An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 March, 2019

Hola!  Que paso?  Yeah, so apparently I’m learning Spanish now?  I don’t know why I said that like it’s a question.  It’s not.  Apparently I’m actually learning Spanish now.  Mostly for the same reason people climb Everest.  It’s there.

So remember a while back I mentioned that in our school we have a woman from Columbia who teaches German? And I said that she would often chat me up in the kitchen in Spanish.  Usually I could understand her, but I was also pretty incapable of answering back.  Well, anyway, we’ve been working together for over two years already, so we’ve gotten to be pretty friendly.

And somehow or another, the idea of doing Spanish lessons came up.  Which is weird, in a way.  Cos it’s not something I ever thought about pursuing.  I mean, I’ve never been particularly attracted to Spanish as a language; certainly not the way I’m attracted to Italian or French, for example.  And also, I’m busy.  Not just life busy, but language busy.  In theory, I should have my hands full with German and French and Hebrew and Greek and Yiddish.  So going after Español wasn’t exactly something that was on my mind.

But at the same time, when you’re offered free lessons by someone you know, by a teacher you like, well, how you gonna say no to that?  And they are free, btw.  She – Claudia is her name – just likes doing this.  Although in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of The Godfather, she did say something along the lines of, “I don’t want your money.  But one day, I may ask you for a favor.”  Probably on the day of her daughter’s wedding, amirite?

Anyway, it’s fun.  And she’s really encouraging.  We always start with her asking me about my week, and I just have to do my best to answer in Spanish.  And at first, I was super shy.  Like, I forgot 99% of what I learned in HS and the little bit the remained was bound to be a mess.  Funny thing though, she told me what I always tell my own students.

“Just fucking talk. Who cares if you make mistakes? That’s how your gonna learn and that’s how I’m gonna see what you know and what you don’t.”  Oh, yeah, good advice, fam.1  Since then, I just roll with what I got, no fucks given.  And every week, it’s a tiny bit better than before.

She also gives me HW, which of course I need.  But rather than do it at home, I do it in the mornings before class starts.  It’s actually a nice way to start the day.  I get to work super early anyway.  So I grab a couple of clementines and a cup of tea and sit down and do 15-20 minutes of Spanish every day.  And it’s just a very relaxing way to ease into the day.

The whole thing makes for a rather fascinating look at how my brain works too.  See, cos I had Spanish in HS.  And while I never really learned it as a “language,” in the way that I understand that to mean now, I did learn a lot of vocabulary.  What I mean is, in school, I never understood the grammar. And I never really managed to be able to usethe language, you know, for communication.  But somewhere deep in my brain, there’s this decent repository of words, and on a very basic level, some gut-feeling of how shit is supposed to sound.  Which helps with conjugating verbs, believe it or not.  

But the other thing I find interesting is the role that French plays in all this.  Because they’re obviously both romance languages, right? So when I need a word, and I can’t remember anything, I often go to a French word and try to reverse-engineer it into Spanish.  It doesn’t always work, but often as not it gets me close enough that Claudia at least understands what I’m after.  

It’s also hard to break out of some French patterns for the most basic words like “and” and “but.”  Like, I find myself saying maisinstead of peroand etinstead of y.  Which is hilarious.  Because I feel like an old world grandmother.  Or better yet, my own old world great grandmother.  In those tapes of Bubbi, she’s always saying shit like “UndI remember mein schwester…”  Like, yeah, I guess that’s English…ish?  So sometimes I say shit like “mon amigo,” bc I get my wires crossed.  But it’s all good.  That shit will straighten itself out eventually.  If I do this long enough, anyway.

One nice thing Claudia said to me, she said she likes working with me bc it’s easy.  “You’re a teacher.  You studied Latin.  You get it. I explain things once, and you have it.” Which is not to say that “having it” is the same as “mastering it.”  I still make plenty of repeat mistakes.  Just that conceptually, I understand things with little difficulty.  But she said that, and I was just kinda like, “Oh, thank gods.”  

Bc one thing I’ve found in this job, teachers make the absolute worst students.  I get students sometimes who have taught languages; who have even taught lower level English.  And they’re insufferable.  They can be very know-it-all-y.  And they have their own opinions about howto teach, about pedagogy.  And just like, shut up, you know?  You want me coming into your class and telling you how shit works?  

I’m the same way, not for nothing.  Or I was, when I did my CELTA.  I was always showing off my Greek and Latin and grammar and whatnot.  I must have been insufferable.  But now that I’m on the other side of it, I can see how wretched that all is.  

So I’m conscious of that when I work with Claudia.  She’s the teacher, I trust her.  I’m just along for the ride.  I try to check my own shit at the door now and let her run her show.  So far, it seems to be working.

Anyway, I said earlier that I’ve never really felt any great attraction to Spanish.  And that’s true enough.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.  Or the biblioteca, as it were.  Reconnecting with Spanish has brought back a flood of happy memories.  The oldest being just doing vocab flash cards with my mom, back in the day.  I mean, that’s definitely something I took for granted at the time.  Hell, I probably even found it rather annoying, since I didn’t enjoy Spanish in school.  But come on, how many kids have a mom who will just sit and quiz them on vocab flash cards?  Pretty cool. Gracias, mamita.

But it’s also bringing back a ton of memories from my time at Starbucks.  Which surprised me, tbh.  Bc look, I did that job for a year.  And that year was 2004-05, so that’s a long time ago already.  But we were a really tight group down at the William St shop. We would often hang out after work, pouring vodka into our passion fruit ice teas.  They’d come over to my apartment and we’d drink on the roof.  Or I’d go up to the Boogey-down and we’d kick in the BX.2

And when I said we were a tight group, I mean it.  It’s kinda the only job I can think of where I can remember all the names and all the faces. And that’s 15 years ago.  Compare that to the school I worked at before coming to Germany, and already most of the names are gone, the faces are fuzzy. But from Starbucks?  Man, we had fun.

It was always super slow on Saturdays.  So that was always a good time for whoever I was working with to teach me some Spanish. And they were great about it, you know? Like, they’d encourage me to try and talk to a Spanish speaking customer in Spanish.  Which I definitely did not have the balls to do.

I remember I’d learn one bit of slang from a Puerto Rican one day.  And then I’d try it the next day with a Dominican, and they’d just laugh at me.  Like, “Where you learned that mierda?” And vice versa.  I remember the way this one girl, would always roll her ‘r’ when saying the number three. That was adorable.  Or the way one of the girls would teach me Spanglish.  “Dave, you ready for lonche?”3

And like I said, none of this was because I had some overriding love of Spanish.  Just, these were my co-workers, who became my friends for a time.  And they were happy to share their language and their culture with me.  And I just loved that.

Because it was the culture as much as the language.  There was this one girl, man she was super cute.  And one day she tells me, “Dave, I gotta put on some weight, yo.”  And I’m like, “Are you kidding?  You look amazing.”  And she was just like, “Nah, you don’t understand.  Spanish girls gotta be bigger.”  I mean, it was a longer conversation.  But the point was, she opened me up to a whole nother cultural conception of what ‘beautiful’ is.  That was new for me, and I’ll never forget that.  Or how one of the girls introduced me to pernil, which is a roasted pork shoulder.  Eye-opening shit for a 23-year old. 

Later, I had a temp gig at an investment bank.  So obviously everybody that worked there was rich and white.  Except for my direct boss (who I guess was like an operations manager?) who was black and the receptionist, who was from Ecuador.  They were both great.

I was pretty close with the receptionist for the time that I worked there.  And she also was always happy to teach me little bits of Spanish.  I’ll never forget, at the end of my first day, when I was leaving, I said goodbye to her in Spanish.  We didn’t really know each other yet.  So I’m all “Te veo mañana.”4  And she’s like, “Wait, are you Spanish?”  To which I said, “Umm, do I lookSpanish?”  You know, cos I’m so white, I get sunburnt in the shade.

But she was just like, “Dude, come on, that doesn’t mean anything.”  Which was news to a 24-year old who went to all levels of school with almost exclusively white people.  Anyway, she was great.  And she’s another one, I remember the name and the face, even though we never spoke after I left that gig.  But while I was there, she was only to happy to share her language and her culture with me.

And the funny thing is, both of those jobs kinda sucked.  The jobs themselves, I mean.  Being a barista.  Being a temp. These were not nice jobs.  But the people.  They were fucking great, man.  And 15 years on, those are such happy memories for me.

So it’s interesting to compare those experiences with my current job.  Y’all know I love this job.  I look forward to going into work.  It’s great.  And you bet I like my colleagues.  But I’m not tight with them the way I was tight with that lot.  And I don’t imagine I’ll remember the people I work with now as fondly as I do the Starbucks gang or the investment bank receptionist, in another 15 years.

But I guess it’s one of those Breakfast Club kinda things.  You all get thrown together in a less than ideal situation.  People who might never be friends in the real world. But you bond in that environment. And you’re tight for as long as it lasts.  And then your paths diverge again.  But what’s the song from that movie?  “Don’t you…forget about me…”  Well, I haven’t so far.  And I don’t think I ever will.

The point is, I miss those mutherfuckers.  And learning Spanish brings that all back.

So much for Español. I’ve also decided it’s time I finally learn English.  What’s that you say?  You’re a native speaking English teacher?  Surely you know English already?  Oh, sorry. I meant, oldEnglish.  As in, Anglo-Saxon.  I’m talking Beowulf English.  The OG. 

Justin sent me this great meme.  It goes something like this: “Q: How come we say bakedbut also naked? Shouldn’t those sound the same? A: That’s because English isn’t actually a language.  It’s actually three languages dressed in a trench coat pretending to be one.”  

Which is more or less true. I have two analogies that I use with my students.  The first is that English is a French house built on a German foundation.  The other is that English is the unruly teenage child of French and German that does whatever the fuck it wants.  Which is true enough.  

But although we say “German,” what we really mean is “Germanic.”  To put it another way, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) was a dialect of German spoken in the NW of what today is Germany.  It has much in common with the local dialects of that region still.  But that is not the dialect of German that won out when Germany became a unified country in the 19thcentury and a single standard German was agreed upon.  So in that sense, Old English is not German.  A modern day German can’t pick up Beowulf and understand it.  But the similarities are there if you know what you’re looking for.

Aaaanyway.  I’ve said before that one of my strengths as a teacher is my knowledge of the languages that influence English.  I can give Greek and Latin roots.  I can trace the origins of words through French or show their cognates in Modern German.  Hell, I can even show how some Slavic words have the same roots as English words.

And so it is perhaps ironic that my biggest blind spot in English is, well, English itself.  I have no working knowledge of pre-10665English.  And tbh, I’m kind of ashamed of that.  So finally, I’ve decided to tackle Old English. 

Well, I say “finally,” but really, this is my third attempt.  I tried once in New York and got nowhere.  I tried again like 18 months ago and also got nowhere.  But now I’m going at it again, this time more slowly, more methodically.  I’ve just started.  But this is for real this time.  I can feel it, you guys.  

I’m not setting any goals, in terms of time.  It’ll take however long it takes.  I’m just gonna work through it.  But can I tell you something?  I kinda love it.  Like, a lot. First of all, it just soundsbadass.  But more than that, it’s like lighting a candle in a dark room.  You can’t see everything, not even close. But all of a sudden, you’re seeing shit you never knew was there.

Also, though, there’s something deeper at work.  I’m talking birthright/heritage shit right now.  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Linguistically, I mean.  On the one hand, there’s Yiddish.  All of my family on both sides is out of Eastern Europe.  So literally every branch of my family was speaking Yiddish 150 years ago.  

But my mother tongue is English.  And it doesn’t matter that I’m not a WASP.  I was born into English just as I was born into Yiddish, albeit in very different ways.  My connection to those languages may be radically different.  But there is one common outcome.  A desire to know whyI say the things I say.  A desire to know whereit all comes from.  And so it makes sense to me that I’m trying to learn Yiddish at the same time as I’m trying to learn Old English.  They both teach me something about who I am.  

In other news, the music stuff keeps on keeping on.  I get together with Bibi and Ralf once a week, and that’s coming along nicely.  I’m also working on this Scarlatti sonata, which is pretty cool.  Still a ways to go with that one, but it’s a pretty sick sounding piece.  

One thing I was thinking about the other day, this may be the farthest I’ve ever come with classical guitar.  I mean, yeah, I took lessons in college.  Whereas now I’m just working on my own.  And my repertoire may be smaller now than it was when I was taking lessons.  But if it’s smaller, it’s also more advanced.  Not that anybody’s ever gonna mistake me for a professional musician, but I’m handling pieces now that I was never able to handle before.  

So my technique is perhaps the best it’s ever been.  And that’s translating somehow to the music I’m doing with Bibi and Ralf.  I feel like my coordination is better, my picking is tighter. On the other hand, the music that we play tends to be on the slow side, so maybe it’s all just an illusion.  An illusion.  An illusion.  Aww Yeaahhh.6

What I mean is, obviously when I was playing metal, the music was much much faster and therefore more technically demanding.  So while I feel like I’m more technically proficient now, maybe I’m the same as I ever was and it just feels that way bc we’re doing slower stuff.  

I guess it doesn’t matter in the end.  The point is, I’m enjoying it and I think I’m doing some good stuff with those two.  

Reading-wise, my boy Dumas seems to have taken a sharp and sudden turn for the boring.  One minute it’s D’Artagnan and the boys kicking ass. The next, it’s some creepy unrequited love triangle between Louis XIV, some other joker and some married dame, who, best I can tell, is hot, coquettish and totally useless.  So I had to put that shit down for a little minute. 

In it’s place, I’ve just re-read 1984 which…just…sigh.  I mean, that’s a whole nother conversation.  And I’m reading some Lovecraft short stories.  He’s pretty great, if you like dark and creepy.  Umm, let me clarify.  His writing is great if you like dark and creepy.  As a human being, he was apparently, well, dark and creepy. And not in that good way.  Seems he was quite the raging racist, is what I’m saying.  But whatever, he’s dead.  So Imma just enjoy his stories.  

When I finish with those, it’s back to my boy JV – Jules Verne – who never lets me down.  I’ve just picked up a new paperback, Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum.  Apparently, it’s supposed to be somewhat dark and dystopic.  So I’m fairly amped to get going with that.

And that’s when I realized. On any given day, I might be interacting with no less than eight languages.  French on the train.  A bit of Spanish and Yiddish before class.  English in class and German in the real world.  Hebrew when I get home.  A bit of Old English in the evening and some Homer before bed.  

You know, sometimes I get the question, “Jeez, Dave, how many languages do you speak?”  To which I invariably respond, “I speak English.” Because my French and German, while functional, are hot messes.  My Spanish and Yiddish are hardly usable.  And the other ones are dead languages.  And I like dead languages.  You don’t have to deal with people.

So I speak English. But yeah, on some level, I’m doing something with up to eight languages.  Meanwhile, I spoke to Charlotte yesterday.  She’s in South America now, remember.  So we had a long conversation about Spanish.  It was great.  We totally nerded out over Spanish grammar.  I mean, there’s a reason we’re friends, right?

Anyway, she’s like, “So. Still no Italian, huh?”  And I’m just like, “Fucking sigh, no.”  Like, all I ever wanted to do is learn Italian. And all I do is keep learning shit that’s not Italian.  And she’s like, “Welp, you’ll just have to move to Italy.”

And you know what? Maybe.  I mean, putting aside the part of me that’s all “Go be of service to your country and become a civil rights/immigration lawyer already,” why not go live in Italy?  It’s a tempting thought at this time of year, as winters in Berlin are objectively shite. And how long do I really want to live in a country where I find the culture too rigid, where the architecture is dull and where the food is, shall we say, less than inspiring?  

And maybe if my job was different, I’d be more apt to leave.  But I love my job.  I love the freedom I have to make it my own.  I love that it’s steady and I don’t live the normal freelance teacher life of constantly trying to find the next gig.  And I have friends here that I love, that I’m very close with.  I mean, what are the odds I could build friendships on the level of Joschka or Anne or Zibs and Jan somewhere else?  

But on the other hand, how long do I really want to be here?  And if I go home, for the purpose of pursuing a law career, then that’s kinda it, isn’t it?  That would be the end of this whole living abroad adventure.  

So on some level, I have a feeling like I owe it to myself.  Whether it’s in one year or three or ten, shouldn’t I at least make a go of living in Itlay for a year or two?  I mean, every time I go there, the second I get off the plane, I’m hit with this feeling of “Why don’t I live here?!” 

I dunno.  That’s not a plan, by any means.  I’m not even sure it’s a goal.  But it’s something that’s on my mind.  And in the winter, it’s on my mind all the more.  

Also France.  It’s a source of great frustration to me that I can read French as well as I do, but that the spoken language is a struggle. And it’s only a struggle bc I’m not immersed in it.  With French, I always feel like it’s just beyond my fingertips.  Like, if I could just be surrounded by French for six months, I could manage that language really quite well.  Better than I manage German even.  I’d love to be able to do that.

So there’s this conflict. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that I should be doing something more important with my life.  On the other hand, I have this strong desire to live in Italy, to learn the language that, before any other, lit my love affair with languages.  Also to eat good bread.  On the third hand, to live in France and get properly good at that language.  And also to eat good bread.  But on a fourth hand, I have a great job here.  And relationships that are super important to me. There’s so many hands, Imma need an octopus to figure this shit out.

But all that’s for another day.  For now, Imma just keep on keeping on.  I’ve got enough to keep me busy.  More than busy.  Engaged. Mentally, socially, emotionally, musically.  I guess what I’m saying is, good bread can wait.  Just maybe not forever…

זײַ געסונט


  1. Did I use “fam” correctly?  Also, are we still saying “fan”? []
  2. Living in Germany has not been good for my command of urban slang.  Also, getting old doesn’t help either. []
  3. Lunch, obvi. []
  4. Like a boss jefe. []
  5. The year of the Norman invasion, which forever changed the English language.  The conquering (French) Normans basically dropped their own language on top of the existing language.  It took about 300 years, but eventually they merged into what we would recognize as “English.”  Compare Chaucer (AD 1300-ish) and Beowulf (AD 800-ish) and you’ll see what I mean. []
  6. Fury throwback! []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 February, 2019

So one of the hardest things about living in a foreign country is that you don’t share the same cultural touchstones.  And for me, one of those touchstones is baseball.  I live in a world where the name Mickey Mantle mean nothing, where people have never heard of Joe DiMaggio but they sure know his wife.  A country where “Who’s on First?” isn’t funny, because nobody knows what a baseball diamond looks like.  It’s tough, I’m tellin’ ya.  

Anyway, the other day in class, we were doing some or other exercise and a student reads the sentence, “Jackie said blah blah blah.”  So I ask, “Is Jackie a boy’s name or a girl’s name?”1  And one student says, “Maybe a girl’s name?  I mean, Jackie Kennedy, right?”  Yes, that’s right, I said.  But also, Jackie Robinson.  And all I got was blank stares.  So I’m like, “Wait, does nobody here know who Jackie Robinson is?”  Now it’s blank stares mixed with slight embarrassment. Like, you can see them thinking, “Hang on, are we all idiots?  He’s asking like it’s obvious.  But I’ve never heard of this Jackie Robinson…fellow?”

“You guys, he’s was the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues.”  At which point, any embarrassment immediately evaporated.  Because they were all like, “Dude, you’re in Germany. You don’t honestly expect us to know the name of a baseball player.”  And yet, when asked, they’d heard of Babe Ruth.  So, you know, there’s that.

Anyway, I sorta sighed. And that’s when I said, “I can’t believe I moved to a country where nobody’s heard of Jackie Robinson.  Like, a little piece of me just died inside. What have I done to myself?”  I think they thought that was perhaps a slight overreaction.  Because they then said something like, “OK, but be real.  What did you expect?  And anyway, what’s the big deal?  He’s just a baseball player.”

Just a baseball player. But he’s so much more than just a baseball player, I tried to explain.  “Look, y’all’ve heard of Martin Luther King, right?”  Of course they had.  “Well Jackie Robinson was just as important.  He’s a major figure in the fight for civil rights.”

Oh, and also the baseball. Jackie stealing home is the stuff of legends.  And the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boys of Summer.  But you can’t teach them the glory of Jackie and Pee Wee and Hodges, Campy and the Duke of Flatbush when they don’t even know the difference between a touchdown and a homerun.  Which is not an exaggeration, btw.  One of my guys actually thought a touchdown was how you score in baseball.  Like I said, a little piece of me died inside.

Anyway, I decided I had two choices.  I could either go home and cry about it (which I may or may not have done), or I could get off my ass and do something about it.  #WWJD?  What would Jackie do?  So I decided to do something about it.  I went online and started looking for an article about the man and his life, with minimal emphasis on the game of baseball itself.

Because this couldn’t be a lesson about batting average and RBI.  It had to be a lesson about the fight for equality and civil rights, and Robinson’s role in all that.  After a bit of digging around, I found a piece that fit the bill.

Last week, I brought it to class and we read it together.  As a purely English exercise, it was worthwhile, just for the reading practice and new vocabulary.  But more importantly, they learned not only about Jackie Robinson, but some of the history of race relations in general in America.  Like, I had to teach them about segregation and shit.

Anyway, at the end, I thanked them for indulging me in this.  But also, I said something along the lines of, “And also, the world is a better place now because a few more people know about Jackie Robinson.”  Hard to tell how serious they were, but more than a few of them thanked me.  Said they genuinely appreciated learning about him and the history and found the whole thing generally interesting.  

Also, two of my girls each have a pair of young sons.  So I volunteered to teach them how to throw a baseball.  They kinda lit up at that.  They’ll probably be out of the class by the time it’s warm enough to have a catch, so we’ll see if it actually happens.  But it’s nice to know people are interested.

In the article, there was a Roger Kahn quote, from “The Boys of Summer.”  At which point, I had to mention that “Boys of Summer” is one of the best books ever and one of my personal favorites.  One girl circled the quote.  Maybe she’ll read it one day.

This girl is great by the way.  She’s Turkish and an observant Muslim; wears a headscarf, keeps halal, that sort of thing. She studied theology when she was younger, studies architecture now.  Great sense of humor and very smart.  But what I love is, she’s this observant Muslim…and she curses like a sailor.  She gives me shit, too.  So she’s fun to have in class.

She sits next to Mr. A-Touchdown-is-Baseball-Right?, who is an otherwise smart young lad, also with a good sense of humor, who also gives me shit all day long, now that I think about it.  They have a very cute brother-sister thing going on.  It’s kind of adorable.  I’ll come back to them later.

Anyway, we’re sitting in the kitchen for lunch.  And as I’m about to start eating my salad,2each person at the table has to say “Guten Appetit.”  Which means I have to put my fork down seven times and say thank you seven times before I can finally start eating.  You know, bc Germans have a near-pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody within a 5-meter radius.

So I’m like, “What’s the deal with this Guten Appetitthing?  Why can’t I just eat?”  And Mr. Touchdown is like, “Well, what do you people say?”  And I’m like, “Watchoo mean, you people?”  And he’s like, “Well, in America, don’t you all say ‘grace’ or something like that?” And I’m like, “Uh, I don’t know what the goyim do.”  And he’s like, “The who?”  And I’m like, “The goyim.  The gentiles.”  Blank stare. Me: “The…non-Jews?”  Him: “Wait, your Jewish?”  

Seriously?  Dude, I say “Oy vey” like twelve times a day, and my pedagogical style can best be described as “shtick-based.”  What did you think?  

Anyway, that was kinda funny.  And the conversation moved on from there.  But I’ll use that as a segue to something else I wanted to talk about. Namely, the question of anti-Semitism in this country.

Uncle Art, when he was still among the living, would always ask me if I’d ever experienced any anti-Semitism in Germany.  And I always told him that I hadn’t.  Which is true.  Not once have I personally experienced it here.  What’s more, I’ve always been open about being at my job and with my friends here. And reactions have always ranged from not giving a fuck to genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about Judaism, being Jewish, etc.  Such that I can honestly say, not only have I not experienced any anti-Semitism here, but that indeed my experiences with regard to Judaism have been positive on the whole.

I said that I’ve been open about it at my job.  That’s been true at both language schools for which I’ve worked here.  But at one, my boss was gay and at the other, my boss is Jewish.  

In the case of the other school (I no longer work there), where my boss was gay.  At my interview, he made clear to me that our classes were to be safe spaces and that intolerance would not be, well, tolerated. And he told about negative experiences he’d had as a gay teacher, and that he was determined that such things would not occur on his watch.  At that point, I told him I was relieved to hear that.  Because I was Jewish, and I didn’t want to feel like I should have to hide that.

At my current job, my boss is also Jewish.  And he screens all the students himself.  He doesn’t let just anybody in.  The result is that we naturally have an open-minded student body.  So again, it’s a safe space, in that way.

And as for my friends, well, that’s obviously a self-selecting group.  I mean, I’m not likely to consort with racist, prejudiced or generally closed-minded people.  So it’s no surprise that I don’t experience anti-Semitism in my social circles.

It’s only when you dig a little deeper that some disturbing patterns start to emerge.  I’ve heard more than once that it would be unwise to walk around wearing a yarmulke.  Maybe not everywhere, but certainly as a general rule.  I’ve heard that in certain neighborhoods, people have been attacked just for speaking Hebrew on the street.  Every synagogue, every Jewish bookstore, the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial, they all have permanent, armed police guards stationed out front.

Margit’s sister-in-law did Judaic Studies when she was younger.  I once asked her if she would be interested in reading some Torah together.3  She said she would, but that we’d best do it at her apartment.  It’s not something we should be seen doing in public, she said.  

I have one student now, apparently both her grandmothers were Jewish.  And she’s keen to learn Hebrew.  Anyway, she pulled me aside one day and was almost whispering when she asked me if it was true that I can read Hebrew.  The implication being that it would be unwise for such a conversation to be overheard.  I offered to let her borrow my textbook, which she was very happy to do.  But when she brought it back, it was wrapped in a black bag and she made sure to give it to me privately.  A precaution which was certainly unnecessary in our school, but which speaks to the bigger picture, to be sure.

And so, no, to this day, I have not personally experienced any anti-Semitism here in Germany.  But neither is the picture so rosy as it might have seemed upon my arrival.  And it may be that a major reason I haven’t experienced anything is because you can’t know I’m Jewish by looking at me.

Compare that with the experience of my Muslim student.  On the one hand, there are many more Muslims than Jews in Berlin.  So in a very real way, she has a community here that I do not. But at the same time, Muslims are still a minority here; even if they are a large one.

And so she was telling us about a job interview, where only a few questions put to her were actually about her experience or qualifications.  Most of the questions were about her dress and her religion.  And you could see, as she was telling the story, she was becoming angry.  I was getting angry right along with her.  I mean, that’s fucked up.  And if I showed up to a job interview wearing a kippah, should I really expect that I wouldn’t be subject to the same bullshit?

One thing I’m realizing, is that, as a New Yorker, there’s something I’ve taken for granted my whole life. And that’s the idea that “everybody is from somewhere.”  What I mean is, on some level, every New Yorker is a hyphenated-New Yorker.  There’s nobody who doesn’t define themselves somehow by their family heritage, and with pride.

Irish-New Yorkers. Italian-, Puerto Rican-, Dominican-, Korean-, Chinese-, Nigerian-, whatever-New Yorkers.  And we’re all proud of our heritages.  The food, the languages, the world-views, etc.  But you just take it for granted that any ‘real’ New Yorker is from somewhere.  Otherwise they’re from the Midwest of some such bullshit.  #NoDisrespect.

And then you get to Europe. In this case Germany.  And you ask people where they’re from.  And they say ‘Germany.’  And you say, yeah, fine, but I mean, where’s your family from?  And they’re like, ‘Germany.’  And you’re just like, shit, right.  People are just fromhere.  You don’t live in a place where every last motherfucker has an immigrant story.  You don’t live in a place where everybody’s grandmother cooks food from ‘the old country.’  I mean, my whole family came through Ellis Island.  Came in on a boat, with the Statue of Fucking Liberty in the background.  For people here, that’s some Hollywood shit right there.  In New York, that just is. OK, maybe you came later.  Maybe you came through JFK instead of Ellis Island. But it’s all the same, at the end of the day.

And I think about my circle of friends back home.  Jared and Adam and Rob, the Yids.  But Keith is German.  His grandmother wasGerman, and his mother understands the language.4  Michael fucking Murphy, whose mother speaks Gaelic and speaks English with an Irish accent.  Vinny, my paisan, whose parents are off the boat and make their own beautiful tomato sauce.5

I fully recognize that the experience of African Americans is its own thing.  But an African-American-New Yorker is as much a New Yorker as anybody else.  And whether they see themselves as part of the Great Migration from the South, or from a distant African homeland, they too come from somewhere.  

The point is, part of being a New Yorker, is inherently knowing that you and both assholes sitting next to you on the subway come from somewhere else, that we all have our own histories and cultures of which we are rightly proud.  But we all ride the subway together, and together we make our city great.  Even if you think the person on your left is an asshole, and the person on your right is also an asshole.  And they both think you’re an asshole.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  Because all three of us know, the hayseed across from us with the upside-down subway map is the real clown.

Compare that with Berlin, where people have this weird parochial, territorial, jaundiced view of what it means to be a ‘real’ Berliner.  For them, it means you’ve lived here all your life.  And your parents before you and their parents before them.  “But I’ve lived in Berlin for five years,” you protest.  Meh.  They’re not impressed.

More than once, I’ve asked people “How long does one have to live here before they get to call themselves a Berliner?”  And I’ve gotten answers ranging from, “Minimum, ten years,” to “You can’t.  You have to be born here.”  The fuck kind of attitude is that?

You know how long you have to live in NY before you get to call yourself a ‘real’ New Yorker? However long it takes you to stop looking up.  However long it takes you to realize the jerk in front of you is walking too slow.  If you can do that, well, welcome to the club. You’re in, asshole.

French Charlotte lived in New York for two years, maybe three.  And homegirl had to ride the J train into work from fucking Bushwick. You could smell Popeye’s from the front door of her apartment.  She bought Coronas at the bodega.  For as long as that was true, she was a New Yorker.

My point is, that’s something I’ve always taken for granted, this idea that everyone is from somewhere.6  Something I never actively thought about until I got here.  And it’s just not that way here.  Either you’re from here, or you from somewhere else.  And the people who are from here, well, I often get the feeling that they think they have something over the people who aren’t.  It’s not my favorite thing about this town.

I remember once I was out having a drink with Anne.  And there were these two dames sitting at the very next table, quite close to us. Anyway, at one point, Anne gets up to go to the bathroom.  And I’m listening to these two girls.  Because they’re talking accented English, and that’s kinda my job.  So I’m curious where they’re from.  And you know, I’m debating with myself if I should interrupt them and ask.  Cos I don’t want to be creepy, you know?  But on the other hand, I’m clearly here with a female.  So in theory, I should be pretty non-threatening.  Fine, so I ask.

“Excuse me, sorry, but can I ask where you guys are from?”  And one girl says some country, I forget which.  But the other got all up on her high horse and shit, and was all, “I’m from Berlin.  I guess you don’t meet many of those.”  Like, she was pretty arrogant about it.  Because, Berlin, like New York, attracts a lot of young people.  So if we’re only talking about young people, there’s a good chance they’re either from somewhere else in Germany or another country altogether. And that’s only more true in the hip parts of town, which was the case here.

Anyway, so she’s all Miss Thang with her “I’m from Berlin, can you imagine?!”  And I’m just like, “Bitch, I’m from Brooklyn, you think I give a shit?”  Which I definitely did not say.  I just rolled my eyes and waited for Anne to come back. But I mean, the nerve!  

Because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Duffs – or wherever – and some young transplant asks me where I’m from.  And you know, I gotta say it, I’m from Brooklyn.  Fine.  And often as not, people – transplants and tourists, I mean – get a little wide-eyed, you know?  Like, Wow, a realNew Yorker!  A real person-from-Brooklyn.7  Cos like I said, if we’re only talking about young people, NY is full of transplants and tourists.

But those reactions always make me feel a little embarrassed.  Like – and this is what I’ve been saying – fucking, everybody is form somewhere.  I happen to be from here.  NBD, you guys.  If anything, I’m more impressed by you. Luck of the draw, that I was born here. You actually got off your ass and gotyourself here.  That’swhat it’s all about. At some point, the fact that I remember Ed Koch, how much should that really count for?

Funny thing though. Being from New York often buys me instant cred here too.  Remember that student with the two Jewish grandmothers, wants to learn Hebrew?  She’s Russian, btw; which I only mention bc we’re on the subject of people being from places.  Anyway, one day in class, I’m writing something on the board with my back to the class.  And somebody calls out a question.  But like this: “David?!”

The fuck?  I spin around.  Who just called me David? I’m only ever “Dave” in school. And Little Miss all sheepishly raises her hand.  At which point, she explains that one of her sons is named David.  And he’s quite adamant that people call him Davidand not Dave.

“Funny story,” I tell her. “I was the same way when I was a kid. I wouldn’t let people call me Daveuntil Middle School.  How old is your son?”  I forget, but I wanna say something in the neighborhood of six-ish. Anyway, this was her response.

“Oh!  Well, I’ll tell him that my English teacher – from New York– let’s people call him Dave.”  Like, I could be an axe-murderer.  But I’m from New York.  That’s all the cred you need.

Same thing with Bibi. You remember Bibi, we’re playing music together.  Anyway, her son (13-ish) is also named David.  Remember now, he’s playing a bit of cajón(percussion) with us.  But he’s a tad reluctant.  Like, at 13-ish, does he really want to be jamming with his old mom?  That kinda thing.  

Anyway, she sent me a recording of a song we’re working on.  And in the recording, it’s her singing and playing guitar, and David is on the cajón.  And you guys, it fucking killed.  He was laying down this march beat.  Shit was on point.  So I told her that, and that I was looking forward to jamming with him.

And her response: “Wait til I tell him, Dave – from New York– thought it was cool!”  As if that right there is enough to make jamming with your mom a rad afterschool activity, right?

But always when I hear this shit, I’m just like, “Yo, chill with that.”  Because like I said, everybody is from somewhere.  So when she introduced me to her guitar teacher, it was, “This is Dave, from New York!”  But what does that mean?  Usually it means I’m grumpy because I can’t get a good bagel in this town. I’d much rather be introduced as, “This is Dave, he’s not totally shite with a guitar.”  

Oy.  So the title of this blog is “An American in Berlin.” Which, I’ll be honest, was a conscious play on Gershwin’s An American in Paris.  But maybe it should be called “A New Yorker in Berlin.”  Certainly that’s been the thrust of the better part of this post.

But at the end of the day, that’s how identify myself.  I may live in Berlin.  But I’m always a “Jewish-New Yorker.”  Sometimes that means always being in a rush, impatient.  Sometimes that means missing ‘good deli.’  Usually it means being some version of neurotic.  And my sense of humor is certainly self deprecating.  It also means consciously – perhaps even precociously – sprinkling Yiddishisms into my German.  Sometimes that means saying “Mishpucha” instead of “Familie.”  Other times it means pronouncing a word like Antwort(“answer”) as entfer(ענטפער). But also, it’s about how I see the world.  That we’re all from somewhere.  But wherever we’re from, we’re herenow.  Together.  And it’s that combination of past and present, of diversity and unity, that gives us a chance to be greater than the sum of our parts.

Now if I could only find a bowl of congee8

זײַ געסונט
9


  1. In the traditional binary gender male/female paradigm, obvi. []
  2. I fucking hate salad, btw.  But I eat it every day for lunch, bc healthy? []
  3. Imagine that, studying Torah with a goy. And dollars to donuts, she’d know more about it than me! []
  4. Hell, even Keith knows how to ask “Was hast du gesagt?” – What did you say? []
  5. Also known as “red gold,” that’s how fucking good it is, I shit you not. []
  6. Hell, even when we lived in Massachusetts, everybody was fucking Portuguese. []
  7. Let’s be honest.  Transplants and tourists don’t know the word “Brooklynite.” []
  8. A kind of Chinese rice-porridge, which I would often buy when I lived in Chinatown; with strips of pork, fresh chives and ginger matchsticks.  I’m tellin’ y’all, nothing better on a cold winter’s day. []
  9. זײַ געסונט: “zei gesunt”means “be healthy” or, more colloquially, “be well,” in Yiddish.  Both of those words, however, are German.  And while they are German words, it is not a German expression.  Recently somebody ‘corrected’ me.  “You mean, Bleib gesund.”  Which would mean something like, “Stayhealthy/well.”  And I was like, “No.  I mean, Sei Gesund“ (to use the German spelling).  At which point I had to explain that, “Actually, it’s a Yiddishism, and something my grandmother used to say.”  In fact, it’s one of the last things I remember Ida – my dad’s mother – saying, when we visited her in the nursing home.  It was towards the end, and she wasn’t really all there.  I don’t ever remember her speaking Yiddish when I was growing up.  But then again, if she had, I wouldn’t have recognized it.  But there, at the end, that was how she chose to end visits with the family.  It wasn’t, “Be well,” or “See you later,” or “Goodbye.”  It was something other, out of the depths of time, from the language of her own mother. זײַ געסונט, she said.  It is from Ida, “Grandma,” that I have these words. And these are the words with which I close every post. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
4 February, 2019

Right, so obviously if I write a post going on about how much progress I’m making with my German, what’s the first thing that’s gonna happen?  Yup, you guessed it.  Reality check.  All the way from Bavaria.  But that’s as may be.  First, the visit.

So last weekend, our friends Anna and Stefan visited Joschka and me in the big city.  I’ve written about them before, but by way of a refresher, we know them from the metal festivals.  Anna is in her early-mid twenties and Stefan is her father.  And they’re both wonderful people.  Stefan and I bond over our love of NWOBHM;1 I think we’re the only people we know who are really into that stuff.

Anyway, they came up for the weekend.  Now, whenever we go down to visit them, they always take proper good care of us.  They take us out to the local pubs, give us waves of high quality schnapps and Stefan always cooks up a top-notch meal. As a result, it was really important to Joschka and me to return the favor.  

That meant a proper feast. Appetizers, main, sides, dessert and good quality drinks.  For the apps, Joschka made a slamming hummus from scratch, part of which was also a homemade tahini base.  He also made a pumpkin soup, again from scratch.  To go with the hummus, I went to Neukölln, where all the best Arabic and Turkish bakeries are, and got some really nice bread.

For the main, oh boy, skirt steak.  Now, I’ve been looking for skirt steak in this country since I got here, and I’d never been able to find it.  Finally, I asked my students last month if they knew anything about this.  And none of them did.  But one at least knew somebody to ask.  So she came back with the 411.  She helped me special order it, which was the only way to get it.  And from the date of ordering, I had to wait a week for it to arrive.  And yet despite all this, it was pretty cheap.  10 Euros/kilo, which I guess is like 5 bucks a pound.  Because they just consider it nothing more than “Suppenfleisch,” soup meat.  I gather that’s why nobody bothers to carry it.  Boy are they missing out.

Now, grilling is not an option here in January.  But Joschel has this new sous-vide machine, which is not anything I’d ever heard of before. But basically, you vacuum seal the meat in a plastic bag and then in immerse it in a water bath which is maintained at a constant temperature.  End result, the meat is cooked perfectly every time.  All that’s left to do, when you take it out of the bath, is to give it a quick sear in the pan to get a little crispy crust on the outside.  Anyway, the steak was a bit of teamwork.  I prepped the meat with a soy sauce marinade and did the pan work at the end.  J took care of the sous-vide process.  

For the sides, I made “my” string beans.  Normally, I sauté them in bacon fat and at the end, give them a squirt of lemon juice and sprinkle them with rock salt.  Super simple, but super good, and a creation I’m not a little proud of. This time we didn’t have bacon fat, so I just sautéed them in the steak drippings, which worked pretty well. Alongside that, I seasoned up some potatoes and roasted ‘em in the oven.  

I took care of dessert as well.  Back to the Neukölln bakeries, I picked out two different kinds of baklava as well as some cookies with chocolate and pistachio and some kind of jelly squares with nuts inside and a pistachio crust.  Joschka curated the wine and schnapps selections.

Well, it was a fucking hit, you guys.  The hummus and pumpkin soup were killer, and the bread was a perfect match for the hummus. The steak came out fucking perfect, and everybody loved it.  None of them had ever had skirt steak before, so they didn’t really know what to expect. But by the end, they were asking all kinds of questions: what’s it called, where did you get it, how do you get, etc.  At the end, there was not one piece of meat, not one string bean, not one potato left, not one spoonful of soup left.  The drinks were on point.  Our guests couldn’t have been happier.

For that matter, neither could me or Joschka.  Seriously, we spent the rest of that night and most of the next day high-fiving and patting ourselves on the back.  The phrase, “Dude, we fucking nailed that” was uttered more than a few times.  So that was a fucking win.

Which is more than I can say for my German.  Now look, it wasn’t a total fucking failure.  A total failure would have been them being, “OK, this is too much effort, so we’re just going to English at you.”  That didn’t happen.  We Germaned the whole time.  And if I didn’t understand something or needed something repeated, explanations and repetitions came in German.  The only exceptions were when Joschka and I were cooking, and when Joschka explained the rules of a board game to me; which, fine, I can live with that.

So in that sense, it was OK. But I very much ran up against my limitations with the language too.  Because look, it’s one thing to chat and converse.  And I mean, I’m even at the point where I’m fast enough to crack one liners and make puns with proper timing.  Which is big for me.  

But where I fall down is story telling.  Because it’s one thing to relate the main points of a story in an accurate way.  It’s another thing to make that story interesting and fun.  I can handle the former.  The latter, not so much.  

Which is tough for me, because I like to think I can spin a pretty decent yarn in English.  In fact, it’s part of my job.  Maybe I always had some skill with this, but it’s definitely something I’ve honed in my 2.5 years of teaching.  

Digression-wise, I’ve found story-telling to be a very effective teaching tool.  It’s something I picked up from one of my CELTA instructors. There are a number of benefits, if you do it right.  First of all, it humanizes you.  It makes you more relatable to the students.  And – again, if you do it right – it’s entertaining.  You get laughs, you build rapport.  You also give the students a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of “work.”  Well, it works for me, anyway.  And, I think, I can read a room.  I can see when a story is working with an audience.  

And I can see when it’s not. Which is what happened with the Bavarians.  Once or twice, I tried to tell some story or other.  And I could just see in their faces, it wasn’t going well.  I could feel the vibe drop; the energy just go out of the room.  

Nobody said anything, of course.  They’re my friends, and, like I said, they’re lovely people.  So they were courteous enough to listen attentively.  But I could tell they were doing it out of kindness and not any sort of edge-of-the-seat what-happens-next-ness.  Sort of like when a comedian bombs.  Only without the heckling.  

So one measure of success with a foreign language is the extent to which you can be “yourself” in that language.  And I don’t totally fail here.  Like I said, I can pun rather well in German.  Hell, I can pun bilingually; puns, in other words, that only work if you know both languages.  I can lob zingers and say inappropriate things in German.  That far, at least, I can be some version of “myself.”  But man, fucking storytelling eludes me.  

Sometimes I feel like my German is a station car, the beat up piece of junk that you only drive to and from the train station.  Like, it definitely gets me from A to B.  But it doesn’t have AC or power windows, the heating doesn’t really work, and there’s a knock in the engine that you can’t get rid of.  Yeah, it gets me where I need to go.  But I’d be embarrassed to pick up a date in this bucket of bolts.

But it does get me where I need to go, and that ain’t nothing.  So I think I mentioned last time how I’ve started jamming with this student of mine.  It seems to be becoming a regular thing.  And Friday we took it to the next level.  She invited me to come and jam with her and her guitar teacher; and also her son, who is learning the cajón.  The cajón is basically a wooden box that you sit on and drum with your fingers; it’s a percussion instrument.  Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t.

Anyway, she invited me to come jam with her teacher and her son.  So we get there, and her teacher couldn’t have been nicer.  Super lovely guy.  And at first, he’s like, “We can speak English.”  But Bibiyana, my student, was like, “Dude, he can German.” And after that, it was all German. Which is great.  Really.  I love that I’m beginning to build relationships here where German is just the language.  Makes me feel more a part of this place, you know?2 

But the point is the music. Now, she told me he had a guitar I could use, so I wouldn’t have to schlep mine, which was nice.  So he hands me this flamenco guitar.  And thank gods for that, bc I hate playing steel-strings. But also, I figured that moment was kind of my best chance to set a good impression, to let this guy know he could take me somewhat seriously as a player.  So I sit down and run through the intro to the Sor variations.  And he was like, “Whoa, you can play classical? Not bad!”   Boom, instant credibility.  Which is important.  Because it’s nice to have something in the bank when I make mess of improvising later.

Anyway, we got tuned up and started running through some tunes.  Mostly stuff me and BIbi had already been working on, but also a couple of new tunes.  And you guys, it sounded good.  Like, we were making this three guitar thing work.  She would do arpeggiated finger-picking, he would strum chords and I would put some melodies and harmonies around what they were doing.  I gotta say, it was a pretty good sound.  And it’s not just me saying that.  Everybody was pretty high on it.  We all left feeling pretty excited to do it again.

Plus, having her son there to work the cajónand put some percussion under it all was a fine touch.  This kid is great, btw.  I think he’s like 13, or thereabouts.  But he’s a super-sweet kid and made for a pretty cool group dynamic.

Me and Bibi were talking about where we’d like to go with this, and the idea is, we’d love to get enough stuff together to take this thing on the road.  By which I mean, play a gig at a pub or something.  We’re not there yet, mind you.  We haven’t even perfected the songs we have.  Nor do we have enough songs yet to fill out a whole set. But that’s the goal, and we’re working towards it.  We’ll see where it all goes.

One thing that’s interesting about all this is, Bibi and her teacher – Ralph, btw – aren’t into the same stuff as me.  They’re pretty into the 60’s and sort of softer folk-rock kinda stuff.  Nice music, but not normally my scene.  But that’s actually kinda cool for me, and here’s why.

Most of the songs we’re doing, I’ve never heard before.  Which means I get to come at them fresh.  I’m not trying to copy the original.  I can’t, bc I have no idea what the original sounds like.  I get to put my own imprint on the songs, find my own music in them, if I can say that.  And that’s a fun challenge for me.  And apparently, they seem to like what I’m doing.  So, you know, good stuff there.

“Apparently,” I said. Now there’s an interesting word. It came up in class this week.  I used it once or twice.  And then a student was like, “So what’s the deal with ‘apparently’?  I hear this word all the time.”3  Whereupon did I explain that it’s kind of a cultural difference between English and German.

Because, see, in German, there’s a higher degree of rigidity.  What I mean is, people are very comfortable making bold, declarative statements, with little or no mitigation.  Whereas in English, we like to mitigate everything.  We don’t like to claim anything as a fact, absent absolute certainty.  And even then….

I mean, without firsthand experience, nothing is certain for us.  Everything is ‘apparently,’ or ‘like,’ or ‘-ish,’ or ‘I guess.’  You get the picture.  But they didn’t.  Not at first. So I gave them an example.

“My brother,” says I, “is married.  He has a wife.  And a dog. And also, apparently, a horse.”  Now why did I say apparently here?  After all, I ‘know’ they have a horse.  I’ve seen pictures.  They talk about it all the time.  But like, I’ve never actually seenthis horse.  And anyway, come on.  Who has a fucking horse, amirite?  So yeah, until I actually see this beast with my own two eyes, it’s apparently.

(A further clarification here.  I’ve just discussed this whole apparentlything with Niki, and she pointed out – quite rightly – that we also use ‘apparently’ for things we know to be true, but somehow feel shouldn’tbe true.  For example: “Apparently, this is what the Germans call pizza.”  Which of course, there’s no ‘apparently’ about it. They absolutely call this flatbread-with-sauce-and-cheese “pizza.”  But they sure as shit shouldn’t, say the two jaded New Yorkers.  So we add ‘apparently’ to the comment, to underline the ridculosity of the premise).

Well, they got the picture. And now, they’re using ‘apparently’ with abandon.  And using it correctly, too.  It’s fucking hilarious.  And also kinda awesome.  

And I gotta say, it’s a really good group right now.  I’ve said that before, I know.  And maybe it’s not the most amazing group of all time.  But it’s a really fucking good group.  They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re curious.  And we give each other shit all day long, which is just fun.

We were all having lunch in the kitchen the other day, one of my guys hits me with some or other zinger. I don’t remember what it was, but it was pretty solid.  But you know, I’m like, “Dude, come on.  I’m on my break.  I didn’t come here for abuse.”  And he was just like, “But you taught us this.  We learn abuse from you.”

And I was just like, “Shit, you’re right.”  Like, I’ve created monsters.  Sarcastic, piss-taking monsters.  And just, I couldn’t be more proud, you know?

So yeah, work is a lot of fun right now.  And sure, it usually is, right?  But it’s not always.  End of last summer, beginning of fall, it was really kind of a drag.  But it’s fun again now.  Like, I really look forward to going in every day.4

But also, after almost 2.5 years, I’m finally starting to get some real feedback.  And it’s almost all really positive.  I have students telling me how much they love my class.  Myclass.  They tell me I’m really good at explaining things.  Which is obvi pretty important.  But they also tell me it’s fun, which is just as important imo.  Because you learn better if you’re having fun, I think.

And my boss, too.  One nice thing about my boss, he also likes a tipple.  So Friday before last, after class, we split of a bottle of sparkling wine.  We chatted about a number of things.  But he also said some really nice things to me. Things like he’s really happy he has me; that he thinks I’m properly good at my job; that the students “love” me – his word.

And yeah, also that other thing I’ve heard two or three times before.  You know the one.  The old, “You’re too smart to be doing this forever.”  So he asked what I wanted to do after this.  Academia? he wondered.  Maybe, I said.  Or law. Which is still very much on my mind.

This question also came up in class a few weeks ago.  I went around the room asking the students what they wanted to do when they finished their courses.  And after they’d all answered, they asked me what I wanted to do “when I grow up,” which is actually how I put the question to them.

So I told them about the whole law thing.  And I explained that I feel like I need to do something good for my country, to help my country in these difficult times.  That although I absolutely love my job, I think it’s kind of selfish of me to be over in Germany, enjoying myself, while my country – and the people in it – need help.  And after a bit of a silence, came a most unexpected response. 

“But you are helping your country,” said one of my girls.  “You’re representing your country.  You’re showing people here that there are actually good people in America.”   Or words to that effect.  At which point, one or two other students enthusiastically seconded the point.

I was pretty touched.  Honestly.  I mean, in no way was I fishing for compliments.  Fuck, I wasn’t even expecting a response of any kind.  And then that.  They weren’t blowing smoke, either.  You could tell, they were quite earnest in saying that.  

And the truth is, that’s an angle I’d never considered.  But I guess there’s some truth to it.  After all, what do these people see about America on a daily basis?  Trump? Mass shootings?  Racism?  Ask a German on the street what they think of America, you’re likely to hear about one or more of those things before you hear anything good.

But how many Americans do they actually know?  Well, they know me.  And whatever else I’m doing, it seems I’m being a good ambassador for the ol’ US of A.  Apparently.

Does that change how I feel about things?  Probably not, in the big picture.  I still think it’s selfish of me to be here, doing what I’m doing. And I don’t think being a good ambassador to a group of 8-12 students at a time does nearly the good that working in civil rights or immigration law could do.  But I guess it ain’t nothing, neither.  

I met Anne and Annett for drinks earlier last week.  Which was great.  But it was more great than usual.  So Annett, right?  She’s really my first friend in this country.  I mean, Joschka, but I met him in the States.  Annett is the first person I met herewho’s really my friend.  We met at a language meet up in 2015 when I was doing my CELTA.

And I love Annett.  She’s a properly wonderful person, by which I mean, she has a properly good heart.  She’s kind.  But she’s also a bit of a lost soul.  And most of the time I’ve known her, well, I hesitate to say it.  But, really, I don’t think she’s been a very happy person.  I think she’s someone who’s sort of looking for purpose a little bit.  As long as I’ve known her, she’s sort of bounced from job to job, never really finding anything that has any meaning for her.

Well, now she’s trying something new.  She’s taking a course to become a German language teacher.  Which I think she’ll be great at, not for nothing. Anyway, we’re there having drinks. And all of a sudden, we’re talking shop. Phonetics and pronunciation mostly. But man, she lit up like I’ve never seen before.  She was just really excited to be talking about this stuff.  

And of course, this is in my wheelhouse now.  This is my “profession”…apparently.  But I love talking about this shit.  So I’m getting excited, just having somebody to talk about it with.  And she’s getting excited.  And man, that was just a fun conversation.

But really, the big thing is, I think – I hope – she’s finally found something that will be fulfilling for her.  Because, yeah, she deserves it.  But more than that, I think she needs it.  So I’m really excited for her.  I mean, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see her jazzed up for something, anything.  But especially this thing.  Because, fucking yes, I think she’s gonna be great at it.  

Oh, and also, just a great fucking time with those two.  I dunno, I wonder if there’s something special about a tripartite friendship.  If you wanna go back to ancient history, you get the two Roman triumvirates.  Or more recently, high school: CoDog, Jared and myself.  Or post college: me, Joschel and Vinny.  And now here, Anne, Annett and me.  

There’s a kind of perfection in three, when it comes to friends. Like, any given two have their own unique relationships.  But then the complete three also have a really special thing.  You know – and I’m talking out of my ass now, riffing – but I wonder if maybe that’s the reason why Dumas titled his book Les TroisMousquetaires– The ThreeMusketeers.  Even though there’s fucking four of them.  Because maybe, I dunno, but maybe even my boy Alex was thinking, “Hey, yeah, three is the magic number for friends.”  

All to say, I love the shit out of Anne.  She’s my drinking buddy.  She’s sarcastic and caustic and vulgar and sweet and talented and hilarious. And I love the shit out of Annett. She’s kind and earnest, giving and empathetic, and also fucking talented.  Very different people, those two.  And yet, not all that different.  And then we get together, and it just fucking works.  Annett tempers me and Anne and we open her up a bit.  Is what I would say, anyway.  But whatever it is, it fucking works a treat.  Apparently.

Almost time to wrap this bitch up, but before I do, lemme go back to music for a second.  The Barry Sisters, you guys.  The fucking Barry Sisters.  Holy shit are they fucking fantastic.  And yet, you’re asking yourself at this very moment, who the actual fuck are The Barry Sisters?   Well, I’ll tell you.

They’re a duo.  Sisters, obvi.  From the mid-century.  And they sing in Yiddish.  But they sing like big-band and jazz.  And yeah, some traditional stuff too.  But omg so good!   Killer harmonies.  Great tunes. And fucking Yiddish, you guys.  

This will be the weirdest comparison ever, but here goes.  They’re like a wholesome, Yiddish, jazzy B-52’s. I know that sounds ridiculous, but give a listen.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Really. You’ve got two broads singing catchy tunes with sick harmonies in a way that’s so fun, even a grumpy SOB like me has to smile.  And they do it in Yiddish.  I don’t normally do links in this blog, but I’ll make an exception here.  Four songs: Vyoch Tyoch TyochYuh Mein Liebe TochterZug Es Mir Noch AmoolChiribim Chiribom.   Uh, I said four.  But actually, also this tune, which they do with some dude who scats the shit out of it: Halevai.  This last one has more of a klezmer vibe, but it kicks proper fucking ass.

So there’s that.  But let me also say this before closing.  Here we are at the beginning of February, the halfway point of the National Hockey League season.  And my beloved Islanders are sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division.  After years of futility.  After our once-adored captain, that Benedict Arnold, the snake, he-who-shall-not-be-named, ditched us for Toronto.  Here we are, and the team for whom my heart pumps blue and orange is not just in first place, but is also super fun to watch.  Maybe the wheels fall off.  Maybe they crash and burn.  But also, maybe, just maybe, I’m watching something special here.

But you know what, it almost kinda doesn’t matter.  This team that, in theory, I love through thick and thin, but in reality, I’ve basically just loved through only thin…this team, I say, is now an absolute fucking joy to watch.  And I’m so proud of them.  איך קוועלע.  I’m kvelling.

Hockey is beautiful.  My team is gorgeous.  Music is a joy.  And my friends are fucking fantastic.  דינו.  Dayenu.

זײַ געזונט


  1. NWOBHM – New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a bright-burning quasi-DYI metal scene, ca. 1979-1983.  The big bands to come out of this movement are Iron Maiden and Def Leppard; major bands known to metal fans would be Saxon and Diamond Head. But for the most part, the great majority of NWOBHM bands were one and done. []
  2. Follow up note.  We jammed with her teacher again this past Friday.  And now I’m even starting to pick up some of the German music vocab.  The words for major, minor, strings, etc. Cool. []
  3. I paraphrase.  My students don’t say “What’s the deal with ___ ?” []
  4. Which is not to say I look forward to waking up at 6:38 every day.  #eww []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
7 January, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “Sure, I’ll be here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זײַ געזונט

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s they?” asked Nick.

“Not this again,” moaned Micky.

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

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

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

“Whom?” (Nick)

“Who.” (Micky)

“Yeah, whom?” (Nick)

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

“What?” (Reg)

“Why!” whined Micky.

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

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

“Now you’ve done it,” whispered Reg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not the Mon Cals again,” winced Micky.

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

“Whatcha mean?”  Reg was hooked.

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

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

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

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

“Not all fish have scales,” groaned Micky.

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

“Enemies.”  (Micky)

“Whatever.”  (Nick)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” (Nick)

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

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

“What do you mean?” pressed Reg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” answered Reg.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the difference?” queried Nick.  

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

“Sucking, eh?” whistled Nick.

“And a tentacle?” wondered Micky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a fair cop,” allowed Nick.

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“Yeah…” puzzled Reg.

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

“It is?”

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

“Well…” struggled Reg.

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

“I suppose,” agreed Reg weakly.

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

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

“You give up?” parroted Nick.

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

“Rebel scum,” followed on Nick.

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

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

“Photons,” corrected Micky.

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

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

“Well, for starters,” agreed Reg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hubbub, sir?” asked Nick innocently.

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

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

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

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

“He does, does he?”

“I do, sir,” answered Reg proudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science…fiction?” finished Starrkin.

“In a word, sir, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rebel scum,” murmured Nick and Reg together.

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

“What happened, sir?” Micky, riveted.

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

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

“But the second phase was to be external.”

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

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

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

“But the second phase?” countered Micky.

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

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

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

“Yeah, didn’t what?” echoed Nick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very good, pilot,” nodded the CO.  

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

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

“Go on, pilot,” encouraged the colonel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out with it already!” cried Reg.

“Spill it!” shouted Nick.

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

“Meaning?” Reg was growing exasperated.

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

“So?”  Nick didn’t see the big deal.

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

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

“Unbelievable,” whispered Reg.

“All too believable,” countered Micky.

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

“Still,” mused Nick.

“Pilot?” questioned the colonel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tentacle!”


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

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18 September, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
22 July, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זײַ געסונט

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

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 July, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זײַ געסנט

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

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

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

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

16 January, 01 E.C.

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

“Shall I keep the engine running, gov?”

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

“Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

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

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

“That’s why I made the appointment.”

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

“Yes, sergeant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Best not, sir.”

“And how’s that, exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t.”

“Then how did you – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you – “

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

“Well, it doesn’t really matter.”

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

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

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

“Of the Dark Side?”

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

“With all due respect, my lord – “

“Don’t interrupt me!”

“I’m sorry, my lord.”

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

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

“Please.  Be honest,” he said sincerely.

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

“Go on,” he insisted.

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

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

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

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

“With pleasure, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

“Liquidation.”

“Liquidation?”

“That’s right.”

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

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

“And why not?”

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

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

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

“But?”

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

“Yes?” I pressed.

“There was concern over a public backlash.”

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, my lord.”

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

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

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

“Have they?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“You mean, the Empire.”

“I mean both, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In what manner of speaking, precisely.”

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

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

“Oh, don’t act so surprised, Doctor.”

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

“Is it?”

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

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

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

“How ironic,” he laughed darkly.

“How’s that?” I asked.

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

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

“Good man,” he nodded approvingly.

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

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

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

“How so?”  He seemed genuinely interested.

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Was that irony?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just said that.”

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

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

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

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

“A…myth horde?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean by quarter?”

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

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

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

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

“I am.”

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

“Was that absolutely necessary?” I asked.

“No?  But it was cool, right?”

“Impressive,” I agreed.

“Most impressive,” he added.

“I mean, that was fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I mean, I think it’s ironic?

“Is it?”

“Yes?”

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

“And that is, my lord?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean, Imperial University,” I offered.

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

“Hardly, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine, thanks.”

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

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

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

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

“About the Blue-milk?”

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

“Honestly?”

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

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

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

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

“Does it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Topography…”

“Topogrpahy!  Of the mountain…”

“The volcano…”

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

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

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

“My lard,” stammered Cuthbert, “I…I…”

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

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

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

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

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

“No!  My lord…I…”

“Then what?” he demanded.

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

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

“My lord, I simply – “

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

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

“My lord?” he answered carefully.

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

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

“Oh, get up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Most assuredly, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A thing?  Yes, I’m afraid it is.”

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

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

“It is now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well it’s really more about – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me neither,” I muttered with equal awkwardness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish.”

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

“Right.  By then.”

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

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

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

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

“Err, yeah.  Sufmin’ like that, gov.”

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

“It’s Simon, gov.  And horses?”

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

I never was much good with idioms.

The Federalist Project – #6

The Federalist Project
Federalist No. 6

Hamilton

14 November, 1787

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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