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.
And fuck cancer.
- 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. [↩]
- “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. [↩]
- Fuck cancer. [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- Of course, I mailed it all the same. [↩]