen.  Anyway.

The parents were in town ten days ago or so.  It was pretty great to see them, especially here, even if the whole thing was a bit rushed.  And depressing.  I mean, not seeing them.  The activities.  I’ll get to it.

[Sorry, I’m feeling a bit disorganized in my thoughts right now and I fear that’s being reflected in this piece.  I hope y’all can deal with it].

No, so the first day, I pick them up at the airport.  I thought I would be all cool and Berlinery, so I bought them subway tickets in advance.  Naturally they wanted to take a cab.  Well done, Davey.  Then we get to the hotel.  Which was properly nice.  I mean, really properly nice.  To the point where I was like, “Who are you people?”  But I guess they’d been saving for a while, so it wasn’t a problem.

We went to dinner at this German joint a friend recommended to me.  That was quite nice.  And they seemed to really like the food.  So that was a win.  On the way back to the hotel, I introduced them to the Stolpersteine.  These are little bronze, square plaques built into the Berlin sidewalks.  They all say something like “Here lived so-and-so, born on such-and-such date, murdered at such-on-such camp, on such-and-such date.”  A bit of foreshadowing for the next day.

And the next day started out innocently enough.  A walk through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburger Tor, with a quick stop by the Reichstag.  But from there, it got depressing.  We visited the Holocaust Memorial.  And then the Topographie des Terrors, which is basically a timeline of Berlin in the 20th century.  Oh, and it’s built into what used to the basement of the Gestapo HQ.  And across the street from the former Reich Air Ministry (now Finance Ministry).

And from there it was off to the Jewish Museum.  Which is not, I hasten to add, a Holocaust museum.  It’s the whole history of Jews in Germany.  But, like, you know how it ends.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s an amazing museum.  But it’s a lot for one day.  Like, a lot a lot.  Worth it.  Glad we did it.  But it was draining, is all I’m saying.

Two things I want to make especial mention of from that day though.  One nice, one…something else.  So at the Holocaust Memorial, we talked about what we thought it was supposed to be, what it was supposed to represent and all that.  Among the things we came up with, is that people just “disappear” into it; my dad’s word.  Also that you have no idea of the scope and scale of thing (memorial/actual Holocaust) until you get down into it.  But we also thought that each of the concrete blocks were like tombstones.  So we decided to find little stones on the ground and place them atop one of the blocks.  Which, if you’re Jewish, you get.  And if you’re not, well, we don’t leave flowers at graves.  We leave pebbles on top of the tombstones.  Anyway, we put them on top of one of the taller blocks, so they wouldn’t be easily knocked off.

The other thing I wanted to mention, well, it still gives me the creeps.  There was one point when we were all standing together.  I honestly don’t remember whether it was the Memorial, or the TdT or the Holocausty part of the museum.  But we were just standing together.  And I was hit by this awful feeling.  Like, here we are, a Jewish family in Berlin.  And it was just this feeling of total helplessness.  Because you know there was a time when that meant nothing.  They’d come for one of you, or they’d come for all of you.  But they’d come.  And there was nothing you could do.

I don’t know.  Like, I could actually see that last moment when you get off the train.  Right before they send you off to one line and send them off to another line.  And maybe it’s the last time you see each other.  And it was just too real.  It made me shiver.  Still does.  It didn’t last long either.  It was just a moment.  But I’ve never felt so powerless.  I didn’t say anything about it either.  So when they read this, it will be the first they hear of it.  And I’m not really interested in talking about it again.  But I had to put it down, for the record of things.

But enough of that.  We went to a classical concert that night, which was pretty great.  Killer organ player.  Tore up the Bach toccata in Dm.  Man, to hear that live, on an organ, just fucking wow.  We had Chinese for dinner, which was also top notch.  And then I crashed with them at the hotel.

That morning, they had made arrangements with the front desk to be upgraded to a room with a cot.  The hotel was supposed to take care of everything; even move our bags.  Only they didn’t.  And when my dad asked the guy at the desk about it, he had no idea.  And it was clear he was at the limits of his English.  At which point, my dad was like, “Umm, can you help?”  So I had to use my best/poor German to explain the situation.  In the end, we got it sorted.  But of course, my mom got all teary-eyed and did the whole, “I’m so proud of you” shtick.  Hashtag moms, I guess.  What can you do, right?

And that was basically it.  Oh, and I stopped us by a Spati so they could experience drinking a beer on the street.  And obviously we had Currywurst for lunch, because how can you not?  And yeah, that was basically it.  But it was great to have them here, even if it was short.  Hopefully they can come back.

Moving right along.  The roommates were out of town around the middle of August.  So I took advantage of having the place to myself to host what can fairly be called my first grownup dinner party.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while.  And while I’ve had people over for dinner at my parents’ house, I mean, if it’s at your folks’ abode, you can’t really call it a “grownup” dinner party, can you?  And obviously in Chinatown, just like, where would you put anybody?

So this was it.  My own (albeit shared) place.  And I went the whole nine.  Appetizer hour (Apéro!) with Hungarian sausage, Spreewald pickles, prosciutto, tomatoes, three types of cheese, bread and seasoned olive oil.  The main was an Italian style “Sunday gravy,” but with a German twist.  Ham hocks, bratwurst and stew-beef cooked for 4-5 hours in a homemade tomato sauce; the sauce which then went with the pasta.  Chocolate for dessert.  And of course, plenty of wine.

I invited Joschka and Cindy, Annett and Jan, and Anne.  It was a little cramped, sure.  And I didn’t know how the mixing of people would work.  But in the end, everybody got on quite well.  Joschka had actually brought a couple of board games in case things went dead, but we never needed them.  The food was good.  The wine was good.  The company was good.  I’m prepared to call that a success.

It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed doing it.  I mean, I like cooking and I like cooking for people even more.  It’s definitely something I’d like to do more regularly, if I can manage to get the place to myself again.  Because six was people was the upward limit, and it’d be tough to do with the roommates home.  Partly because you can’t exclude them, obviously.  And partly because, even if they decided to stay out of the way, the house would still feel that much more crowded.  So we’ll see.  But good times.

Last post [whenever that was], I wrote that I needed to start getting Homer back into my life, and that the way to do that was probably to just read 10-15 lines every day.  Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten that off the ground.  So far, I’ve read Iliad 24, the last book.  And now I’ve started over at the beginning, so I’m about halfway through Book 1.  When I began, I was doing maybe 10-20 lines a night.  Now I’m averaging around 40.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, because I only started about two months ago.  But this can’t be a for-now thing.  It needs to be an every-day-forever thing.  And I’m glad I’m doing it.  It feels right.  Also, I know Daitz would be pleased; which matters to me.

But it has become a part of my nightly routine.  I almost can’t go to bed without reading a bit of Homer.  And I just love it.  So here’s hoping I can keep it going.  Forever.  As a tack-on to this, I would love to one day get to the point where I can quote Homer the way bible-thumpers quote the bible, or the way the English professor who ran my London program could quote Shakespeare.  Or, presumably, the way Daitz could quote Homer.  Call that a life goal, I guess.

Speaking of keeping things going, the Hebrew has slowed down a bit.  As I’ve written previously, I finished the Megillah, but I needed something to keep me busy until the new year came around.  So I figured why not tackle one (or more) of the haftaras?  Well, let me tell you, I’m bored out of my mind.  It’s just a whole lot of “God is great, he’s going to do this to your enemies, he’s going to take care of you the chosen people, God is a big deal, etc.”  Like, yeah, I get it.

And this is where I run into my inner conflict with this stuff.  Because on the one hand, I’m interested in the “history,” the stories.  And I’m very much interested in connecting with my heritage; with understanding our sacred text; with being able to read it in its own words.  But man, let me tell you how much I don’t care about the whole “God” angle.  I mean, he basically says, “Listen, go get circumcised and I’ll take care of the rest.”  Fun fact, the word bris (ברית) literally means “covenant.”  So whenever he’s talking about the covenant, that’s what’s going on.

So yeah, anyway, “Go get circumcised and I’ll take care of the rest.”  Except, it’s mostly just a lot of “Oh hey, remember that time I brought you out of Egypt?”  Talk about resting on your laurels.  Because after that, apart from some random victories at Jericho etc. and some near misses at Chanukah and Purim, it’s been mostly 2500 years of down-trodden anti-Semitism.  Yes, yes, I know that’s a terribly cynical way to read it.  But that’s where I’m at with it at the moment.

Anyway, Rosh HaShanah has come and gone.  I got through two of those dreadful haftaras, which is plenty enough for now.  Next week begins “Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year.”  And you know, I’m really looking forward to it.  Time to get this show on the road.  In the beginning, bitches.  In the beginning.

So a little while back, I was reading about the Tram system in Berlin.  And I came across this little factoid which said that one of the lines out by me was apparently rated one of the ten best tram lines in the world by National Geographic.  So obvi I had to check that out.

And it was great.  You head progressively Southeast until next thing you know, you’re in the middle of the woods.  I stayed on til the end, which was a small town.  There, I popped into a gas station to pick up a couple of beers.  Because Berlin.  And then I got to walking.

It was gorgeous.  It’s basically a path through the woods that runs along the biggest lake in Berlin, the Müggelsee.  The crazy thing was, because of the types of trees and the particular layout of the place, I felt like I just as easily could have been in upstate New York or Maine.  It did make me a touch homesick, if I’m honest.  But it was also pretty wonderful.

It has to be counted among the unique benefits of living in this part of town.  And remember, this part of town is JWD, ADW (very far away, basically).  So most of the time, it’s inconvenient.  But the nature is what makes up for it, especially this time of year.  And this tram line stops around the corner from me.  So it’s pretty great.  I’ll definitely be going back.  Maybe next time I’ll bring my guitar or some Homer.  And beer, natch.

That was around the beginning of August.  I haven’t yet been back to that particular spot.  But I did take a tram to the other side of the Müggelsee and had another nice, long, beer-walk.  And again, just fucking gorgeous.  And now, this was in September already.  So it was pretty empty of people.  Peaceful and quiet.  So to all the folks who give me a hard time about living out in the sticks…the sticks are beautiful, y’all.  Come visit.

Teaching has been interesting.  For three weeks in August/September, some of the teachers went on vacay, so I was covering extra shifts.  Working five full days a week.  Which is a lot.  I know, it doesn’t sound like a lot.  It sounds normal.  But it’s tough.  Mostly because it was all at the one school, where – remember – there’s no curriculum; so I have to come up with everything myself.

It was three days a week with the beginners and two with the advanced.  Well, I do two days a week with the advanced anyway, so that was nbd.  But three days a week with the beginners, that was tough.  Especially at first.  But I started to get into a groove.

And at some point, I looked at it as an opportunity.  As an opportunity to mold them into the students I wanted them to be.  To set them up with the skills I know I’d want them to have if they stick around long enough to get to the advanced class.  And even though now I’m back to one day a week with them, I think I’m making some serious inroads.

See, before, it was very much, “Well, I guess we’ll do this today.”  But now I’m starting to knit the lessons together, to build one on top of another.  And by George, I think they’re getting it!  Well, most of them, anyway.  So just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good about it.  Which is nice, because normally it’s the beginners that give me the most angst.

Teaching is funny.  There are days when I walk out of there feeling like I must not be very good at this.  Especially with the beginners.  But lately, I’m feeling very much like I know what I’m doing.  I guess it’s always going to be a bit of up-and-down.  But for the first time, I really feel like I’m working with a plan for both my classes, and that’s quite a nice thing.  Teaching is funny.

Two more things about teaching.  One, my boss offered me another full-time day.  So that’s quite nice.  Cha-ching.  But better, I had an awesome lesson with my advanced class last week.  See, I’m always teaching them that “rules” are mutable and that languages are constantly changing.  As an example, I always ask, “OK, you know what the ‘rules’ of German are today.  But your language has changed quite a lot too.  For example, could you just sit down and read the Nibelungenlied?”  And of course, they’re always like, “How the fuck should I know.  I’ve never seen it.”  Well, I decided it was finally time to take a look.

So I gathered an example of Middle English and Middle High German.  And then an example of Old English and Old High German.  Chaucer and Nibelungenlied for the Middles; the Lord’s Prayer and Beowulf for the Olds.  And for all four examples, I walked them through the changes, showed them how spellings have mutated, how the grammar has morphed, but in the end, how it was still recognizably their language.

Because, in the case of the German, at least, it is.  Granted, I’m not an expert on any of this.  But I have enough tools to walk them through it.  And even the Chaucer, we could all keep up.  Only the Beowulf was unreadable.  But even there, we had no problem picking out words; some English, some German.

Anyway, they got a real kick out of it.  Like, you could see it in their faces.  You could even hear it.  There were actual audible gasps and exclamations when they figured something out.  Man, yeah, that was fucking cool.  And that’s got to be the best thing about this particular job.  Since there’s no curriculum, no book, I can just do that.  Probably my favorite lesson to date.

I think last time I mentioned that I’d started in on the Oedipus at Colonus.  That’s going slowly, but it’s going.  Tragedy is a bitch, though, Greekly speaking.  I mean, the vocabulary is tough.  Lots of hapax legomenoi (words used only once) and lots of variation in spelling.  Although, I have to say, after reading Aristotle’s Poetics, it all makes a lot more sense.  He had some things to say about word variation and alternate spellings, and now I’m seeing it work in ways I never saw before.  So that’s kind of cool.

But then there’s the choruses.  And they’re just tough, man.  First of all, the dialect changes.  So that right there is a barrier.  But they’re also much more poetic, metaphoric.  Like sometimes, even after you work out what a passage means, you still don’t know what it “means.”  But I ordered a hardcore commentary that has shed a lot of light on things, so that’s been a huge help.

That said, I’m about a third of the way through the play.  And… dunno.  Not my fav.  Like, nothing happens.  The OT – sorry, Oidpous Tyrannos (Oedipus Rex) – is gangbusters.  But this one.  Well, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing it and getting on with some nice prose history.  Though I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to go with Herodotus or Thucydides.  A decision for another day.

Baseball continues to be a godsend.  Most games start at 1am here, which means I’m usually falling asleep to the radio.  I’m sure I’ve written about this before.  But it doesn’t get old.  And I always look forward to the emails from my Greek professor.  Glorious puns and good baseball banter.  Even in Germany, baseball might be the best thing about summer.

Speaking of Greek professors, I reached out to my first year prof, Markus, who now teaches in Berlin.  We’re going to try and meet up soon.  I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him again.  It’s probably been seven years.  That said, I’m a bit nervous.  I guess I shouldn’t be.  And I can’t really put words to it.  Maybe something about justifying where I’m at, post-Masters.  I dunno.  We’ll see.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.  I mean, that was the most fun – and most influential class – I’ve ever taken.  And by most influential, I mean, he’s probably the teacher I most model my own style on.  But I can get more into that whenever I do the write-up of the meet-up.  Anyway, as I said, I’m sure it’ll be fine.

One last thing.  After Steve died, I had a rather odd dream.  And for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write that dream into a story.  I just finished it this week; well the first draft, anyway.  Took me two and half months or so.  And honestly, that’s the reason I haven’t posted anything.  All my free writing time has been consumed with that project.  Every night where I didn’t have to work the next day (and didn’t have plans to go out) was a dedicated writing night.  I’d start around 11 or 12 and finish anywhere between 3 and 5.

For the better part of nine weeks, it was all consuming.  I was living in that story.  And now it’s over.  I mean, I still need to edit it.  But I’m out of it now.  And I’ve got the same feeling I had when I finished my thesis.  I don’t to relinquish the momentum.  I want to keep working.  But I also don’t have any new story ideas.  So maybe that means more regular blogging.  Mal schauen.

Anyway, It’s a bit weird; the story, I mean.  There’s definitely some Lovecraft that’s crept into it…

…That’s something I’ve always been guilty of.  Having my style influenced to a degree by whatever the last thing I read was.  I mean, it’s still me.  It’s still my voice, my style.  But it’s probably a very different story if I hadn’t just read a bunch of Lovecraft.  Anyway…

…So it’s a bit weird, but I hope it manages to be a bit moving at times as well.  We’ll see.  That’ll be for other people to judge, I guess.  Though I’m not sure I’ll want to show it to anybody.  (Then why bring it up, David?).  But that’s been occupying a lot (OK, all) of my creative time and energy lately, so it seemed worth mentioning.

One other last thing.  Lately, I’ve been trying to reconnect with the classical guitar.  See, once I’d finally taught myself to sing and play at the same time, I really kinda let the classical stuff fall by the wayside.  For years.  Honestly, it’s embarrassing.  I mean, I used to handle the Prelude to the first Bach Cello/Lute suite pretty well.  Now I’ve simply forgotten it.

But I’ve got myself all the way through the Sor Variations.  I’m not saying well.  But I can play the whole thing.  Which I could never do before.  And it’s super fucking cool.  It’s just a hot piece.  I mean, smokin’.  Also demanding.  And man, are my finger-picking skills in a state.  The colder weather ain’t helping either.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s nice to be getting this back a bit.  We’ll see how far I can take it.

Right, well surely that’s enough.  Ooh, and politics avoided.  Maybe I’ll tackle that next time.  Or maybe not.  In any case,

זיי געסונט

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. []