An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
29 October, 2021

New projects, new challenges.  I may have mentioned previously that I’ve sorta been pushing Bibi and Ralf to do some recording in my studio, to make a demo of sorts.  We’ve finally started on that.  The first step was just to choose three songs.  The number was my idea.  I figured three seemed reasonable.  They seem to be pretty excited about it, which in turn has me excited. 

I had Ralf over last Friday to get started.  We laid down his guitar parts and most of his vocal tracks.  And right off the bat, I’m confronted with how much harder it is to work with other people as opposed to working alone.  I don’t mean from a personality standpoint either.  I just mean in terms of how one goes about the work. 

Like, when I’m working alone, if I’m not happy with a track, I can go back and redo it any time.  But now, when you schedule somebody to come over and work, you kinda have to get it right during that session.  If not, it means you’ve gotta have the person back. 

Now, I’ve always felt that Ralf is an absolute pro when it comes to playing his instrument and singing.  At practice, and live for that matter, he’s always locked in rhythm-wise.  Before Robert joined us with the cajón, Ralf kept time, and he did so pretty flawlessly.  And as a singer, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing a bum note.

But working the studio, man, it’s just a different animal.  Which isn’t to say that things went badly, or even slowly.  Not at all.  But the standard you’re after is different.  Things need to be ‘perfect,’ in a way that’s different from a live performance.  It takes some getting used to.

Now, that’s hard enough as a musician.  I mean, I know that from my own experience, whether it was making demos with The Fury back in the day, or putting down my own stuff now.  I think it was maybe a little new to Ralf though.  He did a solid job, all things considered.  Better than solid, even.  I mean, I think I’ll wind up keeping 80-90% of his guitar work and a good deal of his vocal work too.

But what’s brand new for me is, I have to learn now how to be a producer.  I’m still working this out in my own head, so forgive me if it comes out a little sloppy in writing.  But I want to try and get across what I’m dealing with here, what I’m experiencing, what I’m learning.  Because it’s so fascinating, so interesting…but also, so challenging.

The way I’m looking at things now, there’s two things that I need to address if I’m going to be successful as a producer.  The first is, I need to learn how to listen better.  I need to learn how to identify things that might be problems before they are actually problems.  For example, a guitar part might sound fine in isolation.  But I need to learn to anticipate how it will sound with the other instruments.  Or a vocal take might hit all the right notes, but I need to learn to hear it in it’s totality.  How’s the phrasing?  Is the emotion right?  Is the volume consistent.  Those are just two examples, but these are the kinds of things I need to get better at hearing on first listen if I’m to avoid having to bring people back multiple times to redo things they’ve already done. 

The second thing I need to learn how to do follows logically from the first.  I need to learn how to take control, how to be the boss of my studio as it were.  And that means being OK with telling people that what they’ve done isn’t good enough, even if they personally think it is.  It means learning how to demand extra takes, even if they don’t really want to do them. 

And there’s an element of phycology at work here too.  You have to learn how to handle people.  And to recognize that it’s not one-size-fits-all.  One person might need a soft touch, encouragement.  Another person might need a firmer hand.  It’s like, you gotta be a coach too.

But at the end of the day, it’s my studio, I’m the producer.  And that’s not an ego thing, to be clear.  What I mean is, when it comes down to it, I’m the one who’s going to be doing the work.  If a vocal take doesn’t have the right emotion, if there’s something off with a bit of guitar, these are my problems to fix.  And some things can’t be fixed with studio magic.  The source material needs to be on point.  So it becomes part of my job to make sure that it is.

So Ralf was here on Friday, and on Sunday I got to work on my end.  I started putting down my bass and guitar parts.  And I started listening back, a dozen times, two dozen times.  And only then did I start to hear things I think Ralf could have done better; things I need Ralf to do better.  And that’s not a knock on the guy.  It’s just a part of the recording process, for all of us. 

But this is what I mean about needing to be better hearing these things in the moment.  I can’t afford two dozen listens before I realize, “Hey, this vocal could be stronger.”  That needs to happen during the session.  And it means I have to be more demanding in what I accept.  Which again, doesn’t mean I have to be an asshole about it.  Like I said, you can do this in a kind an encouraging way.  But I can’t settle for less than they’re capable of, and it’s my job to learn how to get that out of them when I have them.

Now, to Ralf’s credit, he was great when he was here.  If there was an obvious problem, all I had to do was play it back.  When he’d hear the problem for himself, he was only to happy to redo it.  But sometimes there’s not an obvious problem.  Sometimes I just felt like we should do another take.  And when Id ask for a second or third take, he’d give it to me with a smile. 

But if I’m honest with myself, I know I was holding back.  I know there were times when I would have preferred another take, but didn’t want to push things for fear of upsetting my musician.  Which was wrong.  Because now I know I’m going to be asking him to come back and do things he’s already done.  That’s not the best use of anybody’s time.

In addition to these things, there’s another element to being a producer that I’m still learning about.  And that is, that you have to – at times – take an active hand in composition and arrangement.  Now, given that I’m a part of this band, the line is a little blurry.  I mean, I already have a hand in the arrangements.

But when we practice, I don’t usually offer suggestions on how to play a part or how to sing a part.   I might suggest a particular chord or melody or harmony.  But at the end of the day, Bibi’s vocals are Bib’s vocals; Ralf’s guitar parts are Ralf’s guitar parts. 

The thing is, when it comes to recording, we’re working on a deeper level.  It’s not just, what sounds good live, it’s what will make this recording work best.  And so that means listening to the way things are played and sung.  It means, for example, listening to a guitar part with fresh ears and trying to imagine how it will come across in a mix.  It means making suggestions like, “Try using a pick here instead of your fingers,” or “Try voicing the chord this way instead of the way you normally voice it.”  And a million other things.

It also means thinking about things the others won’t think about.  What kind of reverb would serve us here?  Are there harmonies we can’t do live that we ought to be doing in the studio?  It means making judgments about the EQ of voices and instruments; in other words, changing the very sound of things.  And doing so not from the perspective of “How does my voice sound” or “How does my guitar sound?”  But from the perspective of “How do these things sound when they are combined?”

From my own music, I’ve learned, for example, that what sounds like a killer electric guitar in isolation can completely muddy a mix.  So while Ralf comes with his own ‘sound,’ I need to manage that sound in the context of the whole.  Same with all of our instruments and voices. 

So I find myself thinking lately of the great record producers.  From George Martin, you could learn so much about what a string arrangement might add, even if you’ll never play the song live with strings.  From Brian Wilson, you can learn so much about vocal harmonies, even if you can’t recreate those harmonies on stage.  From Phil Spector, you can learn…not to be a terrible (and possibly murderous?) human being.  But also about walls of sound.

These are things that fall to the producer.  So as we proceed with these three songs, I’ll be thinking about things like, “What would a bit of cello sound like here?”  Or, “What can we do harmony-wise over here?” 

And harmonies in particular will be interesting.  Because I can write them, arrange them and even record them.  But that’s not enough.  I’m going to have to listen.  I’m going to have to make judgments.  Like, “OK, I’ve worked up this harmony, but whose voice would fit best where?”  That might well entail asking people to sing things they haven’t sung before, to trust me.

Which isn’t to say they won’t have input.  At the end of the day, it’s a group project, a band project.  If they both don’t like something, then it’s 2-1, it doesn’t make it into the final mix.  But it’s my job to present them with the options.  It’s my job to get them to try things.  In short, it’s my job to have a vision for these songs, and then to adapt that vision to the wishes of the band.

But this is important to me.  Partly because I’m in this band, and so I have a personal interest in the final product not only as a producer, but as a band member.  More than that, though, it’s important to me because being a competent producer is important to me.  The art of creation.

You know, it’s funny.  When I was a kid, I was really into movies and special effects.  I got that from my dad.  I was thinking about this recently.  And I think I was into it because my dad was into it.  Like, when you’re a kid and you look up to your dad, well, then anything your dad thinks is cool, you’re automatically gonna think is cool too. 

That’s not to say I wasn’t into it at the time.  Of course I was.  That’s not something you can fake.  But I kinda grew out of it.  Not to say I still don’t have an interest in how movies are made, particularly with regard to special effects; of course I do.  But I wouldn’t say I have a passion for it either.

And yet, there’s a direct line from that childhood interest to what I’m doing now.  Only instead of film production and visual effects, it’s sound production and audio effects.  It’s not about movies anymore, it’s about music.  But it’s still the magic and art of creation.

And I want to do more of it.  Not only that, I might be able to.  When we did our Rosh HaShanah dinner, Deb had these two French friends over.  Professional playwrights, lovely people.  Anyway, I saw them recently, and it turns out that the man also plays guitar.  What’s more, he also writes his own songs.  Rock and roll too!   He mentioned the Stones when I asked him what kind of stuff he did. 

So I offered my studio to him.  Why not come over and record some of your stuff?  He seemed pretty receptive to it.  Who knows if it will actually happen.  Maybe it was just one of those things that sounds good after a few glasses of wine, but which in reality will never really come off for one reason or another.  But I sure hope it does.  The idea of producing somebody’s music that I’m not connected with is actually really exciting to me.  Another chance to grow as a producer.  Another chance to be involved with music in general and rock specifically.  And also, I could do with more French people in my life.  He and his wife are both lovely people, if nothing else.  So fingers crossed on that one.

So much for producing.  I was in bed all day Saturday with a combination of a cold, allergies, some stomach stuff and a hangover to boot.  A proper mess.  The point being, I found myself watching a lot of Youtube.

And there I found a series of videos by this woman.  She’s a professional opera singer/vocal coach.  And she does these videos where she reacts in real-time to a song and breaks it down on all kinds of levels: technical, composition-wise, emotional, whatever.  Normally, I’m not really into these reaction videos.  Like, whatever.  But something about this dame.  She’s got this great enthusiasm and effervescence.  Reminded me a lot of Flare, actually.

But I found myself loving the way she would approach music she’d never heard before and which was out of her wheelhouse.  Like, I wish I could come to new music with such an open mind and with such joyous appreciation.  I can’t though.  Not like that.  But none of this is the point.  It’s just background, albeit rather necessary, I think.

The point is, she broke down a Dio song.  Five, actually; each video 20-30 minutes.  Two solo Dio songs, two with Rainbow and one with Sabbath.  And it was amazing.  Like, she was a total convert.  I watched her break down some other metal songs; Judas Priest, Type O-Negative.  And she gets into it.  But not like she got into Dio.  By the end, she was literally loving Dio, a new fan for realz. 

The reason I’m writing about this, though, is because watching these videos made me incredibly emotional.  I’m talking tears in the eyes, you guys.  And look, having a professional opera singer validate Dio’s technical brilliance is somehow incredibly gratifying.  Hearing her say that this guy could have done literally anything he wanted made me proud of our metal hero, our metal everyman.  Hearing her compare him – more than once – to Freddy Mercury, going so far as to say Dio is the Freddy of metal, I mean, it makes you – and this is not a phrase that I love – but, it makes you ‘feel seen.’  But even all of this is beside the point.

What was truly special was sharing that moment when somebody discovers Dio for the first time.  It’s one thing to witness the appreciation for his technical ability.  The Apollonian, if I can borrow from Nietzsche.  But it’s the Dionysian that moves you.  Watching somebody’s eyes light up, watching the uncontrollable – unconscious even – smile that blossoms on a person’s face the first time they hear that voice, it’s terribly powerful.  The absolute joy and wonder of it all.

For yourself, you get to experience that one time.  There’s only one first time you hear Dio.  For myself, I have had two such experiences with music, experiences that I shall never forget.  One was the first time I listened to Metallica’s Master of Puppets album.   When the opening riff of the first track, Battery, opened up, my eyes nearly popped out of my skull.  And the second time was with Dio, with Rainbow.

I remember my parents took me to the Stormville flea market, upstate.  I had read about Rainbow, mind you, in metal magazines.  I knew it was Ritchie Blackmore and Dio together.  I could only imagine what that might sound like.  So we’re at this flea market, and there’s this guy selling records, vinyl.  This was during that in-between period, when CDs were the thing and vinyl was passé.  You could get records dirt cheap back then.

So this guy was selling records a dollar a pop.  I bought Van Halen I, also a big deal; never heard that before either.  But he had this double LP – two bucks – Rainbow On Stage.  I had to buy it.  I get it home and put it on the turntable.  The band is called Rainbow, right?  So there ‘intro music,’ is Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  That’s right.  This metal band walks onstage to Judy fucking Garland, I shit thee not.  What?  And then the real music starts.  And oh my gods.  All of them, all of the gods, oh my.  I didn’t know music could sound like that!  And then Dio starts singing.  That voice.  I mean, it was magic.  It’s still magic, all these years later.

The point is, you get that first-time experience once.  Just once.  And now, here I am, watching this dame on YouTube live that experience.  Witness to all those emotions.  Yeah, it moved me to tears.  All these years on, Dio still has that emotional pull on me.  I’ve said it before, but Dio is the one and only rock star where I’ve felt, not just that I knew him, but that he knew me.  To share that with somebody – even through a computer screen, even with somebody you’ll never meet – it’s a powerful experience. 

Remember message boards?  I used to be on metal message board, back in the old AOL dial-up days.  There I mentioned that I was going to buy Black Sabbath Volume IV.  And this guy says – I’ll never forget – he says, “I’m so jealous.  You’re about to hear that album for the first time.”  That’s always stuck with me, even though I didn’t quite understand it at the time.  All these years later, I understand. 

As a side note, I mentioned two first-time musical experiences that changed my world: Metallica and Rainbow.  Now, one might think I’m forgetting something here.  After all, anybody who knows me, knows that my all-time favorite band is AC/DC.  Yet I did not include them in that recounting.  How can that be?

But you have to remember, the point was that the first time I heard Puppets, the first time I heard Rainbow, those albums remade my world because I didn’t know music could sound like that!  My experience with AC/DC couldn’t be more different.

The first time I heard AC/DC, my reaction was: “Oh yes, of course.”  I can’t explain it, but that music was already in my blood, in my fucking bones.  The first time I heard it, it was not amazement that such a thing could exist, but rather confirmation of something that I somehow knew all along.  I grew up listening to the oldies station in the car with my mom.  Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, et al.  AC/DC was just the logical conclusion of all that, and the perfection of it.  I wasn’t shocked by their existence.  They had to exist. 

Well.  I think that’s more than enough.  It’s good to finally get a proper post done.  And now, time for the hockey game.  Let’s Go Islanders!!!

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
21 October, 2021
The Long Walk Home

Well, I’ve already scrapped two full-length posts.  So who knows if this one will ever see the light of day.  But here goes…

Those who know me know that I love a good long walk.  Here I’m not talking about an aimless stroll, although that’s fine too.  I mean more my preference for walking places rather than taking the train (or, gods forbid, a taxi).  I’d rather take an hour to walk home than take the train or tram and get there in 15 minutes.  That goes double if it’s the end of the night and I’ve partaken in my fair share of…imbibabtion?  Imbibery?  If I’m drunk.

In the past year, I’ve discovered that to walk from my place to Joschka’s – or more properly, from his place to mine – takes just about an hour exactly.  From Deb’s place, which is not far from Joschka, it’s about an hour-fifteen.  I also discovered, all too shortly before she left, that the walk home from Anne’s place was also almost exactly an hour.  Same for Esma’s, who lives in that same neighborhood.  But these are two very different walks, as we shall see.

I’ll first address the, well let’s call it the Eberswalder walk.  Whether from Joschka’s or Deb’s or any of the bars and restaurants at the junction of the Prenzlauerberg and Mitte districts, the bulk of the walk inevitably begins at the U-Bahn station Eberswalder Straße.  It’s an easy walk, in the sense that it’s a straight shot.  And I mean that nearly literally.  Staying on one street will bring me right into my own neighborhood, with but a single left and right leading me to my own block.  What is a blessing in terms of practicality is almost a curse in terms of interest. 

As Schönhauser Allee becomes Berliner Straße, you watch the city evaporate around you, only to be replaced by pedestrian, non-descript housing.  There is little lighting.  Not to say that it’s dark in a dangerous or eerie kind of way.  Just that the bright lights of the big city are no more.  And honestly, it wouldn’t matter if there were more lighting.  There is nothing to see.  At best, there is a small park (and ‘park’ is a generous appellation) about two-third’s of the way home, whose greatest virtue is that affords the weary and drunken traveler a modest place to answer Nature’s call, if need be.

And the more I make this walk, the more I discover that is become a melancholy one.  Less because of it what it is and more because of what it is not.  During my time in New York, I had two of the greatest urban walks-home that I think a person can have: the one to the Financial District from all points Manhattan, the other to Chinatown via the Williamsburg Bridge.

There is something magnificent about entering the Financial District, that point where Broadway becomes a canyon amidst the towers, below City Hall Park.  It was quiet in those days, or rather, nights.  Not many people lived there in the early Aughts.  The stillness of the night stood in stark contrast to the daytime bustle of the financial capital of the world.

But FiDi was only the end of the journey.  One of the great things about Manhattan is that every street is special, every street has a story, every street has at least one shop or building to catch your eye, to capture your interest on your long drunken journey.  And the way was always somewhat varied.  You went whichever way the lights or traffic allowed, all the while being funneled slowly but surely towards the southern tip of the island.  More than this even, many streets aroused their own personal recollections.  It was here that I had dinner with so-and-so or drinks with you-know-who.  On this corner you can get a pretty solid lamb over rice, that Starbucks will let you use their bathroom at 3am.  No matter which way you went, you invariably wound up on Memory Lane as you approached Maiden Lane.

The walk from Williamsburg to Chinatown, while far less varied, had its own magnificence.  For starters, the walk would begin at one of three places.  Niki’s apartment, an all-night noodle shop, or Duffs.  Those nights at Duffs, with Vinny and Joschka and Niki, at times with Charlotte or the Finns or Dutch Eddie, are among my most treasured memories of my time in New York.

Duffs, you have to understand, was our Mecca, our metal sanctuary.  It was the place where we felt at home, with our people, our music, our bartenders.  The red lighting, the tour posters, the artwork by H.R. Geiger.  The jukebox with all the best songs.  The heavy hand that Jamie had with a bottle of Jameson.  It was a magical place.  And the walk home crowned it all.

Staying til after four, when they’d eventually kick us out, I’d walk home over the Williamsburg Bridge.   There’s something quite moving about being alone at 430am, in the dark of night, suspended over the East River, with the never-dimming bright lights of Manhattan spreading out before you.  It’s a powerful moment when you realize you may well be the only soul upon that bridge and that all this, the shimmering glory of the world’s greatest city, belongs to you and you alone.

Eventually, you make landfall in Manhattan, descending the end of the span as if coming down from a cloud onto Delancey Street.  From there, it was only a short walk home past and down streets with actual names; not a small thing, and one that often gave me a touch of pride in being a downtown denizen. 

To this must be added another, shorter, post-Duffs walk.  Many were the nights – or mornings – where we would follow up our visit to Duffs with breakfast at Wo Hop.  Now, it should be noted that not everyone of our party was as enamored of Wo Hop as I was.  But for me, there could be no better end to a night of metal and whiskey than some crispy noodles, Szechuan chicken and endless cups of tea. 

Wo Hop was a scant ten-minute walk from my apartment on Orchard Street, and by the time we’d leave the sun would be coming up.  Walking bleary-eyed, drunk and satiated into the rising sun on the Lower East Side, even if it was not the equal of the Bridge, had its own charms to be sure.

No walk home in Berlin can come close to any of these.  But the walk home from Wedding – Anne’s old and Esma’s current neighborhood – is not without merit.  For one, it offers variety.  There are at least two main roads which must be adhered to.  But within that, there is the freedom to take this street or that.  Nor does the liveliness of the city seem to drain from around you.  True, it’s not all that lively to begin with.  But whatever activity there is manages to more or less maintain itself for the bulk of the passage.

Two things in particular are worth mentioning.  One is peculiar to Berlin, and this cannot be done in New York, at least legally.  I speak of walking with a beer.  Between Wedding and my own neighborhood of Pankow, there are any number of Spätis where a body can pop in and buy a beer for the road.  This always serves to give the walk a bit of an extra glow.

The other is that it requires crossing a stream.  The East River it ain’t.  Nevertheless, it’s quite pleasing to stop upon that little bridge in the middle of the night and to have a bit of water under your feet.  And in the winter, if you’re lucky, the trees that line the stream will be decked with snow.  If it’s not magnificent, it is charming all the same.

The walk home from Eberswalder Straße is, regrettably, none of these things.  No architectural wonders, no memories, no variety of route, nor even any water.  It’s only seeming virtue is that is is, in fact, a walk.  A bit of fresh air and a chance to stretch the legs after a long night.  Nothing more.  Even the beer that I bring with me is somehow joyless; a silent and morose companion.

It gives me time to think, though.  And to remember.   That is why I am writing this little essay, you see.  Because all that I write here I have thought on those long and uneventful walks.  And that it is why it is a melancholy walk.  Because instead of enjoying it on its own merits – merits which as yet elude me – I find myself remembering other and better walks.  Remembering what I have lost in coming here, and what I miss so much.  And there are times when I think it would be better if I just took the tram.

But I generally do not take the tram.  Weather permitting, it is almost always better, or at least preferable, to walk.  And who knows?  Maybe one day, this walk – anodyne as it is – will be pleasing to remember.  In the meantime, I walk on.  Me and my beer.

Addendum: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish this piece.  But I just got off the phone with my brother, having asked him if he could take a picture of the walkway on the Williamsburg Bridge for my apartment.  If for no other reason than that it will provide some context as to why I want such a picture upon my wall, I have decided to post this. 

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
21 July, 2021

Oh hi.  Yeah, I know, it’s been a while.  Actually, I’ve written two posts since the last one went up, but I didn’t publish them.  I wasn’t happy with them.  Dunno why. So we’ll see how this one goes.

So, first things first. I just got my visa extended for another three years.  It’s weird. I’m more relieved than happy about it. Last time around – my first extension – I was pretty psyched.  This time though?  I dunno, it just kinda feels like more of the same, you know?  Like, it was this annoying formality that I needed to take care of to just keep doing what I’m doing.  This at the same time as not only Anne has left, but also Jan and Zibs, who have just moved away to Flensburg.  Fucking Flensburg?  Whatever. 

Anyway, I’m still processing. And also, when I said it was a formality, I still lost a lot of sleep over it.  What if they don’t extend me?  What if they’re not happy with my paperwork and I have to go gather a bunch of shit and come back?  I don’t think there was any real danger of them kicking me out.  But they could have made my life difficult had they wanted to. Thankfully, they didn’t want to.  

So here I am, for another three years.  Or at least, the freedom to stay another three years if that’s what I want.  The thing is, how do I even know if that’s what I really want?  This time two years ago, when I last extended, this was still something of a new experience.  Now though, it’s a short horizon.  Worry about tomorrow, but not much beyond that it. 

I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s more just that I keep on keeping on.  Things are steady, which is good.  I’m settled, in my own apartment, which is something I’ve always wanted.  But should I be dreaming bigger?  Or is this just what happens when you get old?

I think, at this point, mostly what I want to do is just work on my music.  Well, that and read dead languages.  And drink with my friends.  Not so much working though, which is something I guess every teacher goes through.

I mean, it’s the same thing, over and over.  Look, I love teaching, in a lot of ways.  I love the English language in all its manifold varieties and all the possibilities it contains.  I love the human connection, when you work with the right people.  But.  But, but but.

There’s not a ton of room to grow in this field.  I mean, sure, you’re always learning something new, always finding new ways of describing and explaining shit.  But you’re a teacher, at the end of the day.  It kinda ends there.  You can grow up, but not out.  What I mean is, you can establish yourself, build your reputation, grow your business, charge more for your services.  That’s what I mean by ‘growing up.’  But that’s not terribly interesting to me.  I don’t have a head (or a heart) for business.  And I have, kinahura, enough money to live the life I want to live.

As for ‘growing out,’ well, like I said, you’re an English teacher.  Unless I want to go back to school and get an advanced degree in this shit – and I don’t – this is basically the end of the line.  If I was younger, I might want to pack my wares and try another country.  But at 40, I’m not really feeling that.  Not in the sense of, Teaching English is a universal passport and let’s use it to travel the world.  

Which isn’t to say that I still don’t harbor dreams of one day living in Italy or France.  You bet I do.  Just not dreams of teaching English in those countries.  Right now, it’s more like I want to retire in one (or somehow both) of those countries.  Also, I might like to retire.  Nowish. I can’t, obvi.  But I might like to.  You know, just do music and dead languages all day.  Maybe pick up the odd private student for kicks.  But not for aparnosah, not for a livelihood.  

Anyway, that’s where my head is it right now.  Not that it matters.  Retirement is not yet an option.  And every time I visit a doctor in this country, I’m reminded that I have a very compelling reason to stay here.   So it is what it is.  And honestly, it ain’t bad.  

There was no metal festival this year, because the ‘rona.  So instead, we rented a big ol’ country house in Brandenburg.  Brandenburg, for any New Yorkers reading this, is basically to Berlin what Upstate is to the city.  In all of the ways, really.  Anyway, 13 of us rented this big ol’ house in the country for five days.  Five days of drinking, loud metal and lots of food.  

On the food front, somebody has to cook for the whole gang every night.  So just like last year, I made my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs for the gang.  Big hit. Especially since after the actual dinner, where all the meatballs were instantly devoured, we were left with a sizable amount of, well, spaghetti Bolognese at that point.  Which meant that for the next 24 hours, there was always some drunk mutherfucker pulling a bowl of spaghetti out of the fridge. Hard to argue with that.

The weather was not great for the first few days.  Hot, which is fine.  But humid too, which I can’t abide.  I mean, I’m just miserable in humidity.  And cranky. Dave, cranky?  Big fucking surprise, I know.  Also, I got bit by a tick.  So far, no signs of anything bad.  But who needs that shit?

On the first night, at around 7am, Joschka and I crossed the lake in a little rowboat.  I say ‘first night,’ because while it was 7am, we still hadn’t been to bed.  And the house was on a little lake; and there was a rowboat.  So we crossed the lake, climbed up the wooded embankment and stepped right into a rye field, chest high.  Not that I know the difference between wheat and rye, but Joschka apparently does.  It was a real Samwise Gamgee “I’ve never been this far from home” moment, if you take my meaning.  

Also, the longer we were there – at the house, I mean – the clearer it became that hosting a group of metal heads was not the normal business model.  No friends, this was a swinger pad.  There was an old sign in the fire pit that read, “<– love tent, cuddle tent –>.”  You could set the lights in the lounge to only red.  I’m talking ‘brothel red,’ here.   The sauna had a huge mattress on the floor next to the door.  The sauna also had a Swedish name cut into a wooden sign above the door.  And it just happens that one of our gang is Finnish, so he speaks Swedish.  And he’s like, “Yeah, so the name of the sauna literally means fuck-wood.”  Eww.  It kinda made you try to avoid sitting on the furniture.  Oh, and there was no hot water.  So at least that added to the festival vibe?

But other than that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?  I mean, all that aside, it was a blast.  An exhausting blast.  And of course I did my drunken break out the guitar and make up songs in German thing. Naturally, I had to make a song about the house.  Keeping in mind that there may be some errors in my German, the chorus of the song was:

Fick-Palace, Fick Palace
Leg sich nicht auf der Matratze
Fick-Palace, Fick-Palace
Morgen werden wir sich kratzen

Which roughly translates to:

Fuck-palace, fuck-palace
Don’t lay down on the mattress,
Fuck-palace, fuck-palace
Tomorrow we will be scratching

Like I said: Eww.  Still though, not bad for some drunken composition. I think.  What do I know?  But like I said, for all that, it was a great time.  It’s always great with that lot.  

In other news, I officially love TikTok.  Look, just like with any social media, you can find all kinds of terrible garbage there. Although, to be fair, I tend not to have much contact with that stuff.  For the time being, I don’t follow anybody, so I’m just surfing the algorithm, as it were.  But it seems to be a pretty good algorithm.  It feeds me comedy, music, science, history and linguistics.  It also feeds me shit in a variety of languages, which is a lot of fun.  It’s actually turning out to be a great way to improve my colloquial German, which I’m really enjoying.  

Also, it stands in direct contrast with Twitter, where I generally walk away feeling disgusted with humanity.  Whereas with TikTok, I walk away feeling optimistic.  I mean, it’s amazing how many smart, thoughtful, funny, creative and talented people are out there.  It’s also great to see people putting their insecurities and self-issues on public display. Because they don’t do it in a woe-is-me kinda way, but rather in a this-is-who-I-am-and-that’s-OK kinda way. I imagine it helps a lot of people feel like they’re not alone, which is wonderful.

Tying all of that together, though, is perhaps the most important factor.  So many of these smart, thoughtful, funny, creative, talented people are young.  For all the terrible shit going on in the world, TikTok is a great place to go if you want to have any kind of hope for the future.  That’s what I mean when I say I walk away feeling optimistic.    

In other news, Bartek and I have gotten back to work on translating the memorial book for the town where Uncle Art’s dad came from.  We had taken a bit of a break from that for a while.  Partly to read something different for a change and partly because I needed a break from the work of translating.  Hmm, I just said that we’reworking on the translation but also that Ineeded a break from the work of it.  I should explain.

The process goes something like this.  We’ll read the Yiddish together and translate as we go.  Afterwards, I’ll type up a formal translation based on the work we did together, at which point I’ll send it to him for revision.  So even though we translate it once together while we’re reading, actually typing it up is still a fair bit of work.  I should also mention that Bartek does the work of identifying the places and geographical features (usually rivers) mentioned in the text, which is a tremendous help.  But I’ll have more to say about all this when the whole thing is done; when that will be, who knows?

While we were taking a break from the memorial book, we read a story by Nobel laureate Bashevis Singer. Maybe I mentioned it at the time? It was pretty great.  I mean, first of all, the guy is just such a good writer. And neither of us had read him before, so that was cool.  But it was also super difficult.  Almost certainly the most difficult text we’ve read to this point.  The Shalom Asch story we read was maybe in the same ballpark level-wise, but it was much shorter.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is, having now read that text, I think we’re both much stronger readers now.  Just more comfortable with the language overall.  Which isn’t to say that we’re experts, or that we get everything right. I’m sure we still miss things. And we still find things that we have difficulty resolving.  But compared to where we were a year ago, I’d say the progress is for sure noticeable. So that’s gratifying.

And also, crazy to think about it, but Weimar was two years ago this month.  It’s weird to think that before Weimar, I had never spoken an actual Yiddish sentence and how do you like me now, bitches?  Since then, for two years, I’ve been reading with Bartek on the reg.  And I just found out that Akiva will be coming to Berlin in the fall for an internship, which last some eight months, I think.  So I’m pretty excited about that, obvi.

Sticking with language for a bit longer.  Justin is learning a bit of German with Duolingo, which is pretty cool in its own right. But it also shines a light on my own deficiencies in the language.  I’ll come back to that in a sec.  First though, an update on where my German is at these days. 

Owing to the lockdown, I basically spoke almost no German for the past year and a half.  That shit really nose-dived (nose-dove? Took a nose dive?), let me tell you.  It got to the point where I was speaking so little German that I actually stopped caring. Like, I just didn’t want anything to do with it.

But now that shit is back in full swing.  Regular band practice, seeing people again, the festival-gang getaway.  I’m speaking plenty of German now, and indeed, I hesitate to say that perhaps this is the best it’s ever been.  Which isn’t to say it’s actually good.  No sir, it’s still a shit show.  But I do think it’s better than before.  I feel like I’m speaking more comfortably and fluidly.  Usually.  It gets worse when I’m tired, which is normal, but whatever.  

Nevertheless, it’s a funny brand of German.  At this point, 99% of what I know is copped from the people around me.  So it’s a local brand, to the extent that it is actually German.  Which, let’s be honest, it’s not always actually German.  When I’m missing something, I tend to fill in the gaps with German words via English constructions.  Other times when I’m missing something, I’ll just drop in some Yiddish and hope for the best.  It usually passes, but not always.

Like at practice this week, I was complaining to Bibi about the weather.  Particularly, sweating because of the humidity.  The conversation went something like this.

D: Ich schwitz wie a chazir.  (I’m sweating like a pig).
B: Wie ein Hase?  (Like a rabbit?)
D: Neh, wie a chazir. (No, like a pig).
B:
D: *sigh.  Wie ein Schwein.  (Like a pig).
B: Ach sooooo.

And my accent is a weird mix of Berlin and Yiddish.  Fortunately, there is some overlap there.  One example will suffice.  The word for ‘none’ in German is kein, as it is in Yiddish..  But in both Berlin and Yiddish it’s pronounced keyn.  It’s a bit funny when I think about it.  When I was new here, I was making a conscious effort at this Berlin accent.  I wrote about that gods know when.  Now though, it’s kinda the only sound system I know. Or the dominant one, anyway.  I hardly notice it anymore, except maybe when I speak with Joschka or the festival people.  When I hear them speak – the non-Berliners – I realize, Hey, I don’t sound like you.  Cool!

But I must be doing something right, because Bibi and Ralf don’t say anything anymore.  There was probably a time early on where they would comment like, “Haha, you just said that like a Berliner.”  But they don’t bat an eye these days.  Hopefully they just think – if they think about it all – Yeah, Dave kinda sounds like us.  You know, for a foreigner.  

Anyway, Justin and his Duolingo.  So he calls me up to ask about the pronunciation of a word.  And he’s like, “If I want to say the movie theatre is on the right, should it sound like Das Kino rechts?”  And I was like, “Well the word you’re asking about, you didn’t quite nail it.  But also, that’s a weird way to say it. Like, I’d say Das Kino steht auf rechtsor Das Kino findet sich auf rechts.”  And he’s like, “Oh, well, that’s what Duolingo had.”  

And I was like, “Oh shit, maybe thatis actually realGerman.”  Like, I only know what I hear around me.  I have no idea what a student would learn in a class.  Also, though, I could just be wrong, right?  A very real possibility.  But I don’t think I am on this one.  I’ll have to ask around…

Torah.  This past week marks the beginning of Dvorim, the book of Deuteronomy.  I guess I’ve written about this before on some level, but it’s on my mind, so here you go (again).  Reading Torah, on schedule, brings a certain rhythm to the year.  It also brings memories.  Like, I’ll always remember that the first time I read Jacob’s blessings for his sons, I was in Charlotte’s apartment in Nice.  Which is a nice memory to have associated with a text you’re going to read every year.

You read Genesis in the fall, which lines up nicely with the school year.  New beginnings all around, even as the calendar year is at the beginning of its end.  But now we’re at Dvorim, and it’s brings a kind of weird melancholy with it.  

On the one hand, you’re right in the middle of the summer, let the good times roll.  But on the other hand, it’s the last of the five books. And you know when it ends.  You’re starting this text and even as you’re beginning it, you know that when you finish it, summer will be over.  It’s kinda the same melancholy you might get on a Sunday.  Like, how can I enjoy Sunday when I know tomorrow is Monday?

I’m already mostly over this particular brand of melancholy.  I mean, what am I gonna do, not enjoy the summer?  But it definitely hit, when I turned to page one of book five. Like I said, reading Torah brings a weird rhythm to the year.

But it also ties in to the memorial book in a rather intimate kind of way.  Let me see if I can organize my thoughts here.  I think I mentioned that my goal for this year was to try and read Rashi (the great Torah commentator) along with the text.  But for a number of reasons, that just never got off the ground.  Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, I’m reading this memorial book, which is essentially a collection of memoirs about life in the old town.  Now we’ve read quite a few memoirs now about what the education was like.  And it does seem that, generally speaking, the first level of a (religious) Jewish education was to read Chumashmit Rashi(i.e. Torah with Rashi’s commentary).  Like, that was just the normal thing.  

And of course, basically all the memoirs end the same way.  “That’s how it was then, but that world doesn’t exist anymore.”  Hold that thought.

Recently my Aunt Cookie sent me a link to a running series of video lectures explaining (in English) various Torah commentators.  One of the lecture series is this old New York (or possibly Jersey) Rabbi, now living in California.  I kinda dig the dude.  But I especially dig that he reads the Hebrew with a Yiddish accent (as opposed to the now standard Israeli accent) and he’s always sprinkling in little Yiddish phrases, jokes and stories (in Yiddish).  So if nothing else, I’m kinda mining it for the Yiddish and using it to help me get my Hebrew pronunciation in line with my Yiddish.  Which apparently is important to me now.  Who knew?  Anyway, turns out the lectures are also available as an audio podcast. Jackpot.  So that’s worked its way into my regular pod-rotation.  Nu?

Putting it all together now, there’s this weird synergy at work here.  I wanted to read Rashi, couldn’t make it happen.  In the Old World, you learned Chumash mit Rashi.  And now I’m (very passively) learning Rashi via podcast.  In a very strange way, it does make me feel connected somehow to this world I never knew, to a world that no longer exists, but a world that I have roots in, roots that I’m learning more and more about.

The weird thing – if indeed it is weird – is that, I’m still not actually a religious person.  Not in the sense of believing in Hashem the way Jews are taught to believe in Hashem.  But even that sentence is weird for me.  Like, I’ve somehow grown uncomfortable writing the word big-G god. I mean, I’ll say goddammitall day long.  But somehow, writing G-d (see, I can’t even do it here) in the context of the actual Jewish deity feels…what, blasphemous?  Which is weird, I say, because again…I do not believe.

You know, Uncle Art used to say, “I’m not a good Jew.  I’m a fraud.” Which at the time made no sense to me. The dude went to schul every single day before work.  How can someone like that be a fraud.  But you know what?  The deeper I get into this shit, the more I think understand what he was saying.

Look, we’re all free, right? We can either embrace the religion we’re born into or we can walk away from it.  Neither choice is right or wrong.  Just right or wrong for you. And clearly, I’ve chosen to embrace mine (to a point).  But even as I’m embracing it, I just can’t find any way to believe.  And yet, I continue to read, continue to study, continue to learn.  I don’t know if that makes me a fraud.  I don’t actually know if Art believed in You Know Who, much less if he was a ‘fraud,’ as he said more than once.  But yeah, I do think I’m beginning to understand what he meant.

One of the festival gang is this dude from Finland, Jori.  And every year, he tries to engage me on this subject.  He’s pretty anti-religion, so he’s always trying to understand where I’m coming from.  The conversations are always very interesting and challenging.  They also have a tendency to get heated.

Anyway, last year, he asks me, “OK, so you don’t believe in god.  But then why is it so important to you to identify as Jewish.  Why do you read the Torah?”1  And I just looked at him and said, “Let me ask you something, you Nordic mutherfucker. Why are you wearing a Thor’s Hammer necklace?”  And he was just like, “Hey, you know what?  I don’t know.  That’s a really good point.”  

This year we talked about ‘indoctrination’ and being born into shit.  And we threw around the idea that, what if you could somehow grow up in a cultural vacuum (J: Not possible; D: Fuck you, I know, but for the sake of argument; J: Fine.) and at the age of 13 or whatever, you could pick any culture in the world.  Would you actually pick your own?  In the end, we both agreed that we probably would.  But also, how could we really know?  Because in the process of embracing our respective cultures – and believe me, Jori is pretty hot for Nordic culture – we spend our lives finding things we love about our cultures.  And more cynically, finding things in our culture that we believe we do better.  Even while admitting that our respective cultures certainly have their flaws.

But Jori also knows about my love of languages and Homer and my long ago trip to the North of Finland to meet the last living bard of the Kalevala, Finland’s oral-epic poem.  So he asked me, “Would you put as much effort into reading the Kalevala as you do into read the Torah?”  And I’m like, “Dude, if I could quit my job and put in the amount of time necessary to learn Finnish – and that would be an epic amount of time – you bet I would.”

And that’s no joke.  Even though I only know two words and one phrase in Finnish, I think it’s one of the more beautiful languages out there.  I could listen to it all day long.  Nothing would make me happier than being able to devote the requites amount of time to learning Finnish and then studying the Kalevala.  At that point we both agreed that whether it’s the Kalevala or Torah or Homer, there’s something very powerful about interacting with a text that people have been singing or reading for thousands of years.  You become a link in a chain.  You exist in the present, but also in the past, and somehow even into the future.  OK, lemme stop before I go all galaxy-brain on this shit.

The two words I know in Finnish: kiitos(thank you) and kippis(cheers).  And the one phrase?  Haista vittu pirri huorra.  Which apparently means, ‘fuck you, you fucking crack whore.’ That one I obviously learned from Jori. Also, don’t quote me on the spelling.

In other news, we’ve now had two gigs this summer with the band.  I wasn’t thrilled with them, tbh, but everyone else seemed pretty happy. So maybe I’m just overly critical. Still though, it’s fun to be out playing again.  And I have a goal this time around, vis-à-vis performing.  I want to be more comfortable being up front, interacting with the crowd.

Believe it or not, I’m very shy and nervous in that department.  It was easy in The Fury.  Jared was the front man, and I could just let him deal with the audience. And I could hide behind my long hair and just headbang away.

In this group, Bibi is clearly the frontwoman.  But I don’t have the long hair anymore and headbanging doesn’t really jive with this group.  Also, I’m on the mic quite a bit.  So I’m trying to force myself to actually look at people, maybe even make eye contact with a pretty girl and smile while I’m singing.  Gods, that’s so fucking alien to me.  Maybe I should do what so many others have done before me and invent an alternate personality for when I’m on stage, pretend I’m somebody else. Because right now, especially when I’m on the stick, all I want to do is hide.  And forgetting about what I’m comfortable with or what I want, that’s just not good performance practice in a band setting.  So I’m working on it.  We’ll see how it goes.

Until the next time…

זײַ געזונט


  1. The goyim always say ‘read the Torah.’  Jews always say ‘read Torah.’  I find that interesting.  I’m guessing you do not. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
6 May, 2021

So yeah, forty.  The Big Four-Oh.  Lemme tell you something about forty.  It’s like this weird, gray purgatory of an age.  When you hang out with people younger than you, it’s definitively and incontrovertibly old.  Like, late thirties is the end of anything that pretends to youth.  People who are forty are like, ugh, grown ups.  Not necessarily adults, mind you.  You can start adulting the minute you move out of your parents’ house if you have your shit together.  But though you be adulating at 25, you ain’t no grown up.  Forty though?  Grown Up City, Population: You.  

On the other hand, people who are over fifty start commenting on how young you are.  Nobody comments on how young you are when you’re actually young though, do they? No, of course not.  Nobody comments on the sky being blue either. But when you turn forty, the Boomer crowd begins to beckon with their agéd, crooked fingers.  “One of us.  One of us.” The Gen-X’ers smile at you more softly. But in that “Come on in, the the water’s not so bad,” kind of way.  Yet they are shivering.  

At forty, you’re no longer objectively young.  You’re now only comparatively young.  When old people tell you you’re young, it’s to make you feel better.  And nobody says shit to make other people feel better unless there’s clearly have something they have a right to actually feel shitty about. “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Forty is just a number.”  Well, I feel about eighty, but thanks.  And also, I’m terrible at math, so you can fuck the fuck off with your numbers, pal.  

But enough grumping.  In turning forty, I’ve done some reflecting.  Not on my life, per se. Gods no, that would be terrifying. No, just on the general state of things. Like, I’m beginning to realize just how long I’ve been around.  More to the point, how much the world has changed in my forty years.

Now on some level, I assume that every generation since the industrial revolution has experienced this to greater or lesser degrees.  I remember reading a passing comment in a history book once.  Something along the lines of, every general from Alexander the Great to Napoleon could only move their armies at the speed of marching men, or at best, at the speed of a horse.  For over two thousand years, things just didn’t change all that much.  But since the industrial revolution, the pace of change has been astounding.  From railroad to powered flight to space flight in about 100 years.  Computers the size of a room to iPhones in less time than that.  And that’s just technology.  The world of 1918 was unrecognizable when compared to the world of 1914.  And the world of 1918 was just as unrecognizable to the world of 1945.  

But on a personal level, all that may as well be ancient history.  Where I begin to struggle, though it is only the beginning, is when I consider that when I was born, I knew people who made the world of 1945.  My grandparents fought in “The War,” no specification needed.  And so, in my childhood, the world of 1945 wasn’t ancient history, because the people of that world were still walking around and taking me to amusement parks.1  But they’re all gone now.  So that reading about the Great Depression doesn’t feel all that different from reading about the Civil War.  Both events shaped the world we live in today.  But so did the Roman Empire.  It’s all ancient history.

The struggle grows, uh, strugglier(?) when I think about the actual world that I grew up in.  A world which also no longer exists.  Because let’s face it.  We’ve been through some epochal shit in my lifetime.  I could make this political and talk about what Republicans have done to the economy and working people in general.  I saw a great tweet.  The general point was this: When the Simpsons first aired, over 30 years ago, a family of five living in a two-level house was solidly middle class, what any working (albeit white) family could expect.  Now, what the Simpsons have, dysfunctional as they are, is a pipe dream from most Millenials and Gen-Z’ers.  

When I say ‘epochal,’ though, I’m probably talking about 9/11.  The pre-9/11 world is, to me anyway, unrecognizable from the post 9/11 world.  I joke with my younger friends who were only kids when 9/11 happened that this is the only world they know, that they don’t actually know what “freedom” is.  I say joke, but it’s really one of those kidding-not-kidding kind of things.  

People are aware of this though, even if indirectly.  I refer you to the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Also, I could probably just say “Stranger Things.”  Saying “the popular Netflix series Stranger Things” strikes me as something an old person would say.   Anyway, the point is, everybody notices the same things, just through different lenses.

People my age and up say things like, “Omg, remember when we could just get on our bikes (without helmets!) and just go?  No cell phones.  Nobody knew where were going or what were doing.  It was just, make sure you’re home by x-o’clock.”

People younger than me though, they say things like, “Omg, how did people ride bikes without helmets?  How were they ever able to find and meet their friends without cell phones?  And what kind of parents are these that don’t know where their kids are every minute of the day?”

For some of us, we look on that with a wistful nostalgia, knowing that that particular shade of personal freedom is pretty much gone forever.  Others, I suppose, look on it with bewildered amazement and wonder how anybody got out of the 80’s without being abducted or murdered or without dying in a helmetless bicycle accident.  But for all of us, it is a world that – though it shares many of the trappings and the suits of 2021 – is largely unrecognizable.  But these are big picture things.  

Where things get more interesting – and more difficult to process – is when I look at things through a more personal lens.  Every now and then, I’ll see pictures of my childhood.  You know, cos my mom has Instagram now.  And it’s the little things.  The clothes that are so uniquely 80’s.  Or the brickwork that lined the front lawns of the houses where I grew up in Brooklyn, where the spacing of the bricks was the perfect size to set your child-feet between.  I mean, that’s a world that just doesn’t exist anymore.  And this kind of stuff is not epochal, right?  I mean, this is the kind of stuff every generation deals with. I’m sure my parents have similar experiences when they look at pictures from the 50’s or 60’s.  So I’m hardly unique in these observations.  It’s just that you, or I, begin to notice it in a more poignant way at forty.  

So, when I was in my 20’s, yes it was post 9/11, but I never felt like 20 years was a super long time.  I mean, yeah, it was my whole life.  But I wasn’t old, so twenty years just wasn’t that long ago.  To put it another way, when you’re 20, you’re fairly self-aware, I’d say.  And you kinda realize that 20 years is your whole life. Well now, at forty, it’s like I’ve lived two whole life times.  Does that make sense?  I mean, we count twenty years to a generation for a reason.  

Language is another place where you notice these things.  Or I do, anyway.  Maybe I’m more tuned into these things because I teach English.  Here’s an example.  There has been a very real shift just in the way people pronounce their vowels.  Now, to be sure, there are regional and dialectal exceptions to this, so I’m speaking in broad strokes here.

But a good example of this is something which linguists refer to as the ‘caught-cot merger.’  Or at least, that’s how one linguist whose podcast I listen to refers to it.  The idea is basically this.  People my age will pronounce the word ‘caught’ something like ‘cawt.’  And yes, if you’re from New York, that’s exceptionally noticeable, right?  We say ‘cawfee’ (coffee) and ‘waw-duh’ (water) and so on.  But let’s return to the word ‘caught.’  Even if you’re British (and my age +), you’re going to pronounce something like ‘cawt.’ Go on, try saying in it a British accent.  I’ll wait. See?

But for younger people, that sound has shifted much closer to something like ‘cot.’  So that the past tense of catch and that little extra bed you can request at a hotel basically sound the same.  That’s a young people thing.  I mean, it’s to the point where all you have to do is listen to a person talk (‘tawk’ or ‘tok’) and you can figure out pretty quickly whether they’re Millenials and younger or Gen-X and older.

But even that shift is a fairly macro phenomenon.  So let’s take the principle and apply it to something more personal.  First of all, though, this is not entirely new ground for this blogue, but; I wrote about the sound of my Great Uncle’s voice after he died.  How it was a sound from another world.  I have these recordings of my great-grandmother, with her thick Eastern European Yiddish accent; and that’s altogether a different world.  

But now my parents are of the patriarchal/matriarchal generation.  And I’ve begun to realize that their sound is not entirely of the present world either.  Yes, the New York accent is still very much a going concern.  But this particular brand of it is receding. 

I’ve written about this before as well, but it bears repeating here. Whenever I listen to people speak Yiddish, it never ceases to amaze me how familiar it sounds.  Not the words or even the language.  But the pace, the phrasing, the stress, the rise-and-fall, the melody; in a word, the music of it.  And the reason it sounds so familiar is, because that’s how my dad speaks.  If you’ll indulge me and permit me to borrow from the Latin poet Lucretius, the species may be different, but the ratio is the same.2  In any case, that musicis a result of the influence that the Old World language had on the children who grew up in homes where it was spoken.  Even if the Old World language was never taught.  And that – sadly, I’d say – is a thing of the past, not the now.  

Speaking of language and things from the past.  I recently reconnected with an old college friend via Instragram.  We were really close in college but fell out of touch not long after.  Her dad was a sweet, quirky old Jewish man.  I didn’t know him well, but I’d met him more than a few times.  He was full of great sayings.  “Never take any wooden nickels” is one I’ll always remember. Anyway, I asked how he was doing and she told me that he’d passed away.  Of course I said I was sorry to hear that and that I always liked the guy. And what did she say?  She said, “He always said you were a mensch.”   

The word mensch, in Yiddish just as in German, simply means ‘human (being).’  But in Yiddish, it carries the additional sense of ‘good person’ or ‘decent’ in the best sense of the word.  It’s more nuanced than that, but that’s the general idea.  The point is, it’s not a compliment you hear very often these days.  Anyway, when she said, “My father always said you were a mensch,” that hit me pretty hard.  Because from an old, secular Jewish man, there’s basically no higher compliment.  But old, secular Jewish men who bestow the compliment of menschare fewer and fewer these days.  They belong to 2021 about as much as a child riding a bicycle without a helmet.

Tangentially – well, not tangential to the last two paragraphs, but tangential to the larger post here – there’s a Netflix doc on Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock on Star Trek, among other things.3  And there are all these people talking about what a great guy he was.  How he stood up for female cast members who made less money, how he’d do anything to help anybody.  But what was interesting to me was how these people described him. Younger actors who’d worked with him praised him with any number of kind words.  But the old Jewish Hollywood types only ever needed one word.  “What can I say?  Lenny was a mensch.” What the younger actors needed a paragraph of effusion for, the old Yids could sum up in a single word.  But that word, like the time before iPhones, is receding.

None of this is to say, by the way, that the 80’s were some kind of gan eyden, some kind of paradise.  We are, largely – though it’s a still a fight – a more tolerant society now.  If we are somehow less ‘free’ today, we nevertheless reap great benefits from the technology available to us.  The ease with which we can communicate over vast distances and maintain relationships with people on the other side of the world was the stuff of science fiction when I was a kid.  And if you were to ask somebody in a hundred years whether they’d rather grow up in the 80’s or in the 2000’s, who knows what they’d pick.  One ought not complain about, much less stand in the way of, progress.   But even in the march of progress, things are lost.  Some things are best left behind, to be sure.  But some things are missed, too.  

In line with that, I don’t want to come across here as if I’m kvetching, as if I’m complaining.  That is not my purpose here.  The life I’m living now, and the so many of the things that bring me joy in this life, would not have been possible in the 80’s.  I would not be able to have a home studio in my kitchen, as I do now.  Just this last week, I read Yiddish with a friend in Poland.  I read Yiddish with another friend in Boston.  I read Greek with a friend in New York.  I taught (‘tawt’? ‘tot’?) my English classes online. On Friday, I’m going to have a video chat with my whole family, spread over four states (plus Germany).  I mean, this is all Jetsons-level shit.  So no, I’m not complaining.  

But I am observing.  I’m noticing. And I’m becoming increasingly aware that the sights and sounds of my childhood belong to the past just as much as Lucretius or Homer or Bashevis Singer belong to worlds that no longer exist. And there is a nostalgia in that. 

Here we should take a moment to consider the world nostalgia.  It is a Greek word, of two components.  The first, nostos, means something like ‘homecoming.’  Indeed, this is the leitmotifof the Odyssey.  It’s all about Odysseus’ nostos, his trying to get back home.  The other element is algos, which means ‘pain.’ And this we can see in any number of English words, from ‘analgesic’ (medicine against pain) to ‘pathology’ (the suffering of pain).  In any case, the word ‘nostalgia,’ denotes something bittersweet.  On the one hand, it is the fond remembrance of something lost. On the other hand, it is the bitterness of knowing that the thing is, in fact, well and truly lost.

So yeah, there’s a nostalgia that comes with considering the world I grew up in. A world that, now, may as well be ancient history.  And if I spend too much time on it, it can get me down.  I mean, put aside all the macro bullshit.  Put aside the politics and the economics and the linguistics and the pre-9/11 ‘freedom’ mishigas.  Because at the end of the day, it’s not really about that.

What I’m talking about is the world where my parents read stories to me at bed time.  That was the world where the best thing that could ever happen was somebody bringing over a box of rainbow cookies from a Brooklyn bakery.  That was the world of Transformers and G.I. Joe and imagination. It was a world of grandparents.  A world of mystery.  And it was a world where the music in the way people spoke was yourmusic.  

But that world is mostly gone.  There are echoes of it, to be sure.  It’s there, on the fringes.  But it’s not thisworld.  And that creeps up on you.  Mostly, you’re just going about your business, trying to make your way in this world; ‘this world’ being the world of today, whatever day ‘today’ happens to be.  And mostly, when I look around, I think, “Look how far I’ve come.”  And the words “how far I’ve come” mean something like, “Look at all I’ve accomplished.”  But sometimes – and more often, now that I’ve turned 40 – I look around and think, “Look how far I’ve come.”  But the words “how far I’ve come” mean something like, “Look how far away I am from the world I grew up in.”  און דער אמת איז, איך בענק די וועלט פֿון אַמָל. ס׳איז דווקא אַן אַנדערע מין שלעפּן גלות.

So yeah, when I think about being 40, that’s what hits me.  Not some existential bullshit about “Oh, I’m so old!”  OK, fine, there’s a bit of that.  But it’s more just the realization of how far away I am from where I started and that there’s no going back.  I mean, yeah, there’s that bullshit about “You can never go home again.”  Sure, fine, whatever.  But it’s not really about that.  It’s not about how the now-you wouldn’t have a place in that time.  It’s just this realization that the world you grew up in, the world that produced you, simply doesn’t exist anymore.  And if I spend too much time on that, I begin to feel unmoored.  

So let this post be the place where I try to get that out of my system.  Which I think I’ve done, even if temporarily.  But having gotten that out of my system, for the time being, let me end this session of solipsistic introspection on a positive note.

The world I now inhabit, it ain’t so bad. Yeah, sometimes I stop and look back. And when I look back, I might a gut-punch of nostalgia.   But mostly, when I stop to look, I don’t look back.  I look around.  And when I look around, I have to admit, I got it pretty good.

זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונט

  1. Shout out to the amusement park in the Woodbine mall in Toronto. []
  2. Species and ratio are to be pronounced ‘spek-ee-ās’ and ‘rah-t-io’.  Lucretius was a philosopher poet who is remembered for his epic poem De Rerum Natura– On the Nature of Things. Super ahead of his time, and if you’re into this kind of shit, you should absolutely find a modern translation and read it.  Anyway, species refers to the outward appearance of something. Ratio is more about its inner nature.  That’s a rough outline, anyway. []
  3. And if you needed that explained to you, how are we even friends? []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 April, 2021

Now is the winter of our discontent.  Wait, have I used that one already?  No matter. I’ve had it just about up to here with…well, with a lot of things.  Why, just today it rained.  And snowed. Andfucking hailed.  It’s April, y’all.  Double-you-tee-eff.  Also, can Europe get its shit together vis-à-vis vaccines?  And the answer, apparently, is no.  Also, I’m 40.  What the actual ice cold fuck?  “I mean, when and how did that happen?” he asked rhetorically.  OK, OK, enough kvetching.  I think.  How are you?

It’s obviously been a while since I’ve written, but I do have a good reason.  Remember that book I was translating?  From about the middle of December, I decided to make a concentrated push to get it done by the end of February.  Which I did.  Well, the translation anyway.  Proofreading and editing ran into March, but that’s alright.  Anyway, this concentrated push came at the expense of just about everything else.  Music, Torah and, yes, blogue posts.  

The good news is, all the actual work is done now.  I have a fully translated book on my hands. And while I’m not totally in love with every single word of it, I’m generally pleased with the overall result. And it’s an accomplishment of sorts. Also, I’d like to think it helped my German.  But I don’t actually think it has.  I mean, sure, I picked up some new vocabulary.  But my spoken German is withering in the face of the lockdown.  More on that later.

Anyway, the author is supposed to come over on Sunday to finalize the, err, final details.  So it shouldn’t be long now before the book is up on Amazon for all you lovelies to buy and read and line my pockets with the handful of pennies I’ll accrue on each sale.

Did I enjoy it?  Was it fun?  I’ve been asked these questions more than a few times.  The answer is, it depends.  At times it was fun.  At times I enjoyed it.  And I’m glad I did it.  But as I mentioned, it came at the cost of putting aside a lot of other things that are dear to me.  Still, it’s kinda cool to be able to add “translated an actual fucking book from German into English” to the list of shit I’ve done in – and I’m still not OK with this – my forty years on this Earth.

“But surely you must have other things going on?” you ask.  Indeed I have.  For example, apparently I teach Yiddish now.  That was unexpected.  Here’s what happened.  Sometime after the new year, I went for a meeting with my boss.  Since basically everything is online these days, I’m not in the school very often and so he wanted me to pop in for a chat, to talk about the upcoming schedule and just to catch up generally.

Anyway, at the end of this little rendezvous, he says, “You speak Yiddish, right?”  “A bissel,” says I.  “Can you teach it?” asked he?  “On a beginner/intermediate level, I reckon I can.  Who’s asking?” quoth I.  “I am,” quoth he.  Turns out he and and friend of his wanted me to give them Yiddish lessons.  So we agreed on a price, and we’ve been doing it more-or-less once a week since then.  And it’s been quite a lot of fun.

They both speak German, which is a helluva head start.  And his friend can already read the alphabet, which is a plus.  But he’s just learning to read himself.  So every week, I prepare a list of words, each starting with a given letter.  And we’re just working our way through the alef-beysand trying to build up some vocabulary in the process.  And it’s fun on two counts.  First of all, Yiddish is never not fun.  But also, they’re cool people and it’s lovely to spend an hour or two with them.

I tellya what though, it’s weird teaching your boss a language.  Especially when your boss speaks like four (or more?) languages fluently and runs a language school.  But it’s been really nice to grow that relationship from something strictly professional into something more resembling a friendship.  I mean, he’s still my boss, so on some level, it will always be in both our best interests to maintain a certain degree of distance. But that said, it’s been really nice.

As for his friend, she’s great.  She’s an Australian expat and an artist.  She also lived in Israel for a time.  So she’s interesting and fun and funny and very enthusiastic about it all.  And before you ask, she’s quite a bit older. So a shiduch min-hashamyim, it ain’t.  Which is hardly the point.  Just, I know somebody’s gonna ask is all.  Anyway, her stated goal is to be able to read some Bashevis Singer.

Which brings me to my weekly Yiddish readings with Bartek.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to maintain that through all of this translation work.  Though I’ve had to step away from the family history book, which itself requires a great deal of translation work.  So instead, we’ve been reading a short story by Bashevis Singer.  And it’s wonderful.  I mean, you can kinda see how this guy won a Nobel Prize for lit.  But also, omg is it ever difficult!  

I mean, just in terms of vocabulary it’s a beast.  But beyond that, there are so many things that are just difficult to understand.  So many little descriptions that I struggle to grasp the meaning of.  The sort of things that, were one a native speaker, would present no problem.  But when you’re not a native speaker, it’s just like, “Well, I could imagine this meaning any one of three things, and how do I know which is the right one?”

Every meeting with Bartek starts the same way.  One of us will say something like, “Well, I found most of the words, but there were one or two I couldn’t find.”  And then the other person will say, “Yeah, same.  Hopefully you found the ones I couldn’t.”  And then the first person will say, “Also, there were definitely a few things I couldn’t make sense of.”  And then the other person will say, “Yeah, me too.”  And then we’ll start reading.

The wonderful thing is, by the end of the session, by knocking our heads together, we can almost always solve almost all of our puzzles.  Just by talking things through.  Or even just hearing it read by someone else rather than reading it in your own head. And between our experiences – mine as a Jew, his as a Pole – we’re able to bring insights that the other lacked. 

Now of course, it doesn’t require much imagination to see how being Jewish can shed light on a Yiddish text. But what I never could have imagined is, how being a native Polish speaker can equally illuminate the text. I mean, there are so many turns of phrases which, when you translate them in to English are completely opaque. And then Bartek will say, “If you translate this into Polish, it actually makes perfect sense.  Like, we have this exact idiom in Polish and it means such-and-such.”   All of this richness and nuance would be completely lost to me if I wasn’t reading with Bartek.

And so, every session also has the same ending.  We’ll both say something like, “Wow, just reading this together, I understand so much more than I did when I read this alone.”  Every time, without fail.  

I’ve written many times before about how seemingly chance encounters have yielded such rich and unexpected friendships.  How if I hadn’t been at a specific place at a specific time, I never would have met Joschka or Charlotte or Anne or Jan & Zibs or even landed the job that I have. Well, if I hadn’t gone to Weimar in 2019 on the week that I went, I never would have met Bartek.  And we didn’t even really talk all that much at Weimar.  And yet, here we are, almost two years later, reading Yiddish together every week.  It boggles the mind.

Same with Akiva, my other friend from Weimar.  We’ll chat a bit once a month, maybe every two months.  But there’s this genuine affection there.  And just this week he called me to talk about teaching English in Berlin.  Who knows if he’ll actually wind up doing it.  But it would sure be great to have him here.  And we’re going to make an effort to do some reading together as well. 

One more thing to put a bow on this Yiddish stuff.  A couple of weeks ago, at our Yiddish lesson, my boss’ friend asks if we have any plans for Passover.  Nobody did. So we decided to have a Seder. And that was fantastic.  It was me, my boss, his partner (Austrian, not Jewish), his friend, her sister (via Zoom) and a friend of hers; a Sephardic Jew from Istanbul who lives in Heidelberg and is a doctor.  And being a doctor, she brought a box of COVID tests, so we were able to have the Seder without masks.

And it was great, you know? Like, we had a four-language Seder. Prayers in Hebrew, obviously.  But I found a Yiddish Haggadah, so I was able to add some poems and stories in Yiddish.  And then other parts we did in German and/or English.  And there was even supposed to be a French couple, which would have upped things to a five-language shindig; but in the end they couldn’t come.

Instead of brisket, there was lamb, which was delicious.  And my boss’ friend made this chicken-liver pâté from scratch, which she was quite proud of.  And I was like, “I’ll try it because you made it, but this is not my thing.”  And she was like, “you don’t like pâté?”  And I’m like, “Umm, I don’t really like my meat in spreadable form.”  And she’s like, “And yet you eat foie gras.”  Which, yes, sort of.  If I’m in France, and it’s Christmas, and someone has made foie grasfrom scratch, I’ll eat it.  I’ll even like it.  But I still maintain that meat should not be spreadable.  Anyway, it was a great time and I was very happy to be able to have a Seder her in Berlin.

Speaking of celebrations, did you know I recently turned 40.1  Joschka, bless his heart, had planned a special night for me.  First of all, he organized a Zoom.  Actually, two Zooms.  One, with all our metal friends from around Germany.  The second, with a bunch of people from home.  That was really special.  But it was also just the beginning.

See, he happens to be friends with this Japanese guy who owns a restaurant.   And so, after the Zoom, the doorbell rings.  And it’s his restaurant friend, with two bags of groceries.  Mind you, I’ve never met this guy.  So I’m like, what’s going on here?  And he’s like, we’re making ramen.  We’re making ramen!  An actual from-Japan ramen chef shows up not just to makeramen, but to teach me howto make ramen.  For my birthday.   So I basically got to sous-chef for this guy and learn how to make actual ramen.  You bet I took notes!   

What a surprise though! I can’t say enough about it. Look, you know how some people are just good at gifts?  I mean, I’m not.  But some people just know the perfect thing.  And like, Joschka’d been listening to me all along.  Listening as I talked about experimenting with Japanese cooking, as I rambled on about my endless trips to the Asian market.  And he’s just like, “Well, I know the perfect thing.”  And it was perfect.  

He also got me a cast-iron skillet.  And again, I’d been talking about how that was something I needed to get, but for whatever reason I kept putting it off.  So he’s like, I know you wanted this, here you go.  I mean, damn.  

So the night was me, Joschka, his new-ish girlfriend Jasmin, and Yosuke, the ramen chef.  Couldn’t ask for a better birthday.  He also bought a bottle of excellent scotch.  And we basically spent the night cooking, eating, drinking and playing board games.  Yeah, call that a win.  

Sticking with Joschka, he’s friendly with the owner of this hipster bar not far from where he lives. I’ve been there a couple of times. Excellent cocktails and qaulity food. Anyway, this hipster bar owner happens to be a Korean woman, which I only mention because she decided to offer Zoom seminar on making kimchi.  Kimchi, if it has somehow eluded you, is this Korean spicy, fermented cabbage.  Well, technically, ‘kimchi’ refers to the fermentation process, so you can have kimchi cabbage or kimchi anything else. In that way, it’s kind of like the word ‘pickle’ in English.  Technically, you can have pickled-anything.  But when we say ‘pickles,’ we mean pickled cucumbers.  Same thing, when we say ‘kimchi,’ we usually mean kimchi’d cabbage.  Anyway, he signed us up for the seminar and now I’ve got three jars of kimchi fermenting in a drawer in my kitchen.  It’s been going for about a week now, so I think it’s almost time I moved it to the fridge.  In any case, I’m super excited to try it and see what I got.  

I already love the shit out of making pickles.  Now, that’s partly because it’s impossible to find proper pickles in this town.  For some reason, all German pickles have sugar in them.  Which just, eww.  And so, before I learned how to make my own, I was always asking Polish students to bring me back real pickles whenever they went home.  Which they did, bless their hearts.  So yeah, being able to make my own is much more practical.  But also, it’s just really gratifying.  And now, if I can add kimchi to that?  Hell yes, is what I’m trying to say.

Prometheus was a big deal because he introduced fire to men.  And yes, fire is a big deal.  But why do we not have a Prometheus of Fermentation?  Because without fermentation, there is no kimchi, no pickles and, let’s be real, no alcohol.  Blessed be the one who discovered fermentation, is the point.

Music.  The good news is, the band is back in business.  And by ‘business,’ I mean we’re practicing again. Who knows when we’ll be able to play out again.  But at least we’re playing.  And just being able to jam is good for the soul.  

I recently asked Bibi if she’d be interested in trying to do a cover of Video Killed the Radio Star. It’s the first song I’ve asked to do, apart from the one Yiddish tune.  She was down.  So Tuesday we got together to try it out.  It’s not there yet, and we still need to bring Ralph into it.  But it definitely has potential.  I think we might be able to do something nice with it. And if we can, that will definitely be a fun tune to add to the set.  You know, if we can ever play out again.

As for my own music, I have to admit I’m in a bit of a rut.  I’ve been working on the same song since like November already.  Part of the reason it’s taking so long is because in the course of mixing this song, I’ve been learning a ton of new techniques. I’ve also been learning a lot more about what my tech can do.  So trying to apply all this new knowledge has slowed the process.  And I’m still learning.  

Not just about mixing, but about ‘producing.’  Things like, how to get the chorus to sound fucking BIG, to give one example.  On the upside, I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress, which is great.  I mean, where I’m at now is night and day from where I was with my last track.  (I think).  But it also has the effect of continually moving the goal post.  Like, what would have been good enough two months ago is no longer good enough.  Which, again, is a good thing.  In the long term.  In the short term, I just can’t seem to finish the track.

Add to that, that I had to walk away from it while I was finishing the translation.  And I’ve had a helluva time getting back in the groove since I finished.  Part of the reason is, so much other shit piled up while I was doing the translation. And I want to get all that shit out of the way before I get back to work.  I fell behind on my Torah readings, so I needed to get back up to speed there; which I only did this week.  The apartment is a fucking disaster, and I also want to do a proper cleaning.  So that when I do finally get back to work, I have a clean, comfortable work space with no distractions.  These may be bullshit excuses, but that’s where my head’s at.  Nothing I can do about that, except to take care of my shit. All in good time.  

I want to take a moment here to talk about my support system, music-wise, and how thankful I am to have that. I’ve already written about how helpful my brother has been.  And that continues to be true.  We’re constantly trading links to YouTube tutorials and talking through things on the phone. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without him.  

But I also want to take a moment and give a shoutout to my friend Rob here.  Tangentially, a few months back, I sent some of my songs to some of the people back home.  Specifically, to my friends who have kids; and Rob does not have kids.  I should explain.  So look, I feel like I’m building a pretty cool life for myself here. A job that I enjoy, wonderful friends, a band, all the rest of it.  But one thing that really tears at me is the fact that my closest friends back home are having kids and I’m not there to watch these kids grow up.

One of the most beautiful things about those friendships is the fact that I know, no matter, what, we will be friends forever.  Even if we don’t speak often, there’s a love there that’s life-long.  I have zero worries that I will lose those people. But their kids?  Their kids don’t know me.  At best, it’s Uncle Dave who we see once or twice a year.  But there’s no real relationship with the kids, and that’s fucking brutal, I ain’t gonna lie. 

So I sent some of my songs to my friends with kids.  The idea being that they could play them for the kids, and that would – in some very small way – give the kids a way to know me.  More than just some guy who shows up once or twice a year, you know?  And to their credit, they did play the songs for the kids, and they were all very receptive to the idea.  Whether they still play them, whether the kids do actually ‘know’ me because of those songs – who knows?  But it’s better than nothing.

Anyway, my first instinct was to not send the songs to Rob.  Not out of any desire to hide things, not because I didn’t want to share what I was doing with him.  But because Rob literally studied this shit; music production, I mean.  And so, I felt that perhaps Rob would be listening with a different ‘ear,’ if that makes any sense.  And I was hesitant to send what I felt was a work in progress.  

But it also didn’t feel right to send my shit to the others and not to Rob.  So I asked him if he would want to hear what I’d done so far, keeping in mind work-in-progress yadda yadda.  And he was super enthusiastic.  So I sent it.  And he was – no surprise – great about it.  Supportive, encouraging, enthusiastic.  And that made me so happy. Honestly.

The point is, I’m really working in the dark here.  It feels like everything I do is new, an experiment.  And I definitely have my moments where I think, “Jeez, what am I doing? I suck at this and I’ll never achieve what I’m after.”  And look, it’s not like I talk to Rob often about what I’m doing.  But somewhere in the back of my head, I have this sense of, “Hey, Rob doesn’t think it’s a waste of time, what you’re doing here.  And Rob actually knows what he’s talking about.” That’s not something you can put a price on.  So Bobby, if you’re reading this, thank you for your support, pal.  I hope you know how important it is to me.

Anne, meanwhile.  So that bitch up and left.  I’m kidding.  Kinda.  Nah, look. She’d been unhappy here for some time, and I knew that.   She was done with Berlin.  Well, whatchagonnado?  So she and her boyfriend bought a house in Bretagne and that’s what she’s gonna do. And of course I’m happy for her. And I absolutely look forward to visiting her in France.  But you bet I’m sad she’s gone.  Yeah, I lost my drinking buddy and my dear friend.  But it’s more than that.  I feel like I’ve lost an arm, you know?  Like, she was my expat friend.  She was the one who knew what it’s like to be a stranger in this land.  She was the one I could complain about Germans – and German culinary culture – with.  And now she’s gone.  We still do Skype meetings, which is great.  But it’s not the same.  Like I said, it’s what she wanted, and I can only be happy for her.  But I’d be lying if I said I was happy for me.  It’s tough.  But you better believe we tied a few on before she split.   Well, alright.  Let’s look at it another way.  I’ve already got family in the south of France via Charlotte.  Now I’ve got family in the north of France via Anne.  Silver linings and all that.2

Almost done here. Random other minutiae.  I’m still, very slowly, working through my Latin textbook. In theory, I’m re-reading Le compte de Monte Cristo; Anne gifted me her own paperback copies (3 volumes) before she left; but finding the time?  Ugh.  I recently started a bit of Greek reading with a friend I know through Phil; we’re doing the Hymn to Demeter.  I needGreek back in my life.  The Islanders are hotthis year, and that has been so much fun.  And baseball has started again, which is just good for the soul.  Hopefully when it gets a little warmer, I can find somebody to throw the ball around with.  Catch: the perfect social distancing sport.

A final thought.  The war against the corona virus is like every major war America and Germany have ever fought.  For America, the first 6-12 months are a disaster, as the country waffles on whether it even wants to be involved.  And then, upon deciding to go all in, the country marshals all of its resources and becomes a world-beater.  Germany: kicks everybody’s ass for the first 6-12 months and thinks its on the doorstep of becoming a world-beater.  And then it looks around and realizes it has no natural resources and, oh, winter is coming.  That’s been my experience, anyway.

Well, I guess that’s about all I’ve got.  Time now to refocus.  To return to my studies and – hopefully – take my music to the next level.  And also, you know, deal with being fucking forty. Which probably deserves its own post. But that’s for another day.  Until then…

זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונט

  1. #fml []
  2. “Silver linings and all that.”  It’s an imperfect analogy, but it serves as an example of what makes reading Bashevis so difficult.  If you’re a native speaker – or just super fluent in English – then you’re familiar with the saying “every cloud has a silver lining.”  But if you’re not a native speaker or super fluent? What kind of sentence is “silver linings and all that”?  How can you possibly hope to make sense of that?  Perhaps that gives an idea of the challenges of reading literary Yiddish. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
12 October, 2020

Well here we are at the turning point of another year.  Yes, I know Rosh HaShanah was a couple of weeks ago already.  But it’s this week where we read the last Parsha of the Torah and next week when we start the whole thing all over again.  So let’s take a step back and see where things are at. 

Let’s start with music. More specifically, my own music. Around the middle of September, I took two weeks vacation.  Or rather, staycation.  And more than anything else, I used that time to really dig into starting to record my own tunes.  I’ve already written a little bit about the first song I did, learning to do 50’s doo-wop style harmonies, learning my tech and my software.  But all that was before vacay.  

And already, that recording doesn’t hold up to the standard I’ve since set for myself.  Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot in doing it.  But the end result isn’t on the level with what I’ve done since then.  Before going any further, let me just say, I’m no George Martin.  I’d love nothing more than to come back here in another month or two and talk about how I’ve once again leapfrogged my current level. There’s a long way to go before I’m properly good at this.  But I do think I’m making real and tangible progress here.  

Anyway.  I’ve learned how to program a midi drum track.  Or, at least, to do so on the most basic (albeit passable) of levels.  I’ve learned a bunch about EQ’ing vocals and various instruments.  I’ve leaned more about what my software is capable of and how to get more out of my tech.  And not for nothing, I think I’ve learned something about crafting a decent bass line. And I’m pushing the boundaries of what I can do vocally both in terms of range and with respect to writing harmonies. I’ll walk through some of this, though certainly not all of it.

[Warning: This may not be super interesting to everybody, but I’ve found it useful to sort of document what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been doing it.  If it’s not your cup of tea, feel free to skip this one.]

The first song I decided to tackle was a song called “Going my Way,” which I’d originally written back in the Chinatown days.  And when I say ‘written,’ I mean that I’d written a very basic version consisting of just acoustic guitar and a main vocal line.  So while the skeleton of the song has been in place for years, I now needed to lay down a drum part, write a bass line, come up with all the harmonies. So there’s a process to all this.

And not just a process, but also an order of operations, if I can say that.  And that, I had to work out through trial and error.  For the first song, Going my Way, that meant a lot of deleting and re-recording.  But now I’ve got a system that works for me, though I have no idea really how other people work.  

The first step is to just lay down a skeleton of the song with the acoustic guitar and metronome, perhaps with some humming here and there by way of sign posts for myself. That done, I can put down the drums. With each new song, this bit goes a little faster.  But it can still take me several hours to create the drum track that I want for a three-minute tune.  

Once the drums are done, it’s time to write a bass line.  Since I’ve only just started playing bass, obviously there’s no pre-existing material in this department.  So essentially, I just play the drums and acoustic guitar back on a loop and experiment until I find something I’m happy with.  And then when I do finally have a bass line, I then need to record a good quality version.  This usually requires many takes.  Having not grown up with the instrument, I’m not nearly as precise or accurate as I am on guitar.  I get there, but it’s time consuming.  

Then it’s onto the guitars. I always do two guitar tracks and pan them left and right.  Maybe that’s a holdover from the old band days, where I only ever played in bands with two guitars.  But it yields a sound that I like, so I’m sticking with it.  This is the easiest and fastest part, because I’ve been playing guitar forever and, for the most part, the guitar parts are not particularly complicated.  At least on the songs I’ve done so far.  

But even this requires a bit of reinvention.  Because see, when you’re playing alone, when you’re just singing and jamming out on the acoustic, the guitar is doing double duty.  The chords represent a harmonic element, whereas the strumming has to do the job of percussion.  But once you have a drum track, this kind of strumming is superfluous.  It’s too much, and winds up just being noise.  So I’ve got to find new strumming patterns that allow the song to breathe.  It’s not generally a big deal or terribly difficult, but it is work and it is time. 

Once this is done, I can dispense with the acoustic guitar track, which has now served its purpose. It is in turn replaced with a dummy vocal track.  It doesn’t need to be well sung, but it does need to be in time and on pitch.  Because it’s against this vocal track that I develop the backing harmonies.

Here I should mention that I’m quite envious of people who can just know how to do this innately. For me, it’s quite a bit of work. And there’s sort of a three-pronged attack to the process.  Sometimes I’ll just hop on the mic and improv things and see what happens.  Sometimes I find nice lines that way.  Sometimes I’ll sit down with my little notebook, sketch out the chord changes and methodically work out a harmony voicing just based on theory.  Sometimes I’ll sit with my little midi keyboard and play things out against the rhythm tracks.  In the end, it winds up being some combination of the three.  But in the end, I always write out the harmonies in their entirety.  Because I need to have the music in front of me when I go in to record them.

And I’ll say here that this – the harmonies – is probably my favorite part at the moment.  Partly because it’s new.  (And I love doing the bass stuff for the same reason).  But also because the possibilities are basically endless.  And because every new harmony is in its way an experiment for me, a learning experience. For example, how is an “ooh” different from an “ah”?  How is an “ah” different from a “wah”?  How is a sustained “ooh” or “ah” different from a percussive “bop-bop”?  How are nonsense sounds like “ooh-wah” or “bop-bop” different from singing actual lyrics in spots?  Each of these things brings something different to a song, give a different feel.  Some are better in some places than others.  Why?  It’s a real trip, I tellya.  

Once the harmonies are done, then it’s time to go in and record the main vocal track for real. Now it’s about much more than just pitch and rhythm.  There are questions of phrasing, stress, volume.  More abstract things like “softness” or “hardness.”   And here’s the kicker.  Just by doing this, I’m teaching myself how to sing, discovering just how much I can get out of my voice.  Mostly by trial and error.  But also by trying to pay attention to and incorporating technical elements that Justin has taught me, that Felix (Bibi’s vocal teacher) has taught me.  

Which brings us back to the particular song in question, this Going my Way.  Originally, I had written the vocal in a lower register, where I was much more comfortable as an inexperienced singer.  The only problem was, once I got into the booth, with all the other tracks, the lower register had no power to it.  It was getting lost in the mix.  

So?  Fuck it, I says.  Let me try taking this bitch up an octave.  I had no idea what would happen.  The highest note was an F-sharp, I think.  Whatever it was, I’d never sung that high before (that I know of).  And at first, I was having trouble hitting that highest note.  So I just kept experimenting.  What if I breathe this way instead of that?  What if I hold my head this way?  What if I try to make the sound come from here instead of there?

And after quite a bit of this, all of a sudden, I was doing it.  I was hitting that note.  It didn’t hurt or feel like a strain.  I mean, it was a strain in the sense of, this is my (current) limit.  But it felt right.  I felt these vibrations or resonances or whatever is the right word in parts of my skull and face that I’d never felt before.  And here was this note coming out of me, and it sounded good! More on this in the paragraph after next.

So now all the recording was done, I had to mix it.  I won’t get into detail here, but it was more experimentation, more trial and error. With things like reverb, compressors, EQ, panning, volume level and so on.  But in the end, I had a song.  

So I sent it to Justin. And the first thing he says is, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was not expecting this from you.”  And I’m like, “Oh no, it’s bad.”  And he’s like, “No, it’s good!  That’s what I meant by don’t take it the wrong way.  I didn’t want you to think I was expecting garbage. I just didn’t know you could sing like that!”  And I’m like, “Neither did I, son.  Neither did I.”  

Then I sent it to Jared. And apart from liking the song itself he said, “Your voice is awesome.  You’ve got a little heat on your fastball now.”  Which, I mean, come on, that’s like the best fucking analogy.  

And if it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, then I apologize.  It’s more just that this is so new.  And at age 39 I’m doing things I would never have believed myself capable of. So I’m just really excited about it. None of this is to say I’m a finished product.  I’ve still got tons to learn, so much to improve on.  And eventually I’ll run up against my limitations.  Like, I ain’t going to Broadway, you know?  But could I eventually effectively sing lead in a not terribly serious rock band?  Yeah, I think so.  And this from a guy who never once dared approach a back-up mic back in The Fury days.

So that was Going my Way. And in addition to that, I’ve finished two other songs as well.  And I’ve played them for a few people.  Remember when I said I’d like to be able to produce something that people would enjoy on the merits and not because they’re my friends?  Well I’ve gotten some feedback to that effect.  That they get one of the songs stuck in their heads, that one or two of them are “ear worms.”   So to me, that’s ten thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean; i.e. a good start.  

Funny thing, though. I wonder if I’m getting old.1  See, I sent the songs to Charlotte.  Two of them, she’s known forever.  She even has recordings of them on her phone, just me and my acoustic jamming out.  And her reaction was along these lines, “These sound great, and I’m really impressed with everything you’ve done. But honestly, I prefer the originals. They’re raw, they’ve got more energy, you can really shake your ass to them.”  

And the reason this is funny is, because that’s exactly what 20-years-ago Dave would have said.  I remember in High School, I had this cassette of Ella Fitzgerald live.  And it was just her and a jazz trio: piano, drums, guitar.  OK, probably there was a bass too.  The point is, that shit was raw, full of energy and you could really shake your ass to it.  And let me tell you, friends, I played the ever-loving shit outta that tape.  

And then one day I bought a CD with many of those same tracks.  Only, it wasn’t live.  It was a studio recording, with a full orchestra.  And I was just like, “Oh my gods, what is this schmaltzy shit!?”   And now, twenty years later, here I am producing my own schmaltzy shit.  

Or that’s one way to look at it, anyway.  My dad’s reaction was, “This is some proper British Invasion shit!”  Like when the young Beatles were just playing Little Richard and Buddy Holly covers.   And that’s quite a compliment.  Of course, I’ve always preferred Little Richard and Buddy Holly to the Beatles. So maybe I really am getting old. Or maybe I’m just having fun with harmonies.

Not every song I do is going to be like this, mind you.  I’ve got a list of 14 original songs I want to do.  And some of them will be pretty heavy.  Those will not be having three-part doo-wop harmonies.  So I’ll be getting back to my roots at some point. But for the moment, I’m doing all the songs that will be in this style.  Because each one informs the next.  It’s all part of the learning process.  

The last thing I want to mention before moving on, and I touched on this last time, is just how invaluable Justin has been through all of this.  I’m constantly calling and texting him with questions about theory and technique.  I’m constantly sending him mixes for feedback.  And he always has something useful to add.  And so even though this is my music, even though I’m writing everything and playing and singing all the parts, even though every decision is mine in the end (and even though I fully own all of the shortcomings), the end product is very much a result of this working relationship.  There’s no question that, however far I’ve come, I wouldn’t have come this far without his help.

I also want to say something else about the process, about the work, independent of the music itself. I fucking love doing this, and the time really flies.  On a day where I don’t have to teach, I might start in the studio sometime between 11 and 1 and just keep going until dinner.  And I’ll lose all track of time.  I mean, I just get so lost in the work.  Even the language stuff doesn’t engage me on that level.  There, I usually burn out after two hours, three tops.

And it’s much healthier and more sustainable than writing.  Writing stories or blogue posts, I mean.  It’s no secret that when I write, I lean heavily on my pipe or that a blog post will usually start at the top of a bottle of wine and end at the bottom.  That’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable.  I can’t work like that every day. 

But I don’t drink or smoke when I’m working in the studio.  Well, OK, when I have to sing, I usually have a cup of tea on hand, and I may sneak a bit of brandy into it.  But I’m not gonna count that.  So that’s another nice thing about the music.

Now, I love my job. I’ve said it a thousand times. And my reason for saying it again will become clear in a moment.  As I said, I took a two-week staycation in the second half of September.  The first week was mostly just decompressing, although I did quite a bit of work in the studio.  But the second week was amazing.  And here’s why.

Every night I was going to bed sometime between three and five in the morning.  And every day I was waking up sometime between 10:30 and 1:30. And then I’d work all day in the studio. But here’s the thing.  I felt great.  Better that I’d felt in ages.  Even with those weird hours, I was never tired.  I wasn’t taking naps!  Can you believe that?  Dave not taking naps?  But I never felt the need.  I always felt well-rested.  It was incredible.  

So yeah, I love my job. But man, did I not miss it.  Like, one bit.  I found myself feeling like, why can’t I have thislife?  But oh well. Vacation is over and now it’s back to the grind, and with it, feeling tired, and daily naps.  C’est la vie.

I was in Köpenick on Friday, to see Lucie and Marco.  I had asked Marco, the erstwhile carpenter, if he could cut a piece of wood for me to expand my studio desk; he was happy to do so.  First of all, it was just great to see them.  After that bit of carpentry, we just hung out and ate pizza and had a good old time.  And here’s the thing with those two.  In a world desperately short on human decency, they are two of the most honest-to-gods decent people you’ll ever meet in your life.  Just a pair of wonderful, good hearts.  As happy as I am to have my own place, I’m just as happy that they’re still in my life.  

Funny side-story.  As Marco was working the…oh god, what’s it called in English?  It’s a handheld reciprocating saw.  But not a sawsall.  I used to build scenery in the theatre, what’s happened to me?  Anyway, while he’s working the saw, I’m sort of following behind him with the vacuum.  This was in my old bedroom, btw, which Marco has since turned into his office/shop. And as I’m vacuuming at the end, I’m like, “Shit, man, I thought my days of vacuuming this floor were behind me!” And then like, two seconds later, Lucie walks by, and she’s like, “Dave, when you’re done in there, you can do the kitchen!”  Well, funny-ish, anyway.

The end of this month will mark one year since I moved out.  One year since I lived in Köpenick.  And yet, being there, walking those streets that I walked every day for three years, it felt like I left yesterday.  Or perhaps, as though I’d never left at all.  It still feels like home.  Kind of a gut-punch of nostalgia, if you will.  Because I really do miss that place.  It still feels more like home than Pankow does.  And that was bittersweet.  

But I don’t miss the travel. I don’t miss how woefully undeserved that place is by mass transit.  And as much as I miss L&M, I don’t miss living with other people.  So all’s well that ends well.  Or you can’t have you cake and eat it too.  Or something.

One thing I love about New York, it is first and foremost a baseball town.  I want you to think about how big a deal football is in America.  I want you to remember that the Willie Mays Giants moved to California for the 1958 season.  And still, in 2020, people refer to Big Blue as the “New York Football Giants.”  Because the “New York Giants” are a baseball team, be they gone some 60 years.

I mention this because the great Whitey Ford died a few days ago.  Whitey Ford, The Chairman of the Board, Yankee ace pitcher in the 50’s and early 60’s.  From the days of Mantle and Yogi and The Scooter and Maris and Stengel.  A legend.  And since Yogi died, Greatest Living Yankee.  And now he’s gone.  It really marks the end of an era.  The era of World Series games in the afternoon, the era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke.  The era when New York was the center of the baseball universe.  The past recedes a little further and the men our fathers knew are become memories.  

My father texted me when Whitey died.  My father is not, nor ever has been, much a fan of baseball.   My father also taught me to throw a baseball, played catch with me when I was little, took me to batting cages and was there on the sidelines when I played T-Ball.  I never really got beyond T-Ball.  Soon, hockey would become my world.  

But I was on the phone with my folks the other night.  And Whitey came up.  My dad said something like, “I was never really into baseball, but that was a name I knew.  That was a name that was always in the news when I was growing up.”  Yeah, I agreed.  Him and Mantle and Yogi.  And my mom, also no baseball fan, chimed in, “Oh yeah, everybody knew those guys.”  

Because New York is a baseball town.  Because baseball connects people.  Because when Whitey died, I got an email from Phil, my Greek prof, with stories of seeing Whitey pitch in spring training, of he and his schoolmates listening to game 7 of the 1960 World Series on hidden transistor radios in class, of the whole class groaning when Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski hit the Series winning homer, of the teacher stopping not to chastise, but merely to surmise, “So the Yankees lost?”  So when you lose one of the greats, one of the legends, your family reaches out. Sometimes because they love the game. And even when they don’t, because a thread in the shared fabric of the lives of all New Yorkers has been cut.  Baseball has the power to bind us.  And New York is baseball town.  Always has been.  And may it ever be so.

זײַ געזונט

And for the love of all that is holy, vote!

  1. Spoiler Alert: I am. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
25 August, 2020

Well, happy fucking new year you guys.  (It’s the Jewish New Year for you goyimreading this (or, it was at the time of writing, anyway)).  L’Shanah To-fucking-vah.  I want to say this coming year can’t be any worse than the last, but let’s reserve judgment until after the election shall we?  So, on to happier things.

My music project with Bibi and Ralf has taken a turn for the serious.  Like, I think we’re officially a band now.  Bibi was over a last week (or the week before last, depending on when I hit ‘publish’) to record Malaika.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  But while she was over, we got to talking about the, well, band. 

Basically, things are getting more serious, slowly but surely.  Her husband bought us (read, her) a PA system.  I’ve now bout not only an electric guitar for this project – my beautiful Leyka – but now also a bass (name pending).1  And just recently Ralf had a custom electric nylon-string guitar made up, just for this project.  Our last two outings, we’ve played sets of twenty songs.  Which means we’ve got a repertoire of something like thirty songs, and it continues to grow.  

So the question was, are we ready to take the next step.  Which, at this point, simply means making a greater commitment in terms of time and effort.  Remember how all this started.  Bibi was always at the center of it.  After she was my student we jammed a few times on a couple of songs.  Meanwhile, she was taking guitar lessons from Ralf.

One day, she invited me to join her at one of her lessons.  It went well enough that it became a regular thing.  After work on Fridays, I’d head up to Ralf’s and join in for the last hour or so.  Well, here we are, over a year later (I think), and Bibi and I realized one hour a week wasn’t gonna cut it.  Especially if that hour was ostensibly her guitar lesson.  The only other practice we had was, we’d meet the day before a gig and run the whole set.  That was it.

So when she was over, we agreed that we’d need to get more serious about rehearsing.  She said she’d talk to Ralf, and he was on board.  So as of last week, we’re now gonna practice once a week, Thursday evenings, 7-10.  We had our first such practice this past Thursday.  And you guys, it was like a proper band practice!  Really exciting.  Like, there was a new energy in the room, you know?

We worked up a version of Norwegian Wood, and I gotta say, this shit slaps.2  It starts with a two part a cappella verse with me and Ralf and we end it with a three-part a cappella verse as well.  And in the middle, I get a bass solo (!).   

I mean, we’re starting to grow now too in terms of harmony.  I don’t remember if I talked about this in a previous post, so if this is old news, I apologize.  But to this point, when B&R sing together, they basically just do octaves with each other.  And it’s kinda been on me to do any kind of harmony that’s not just octaves.  Which is a challenge I embrace.  I can often, though not always, find something nice. It still doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s getting better.

What’s great though is how supportive and encouraging they are in this.  Like, now they just look at me and it’s like, “Hey, Dave, can you throw a nice harmony on this part?”  Uh, I can try.  But they trust me in that regard.  And it’s cool to see how excited they get when I hit on something good.

Meanwhile, as I’ve also mentioned, Bibi has brought her singing teacher down to our last two pre-gig practices.  He’s worked with us on technique, but he’s also helped out with the harmonies.  For me personally, it’s been a big help.  And another confidence booster.  Because he’ll just let me go, you know?  “Dave, just try shit.”  If it works, he’ll encourage me to keep it.  If it doesn’t quite hit, he’ll work on it with me.  So that’s been cool.

But he’s also starting to get those two out of their octave comfort zone as well.  Which is fantastic.  Because it’s opening the door to more interesting three-part harmonies. Like with this Norwegian Wood business. I guess B&R worked on it before hand with Felix, the singing teacher.  So when I showed up, they already had this badass harmony on the chorus. And it’s just like, shiiiit.  I wanna say, with this song, we sound more like a proper band than we have at any time up til now.  So yeah, things are heating up and it’s pretty fucking exciting.

I mentioned that I had Bibi over to record Malaika.  Malaika is a Swahili song that we’ve got in the set.  It’s super simple, but also really beautiful.  And I knew as soon as I built this damned studio that one of the first things I wanted to do was get her over here and make a proper recording of it.

Friday, I finished mixing a, well, let’s call it a first draft.  I sent it to Bibi, but I haven’t heard back from her yetand she was happy with the overall product, although she may want to redo the vocals; which I think would be a good idea.  But overall I think it sounds really good, tbh.  I also sent it to Justin for some feedback, and that was a huge help.  Just to get another set of ears on it.

I mean, I’ve sent everything I’ve done so far to Justin and he’s always been very helpful.  Sometimes it’s technical tips about the recording or mixing process.  But sometimes it’s just about the sound of things.  Which is mostly what it was with Malaika.  And the difference between the way it sounded before and after we talked was night and day.

Also, it’s just a really nice way to connect.  Like, I don’t get to see him but once or twice a year under normal circumstances. I last saw him in November, and who knows when we’ll be able to travel again.  So to just be able to get on the phone and talk is great.  But when it’s about music, that’s even better.  And when it’s about mymusic, that’s just fantastic.  

Also, he noticed my bass line.  I should back up.  I said Malaika is a super simple song, and it is.  But I wrote a bass line for it, which in its way, is really like a vocal harmony.  In fact, someone who saw us live commented to me that it was almost like a duet between Bibi and the bass.  Which made me really happy, because I worked pretty hard on that.  So to see it appreciated was really nice.  

But I didn’t mention the bass at all to Justin, I simply sent him the track.  And he’s like, “By the way, did you write that bass line or is it an original part of the song?”  And I’m like, “No, I wrote that shit.”  And he was like, “Dude, that’s really good.”  High praise.  

No, really, high praise. Because, you see, Justin is a Starr. And what that means is, we’re super analytical and unemotional in our assessments.  So we’ll point out the good or the bad like doctors.  Thus, when a Starr says, “Dude, that’s really good,” you know you did something right.  I was, to use a Britishism, chuffed.

So that’s where all that’s at.  In other news, the Islanders finally bowed out of the playoffs, making it all the way to Game 6 of the Conference Finals.  It was a hell of a ride.  Also exhausting, as the games routinely started at 2am here.  Some games went to OT, so they ended at like 5am.  One even went to double OT; that one ended at 6am.  #fml  It was exhausting, and in a way, I’m relieved it’s over.  But man, that was a hell of a ride.  For the first time in a long time, it felt good to be an Islander fan.

In other other news, last weekend Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria for one of our friends’ birthday. The usual shtick.  Drink a lot, eat a lot, laugh a lot.  And as I’ve written so many times before, there’s just so much love in the room with those people.  I mean, we see each other just a couple times a year, and there’s not a whole lot of communication when we’re not together.  Yet somehow, there’s a real bond there.  It’s like a big extended family.

A highlight was, as so often, a late night guitar session.  They have their songs they like me to play, which I’m happy to do if I can remember them.  But almost every gathering, I’ll also make up a song on the spot.  People seem to love them – they still talk about ‘The Squirrel Song’ from like five years ago – but also, we’re all drunk and nobody’s ever recorded them, so who knows really?  And as with most unrecorded improvisations, they’re irrevocably lost to time.

But this time, Joschka had the (good?) sense to record it.  It was essentially a birthday song for Marina, our friend.  But I made up a verse about everybody at the table, which makes it a little more fun.  Anyway, I saw the video and it was pretty funny.  But more than that, it was great to see people clapping and laughing and singing along to the chorus.  Because if you do it right, you can wing a good, simple, catchy chorus that people can actually sing along to.  It wasn’t high art, but it wasn’t bad either.

Although I did spot some obvious mistakes in my German.  Oh, did I mention I do these songs are in German?  That’s right friends, Dave drunkenly makes up songs in German. Bonus points for improving in not your own language, amirite?

Here’s a funny thing. I’ve got a cousin in Seattle.  Or she’s from Seattle, anyway.  No idea where she is now or what she’s up to. Years and years ago, one of my dad’s sisters moved out there and I really didn’t see much of them after that. So I have this cousin, whose name escapes me, who I’ve met like twice.  The point is, she’s a super talented musician.  And the one time I actually remember meeting her as a grown person, she comes with her guitar and just starts making up songs on the spot. Properly good songs, too.  And funny as all get out.  And all I remember thinking was – and this was years before I ever started singing myself – I just remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could do that!”

Well, now I guess I can. And in German too!  I mean, if you put enough booze in me and surround me with the right people.  But hey, achievement unlocked.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got time and/or energy for tonight.  A couple weeks ago I started a post which I never finished.  Some of it is still relevant, some of it has been superseded by this post.  But I’ll append it to the end here anyway.

That said, I wish you all a happy new year.  May you all be written into the good side of The Big Guy’s book and have a blessed year.

לשנה טובה תכתבו און א גוט געבענטשט יאר

Here follows the aforementioned two-week old unfinished post…

How about those Islanders, eh?  I mean, they’re killing me.  But in a good way.  They’ve just advanced to the second round of the playoffs.  Which is great and exciting news.  And also…I get at least another four games starting at 2am.  Yay?  Nothing like going to work completely exhausted because you were up all night watching a hockey game from the other side of the world.  My boss has been pretty understanding thus far though.  So there’s that at least.

Also, there’s music. I forget where things were at last post. I was working on an electric guitar arrangement of a Renaissance choral work.  Well, that’s finished.  All in all, I was pretty pleased with it.  As a first attempt / learning experience anyway.  But now things are heating up.

I dug out an old song I’d written back in the Chinatown days as the first track I was gonna work on as an actual song.  By which I mean, with vocals.  Well, the first part was easy.  Just laying down the acoustic guitar track and the main vocal line on top of it.  So far, that was nothing new.  I mean, that’s no different than what I normally do. Except that rather than playing and singing at the same time, now I split them up for recording purposes. But that was easy.  Just getting the tracks down, I mean.

But then came the real challenge.  To wit, the vocal harmonies.  In the last post, I wrote about how I’ve been pushing myself to provide backing harmonies with Bibi and Ralf.  Which is hard enough for me.  What I mean is, harmonizing is still relatively new ground for me.  And it’s enough to worry about when I’m just adding one harmony for myself over what they’re singing.  

Here though, I’m writing multi-part (well, two-part thus far) harmonies for my own music.  And lemme tell you, it’s a whole new world, friends.  Before going any further, I should clarify just what kind of music we’re talking about here.  

Most of what I’ve written in the past derives from basically two main streams of influence.  The first is what I’ll call ‘classic rock and roll.’ Buddy Holly being the biggest influence there.  The other main influence is Irish folk, mostly filtered through The Pogues.  

So my first question in all of this was, what kind of backing vocals are right for this kind of music?  I decided I wanted to go in a 50’s doo-wop kind of direction.  About which I know absolutely nothing.  So I turned to the internets for help.  Whereupon did I tweet the following: “Is there like a book on doo-wop vocal harmony theory or do I just have to figure this shit out all on my lonesome?”

To which Jared replied: “Use your ears like the rest of us!”  Ugh.  Thanks, guy. Of course he was right.  But rather than turn to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, whose backing vocals I always found a bit corny, I decided to look elsewhere. Where, you ask?  Why, The Crystals!  Two songs, in particular.  The Do Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me.  Because those girls are on fucking point with their harmonies.3  So I used that as a starting point.

“Use your ears,” he had said.  Well, there’s two ways to do this.  One is to listen to others’ recordings.  But the other is just to experiment, to just try out different lines and listen to the results.  Trial and error in other words.  Between these two approaches, I started to have some success; started to have some stuff I was fairly happy with.

So I reached out again to Jared and Justin, at which point they started to hit me with some useful feedback and and tips.  And Friday I picked up a music notebook.  You know, one of those where instead of lines for writing, it’s pre-printed with music staves.  With this I was able to work out the finer details of what I was trying to do.

At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ve got the harmonies where I want them for this song.  Of course, writing the harmonies and singing them are two different things.  I mean, it took me a long time just to teach myself to be able to sing and play at the same time.  And when you’re singing alone, you have a larger margin for error, pitch-wise.  Not that you can afford to be “off,” but you don’t necessarily have to be perfect.  

Now, though, Iam singing with both meand myself, as it were.  The margin for error is considerably smaller.  I can do it.  I mean, I’ve done it.  The tracks are down.  And they’re pretty solid, though I wouldn’t say perfect.  But it did require many takes, many attempts.  

But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got so far.  And I’m pretty proud of what I’ve come up with.  Again, in the context of a first attempt.  Still though.  Writing and recording is only the beginning.  Because even when that’s all done, I’ve still got to mix everything. I’ve got to take it from a raw recording and turn it into a “song,” something that’s actually pleasant to listen to.  

And the goal here is to arrive at an end product that is actually “good,” whatever that means.  I think I know what it means.  It means, it can’t be enough to just be interesting to the people who already know me and care about me and are by default interested in what I’m doing.  It has to be good enough to play for somebody who doesn’t know me that well, somebody who doesn’t give a shit about Dave per se. It has to be good enough for thatperson to sit up and say, “Hey, you know, this is pretty good!”  

I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself.  I hope I’m not delusional.  But I really think I can do that.  I think I write music that is catchy, pleasant.  Music that swings.  With lyrics that are worth the time to hear.  Which is not to say I think I’m writing stuff that deserves a record contract or radio play.  Far from it. But stuff that I can play out in front of strangers and have them enjoy it?  Stuff that my friends could play for their own friends and have them like it enough to maybe want a copy?  Yeah, I think I can swing that.  Or maybe I’m delusional.  Fuck do I know?

Anyway, that’s been this past week.  Every day after work, I take a nap.  And then when I wake up, I hit the studio.  Oh, the studio, I’ll come back to that in a sec.  But I’d say I’ve been putting in 3-4 hours every day, working on this one tune.  And I think it’s paying off.  More than that though, it’s fun as hell.  I mean, I love making music.  I can’t get enough.  And I’ve got a backlog of songs built up over the years.  So when this tune is finished, I’ll move straight onto the text one. I can’t wait.

So yeah, the studio. I’ve rearranged my kitchen so that I’ve got a permanent studio setup there now.  I’ve got my recording booth in the corner, with a music stand beside it. On the other side, I’ve got a table where I set up my computer.  Very neat and tidy.  Small, but efficient.  I even hooked the fridge up to a switch, so I can shut if off when I’m recording; because the last thing you want is that electrical hum creeping in.  There’s a picture of all this on my Insta.  

And there’s a new element that I’ll soon be incorporating.  Namely, bass guitar.  As things are progressing with Bibi and Ralf, I decided to spring for a bass.  As things stand, there are already a number of songs in our set where I just play a bass line on the guitar anyway.  So I figured it was time for the real deal.

I wrote last time how I started out (and to some extent still am) seeing myself as a bit of a hired gun in that project.  I’m trying to get away from that mindset, though, and one way I’m doing that is take a sort of jack-of-all-trades approach.  A bit of depth and color with the guitar?  Sure.  A lyrical guitar solo?   I can do that.  We need a harmony here?  On it. This song would be better served by bass than guitar.  Let’s do it.

Until the last show, all of the songs we play had been chosen by Bibi and Ralf.  Only recently did I step out of my comfort zone in that regard in suggesting that we play a Yiddish song.  So we debuted Toom Balalaika at our last show.  It fit right in.

So the next – and maybe final – step for me, is to see how they feel about doing one of my songs. All we’ve done to this point has been covers.  Which, to be honest, is what they want, I think.  I mean, as much as anything, I think this is a way for them to play and share the music that they already love.

And don’t get me wrong, covers are fun.  In every band I’ve ever been in, we’ve always done some covers.  But for me, the point of being in bands was always to play original music.  Writing has always been very important to me.  And that’s even informed my approach to this project.  Because even though we’re playing covers, they’re almost always songs I’ve never heard before.  And I’m very careful to avoid ever hearing the original.  As much as possible, I want what I play to be my own, not a copy of somebody else’s guitar parts.  Sure, sometimes it’s unavoidable.  The song is the song, after all.  And sometimes they specifically ask me to play exactly what’s on the record.  If they ask, sure.  But my goal is always to bring something new, something personal to the music.  To have that avenue for creation and self-expression.

So I don’t know how they’re going to feel when I ask them if they’d be interested in playing something I’ve written.  But I’m hoping they’ll be into it.  And if not this song, then maybe the next one.

But I hasten to add, this isn’t about taking over the spotlight or anything like that.  In that regard, Monty Python, of all people, have been very instructive to my way of thinking in this matter.  The Pythons have always said that they never cared who performed what roles.  That they had no egos as actors.  The only thing they cared about was the material, the comedy.  I kinda love that.  And it’s kinda how I feel about this.

I don’t care who takes the lead vocal, who’s the star of the song, so to speak.  If it happens to fit Ralf’s voice or range better than my own, so be it.  If it sounds better with a woman’s voice, then Bibi should take the lead.  I’m more than happy to just do backup harmonies on my own songs.  

The point is, I think it’s good music.  And more to the point, I think it could sound really good with the three of us doing it together.  So like I said, I’m hoping their open to the concept.  And I hope I’ve got at least one song they like enough to actually want to perform.  So we’ll see. First things first though.  And that means I have to produce a recoding that’s good enough to present to them.  And we’ll take it from there.  

I said that there’s a new element I’ll be incorporating, and that that was the bass guitar.  That’s true even in my own recordings.  So now I’ve got the guitar down.  I’ve got the main vocal line down.  I’ve got the harmonies pretty much where I want them. The next step is to add a bass guitar part.  And I’m not a bass player.  So this is a new challenge.

I don’t mean playing the instrument itself.  If you can play the guitar, you can play the bass.  But what makes a good bass line?  It’s a whole new way of approaching a song.  It’s a skill I’ve got to learn, an ear I’ve got to develop, if you will.  I’m confident I can do it.  But it will take time and a lot of experimentation.  It will also take a lot of listening.  A lot of “using my ears,” as Jared said.  

Which leaves only one final missing piece, and that is the most daunting of all.  I’m talking about drums.  It’s daunting on two levels.  First, I know absolutely nothing about drums.  And unlike going from guitar to bass, which is a transferable skill, drums is a beast all its own. 

But add to that, we’re not even talking about real drums.  In terms of recording in my home studio here, we’re talking about synth drums. Now, there are all kinds of programs and plugins made just for people like me.  So, when I’m feeling confident, I do feel like I can master at least the very basics.  Enough, at least, to end up with the most basic of drum tracks which will hopefully compliment my songs.  But that’s a whole new world for me, one I have not so much as even dipped a toe into yet.4

The good news is that, in the context of bringing a track to Bibi and Ralf, drums don’t matter.  We don’t have a drummer anyway.  So at least there’s no pressure in that regard.  But at the end of the day, if I’m talking about recording my own music, and if my own music is rock and roll, well, sooner or later, it’s gonna need drums.  

Anyway, that’s more or less where things are at musically at the moment.  And that’s probably where I’m gonna end this post.  I mean, I’ve got a million other things going on, as the regular reader of this blogue is no doubt aware.  The weekly Torah readings, the weekly Yiddish schmooze/readings, Latin, French, Shakespeare, work, something like a social life, the angst/guilt of not finding any time for Greek, translation projects, the Islanders. It’s a wonder I’ve found time enough even to write this much.

But I wanted to write this. The music is so much fun right now and I wanted to share that.  Hopefully, in a very short time, I’ll be able to share the music itself.  So, you know, stay tuned.  Don’t touch that dial, even.  In the meantime,

זײַ געזונט

  1. I’m leaning heavily towards Sally, as in Long Tall Sally.  Because she’s slim, hourglass shaped and has a long neck.  Plus, you know, Little Richard. []
  2. I think “it slaps” is current slang, or so I gather from Twitter.  It’s really hard to stay on top of slang when you’re living in a foreign country. Which is fun when you then go to teach a bit of slang.  “A cool way to say this would be…”  And then, “Well, that was the cool way to say it four years ago.  Who knows what people are saying now.” []
  3. Also, crazy good production values from Phil “I’m definitely crazy and also probably killed a person” Spector. []
  4. #AnalogyFail – one does not dip one’s toe into a world… []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
3 August, 2020

Oh hey.  You’re still here?  Shit, how long have you been waiting?  Well.  This is embarrassing.  Sorry I haven’t written in a while.  I was…delayed.  (He says, as if he’d been busy with a Balrog on the bridge of Khazad Dūm.  He hadn’t been).  No but really though, I’ve been busy.  Overwhelmingly, exhaustingly busy.  Bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew busy.  

But busy with good things. Well, mostly good things.  There was my little home recording booth that I built.  And now using it to record music.  Learning Latin.  Reading Hebrew.  My weekly shmooz with Bartek and our Yiddish readings.  Yiddish translation.  German translation.  The band. Whatever passes for my social life. Oh yeah, and also work.  You know, my job(s).  

Let’s start with the little home recording booth I mentioned.  See, what happened was, a couple months back, I bought a guitar online. A guitar I’d wanted for quite a while, actually.  A Jackson Rhoads flying-V.  Ivory with black pinstripes and gold hardware.  I’ve named her Antoinette.  Because let’s face it, she’s kind of a diva.  But I love her.  Anyway, I bought her online because I found a really good deal I felt like I couldn’t pass up.  

So they ship her in this big honking cardboard box, inside of which was yet another big ol’ cardboard box. And I thought to myself, so much sturdy cardboard shouldn’t go to waste.  So what can I do with it?  And on top of that, I also had this giant Amazon cardboard box from this nifty little bamboo drink cart I’d ordered earlier this year.  

I don’t know the idea came to me, but basically, I realized that if I opened the doors of the guitar box, it was like a tiny little closet.  And the Amazon box was this big flat rectangle.  So somehow it occurred to me that I could assemble this all in such a way as to create a Dave-sized booth.  And it took off from there, really.  

But what an all-consuming project that turned out to be.  First thing I had to do was just buy a decent box cutter.  From there, it was a couple days of refining the design on paper. Which progressed to days and days of measuring and cutting and gluing and further refining the design for stability. After a couple of weeks, it was really starting to take shape, and I was pretty pleased with what I’d wrought.  

Except for one problem. Because it was made of cardboard, it looked ghetto as all get out.  At which point I realized I would have to paint the damn thing.  Now, sure, I could have just painted it all black and had done with it.  But what fun would that be?

So I reached out to Dale and asked him, if I sent him the dimensions, could he possibly draft for me a dazzle paint design for it.  To which he immediately responded with a photo of an actual book of dazzle paint designs accompanied by the caption, “Achem *dusts off.”  Because of course Dale just happened to have a book of dazzle paint schemes laying around.  I mean, this is why we’re friends.  Well, one reason out of many.

Dazzle paint, for anybody who might be wondering, is an oldschool style of camouflage, largely used on naval ships during the first and second world wars.  It’s basically disjointed geometric shapes in various shades of blues, grays, blacks and whites.  The idea was, in the times before radar, that this would make it difficult to determine the distance and heading of the…wait for it…bedazzled (!) ships.  

Well, as a design concept, it’s something I’ve always been fond of.  And Dale too; clearly.  Anyway, so Dale sent me the design.  Which I instantly fell in love with.  There was only one problem.  I would have to actually paint this design!  And ain’t no paintner, as Bubbi would say.  

Right, so the first thing I had to do was print out 1/5 scale color copies of each panel.  Then I had to buy a ruler, a protractor and a triangle.  You know, so I could get all the distances and angles properly measured.  Then I had to transfer that to the actual booth. Then I had to mask off all the lines. And then, you know, actually paint. Although before I could paint, I also had to newspaper over a quarter of my kitchen, which was now my painting studio. 

All of this was like another two weeks of work.  And many trips to the hardware store (a half hour walk each way) to buy ever more cans of spray paint.  But I got it done in the end, and although it’s not perfect, I have to say, it looks pretty badass.  

And then the final step. I had to install the soundproofing. Insulation foam, which I ordered from The Great Frenemy, Amazon.  And as a finishing touch, I installed a neat little LED light.  So there it was.  Finally. My own private little recording booth. 

Except, in order to record, you need tech.  A microphone, a mic stand, a shock mount for the mic, a pop screen for the mic, an I/O box to transfer the signal from the mic to the computer, an XLR cable to connect it all.

Here’s the thing about tech though.  You need to learn how to use it.  So then followed hours upon hours of Youtube tutorials.  Some on the hardware, some on the recording software.  Great.  But once you have a rough idea of how to use the stuff, you’ve gotta actually, you know, use it.  

This led to a solid two weeks of recording.  I decided the best thing to do would be to start small.  Guitars only.  One thing at a time, you know?  So I settled on a piece of Renaissance choral music which I’ve long adored and had always wanted to adapt for guitar.

So that led to like two weeks of just recording the guitar parts.  The piece itself is written for four voices.  Your standard Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.  But since it’s choral music, I decided to record each voice twice; once each with each of my guitars.  That would be Leyka, the Gretsch I use with Bibi and Ralf; and Antoinette, my new V.

It’s not a terribly complicated or challenging piece of music.  But I still had to learn and practice four unique parts.  At which point I then had to do many takes, because I needed it to be as close to perfect as I could get it.  And, in mittendrinnen, learn the tech.  Get the right sound out of my amp.  Get the mic placement right.  Get the levels right.  Make sure the signal was coming into the software correctly.  

I learned a lot, and by the end it was going it a pretty good pace.  But it was a lot of work.  And of course the actual recording is just the beginning.  Because once of you’ve recorded it, you need to mix it. And that’s a whole new series of Youtube tutorials.  A whole new mess of trial and error.

It’s almost done now, I’m happy to report.  There are still things in the mix I need to tweak.  Bring this voice out a little more over there; lower that voice a touch over here.  But it’s good enough that finally this week I was able to send a copy to Justin, just to get some feedback.  That turned into like a two-hour phone conversation.  A very productive and interesting conversation.  But I was pretty tired at work the next day.

So like I said, it’s nearly finished.  And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of it.  As a first attempt, anyway.  I mean, I think it sounds pretty fucking cool.  But of course, also like I said, that’s just the beginning.  Like, now I’ve got a rough feel for the tech in general and a basic understanding of how to work with (electric) guitars.  So the next step is vocals.  Which will be more Youtube tutorials, more trial and error. And more complicated mixing.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m super excited about it.  I sit down to work and next thing I know, three hours have flown by.  It’s fun.  And it’s a creative outlet that I desperately need.  But it’s also time.  And I have so much to do.

All this to say, the last six weeks have been consumed with building my little booth and learning how to record and mix.  And all this, why?  Because I bought a guitar and it came in a box.  Life is funny like that. 

Speaking of Bibi and Ralf and our little band.  We’re back to playing again.  Only, you can’t really have a show indoors at the moment, so now the owner of the café has us playing in the garden, which is lovely.  Except, how do you make two acoustic guitars work outside?  Good question.  Well, Bibi’s husband gifted us (read: her) a nice PA system.  Oh great, more tech to learn!  But this wasn’t so complicated.  And at least here, I have some experience already.  All those of years of playing in bands coming in handy. Who knew?

We’ve played one show so far with the PA.  There were some bugs, which was to be expected, but overall it went pretty well. The next show is on the 8th

Since all we play is covers anyway, I asked Bibi how she would feel about trying a Yiddish song. She was all for it, which was lovely. The song I chose was “Toom Balalaika.” I thought it would be a good fit because it’s an easy catchy chorus.  But also because it tells a short little story in three verses.  The first verse is a narrator, the second is a man and the third is a woman.  So I thought we could each take a verse, if they didn’t mind trying their handvoice at a bit of mama loshn.  I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about that, but actually they were pretty receptive.  

So I worked up a transliteration that would make sense to a German speaker as well as an actual German translation so they could understand what they were singing.  And actually they took to it pretty quickly.  There were a couple of words I needed to explain and a few aspects of pronunciation I had to walk them through, but they got the hang of it in short order.  It was kinda funny actually.  Because for them, it was just mostly a bizarre kind of German.  I mean, they were actually laughing.  It was kinda cute.

Last week, Bibi and I worked on it alone.  I even worked up a nice harmony on the chorus for her to sing.  She was actually pretty excited about that.  Turns out she wants to do more harmony stuff, which is great. 

Tangentially, we do a version of “Sound of Silence.”  I don’t sing on that, it’s just her and Ralf on the vocals.  But the point is, they’re quite capable of harmonizing when they put their minds to it.  But apart from that song, they mostly just sing octaves with each other.  Til now, I’ve been the one to add more complicated harmonies.

Which doesn’t come naturally to me, I should add.  It’s something I have to work at.  But it’s also something I really like and something I want to not just get better at but actually be good at.  And I’m hoping I can start nudging us towards some three-part harmonies somewhere down the line. 

Anyway, Friday, we jammed on it all together for the first time.  And it went really well.  Ralf took to it instantly, which was great.  And it was sounding pretty fucking solid, if I do say so myself.  So we’ll see how it goes at the show.  But I’m pretty excited about it.

But here’s where I really gotta take my hat off to Bibi.  I was pretty ambivalent about bringing this song to the group.  There’s a number of reasons for that.  First is, I kinda feel like a bit of a hired gun with this group.  To be clear, they don’t make feel that way at all.  That’s all from me.  But they were together before I came along.  They choose all the songs.  And at the end of the day, it’s not generally my kind of music.

So I’ve always kind of viewed my job as finding a way to just enrich what they’re doing.  Yeah, of course, I want to express myself and bring something unique to the music.  But always in the service of what they’re already doing.  

I don’t think they see me that way.  But it’s how I see myself in this project.  So I was wary of imposing myself where it wasn’t my place; in my view. And then yeah, asking people to do a song in a language that they don’t speak, I wasn’t sure about that either. And finally, because it’s Jewish music. 

And look, of course they know I’m Jewish.  And that’s obviously no problem amongst us.  But anytime you put your Judaism on display in public, I think there’s always a bit of hesitation.  Warranted or not, you know?

What was the point? Oh yeah, tipping my hat to Bibi. No yeah, so she really embraced the idea.  Especially because of the Jewish aspect.  Because see, she’s half black.  And we’ve got a Swahili song in the set already, “Malaika”, which I fucking love, not for nothing.  And I gather that’s rather important to her.

So she’s like, “We already have a Swahili song for me.  We should absolutely do a Yiddish song for you.  And not for nothing, with all Ralf’s background in flamenco, we should get him to pick a Spanish song.”  I mean, what a beautiful attitude to have about all this.

But there’s more. Only first, you gotta understand the song a little bit.  Like I said, it’s three verses: a narrator, a guy and a girl.  And it’s kind of a love song.  The guy sings the girl a riddle about love and she solves the riddle in turn. And the way we’ve arranged it, Ralf is the narrator (first verse), I’m the guy (second verse) and she’s the maydel (third verse).  

So she says to me, “Look, you’re kinda shy on stage, which is fine.  You kinda just hang back and play your guitar and that’s OK.  You jump on the mic for your harmonies, but you don’t really interact with the crowd.  And again, that’s fine.  But here, you’re really going to be singing.  And you’re not just telling a story, you’re singing to the girl in the song, you’re singing to me.  

“So you have to come alive a bit more.  You have to make eye contact with the audience.  You have to sing to me.” And of course she’s right.  But these are not things that I’m naturally comfortable with.  But she’s patient and she’s working on it with me.   

The point is, she’s helping to bring me out of my shell, as it were.  Which was not something I was expecting when I signed on to this project. But it’s very much another way for me to grow as a musician and something I absolutely should be doing.  

And it’s not just on this song, either. In general she’s always trying to get me to sing more. Like, “Hey, do you want to sing this verse?”  Or, “Your voice would sound really good here.”  Or, “Maybe you can add one of your nice harmonies over here.”

The point is, however much I might view myself as a hired gun, she’s very much trying to make me an equal partner in all this.  And like I said, trying to get me out of my shell.  So that’s something I’m very grateful for, and my hat’s off to her for all of that.  

I keep coming back to the notion that I’ve had so much luck here.  My job, my friends, this apartment, everything.  And this is just one more thing.  I mean, it’s dumb luck that she was my student.  And that turned into this.  And this – what I initially viewed as just a way to grow as a guitarist – is turning into a way for me to grow as a singer and as performer as well.  

I mean, it’s crazy when I think about it.  All those years playing in metal bands, not once did ever go anywhere near a microphone. And now, several months shy of my 40thbirthday (#fml) I’m going to be singing in Yiddish in Berlin? “Well, Suszyn, *chuckle* you just can’t predict baseball.”

Well, like I said way back in the beginning, I’ve got a million things going on.  But this post is already getting long.  So I’ll just stick with the music theme a little longer and then wrap it up.  And hopefully I’ll be able to write more again sooner than later.  #fatchance

So as I’m nearing 40 (did I mention fml?), Joschka just turned 30.  And to celebrate, he rented a literal castle for the festival gang. Now, when I say a literal castle, I mean in the German sense.  That is to say, a mansion on grounds which used to be what we’d call a castle.  It still has stone walls around it, but the stone fortification/home in the middle was replaced by a fancy house built in fifteen-hundred-something.  

Anyway, an incredibly cool place to spend a long weekend.  And will all the festival folks, which is always a blast. Especially since all the festivals are cancelled this year.  But even if not, it’s so much nicer to sleep in a bed than a tent.  But I digress.  

It was a great time in so many ways, but I’ll stick to the music aspect, as promised.   So one thing with this group, they always love when I break out the guitar.  Which usually happens around a fire or a living room at like three in the morning. 

So one night, at around 3am, several of us are outside, drinking around the fire pit.  And of course I break out the guitar, upon request. Now what normally happens is, if they know the song, they sing along.  If not, some people listen, some people chat and that’s how it goes.   But this year, for the first time – with anybody, not just them – I decided to try out a Yiddish song.  

I opted for a song called Papirossn, which means ‘cigarette.’ It’s a sad ballad about a poor urchin trying to sell cigarettes on the street.  Now, in my opinion, it’s a very beautiful song, even if it’s a bit of a heartbreaker.   But it seemed like a good time for it, late at night, drunk, around a fire.  And I already knew that they dig the Irish folk songs I do.  And while it’s dressed up differently, Klezmer folk music is not actually all that different from Irish folk.  So I figured, the fuck not?

Anyway, the strangest thing happened.  I started to play.  And I should add, I didn’t introduce the song.  I didn’t say it was Yiddish or anything at all.  I just played.  And they all fell silent, as if in a trance.  And as I sang, they just sat and listened, not moving, not making a sound. And when I’d finished, they were like, “Wow, that was beautiful.”  (Or something to that effect; we were all drunk, so what do I remember?).  

The point is, that had literally never happened before.  Not with any song.  Not with a German song or an Irish song or an English song.  Not with nothing.  But this song, that grabbed them somehow.  אָט דאָס אַלטע ליד פֿון דער אַמאָליקער יידישער גאַס This old song from the Yiddish streets of long ago.  

What can I say?  That was a really special moment for me.  There’s really only two people I can even speak Yiddish with.  Bartek, obviously.  And Akivele, with whom I speak far less frequently.  But apart from them, I’m kind of on my own with this language. And yet, I’m discovering a different way to share this, my heritage, with people.  I can do it through music.  

And it’s beautiful, you know?  I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into all this.  But I feel like it’s not automatic that it should be this way.  I mean, they – my friends, the people here who love me and care about me – they could have the attitude, “Well, sure Dave’s Jewish, but it’s not important.”  Or, “OK, a Jewish song, an Irish song, as long as it swings.”   

But it’s more than that. They open their hearts to it.  And maybe it’s reciprocal, you know?  Maybe they’re responding to me opening my own heart; which I’m clearly doing, when I take a chance and play this music for people. But the fact remains, they do open their hearts to it.  

Because it’s one thing when you make the effort, when you go out of your own way, when you go the extra mile to assimilate to and embrace their culture, in this strange land in which you live.  Then it’s easy to say, “Well, yeah, he’s just like us.”   

But when you step outside of that.  When you show how you’re different, when you choose to highlight what you don’thave in common.  When they open their hearts to thatand embrace you for it.  That’s pretty fucking special.  

And all I can say is, I’m grateful to have such people in my life.  I count myself lucky to have found such people.  Because there’s a loneliness to playing these old Yiddish tunes, tunes which come from a world that doesn’t exist anymore.  ס׳איז נאָך אַ מין פֿון שלעפּן גלות But the burden is a little lighter when you’ve got friends like I’ve got…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
26 April, 2020

Quarantine, Week 6.  Accepting the New Normal.  No longer laying in bed all day burning through seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Though this could be because I’ve finished the series, and there’s nothing else of that quality and volume to sustain me.  But I miss The X-Files.  If I had X-Files (first six seasons, let’s be clear), it’s possible I’d still be in bed watching TV all day.  

Have given up on “dressing up” for work.  First two weeks of quarantine, I routinely wore a tie or a jacket with a button shirt.  Now it’s just a clean T-Shirt and pajama pants.  

In films, people demonstrate their affection for one another by means of physical contact.  Where the bond of affection is particularly strong, they often seem to touch their lips to the lips of their counterpart.  Did we also used to do this?  I no longer remember.

Have noticed another curious custom portrayed in films. People from western cultures grab each other by the hand when first meeting.  A curious act.  Don’t they know how dangerous that can be?  People from some Eastern cultures are portrayed as bowing at the waist rather than employing this hand-grab.  But travel to the East is forbidden, so perhaps this is only myth or legend.

Have noticed a number of curious establishments on the street between my home and the supermarket.  In looking through the window, one can see a large room filled with many tables and chairs.  But these establishments are never open, the lights are always dark.  What was their purpose in the Before Time?

On Youtube, one can find videos of one’s favorite band performing their music.  They can be seen to be playing in large halls, filled with people.  A reckless act to be sure.  One wonders, how many of those people, crushed together, breathing on one another, have been taken by The Sickness.  

From the news, we see clips of the President in America.  He wears neither mask nor gloves.  He seems to be without fear.  Perhaps he is some kind of Übermensch, a super man.  We should be thankful that the leader of such a large and prosperous nation is so constituted.  Perhaps we can draw strength from his example.  He seems to be not very well-spoken.  But surely this is an act.  It gives the illusion that any idiot could run the country.  And if any idiot can run the country, surely we, as individuals, can manage our own small lives.

Seriously though, I do seem to be finding something of a groove in all of this.  And by groove, I mean ways of keeping busy and productive. Perhaps too busy.  Indeed, I may have bitten off slightly more than I can chew. 

As you know from previous posts, I’m reading that family history book with Bartek and working up a translation alongside our readings.  I have my regular Torah readings.  My job, thankfully.  I’ve also decided to use this time to get my Latin back into shape.  Just trying to do a little bit every day; or at least most days. But it’s a project that requires dedication and commitment.  My textbook is 18 units, and with all the exercises at the end of each unit, I need about a week per chapter.  So to see this through to completion, we’re talking about 3-4 months dedicated study.  After which I’ll have to, you know, actually find time to read some fucking Latin because otherwise what’s the point?

Also, I don’t even like Latin.  In fact, I rather detest it.  But I’m sort of ashamed of the fact that I learned it once and my abilities have dwindled to the point of near-uselessness.  And also, I’m always bringing up Latin in my classes by way of explaining both vocabulary and grammatical structures.  If I’m gonna do that, it would be nice if I actually had some little command of the language.

Then there’s another translation project.  One of my students has written whodunit.  She’s about to self-publish on Amazon.  And I sorta joked with her that if she needed a translator, I’d be happy to do it…for a fee. I was mostly joking, but she jumped at it.  Said she’d been looking for a translator actually.  I told her my German was hardly up to it.  But she said that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that the English should be good and “form the heart.” So I said why not, I could give it a try.  

She sent me five pages. I translated a little over one page and sent it to her, just to make sure it wasn’t a total waste of time. But she was quite pleased.  So I’ll go ahead and finish these five pages.  At which point, she’ll send it to her editor/friend who is a native German but lives in New York.  If it passes his inspection, I may well have a monumental task on my hands.

Which, if nothing else, will be great for my German.  I mean, what better way to learn a language than to translate a whole f’ing book? But it’s a bear of a job, because like I said, my German is shit.  Fortunately, she’s quite serious about this “from the heart” business.  In other words, she doesn’t want a literal translation, something of which I’m not capable.  All I have to do is get the general sense/feel of her text and re-write it in my own English.  Easier said than done, to be sure.  But doable. Doable with a shit-ton of time and effort.

So we’ll see what happens. Maybe her editor/friend will shoot it down and that will be the end of it.  But first I’ve got to get through these five pages.  Which would be enough if I had nothing else going on…

There’s also the French translation of my fairy-tale story, which Anne is doing the illustrations for.  She’s now also helping me edit my French translation. We try to meet once a week or so to work on it.  It’s more work for her than me, and truth be told, it goes pretty fast when we’re working together.  We’re about a third of the way through, I guess.  But it’s still another commitment.  

It’s also rather humbling and helps me empathize with my students.  In one breath she’ll say it’s very good and my French is quite strong before going on to correct half my verb tenses and prepositions.  It’s good to be on the other side of the teacher’s desk for a change.  Keeps you honest.

Speaking of being on the other side of the teacher’s desk.  I read in The Forward that the Yiddish Cultural Center in Paris is offering online mini-courses during the mageyfeh-tseit, the plague times.  I mentioned it to Bartek and he was quite interested.  So we signed up for one.  It meets this weekend and next, Saturdays and Sundays, 90 minutes each time. The class will be focused around the text of a play.  

I’m quite excited about it, but it’s added an intensive reading load to these next two weeks. The play itself is fascinating. So far, it’s told from the perspective of some Nazi soldiers in the Sudetenland in 1938-9 or so.  So obviously it’s dark as shit.  I’ll have more to say about It after the class.  Stay tuned.

And if that weren’t enough. I may have mentioned that back in the early 80’s, my uncle performed an in-depth interview of my great-grandmother, then in her 90’s.  It’s pretty amazing.  She tells her whole life story, from her childhood in Tsarist Russia, to coming to America and then all that happened here.   It’s nothing short of incredible.

Anyway, she periodically lapses into Yiddish.  Sometimes it’s just a word here or there, but sometimes it’s whole sentences or even short stories.  My uncle wrote up a transcript of the interview, but when she speaks Yiddish he either just transliterates a word or else just writes “(Yiddish)” if it’s a longer passage.  

So for a long time, I’ve had the idea that I’d like to go through it and pick out all her Yiddish.  Try to translate as much of it as I could.  But until now, I’ve held off for two reasons. Primarily, I was waiting for my Yiddish to be good enough; or to feel that it was so.  But also, I wanted to have a pair of properly good headphones so I could hear her as clearly as possible.

Well.  I do finally feel like my Yiddish is up to the task. And since I’m not spending a dime at bars or restaurants, I decided to splurge on a pair of properly nice, good quality over-ear headphones.  No more excuses.  

So this last week, I finally got started on that project.  Let’s call it a labor of love.  It’s not easy, for more than a few reasons.  But I’m having success.  Not 100% success, but real success nonetheless.  It’s rewarding both intellectually and on a personal level. I’ll not say more about it here since it’s still so early in the process.  But I’ll surely have more to say about this in the coming months.

And then there’s the project that hasn’t even started yet.  As I’ve previously written, I make it a point of doing a Shakespeare sonnet with each of my advanced classes.  Anyway, as my last group was ending a few weeks ago, we did this.  And at the end, one of my students said something like, “You know, in school we read a Shakespeare play (in English) and I really loved it.  And I swore that Shakespeare would always be a part of my life.  But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do that.  So I’m really glad we read this.”  Which was nice to hear.

So I contacted her privately and said that if she was interested, we could choose a play and read it together.  She was pretty excited about this, and so after this Yiddish mini-course is over, we’re going to read Lear.

Now to be sure, there’s a selfish element to this.  I also have always wanted more Shakespeare in my life.  From doing it in High School with Connor, to having my prof in England who constantly quoted Shakespeare for every possible situation, I’ve always loved it. But I’ve never found the time or effort to actually do anything about it.  Now though, if I have someone to read with, then that should be sufficient motivation.  So yeah, on some level, this is very much for me.  

But also, and not insignificantly, there’s a pay-it-forward element at work here.  Or, to put it another way, of trying to follow the example of those who have given me their time.  For five years, Daitz had me over to his own home, every Saturday morning to read Homer. And now, Phil gives me his time to read Herodotus with me.

And I’m sure there’s a selfish element for both of them as well.  It gave Daitz a chance to pass on his knowledge, and to keep Homer alive in his own home and in his life.  Phil too enjoys our readings.  It wasn’t or isn’t “charity,” you know?  But true as that is, it they didn’t “have to” do it.  They both could have chosen to interact with other academics, other professionals.  Perhaps that would have been more rewarding than shepherding a less-learned student through these difficult texts.  To engage with an academic equal rather than to “teach,” as it were.  

But they did choose to do that, freely, with love and with joy.  And that’s an example I’d like to follow.  Now, to be sure, I’m not a professional Shakespeare scholar.  I don’t have the relationship with Shakespeare that Daitz had with Homer.  I don’t have the relationship with Shakespeare’s language that Phil has with Greek in general.  

But I am a native speaker, who has studied and read a bit of Shakespeare over the years.  And so, in theory, I should have something to offer a native German speaker who hasn’t read The Bard since her school days.  That said, you’d better believe I’ll be digging into the ol’ Spark Notes.  Gotta come correct, know what I mean?  Anyway, the plan is to start that in a little over a week.  

So that’s what I’ve got going on now.  It’s a lot. And truth be told, I do feel like I’m burning the candle at both ends a bit here.  But it’s better than laying around watching Star Trek all day.  And I do genuinely love all these things I’m working on. Except maybe Latin.  No, I definitely don’t love Latin.  But it needs to happen.  And it’s happening.  

I watched Unorthodox. Very well done and worth watching. I highly recommend it.  People keep messaging me about it, because of the Yiddish.  So just a few words on that.  It’s Chasidic Yiddish, which is more than a little different from the YIVO “standard” Yiddish which we studied at Weimar.  It’s also quite different from Bubby’s Yiddish or the Yiddish in the family Memorial Book, both of which are quite secular.  Or, as secular as a language riddled with loshen-koydishe werter– holy words – can be.  On the other hand, it has the virtue of being the only true lebedike sprach, the only true “living” variant of the language.  

Bartek and I had a long shmoozabout all its idiosyncrasies, all the things, in short, that make it different from the language we know and work with. But before you can even get into those things, you’ve got to deal with the accent, just the way they pronounce the words you already know.  It’s so different!  

I felt like I needed all four hours of that series before I could finally begin to lock in to their dialect. And just as I was starting to finally get a feel for it, it was over.  Kinda like French, every time I go to that country.  But all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  And getting a window into chasidishwas a trip.

What else?  A few weeks back, I met one of my former students in the park.  I invited her for a game of catch.  A pretty good social distancing sport, since you’ve got to stand quite far apart.  

Playing catch in this country is weird.  Nobody here has grown up with it.  It’s like a strange novelty to them.  But credit to this kid, she picked it up super fast.  I thought she was catching quite well from the outset.  I mean, she was.  But she showed me the inside of her forearm when were done and it was all bruised up from all the balls she didn’t quite get to.  

And it took her some time to learn how to throw properly.  Like, in the beginning, I said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you throw like a girl.”  Well, she did.  But again, to her credit, by the end, she was winging it in their pretty good.  No joke, I was legit impressed.  

At one point, some lady walks by and starts talking to my friend.  When it was clear the lady wasn’t leaving anytime soon, I walked over.  And in German, she’s like, “This game you’re playing, is it British or American?”  Which like, come on, lady.  Seriously? So I told her, over the sound of my breaking heart, that it was American.  So then she asks, again in German, are you both American?  I mean, she had just been talking with my German friend. So, in German, I’m like, “She’s not, I am.”  And the lady was just like, and I don’t remember the adjective, but she basically was like, “What a strange/interesting game.”  Sure, lady.  You can go away now.

Whatever.  The point is, I was finally able to get a game of catch in.  And more than that, by the end, my friend was throwing and catching like a real person. I wasn’t holding her hand, so to speak. We were really throwing the ol’ apple around.  Man, that was good for the soul, I tellya.  Hopefully we’ll do that again soon.

I went for a walk the other day.  Beautiful weather, so I went for a walk.  And I discovered that I don’t like it here half so much as I liked it in Köpenick.  Don’t get me wrong, my commute is a thousand times easier.  Or, it was, when I had a commute.  And Joschka is a stone’s throw away, which is great.  And I love having my own place, and the apartment itself is wonderful. But the area?  Meh.

What I loved about Köpenick was, well it was the water.  But beyond that, you could walk into nature.  Real, wild nature.  Here, you get manicured parks.  Which are lovely.  If you’re into that sort of thing.  I’m discovering that I’m not.

Let me see if I can explain this.  I much prefer a bit of civilization imposing itself on wild nature to a beautifully manicured park imposing itself on civilization.  Here’s an example.  In Köpenick, I would be wandering through the woods and suddenly stumble upon some railroad or tram tracks.  And that was excitingsomehow.  

Like, you’re alone, just you and the trees.  And all of a sudden, here are these tracks.  Whence do they come?  Whither do they go?  What people, upon what journeys, might come rumbling through your world?  Look left, look right.  Mystery in both directions.  There’s a peaceful quiet, wind in the leaves, birds singing.  And then, for an instant, the mighty iron horse breaks the silence, in all its majesty and power.  Then it’s gone.  And you’re alone again, with the trees and the birds.  It’s almost like a fairy tale.  

But parks?  They’re filled with people.  They have defined borders, clear paths.  There is no mystery.  And you just know, it’s not far in any direction back to the real world. It’s not an escape.  It’s a zoo.  No, really.  It’s a zoo. Everybody is watching everybody else. Look at that couple kissing over there. Look at the children kicking a football. Look at the old man on the bench or the idiots playing Frisbee or the group of friends having a picnic. 

Is it better to have parks than to not have parks?  Of course. I suppose I should be thankful that I have a really nice park around the corner, and two more 15 minutes walking. But they just feel artificial.  And there’s no chance of being alone.  

So yeah, I miss Köpenick. I miss the realness, the nature, the solitude.  Most of all, I miss the water.  

On the other hand, there’s a Lebanese place around the corner, where you can get realfalafel, with pickled radishes.  You couldn’t get realfalafel in Köpenick and forget about pickled radishes.  So, you know, there’s that, I guess.

Oh, and here’s a rant. It seems supermarkets have done away with baskets.  Now you musttake a fucking shopping cart.  Presumably as a way of enforcing social distancing. But holy shit fuck my life.  I mean, I hated shopping carts with a passion even before all this.  Everybody is always in everybody’s way.  Moving around becomes a chore, no more just strolling down the aisles.  Plus, it plays tricks on your eyes.  A full basket tells you you’ve bought all you can carry home on your own two feet.  Now, with shopping carts, it’s a fucking guessing game.  Fucking grocery Tetris.  What fresh hell, I ask you?

But also, yes, the supermarkets are open every day (except Sunday, I’ll never be OK with that), and you can usually get most of what you need.  So what am I really complaining about?  It just becomes an exercise in mental discipline, that’s all.  Now, when I enter the store pushing that godforsaken wagon, I just repeat to myself, “Take it easy, Davey.  It is what it is.  Take a deep breath.  It’s out of your control.”  Learning to do that, maybe there’s value in that.  Is what I tell myself as I suppress my rage.  Rage at the unwieldy wagon, rage at the fools not wearing masks or gloves, rage at the fact that this country doesn’t sell chicken thighs – seriously! – or beef with bones in it and so how am I supposed to make beef stock? Deep breaths, Davey.  Deep breaths.

And that’s what this quarantine is all about in the end, isn’t it?  Deep breaths.  Don’t fight what you can’t control.  Be thankful for what you have.  And god willing, it will all be over soon.

So until then,

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
30 March, 2020

Well, we’re really in the shit now, huh?  First of all, I’m healthy, kinahura.  But every time I say I’m healthy, I feel like what I’m really saying is, “Well, I was healthy two weeks ago.  The fuck knows what’s going on inside me today?”  But at this time, I’m fortunate to be able to say I don’t know anybody here who’s infected.  In fact – and not to tempt the Fates – but to this point, Berlin has been doing comparatively well in general.

To the point where I have to wonder if the man-in-the-street is taking this seriously enough.  Joschka assures me that where he is – pretty much the center of the city – is quite dead.  But up here, in my new hood, I’m rather surprised by the number of people I see out and about.  For the last two weeks now, I’ve been wearing rubber gloves whenever I leave the house; and until the other day, I’ve felt like I was the only one.

Friday, on my trip to the supermarket, was really the first time I saw any significant number of people wearing masks and gloves; though still a minority.  I don’t know how much real ‘protection’ rubber gloves offer, but they do have this advantage.  You’re very conscious of wearing them; very conscious of your hands.  The result being, it’s much easier to avoid accidently touching your face.  So there’s that, anyway.

Also, as of Thursday the 19th, we’ve been doing our classes online from home.  And just Friday, my boss got approval from the Arbeitsamt– the local labor department, I guess – to officially offer remote classes and accept new students on that basis.  So at least for the time being, I’m able to work my normal schedule, which is a blessing.

Working from home, though, man.  Don’t get me wrong, it has its advantages, which I’ll come to.  But it feels weird.  Just, I mean, being in the house all day.  You feel like you’re on some kind of lame vacation.  It makes it just a little bit harder to take work seriously. Especially since the current schedule we’ve developed is super lax.

We have instruction from 9-10, 11:30-12:30 and 2-2:30.  If you’re doing the math, that means I’m only actually “working” 2.5 hours a day.  The rest of the time is for the students to work alone on whatever we assign to them, plus “breaks.”  It’s effective, as far as it goes.  Honestly, it’s working much better than I’d anticipated.  But it does contribute to the feeling of “barely working-ness.”

To combat this, I’ve started dressing more formally than I ever did when I was going in to work. You know, they say something about dressing up to work from home makes you feel more serious.  Well, it helps anyway.  Every day, I wear a button-down shirt with either a tie, a vest or a jacket.

On the other hand, some of my students show up looking like total schlubs, in undershirts or whatnot. But it’s not their job.  If I was a student, who knows, maybe I’d be rolling up in my PJ’s.  

I’ve been putting these extended breaks to some practical use.  Trying (and sometimes failing) to get a bit of cleaning done.  But more often, just playing a lot of guitar.  Not really any classical, unfortunately.  It’s still a bit chilly and my fingers don’t behave as well as they do in warm weather.  But I’m adding to my repertoire of Yiddish folk songs, of which I’ve got around ten or so now; some memorized, others I still need my handwritten lyric sheets.

And then there’s the electric guitar.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this.  After the first gig with Bibi and Ralf, the café owner was sufficiently pleased that she offered us a regular monthly gig.  We played precisely one of these before the corona-shutdown hit.  But upon learning that we would be playing out on the reg, I decided to purchase an electric guitar.  

Reason being, Bibi and Ralf hold down 99% of the rhythm parts.  So even on the acoustic, I was mostly doing leads, color or bass.  So I thought adding an electric guitar to the mix, especially for what I was doing, could be really cool.  Give things a whole different dynamic.  Those two loved the idea.

I mean, I was prepared to ease the thing in slowly.  To get a month or so of practice, learning the instrument, learning how to fit it in, make it blend with what they were doing.  But they were so excited, they wanted it in the show straight away.

Result being, I used it at our last show, after having had it only a week and precisely one practice session.  All things considered, it worked out pretty well.  There were some glitches, some things that need adjustment, to be sure. But they were quite pleased, which was enough for me.

I said I had to learn the instrument, and that was true.  It’s not like any guitar I’ve ever had.  My primary electric guitar for my whole life has been my beloved Rosie, a Gibson SG Standard.  And that’s really a rock/metal guitar.  My secondary guitar is this gorgeous Jackson Rhoads flying-V, which plays like a dream. But that’s a purely metal instrument. And my starter guitar was a Strat knockoff; a blues/rock guitar.

The point is, all those guitars are solid-body rock guitars and have quite a lot in common.  But the kind of music I’m playing with Bibi and Ralf is not rock.  Well, not by my lights, anyway.  So I thought an entirely different kind of instrument was called for.

To that end, I bought a Gretsch semi-hollow-body.  You know, the kind that has the S-shaped cello-like cutouts in the body; picture something like what Chuck Berry or BB King played.  It’s bigger, the balance is totally different.  More importantly, the sound it makes and the way it plays are quite a departure from my other electrics.  So it really has taken quite a bit of getting used to.

It’s a much rounder, softer sound.  But there’s less sustain and it’s not really made for tearing things up up above the 12thfret.  It was totally the right choice for the Bibi-Ralf stuff.  I mean, I’m really pleased with the way it fits what we’re doing together.

The only problem is, we’re not doing it now.  So I’ve got this beautiful instrument – she really is gorgeous – that’s not the right instrument for the kind of music I want to play at home alone.  Which apparently is Bach.  Back in high school, I had worked up a sort of adaptation of Bach’s Toccata in d-minor, which was pretty cool.  But I’m a better player now than I was then.  So I figured, with all this down time, I should try to learn it properly.

And that’s what I’ve been working on since I’ve been stuck at home.  A lot of my break time goes to that damned piece.  It is not easy, friends.  But it’s bad-fucking-ass, and I’m making progress.  But it’s just a touch frustrating, knowing that Leyke1 – that’s my guitar’s name – just wasn’t made for this kind of playing.  Like finger tapping just doesn’t come off well with this instrument.  But it’s fun anyway, which is the point.

Although, as with so much of what I attempt musically, it has me up against my limits.  I’ve never been particularly good with right hand picking technique.  And this piece sure calls for it.  So on the one hand, that’s a skill I’m trying to develop.  On the other, I’m quite clearly not especially gifted in that department.

One thing that’s suffering as a result of not going into school is my French reading.  Normally, I read French every day on the train.  But now I have no train rides.  Trying to carve out time for that has been difficult. And since we’re in isolation, I also haven’t been able to meet Anne for our conversation exchange.  So my French is getting hit on two fronts.  

Something that’s benefited, though, has been my contact with friends who aren’t in Berlin.  As with so many people, I’ve been doing more Skyping. Catching up with people I normally only see when I’m in the States or with whom I would otherwise chat two or three times a year.  So that’s been nice.

And of course my reading sessions with Bartek (Yiddish) and Phil (Greek) are even easier to arrange now. Those continue to be a source of fun and gratification.  Now here’s something that’s really cool.  I mentioned in my last post that Bartek and I were going to start reading this book about the history of the Shtetl were Art’s side of the family came from.

The first chapter was a brief summary history, from the founding of the town, which first appears in historical documents around 1040, until the tragedies of the second World War. Now to me, all the medieval history was just a jumble of unpronounceable Slavic names.  But for Bartek, who is Polish, this is his personal-national history.

So as we’re reading, he’s like, “This is so cool!  I know this king, I know this city, I know this treaty, that marriage was a really big deal!”  I mean, reading this with him brings the history alive in a way that would not be even remotely possible were I reading this alone.

I mean, this is why I love reading with these guys.  Phil and I met to read some Herodotus on Thursday.  Over something like two hours we got through one page of text.  Because we go off on so many tangents.  Debating the use or meaning of this word or that. Considering how the use of oracles figures into Herodotus’ history and Greek culture in general.  And of course the obligatory side-chatter about baseball. 

In other words, reading with these guys, the language is just the beginning.  I’ve said it before, but it’s such an enriching experience.  I sometimes wonder if I should find a way to go back to school for a PhD, whether Greek or Yiddish or who knows what; never mind the law stuff I’ve written about previously.  But so long as I’m not in school, this is the closest I can get to Academia, to that sort of mental workout.  I don’t just love it, I need it.  So thank the gods for that.

Speaking of baseball, not having it is rough.  The longer I’m cooped up inside, and the nicer the weather gets, all I want to do is go have a catch.  And, just, you can’t.  Even though it’s kinda the perfect social-distancing sport.  I mean, if you’re standing anything like 6 feet apart, you’re doing something wrong.  And the parks are open, which makes it harder to bear.

But I figure, I’m imposing hardcore self-isolation for two weeks counting from my last day going in to school.  So next weekend, maybe I’ll head down to Joschka for a gathering of precisely two people.  To cook, play some games, have a few drinks.  But maybe at that point I can go have a catch too.  If I can find anybody who wants to join, that is.  I guess we’ll see.

One other thing I should add.  Things being as they are, it’s super hard to find a routine, to be productive. I think depression is probably too strong a word.  But we’re all sorta struggling with being stuck inside.  And there are days when it’s way too easy to just open a bottle of something, stay in bed and watch Star Trek for hours on end.

To that end, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but thank God for Torah.  Whether I actually love what I’m reading is beside the point.  In fact, it’s kind of boring right now.  Just a bunch of rules regarding sacrifices to atone for any number of misdeeds.  But there’s a schedule to stick to.  Three days a week, every week.  Read the parsha.  It forces me to get off my ass, to do something, to work.  I’d be lost without it right now.  How about that?  Lost without Torah.  That’s a sentence I would have laughed at for the first 35 years of my life.  But here we are.  Strange times, indeed.

I guess there’s not a whole lot else to say, since, you know, I can’t fucking do anything.  With that in mind, I’ll close this post with a little vignette.  This little story took place when I landed in Nice, back in December, to visit Charlotte for Christmas.  And so, without further ado…

Vignette

                  “Entschuldigung.  Sprechen Sie deutsch?”  The question caught me off guard for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I was in France.  I mean, yes, I’d just gotten off a flight from Berlin and yes, I was still in the airport.  So maybe this woman had been on my flight; had recognized me at the ticket machine for the Tram.  But also, it was immediately clear from her accent that she herself was not German.  
And look, maybe this is the conceit of the English speaker.  That my first thought should be, “Who speaks German as a second language but not English?” Nevertheless, the thought crossed my mind. 
But also, you know, yeah, I do kinda speak German. “Ja,” I said.  “Kann ich dich helfen?”  ‘Yes, can I help you?’  Turns out she wanted to know if I could show her where the central train station was, in Nice.  I was in Nice, by the way.  In the event, I couldn’t.  I didn’t actually know where the central train station in Nice was.  Best I could do, was to point out the city center on the map and tell her that it almost certainly was “somewhere around here-ish.” 
And I coulda left it there.  But something about this woman made me want to help her. I mean beyond the standard do-a-mitzvah, good Samaritan shit.  First of all, she was with her family; three young kids and her husband.  But more than that, something about this dame was familiar.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it though.  Was it the face?  The manner of dress?  The hair? Her general bearing? 
Or maybe it was how lost she seemed.  The way she spoke German with an accent.  I mean, you gotta be some kinda lost, to be asking for directions in German, in France; in not your native language in not-even-the-country-of-that-second-language. So what the hell was it, then? Why was I drawn to this woman, if that’s not too strong a word?  Why did I feel so responsible for her and her family?
Then I heard it.  I don’t now remember if it was her talking to her husband, or the husband talking to the kids, or the kids talking amongst themselves.  But I heard it.  I was nearly certain.  They were speaking Hebrew!  Members of the tribe!  
I should say here that I’ve never felt any particular affinity for Israelis.  For me, they’ve always sorta been the weird cousins you see at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, but with whom you otherwise never hang out.  They eat different food.  They have a totally different sense of humor.  And the shit we’re supposed to have in common, all those things, they pronounce the names of those things differently, rendering strange even the familiar.
And that’s all well and fine when I’m in New York and they’re in Tel Aviv.  But here, in France, speaking German with one another, we’re both גרים, gayrim, sojourners, aliens.  In which case, all that American Jew vs. Israeli Jew mishigasgoes out the window.  We’re family.  Family sticks together.  Family helps each other out.
Without letting on anything about my own identity, I told her that I was at least going in that general direction and that if they’d like, we could travel together. And in the meantime, I could text my friend (Charlotte) and try and get some concrete information on how best to reach the train station.
So we board the tram and sort of hang out in the same area without speaking much.  Until I get a message from Charlotte.  Turns out the train station is actually on my way. So I go back to the lady and tell her that; that and also that I’d be happy to bring them there directly.  At which point she was quite thankful. That’s when I decided to the roll the dice.  I looked at her and rather softly said in Yiddish: “Achutz dem, wintch ich eych a freyliche Chanukah.”  And also, I wish you a joyful Chanukah.  It was, after all, the 8thnight.  It was clear she didn’t quite understand me, although she certainly heard the word ‘Chanukah.’  Well, alright, she didn’t speak Yiddish.  I expected as much, but it was worth a shot anyway.  
Which isn’t to say I wasn’t a little disappointed.  I mean, I’d read how, back in the day, Jews from all over Europe could greet each other in Yiddish.  Didn’t matter if you were from France or Germany or Poland or Russia.  Once upon a time, it was a lingua francafor our people.  And there are times when I imagine what that would be like.
And indeed, even here in Berlin, I find myself at times a bit jealous of all the Arabic speakers. Be they from Turkey or Lebanon or wherever.  They can walk into a shop and greet each other with a ‘Salem Alechem.’  Why don’t we have that anymore?  But we don’t, is the point.  And it’s no use dwelling on it.
So seeing that she didn’t speak Yiddish, I tried a bit of Hebrew.  Chag Sameach, I said; Happy Holiday.  This she understood.  She looked at me, with not a little surprise.  Then she drew her head close to mine and looked over both shoulders. Kinda the way people do when they’re about to tell a racist joke.  To see who’s around, if it’s safe to speak.  And she says, in German, ״Bist du Jude?”  Are you a Jew?  I nodded.
At which point her whole body language changed.  She smiled, seemed more relaxed.  Then she went to go find her husband.  On the way, she stopped to talk to her kids.  I could see her gesturing towards me as she spoke to them.  And I could see that their body language now changed as well.  They were smiling at me, no longer keeping their distance.  I was no longer some kindly rando helping with directions.  I was a distant cousin, part of the family.  They didn’t talk to me, exactly.  But they shared space with me in a way that demonstrated total comfort and trust.
Then her husband came up to me, started talking to me.   And he wasn’t so easy to understand, because he spoke German with a heavy Israeli accent.  Didn’t speak English, either; I asked.  Turns out, this dude is the cantor in a synagogue in Berlin.  So now come the standard questions.  Do I go to shul?  Do I keep Shabbos?2  Am I part of the Jewish Community?
Rarely.  Not really.  And not so much.  To these answers he gave me his business card and also the phone number of a woman who heads what I took to be a sort of expat community of Jews in roughly my part of Berlin; mostly Americans and Brits from what I could gather.  And he told me I should get in touch with her. Try to meet these people.
“It’ll be good for you,” he says.  “It’s for young people.”  Young people? I look him dead in the eye and say, “Dude, I’m not that young.”  He looks me dead in the eye and answers the most Jewish answer ever.  In fact, the onlyJewish answer.  He looks me dead in the eye and says, “Are you married?”
Touché, salesman. 
Anyway, we all get off together at the same Tram station.  This station, mind you, is deep underground.  Which means we need to ascend three really quite long escalators to get to street level.  I mention this because, after exiting, it was him and his wife who managed all the luggage for the whole family.  Which is another way of saying that they were moving quite a bit slower than the rest of us. 
What I mean is, they two were with all their bags, while the kids were with me.  And this seemed not the least bit odd; not to the parents, not the kids themselves.  The parents were not the least bit troubled to have me, a stranger, escorting their children.  And the children seemed perfectly at ease being escorted by me, a stranger.  The youngest of the lot was even playing with me on the escalator.  Really, it was no different than if I had actually been a blood relative to this lot. 
When we finally got streetside, we went on a few blocks in this way.  The parents lagging behind with the bags and me keeping pace up front with the kids.  Until finally, they decided to go a different route.
Which was odd. Because they had asked for the train station.  And I was going to walk right past it.  And now they were saying they needed to go a different way.  With no explanation.  I asked the father if he was sure and he said that he was.  So that was that.  We said our goodbyes and that was the last I saw of them.
I have the father’s card.  And I do mean to call that lady he recommended to me.  So who knows?  Maybe our paths will cross again in Berlin some day.  

End Vignette

Well, I haven’t called yet.  It’s been on my mind, but I never quite got around to it.  And now with the plague stuff, it’s obviously out of the question.  I mean, not calling; but meeting.  So I’ll have to wait for things to get back to some kind of normal.  

In the meantime, all I can do is keep on keeping on.  And be thankful that I’ve got my health, and that all those I care about also are – knock wood – healthy.  Thankful also that I can keep working.  And playing guitar.  And reading with Bartek and Phil.  And skyping with my friends all over the world.  All things considered, it could be a helluva lot worse.  

So like I said, I’ll just keep on keeping on.  And dreaming of throwing the ol’ apple around.  One day…

And so I close with my usual closing.  But now, more than ever, please:

זײַט זשע מיר געזונד

  1. Leyke is a Yiddish diminutive of Leah.  I chose that name because, in the Torah, Leah is the less loved sister of Rachel; both of whom wind up marrying Yakov.  I kinda dig her because, all she ever did wrong was be less pretty than her sister.  But she’s loyal and somehow noble.  And under normal circumstances, this would not be the guitar I would choose. But here she is and I love her anyway. []
  2. ]I say ‘shul’ and ‘Shabbos’ because I’m writing in my own English.  But as a German speaking Israeli, he didn’t say ‘shul,’ he said ‘synagogue.’  He didn’t say ‘Shabbos,’ he said ‘Shabbat.’ []