An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 July, 2022

Just spent the last weekend in Bavaria for Rudi’s Summerfest.  There’s not a whole lot new to say here in that it’s kinda the same shtick every time I go down there.  Though that’s not really fair.  It’s not that it’s the same.  It’s more just, how many times can I write about how great these people are, the way the welcome me into their lives, the way they have of making you feel like family. 

But it’s not exactly the same.  This time we stayed at Anna and Rudi’s.  The first time I’d ever been to their place.  And they have this big old dog which hardly troubled my allergies at all, much to my surprise.  I also met Rudi’s mom.  She’s a real pistol.  We hit it off pretty well the first night when everybody was drunk.  So that was fun.

We all – the kids, I mean – also went out in the old city.  That was my first time doing that as well.  The city, by the way, is called Weiden, and it’s more of a town than a city.  But by medieval standards, it was a city, and part of the old wall is still standing.  The old city is really nice, but there’s too many Americans, as there’s an army base nearby.  We stopped into one bar, an Irish pub, but left before ordering a single drink, much to my dismay.  Toby wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t into the vibe there.  Which I guess, if you’re already showing up with your girlfriend, then why do you need to be in a crowded bar with a bunch of young and loud folks.  So we’re leaving and I ask why.  And Tobi’s like, “I don’t like it here.”  To which I replied, “Ja, junge Mädels mit dicke Titten, aber gut, lass uns gehen.”  Which Anna thought was like the funniest thing and would retell that story at least three or four more times over the course of the weekend. 

We also went to a wine bar.  The wine bar was called Milch Bar (Milk Bar), because why wouldn’t it be?  At one point, the bartender (and possibly owner?) came over to our table.  An older dude, he spoke with a heavy accent and in a low and soft voice; so not necessarily the easiest guy to understand.  Anyway, the rest of the people at our table (Anna, Rudi, Toby and Marina; Joshcka hadn’t arrived yet) got into a discussion with him.  I didn’t participate, I was just listening. 

At the end, someone (I think Anna) asked me if I understood what they were talking about.  At which point I basically repeated the conversation, point by point and in my own words, pausing after each point to make sure I’d gotten it right.  I got all of it right.  And they were like, “Wow, Dave, your German is getting really good!”  I still suck at taking compliments, but rather than deflecting, my stock answer at this point has become, “Well, after six years in this country, it oughta be.”  I’ll allow myself the odd back-handed compliment, I guess is the point.

But in point of fact, I got quite a few compliments on my German this visit.  Like, Rudi’s mom for example.  At one point, she was just like, “You know, Rudi said I would need to speak slowly to you, but I can just talk to you like normal.”  Which was great.  But then I looked at Rudi, and I was like, “Dude, really?”  He kinda shrugged and smiled and was like, “Well, I said she’d need to speak clearly.”  Which was funny because Rudi kinda has a mumbly way of speaking himself. 

But also, he wasn’t wrong.  Because what I found on this particular trip was not so much that I felt a language barrier per se.  Right, it’s not like when I’m in France.  In France, I just miss a lot of stuff.  My ear isn’t good enough.  But here, where I had the most trouble, was the Bavarian accent.  It’s weird.  Sometimes, I feel like I tune into it really well.  And that’s a really cool feeling.  Cos it’s like, yeah, I speak German well enough at this point that you can change up the accent on me and it’s not a problem.  But then there’s other times where I just can’t hear through it, you know?  And then it’s like, yeah, as good as I am at this (or if not objectively good, then at least so much better than in the past), it’s still not my language, at the end of the day.  And new accents are a lot of work.

But of course there’s accent, and then there’s dialect.  Accents are a challenge, but dialects are sexy, you guys.  Dead ass.  Cos that’s where the language gets real.  It’s not just sounds, but it’s a whole new way of expressing words.  I’ve written that I’m pretty comfortable at this point with the Berlin dialect.  I’m prepared for the non-standard vocab and the particular and peculiar way that words get contracted, mushed together, here. 

I’ll give one example, from Bavarian, that I can remember. I was talking to Anna and this other girl Tamara who I’d only just met.  And I guess I said something about myself that this girl Tamara had already learned from Anna.  So T says – and I hope I get this right – she says, “Ja, Ich hab sho-ghert.”  And I’m like, “Shoghert?  Was heißt shoghert?”  And Anna looks at me and says, “Ich hab es schon gehört…hab shon gehert…sho-ghert.”  And I’m just like, whoa, mind blown.  Like, you’d just never hear that particular way of combining those words in Berlin.  And I thought that was so cool, you know?

Another cool thing about Bavarian is that in many ways it’s actually quite similar to Yiddish.  And that’s not just my own personal observation.  I’ve had that confirmed to me by a number of people who are familiar with both.  But this time around, I actually heard it much more than I ever had.  Just one example.  In standard German, when you want to say that somebody has left, you say “Sie ist gegangen” – she left.  But in Yiddish, you would say, “zi ist avek (or, in German orthography, sie ist aweg).  And sure enough, at some point, Anna was talking about some girl who had left, and she said that exactly, Sie ist aweg.”  And I was just like, Oh shit, cool!

So I decided to, well, not exactly speak straight up Yiddish, but to really Yiddish up my German when speaking with the Bavarians.  Just to see how it would go over.  Would anybody notice?  Would people understand me?  Would people think it was weird?  I’ll give one example.  Standard German, like English, abhors a double negative, even though it’s very much a living feature of the language.  Consider “ain’t no,” for instance, as in “I ain’t got no time.”  It’s a valid English expression, but it’s non-standard, and you can find plenty of people who think it’s just straight-up wrong.  Same in German.  But in Yiddish, the double negative is actually the standard.  Let’s use the same example.  In standard German, you would say “Ich hab keine Zeit.”  But in Yiddish, you would say, “איך האָב נישט קיין צײַט” (Ikh hob nisht keyn tseyt).

Now, I can promise you that if I were to say that at band practice, if I were to use a double negative with Ralf and Bibi (or really with any of the non-Bavarian Germans that I know), they’d be on me before I even started the next sentence.  “Dave, double negatives, just no.”  But I’d heard that the double negative is a valid feature of the Bavarian dialect.  So I decided to try it out, just to see what would happen.  And sure enough, nobody batted an eye.

But what I also noticed is how much Berlin is just fixed into my German at this point.  Now, remember, my brain knows it’s speaking German, no matter how much I might try and Yiddish it up.  At the end of the day, I’m speaking deutsch.  And so certain features of Berlinisih are just part of the way I speak German now, totally unconscious at this point.  Like replacing ‘g’ with ‘j/y’ in past tense forms (e.g. “jemacht” instead of “gemacht“).  Or replacing certain instances of the letter ‘t’ with ‘s’ (e.g. “wat” for “was”).  And other such examples of pronunciation aspects that I wont’ get into here.  The point is, for this weekend, my German became this very odd mix of Yiddish and Berlinish, in a much more extreme way than it ever is up here.

One last example.  In standard German, the first-person plural subject pronoun (“we”) is wir.  And the first-person singular dative pronoun (“to me, for me”) is mir.  But in Yiddish as well as in Bavarian, mir doubles also as the first-person plural subject pronoun.  So in standard German, to say “We are drinking beer,” you say “Wir trinken Bier.”  But in Yiddish and in Bavarian, you say, “Mir trinken Bier.”  And more than once, I’d be talking to someone and they’d reflexively say mir and then instantly correct themselves to say wir.  And it just made me laugh, you know?  Like, guys, I get it. 

But that’s also an example of how there are limits to how much I can Yiddish up my German.  Like, when my brain knows it’s speaking Yiddish, saying mir for ‘we’ is no problem.  But trying to force that into my German, even when I’m trying to bridge the gap between Yiddish and Bavarian, was super hard.

One last thought on my experience with Bavarian this weekend, or more precisely with my being able to recognize and understand it.  It’s no secret that our friends, when they get together with us and the rest of the metal gang, go out of their way to try and speak a more standard kind of German.  You might catch them falling into dialect a bit here and there amongst themselves, but it’s quite limited.  This weekend, though, we were in their home.  At their party.  With all of their friends.  And so I think they felt much more comfortable speaking something closer to their own dialect than they otherwise normally might.  And that was even more true for some number of their friends who don’t have much reason to get out of Bavaria and therefore have less experience in the code-switching department.  All to say, it was a real feast for the ears.  Like, beyond the fact of just awesome people and loads of fun, it was a real linguistic adventure to boot.

Anyway, it’s Germany, right?  And the party is cookout/bbq type of affair.  Which means, just, loads of Bratwurst.  The point is, on the first day – the day before the party – Rudi asked me if I can eat pork.  So of course I told him that it’s no problem, I eat pork all the time, it’d be pretty hard to live in Germany and not eat pork, etc.  I assumed he was asking to make sure the party menu would be ok for me. 

But in fact, that’s not what he meant at all.  He didn’t mean can I personally eat pork.  He meant, Halachacly speaking, was I allowed to eat pork.  But of course “Halacha” is not in his vocabulary, so he probably said something along the lines of ‘according to the rules or the laws.”  Anyway, it turns out he had a personal reason for asking.  See, his grandfather had owned an inn of sorts.  And owing to a large Jewish family in the village – the Mandelbaums, apparently – it seems his grandfather had kept an entirely separate set of cookware so as to be able to serve kosher meals.

Which I just thought was really cool, you know?  I mean, sure, objectively it could have just been a good business decision.  But anti-Semitism being what it is, it very often trumps what’s good for the wallet.  And look, it’s not like I have any doubts about my friends in that regard.  Nicht im Geringsten.  I’m also not in the business of judging my friends today for what their ancestors might or might not have done.  Nevertheless, knowing that this is how his grandfather had run his business was somehow quite comforting.  Like, not that I needed any kind of reassurance, right?  I mean, you’d never even think to ask such a question.  But learning that, it’s just like, yeah, I’ve not only got good people around me, but they also come from good people.  Respect. 

Moving on, I was told that there would be another Yank at the party.  It seems one of Rudi’s cousins is dating some dude in the army.  And my reflexive reaction was just like, “Ugh, I didn’t come here to talk English, let alone hang out with another Ami.” ((Here’s a funny thing.  German and French share some two-part words.  Pommes-frites; döner kebap for example.  And in normal speech, they refer to these things by only one of the words.  But different words.  So in France, fries are frites, but in Germany they are Pommes.  In France, you get a kebap if you’re hungry, but in Germany, you grab a Döner.  Anyway, the French refer to us Yanks as les ricains.  To the Germans, we are die Amis.))  Which  admittedly is not fair to this person I’ve never met, nevermind being selfish for my own part. 

So of course I got “stuck” talking to him.  At one point, I’m sitting there minding my own business, and this dude just turns to me and says, “Hey, I heard you’re also American?”  Oh great, here we go.  And of course he’s got this thick southern accent too.  Because of course he does.  But I know how to be polite and I can manage small talk in short doses.  So that’s how that started.

And just to prove the point that you shouldn’t prejudge people, he obviously turned out to be a pretty solid dude.  Given that he’s in the army, and that I don’t know anybody in the army, I took it as a learning opportunity.  I just asked him a whole bunch of questions and let him teach me shit.  Turns out he’s airborne.  And I went skydiving once.  So we actually had a nice discussion about the experience of jumping out of an airplane and how counterintuitively peaceful it is on the way down, once the chute opens.  I also asked him about if and/or how the war had changed things for him.  We talked a bit about his being from Kentucky and our different accents.  His girlfriend, Rudi’s cousin, was also there.  She’s in the army too, I guess.  And she was also really nice.

But later on, we got to talking – me and Kent; that’s his name – about the experience of living abroad, experiencing new cultures, learning another language and all that.  And this is where he turned out to be a really good guy.  He basically told me that a lot of guys on his base are pretty closed-minded and not interested in learning a new culture or examining their own preconceptions.  But that for him, living a new country was a real eye-opener, that he loved learning about different ways of seeing and understanding things, that he wanted to learn German and was indeed learning some very little bit from his boo.  So yeah, just a good, solid dude.  And in the end, I really enjoyed talking with him.  Sure, in the future, I’ll continue to avoid Americans.  But I’ll try to remember this experience and avoid them in a less judgey way. 

Funny follow-up to this story.  Later on, one of Anna’s cousins came up to me – I already knew this dude, good guy, a highway cop on the Czech border – and he asked me in German what I though of the Ami, cos he noticed I’d spent some time talking with him.  And without actually saying anything about Kent personally, you could see he was kinda skeptical.  Now, I made my answer honestly and said what was on my mind, which was basically what I’d just written above.  But I happened to notice, by chance, that his gf happened to be standing nearby.  And I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was trying to furtively listen in.  So while I didn’t change my answer because I knew she had an ear on us, I did make a point of speaking loud enough for her to hear.  After all, I only had good things to say, and I thought she might like to hear that. 

Anyway, after I said what I’d had to say, she came over and was like, “Hey, just so you know, I was kinda secretly listening to you guys, and that was really nice what you had to say.”  I mean, yeah, you could tell it made her happy to hear that her bf had made a good impression.  Later though, Fabi – that’s Anna’s cousin – came up to me, and you could tell he was kinda embarrassed.  He was like, “Dude, I didn’t know his gf was standing right there when I asked you!  Why didn’t you say anything?”  And I was just like, “Well, why would I?  You didn’t say anything bad, and I only had good things to say.”  In the end we just laughed about it.  But it was just kinda funny that, the whole time, I knew she was listening and he had no idea. 

I guess the last thing to say about the party is about how it ended (at least for me).  Which is to say, it ended how these things always end.  With me playing guitar and singing for whoever happens to be left awake.  In this case, it was Joschka and Anna, plus that girl Tamara and her bf Daniel.  Tamara and Daniel: nice Hebrew names for a coupla goyim. 

In one sense, there’s really not much to say, because these things are always the same.  Either people get really into it, or at 4am after a day and night of drink, it hits them like a lullaby and they fall out one by one.  In this case, Anna was the first to get sleepy and go to bed.  Daniel followed not long after.  But Joschka and Tamara were in for the duration.

I said these things are always the same, and they more or less are.  But each time it’s a little bit different, each time is a little unique, and this was no exception.  See, there’s a certain core group of songs that I always play, that people come to expect at this point.  And I did those.  But I also added some new ones.  One of them being ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum.  It’s a 90’s song and American, so I had no idea if anybody would actually know it.

But sure enough, I look at the gang as I’m playing and there’s Joschka and Tamara singing along, knowing most of the words.  Cool!  A new one to add to the usual list.  I also threw in ‘Otherside’ by the Chili Peppers.  That one was for Joschka, as I know he loves that tune.  And again, they’re just singing right along.

So that was already cool.  But also cool was the reaction I got from Tamara.  It’s not so often that I get to play for new people at this point.  I mean, it’s pretty much just the usual suspects when we get together.  So this was new for me, but also for her.  And man, she loved it.  I mean, she was gushing.  “This is so fucking cool!”  “Dude, you’re really good!”  “I fucking love this!”  That kinda shit.  And yeah, that’s nice to hear, נישט אזוי? Yeah, זיכער אזוי!

And I mean, it’s nice to hear, no two ways about it.  It’s nicer still when it’s coming from a pretty girl, which she is.  But like I said, her boyfriend is sitting right there with us, also enjoying the music.  So after one particularly effusive compliment, I just looked at her and, in German, was like, “You got a sister?”  And she’s like, “Yeah.”  And I’m like, “Single?”  And she’s like, “Married.”  And I’m like, “Happily?”  And then she frowns.  “Yeah.”  Verdammt.  Well, what was I gonna do with a girl in Bavaria anyway?

And then of course there’s the inevitable German improv towards the end of things.  Look, are there mistakes in my German when I do this?  Of course.  Nevertheless, I don’t know how I ever pull this off, just making up funny songs in German on the fly.  Obviously the booze helps.  But that’s always so much fun for me.  I never know what’s gonna come outa my mouth.  And I relish the challenge, you know?  Not just finding shit that makes some kinda sense, but actually figuring out how to make it rhyme off the cuff.  Just a blast.  And they’re always joke-songs, right?  Like they’re meant to be funny.  So when you see people laughing, you know you’re doing something right. 

And people remember them too, or at least the gist of them.  Like, for me, they’re gone as soon as I finish singing.  I could never recreate a one of them.  Nevertheless, they have a way of sticking with folks; or at least the feeling of them does.  I mean, Anna still brings up ‘The Squirrel Song” from like six years ago.  They still talk about the “Fuck Palace” song from last summer.  Come on, that’s pretty cool.

Anyway, another party, another gem; if you can call them gems.  But people fall apart laughing, which is good enough for me.  And at the end, I managed to stich on the chorus of this song we always sing at the festivals.  That caught people by surprise, but like, in a good way.  Like, “Oh shit, I did not see that coming!”  But they hopped right on and started singing along.  Fucking great.

I wrote in the last post about how nice it is, not just singing with Charlotte, but singing for her.  And this was no different.  It’s obviously gratifying to see people rocking out to your music, and of course the compliments make you feel good.  But it’s no less gratifying to watch people fall peacefully asleep.  The power of rock and the power of a lullaby, all in one.  It’s a very warming feeling is all I can say.

Also, it’s not all I can say.  Look, I love everything about this.  I think that’s clear from what I’ve written; not just here, but in other posts too.  So what I’m gonna say next is not a complaint, not in the least.  Just an observation, a curiosity.  I do wonder why it is that I’m the only one.  Like, how is it that nobody else plays or sings, that we might do some songs together?  Well, that’s just how it is.  I guess it makes me a sort of travelling troubadour.  And that ain’t so bad.

And I guess that’s enough.  Another trip to Bavaria, another great weekend filled with wonderful friends, drink and music.  When I moved here six years ago, I never could have dreamed of any of this.  And now look.  Pretty spec-fucking-tacular, if you ask me.

Quick band update before I close.  We had a gig maybe three weeks ago or so.  And to be honest, I was pretty dissatisfied with it.  I felt it was sloppy and that we were underprepared.  And the more I thought about, the more I realized I was growing rather dissatisfied with the way we do things in general.  So I met Bibi for a beer and decided to tell her what was on my mind.

The first thing I did was to put a simple question to her.  Was she satisfied with how we were operating?  Because if she was, I’d keep my mouth shut.  But if she actually wanted to grow this thing, actually get better as a unit, I had thoughts.  This was not a question, it turns out, that required a lot of thought on her end.  Straight away, she’s just like, yeah, I want us to be better, tell me everything.

So here’s the short version of what I said.  We’re a band that, at best, practices two hours a week.  And that’s exactly what we sound like.  People need to be responsible for their parts.  I can’t be telling Ralf – on stage – if a song needs a capo, and if so, on what fret.  I can’t be reminding people when it’s their verse or not.  For myself, I needed to shore up my solos.  I’m a little too content to improvise and it doesn’t always work out.  Finally, for the love of all things holy, the two of them need to be ‘off book.’  I mean, when we play at this café, her and Ralf show up with music stands and iPads and because they haven’t memorized the lyrics or the chord changes.  I basically finished by saying that if this were my own band, I would not go on stage at a bar or a club as things were.

I tried to be direct without being an asshole about it.  The good thing about Bibi is, direct is her language.  You might annoy her, she might disagree vehemently.  But you’re not gonna offend her by shooting straight.  So that was good.  Anyway, she heard what I had to say and thought it over for a few seconds.  At which point, she was just like, “You know, you’re right.  Let’s do it.”  The only thing was, we’d have to have this same conversation with Ralf and see where he stood.

But there was one other thing.  After I’d said my piece, she looked at me and was like, “OK, now I need to tell you something.”  OK, shoot.  And she’s like, “You need to take more of a leadership role in this band.  You’re the only one of us with actual band experience.  We don’t know what we’re doing.  You need to take more charge of things at practice.”  And look, she’s not wrong.  I mean, it’s not my comfort zone – like, at all – but she’s not wrong. 

It’s just funny, cos I remember how this all started.  How shy I was in the beginning.  How I felt that this was their project and that I was just there to add some color.  I really didn’t want to assert myself.  I didn’t want to suggest songs, I didn’t want to sing unless somebody told me I should, all that kinda stuff.  But as time went on, I stopped feeling like a hired gun.  I have suggested the odd song.  I’m very comfortable now hopping on the mic without prodding, adding harmonies on my own, even asking if I can take the odd verse.  But for all that, I still didn’t really want to assert myself.  They’re much more in tune with each other in terms of the kind of music they want to play.  And I’ve always been content to follow their lead in terms of how much work I’d put into this project. 

And just in general, it’s never really been in my nature to dictate pace.  Whether in school or hockey or whatever, I have a tendency to work or play at the level of the people around me.  If I was playing hockey against properly good skaters, I’d do everything I could to play up to that level.  But if the guys in front of me were no great shakes, I’d be pretty content to coast.  In high school, and even college, I was always content to roll along at a high-B or low-A if my classmates were more or less average.  But in grad school, surrounded by the super smart, it forced me to up my academic game.  And that’s how I’ve been with the band this whole time.  You guys don’t want to learn the songs by heart?  Fine, I’ll just hang back and do my job.  But rarely would I go the extra mile.

Only now, I was being asked to set the pace.  Like I said, that is not my comfort zone.  But like I also said, Bibi was right about it.  So, time to grow up and step outside the comfort zone.  But first, we needed to talk to Ralf.  Which we did; and he was on board.  Now that we were all on the same page, we decided to choose five songs to focus on at the next practice. 

Which we did.  And at the end of practice, I told them that the thing to do was, next practice, we start with these same songs.  If they’re tight, we play through each one twice and move on.  If they’re not, we keep working.  They agreed.

Anyway, this week was the second practice.  Four of the five songs were in good shape, and twice through was enough.  The fifth required some extra attention.  But we were able to move on to some different songs as well.  And I gotta tell you guys, we’re making real progress here.  And I wasn’t shy about asserting myself either.  Instead of asking if the others wanted to go through a song again, I simply said, “OK, that was good.  Now we do it again.”  Even when Ralf was like, “Hey, that was really good!”, I was still like, “Yes, it was.  Now we do it again.”  And we did.  Ralf gave me some shit about ‘cracking the whip,’ but it was all in good fun, and in the end, if I said a song needed another run through, he didn’t argue.  And look, I’m certainly not trying to be a dictator here, or even a ‘band leader,’ whatever that means.  But I am trying to provide some structure and some guidance. 

And they seem receptive to it.  For now, at least.  But it’s good.  It’s important for me.  It’s similar to working on our stuff in the studio.  It’s kinda on me at this point to try and get the most out of my bandmates.  Sometimes that means using a soft touch, some times it means putting my foot down a little.  But if they’re serious about taking this thing to some next level, then I know for myself the standard we need to reach for me to be satisfied.  And I guess I’m gonna push them as far as they’re willing to be pushed.

But let me tell you this.  After just two practices, already it’s making a world of difference.  Like, I’m watching Bibi now, working without a lyric sheet.  And it’s almost like we got a new singer.  She’s working the mic instead of just singing into it.  There’s more energy in her voice.  And unencumbered by the crutch that is the iPad, she’s doing more to make the songs her own.  Instead of just following a wrote melody, she’s putting her stamp on things.  And Ralf too, there’s more energy in his playing.

So it’s a big step up in terms of individual performance.  But more importantly, we’re playing more as a unit now.  Paying more attention to each other, feeding off each other.  What I really want to say is, for the first maybe ever, I really felt like I was playing with a band.  And man, that felt good. 

Now look, there’s a long way to go.  At this point, out of twenty-odd songs in our repertoire, we’ve got maybe, maybe, seven or eight ‘off book’ like this.  So we’ve got a lot of work to do, to get the other tunes into shape.  And then there’s the question of maintaining this, building momentum, establishing this in our bones as our way of doing business.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.  But yeah, this is far and away the best I’ve felt about this project since I joined on. 

It’s funny, in a way.  Funny in that, for the most part, we’re not playing music I’d choose to play on my own.  Sure, one of my own songs is in the set.  And yeah, one or two of the songs we do were at my suggestion.  And yeah, there are more than a few others that I’ve grown really fond of for various reasons.  But still, even as we’re – very slowly – growing into a proper band, we’re never gonna be a rock band of the sort that I’d personally choose for myself. 

But then I think of how I’ve grown as a result of my participation in this project; musically, but also as a person.  I bought a bass and learned the rudiments of that instrument because of this project.  I’ve learned to harmonize on the fly because of this.  I’ve learned to be comfortable taking a lead vocal, singing into a mic, singing to a crowd. 

Of course there’s some cross-pollination here with my own work.  I’d have had to get and learn to play a bass for my own studio work.  I’d have had to learn to harmonize for my own songs.  And in terms of lead vocals, I’ve learned more on my own, in my little studio, than I have with the band.  And it’s the same on the personal level.  In the studio, I’ve learned how to ‘handle’ artists (for lack of a better word), to get the most out of them as studio musicians.  And now, I’m learning how to ‘handle’ my bandmates (for lack of a better word), to get the most out of them as live musicians.  The point is, they feed each other.  My own work is better because of my work with the band and vice versa.

One thing I don’t ever want to lose track of here is, how much I owe Bibi in all of this, how thankful I am to her.  Part of this goes back to how direct she is in her speech, right?  There’s just no beating around the bush with her, no bullshit.  Not in my comfort zone?  Too bad, do it.  But that’s the point.  She’s pushed me when it was clear I wasn’t going to push myself.  She’s the one who encouraged me to just try harmonizing all over the place.  She’s the one who pushed me to take a turn here and there on lead vocals.  And now, she’s the one who’s pushed me to take more of a leadership role with band. 

As much as I try to grow on my own, sometimes I need that push.  It can’t all just be me being all cloistered in my room studying dead languages, right?  I need to grow out there in the real world too.  And she’s been just tremendous in helping me do that.  I owe her a lot, and I’m deeply thankful for it. 

I played in bands for many years.  Good bands, I like to think.   But here I am now, doing things with this band that I’ve never done before.  And helping them to do things they’ve never done before either.  I might be 41, but it turns out this old dog can still learn some new tricks…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin

1 July, 2022

Note: About two thirds of this post was written over a month ago, shortly after I returned from second trip.  The final third was written this week.

Well, I’ve just been to France twice in the last month, so that’s probably worth a post on ye olde blogue.  Both trips were for the expressed purpose of visiting friends: The Morgenstern clan in Paris and Charlotte in/around Lyon.  Hard not to be happy about that.

Paris first, according to the order of the trips.  Look, Paris is great, right?  So much to see and do.  Architecture, museums, the various neighborhoods.  But let’s be honest.  This adventure was really about seeing my friends, eating and drinking.  And we did well in that regard.  Real well.

I was there for five days.  This time, I sprung for my own hotel room.  See, the last two times we did this, somebody was good enough to get a cot in their fancy-pants hotel room for me, as a way of easing the monetary costs involved on my end.  In Paris, just before the last New Year’s of The Before Times (2019), Monica (hereafter MoMo) set me up with a cot.  And in 2018, in Florence, Jared and Josh did the same.  And I’m sure we could have worked out a similar arrangement this time around.  But honestly, at the age of 41, I felt like it was time to do this trip like a grownup.  So I got a room near the Opera.  Nothing fancy.  But it was an absolute luxury to have my own, private home-base this time around.  And it was 10 minutes walking to MoMo’s hotel, 15 to the Morgensterns’.  Plus, there was a subway stop around the corner.  So it was quite practical as well.

I don’t really have much experience staying in hotels by myself, so it’s hard to form a basis for comparison.  But it was a nice experience, with the staff and all.  I was able to manage entirely in French with them without them ever having to switch to English on me, which was nice.  Nothing major, but things like asking for a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, asking about checkout times and if I could leave my bag before and after checking in/out. 

And the staff were really nice.  Like, after the first day or so, they knew me by name and room number.  I sprang for the daily breakfast, just a little continental deal, nothing special.  But a nice way to start the day.  And the girls who ran the breakfast knew me too.  After the second day, they stopped asking me if I wanted coffee or tea and simply brought a pot of hot water to my table.  So it was a pretty positive experience.  Sometimes, being a grownup ain’t so bad.

It was great to see everybody of course.  Not just Jared and Josh, but Paul and Carol (the parents), Amanda and now four-year-old Sabine, MoMo and her sister Andrea (hereafter DreDre).  Great to catch up, eat, drink, laugh, tell stories and forge new memories.

On the food side of things, Paul had restaurants picked out for each of the first four nights.  Some really nice spots.  Good food and good wine, always.  The last place we went to was this place they called “Louis’,” although I think the full name is something like “Chez l’ami Louis” or some such.  Apparently, it’s Paul’s favorite restaurant in Paris.  So I asked him how he came to know about it.  He said he’d read about it in the Times back in the 90’s (I think) and had been coming ever since.  So I just said, “Well, thank you for sharing it with us.”  To which he replied, “You know I don’t do this for just anybody, Davey.”  What a thing to say, you know?  Just lovely.

Every night after dinner, some smaller group of us would go to one of the hotel bars (i.e. either Jared’s or MoMo’s hotel bar) for drinks.  Sometimes it would just be Jared and Josh, sometimes MoMo and DreDre would come; even Amanda would show up for a bit, after putting Sabine down or leaving her with the ‘rents. 

I don’t remember if it was the first or second night, but after the post-dinner drinks, Jared and I decided we weren’t done yet.  So we went in search of a bar.  Turns out it was some kind of public holiday, so lots of places were closing early.  After being turned away by three or four different establishments, we stumbled upon a bar.  “Trop tard?” I asked the barman; “Too late?”  He looked at me like it was a stupid question and waved us in. 

So in we went.  And it was just like old times, drinking scotch and talking about any number of things.  It was great to have that time, just the two of us, just like the old days.  We really tied one on, such that I don’t remember everything.  Jared tells me I wound up speaking German with one of the waiters at one point.  Who knew?  Anyway, that was a definite highlight of the trip.  Also, there’s no way I could ever find that bar again, no matter how hard I might try. 

Another night, post-dinner drinks were held at MoMo’s bar.  This time, all the kids were there.  At one point, some guy at a neighboring table interrupts us to tell us that he overhead something that Amanda had said (I don’t remember what) and that he really appreciated her words.  The guy had a slight accent, so I asked him where he was from.  He said California.  Sure, why not?

Well, we’re talking with the guy for a few minutes longer, and he recommends a restaurant called Balagan.  Balagan is a Yiddish word, borrowed out of Polish.  “Balagan,” I say.  “That just means ‘a mess.’  Odd name for a restaurant.”  He says, Yes, it’s an Israeli joint ((‘Balagan’ is one of those Yiddish words that’s found a second life in Israeli Hebrew.)).  Israeli.  Ah, now I had his accent.  And that kind of made me laugh.  I mean, here we were, a bunch of Jews sitting around a table in a Paris hotel bar, shooting the shit in our Lon-Gisland accents.  And this guy with a clearly Israeli accent chats us up and tells us he’s from California.  Like, who are we kidding and why are we pretending? 

Come to think of it, it reminds me of a story from that Yiddish memorial book Bartek and I are translating.  In the story, this guy is telling of journey he was making by ship.  And the ship is full of Jews.  And yet, all the other Jews are speaking Russian because they don’t want to give themselves away.  Jews are speaking to other Jews in Russian instead of their native Yiddish, just because they never knew who might be listening.  Some things never change, I guess.

There were no post-dinner drinks on the last night.  Or if there were, it was very short, on account of everybody else had to a catch an early flight the next morning.  Meanwhile, my flight wasn’t until 8pm.  So finally, after four days, I decided to do some walking around, do some sight-seeing.  And that was wonderful.

I walked along the river to the Eifel Tower, resplendent in its nighttime illumination.  From there, I made my way to the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées before ultimately heading back to the hotel.  The weather was perfect.  And it was just nice to walk around alone, get some fresh air and take in the sights.  I mean, yes, I’d seen these things before.  But the last time I was down that way was probably 2003, when I visited the city during my semester in London.  So I was due for a reaquaintance.

On the last day, owing to my late flight, I basically had the whole afternoon to kill.  So I made a quick stop by Notre Dame.  Not much to see there, as quite a bit of it is covered in scaffolding and walled off with the sort of wooden fencing you find around construction sites.  But the island it’s on is quite nice.  And that, I did not remember.  Old buildings, old and narrow winding streets.  Quite charming really.

After that, I made my way to the old Jewish Quarter.  In French, it’s known as Le Marais.  But apparently it has on older Yiddish appellation, דאָס פּלעצל (dos peltzl), which means ‘the little place,’ or possibly ‘the little plaza.’  I bought a little magnet in the shape of a Parisian street sign with the word פּלעצל where the street name would normally be.  It is now on my fridge.

Anyway, I found a really nice bookstore, a proper Jewish bookstore.  I mean, one of the lads working there was even wearing tzitsis.  It had loads of fancy religious texts, prayer books, bibles, volumes upon volumes of Talmud, and so on.  But it also had a world of secular books.  Lots of stuff I would have loved to buy, but which I didn’t have the space to carry.  I did, however, find one actual book in Yiddish, and that I did buy.  A book on the 6-day war, originally written in Hebrew but translated into Yiddish. 

When I brought the book to the register, the lady who took it from me opened it up to find the price, as is so often the case with used books.  And seeing that the book was Yiddish, she raised an eyebrow, looked at me and nodded approvingly.  Given that there were other books I would have liked to buy, I asked in French if they shipped to Germany.  She said they did, and not only that, but if there was something specific I was looking for, I could always call or email.  And then she added, with a smile, that she couldn’t guarantee they’d have anything more in Yiddish.  Well, that’s alright.  There’s more than enough there to keep me busy. Oh, and I also bought a little French paperback on Rashi.  Ostensibly it’s a historical overview of his Torah and Talmud commentaries, but it includes a biography of the man himself and some history on Jewish life in the France of his day.  It’s quite interesting and I’m about halfway through it.

There’s one other highlight from the Paris trip I need to include, and that’s the fact that I had the opportunity to meet up with Anne.  We wound up going for drinks at the same bistro ((Bistro.  I’ve learned two things about this word.  I don’t know about you, but I just always assumed it was a French word.  Apparently, it’s actually Russian, and means something like ‘fast’ or ‘quick.’  Also, in France, it seems they spell it with a final ‘t,’ bistrot.)) where we went last time we met in Paris, in 2019.  Not only that, we wound up sitting at the very same table.  How about that?  Anyway, it was great to see her and catch up and laugh and drink.  Added bonus, Jared came along as well.  That was really great, and I’ll tell you why.

See, Jared and Anne are two of my best friends, two of my favorite people.  Why shouldn’t they meet, you know?  And of course they hit it off, because why wouldn’t they.  At one point, Jared went to the bathroom, and Anne took the opportunity to tell me how great she thought Jared was.  And Jared had the same to say about her after we left. 

Now, maybe it’s a bit of an odd thing to say, but I was actually kind of proud of that encounter.  Like, proud to show off the quality of people I have around me to those who are dear to me.  I’ve been over this ground a thousand times, how lucky I think I am to have found the friends that I have, how that’s not to be taken for granted.  But I don’t normally have the pleasure of introducing my friends here to my friends from home.  So to have that opportunity, and to have each of them see what I see, it’s a good feeling.

I said I was proud to show off the quality of the people I have around me.  But ‘pride’ isn’t really a great word.  After all, ‘pride’ can often carry with it a sense of haughtiness or self-aggrandizement, which is not at all what I mean.  To really capture the feeling of my emotion here, I have to turn to Yiddish; English just doesn’t seem up to the job.  So rather than pride, I would say either קוועלן (kvelln) or שעפּן נחת (sheppn nakhes).  Those will have to stand as they are, since if I could translate them, I wouldn’t have needed to write them in Yiddish in the first place.

And those are pretty much the highlights from Paris.  A strange trip in that it wasn’t so much Parisius gratia Parisii, but rather Paris as background for a social gathering.  Yet for all that, it was nonetheless a great time.  And just a 90m plane ride away.  Sometimes I love Europe.

The Charlotte visit was no less excellent, but quite different in nature.  Instead of hotels, there were couches and futons.  Instead of fancy restaurants, there were homemade sandwiches and salads.  Instead of rounds and rounds of drinks at bars, there were bottles of wine and beer at home.  And while I certainly enjoy being pampered, enjoy eating at fancy restaurants, if I’m being honest, I’m probably more at home in this simpler environment. 

After landing in Lyon and taking two trains into the heart of the city, I met Charlotte and her sister Chloe down by the riverbank, where Chloe’s little son, Emil, was joyfully picking up little fistfuls of mud and throwing them into the water.  Believe me when I tell you, this kid is cute as all get out.  I’m talking million-dollar smile over here.

After hanging around by the water for a bit, we made our way into the city for drinks at a random café; an Aperol Spritz, for those scoring at home.  After that, we went up to Charlotte’s friend Rapha’s place, where we’d be spending the night.  I’d met Rapha briefly, a million years ago back in 2013, the very first time I visited Charlotte in Nice.  In fact, I’d met Chloe even earlier, when she and her dad came to visit C in NY.  But I’d also re-met Rapha a few years back, the first time I did Xmas in Nice with C and her fam.  At that time, I’d also met her boyfriend, Charles.  A lovely guy, we’d jammed on a couple of Irish tunes.  So while I wouldn’t call them friends, at least I knew and liked these people who’d be putting us up.  The only difference was that now, they had a little baby, Daria.  Beautiful child, another million-dollar smile.  And so sweet and peaceful.  I don’t think the kid cried once the whole time we were there.  Apparently she sleeps through the night too. 

For breakfast the next day, Rapha hit up the bakery.  Fresh croissants and sourdough bread, among other delights.  Friends, this is a country that knows how to do bread, I’m just saying.  All to say, it was a very nice visit with them, albeit a short one.

Not long after breakfast, we began our journey to Joyeuse, the village where Charlotte is currently residing.  The first leg of the journey was a train ride to Valance.  We only had an hour to kill there, but we did some walking around, found a lovely park overlooking a valley and the river beyond.  Very picturesque, though annoyingly windy.  I reached out to a former student of mine who lives not far from there on the off chance that he might be able to pop over for a quick coffee, but in the end it didn’t work out. 

We sat for a while at a café across from train station having seltzers and something like a ciabatta baguette with baked-in emmental cheese and olives; delish.  Across the street, there stood a statue of a man with a raised arm and open hand, as if reaching for something.  I asked C if she knew the story about this man.  She laughed and said, “No, but I’m sure you do.”  So I said simply that the poor guy had lost his balloon.  She laughed again.  After all, the dude really did look like he was reaching for a balloon that had only just escaped his grasp.  From there, I made up some story about how he had followed his balloon all the way from Paris to Valance.  He never did get his balloon back, but he wound up meeting his wife in Valance and they raised a family there.  Moral of the story, never stop searching for your balloon.  You never know what you’ll find.  Who knows, maybe I’ll write it up into a real story one day.  In any case, it helped pass the time until our bus to Joyeuse.

The only thing was, the bus didn’t quite go all the way to Joyeuse.  So in the event, we wound up hitchhiking the last 20km or so.  Hitchhiking?  I know.  It’s not something I’ve ever done, or would ever have considered doing.  Too many horror stories, right?  But I guess she does it all the time, and alone too, as a female.  Apparently the south of France, especially in village country, is just a safe place.

And so of course – I mean, fucking obviously – some dude in a literally windowless van picks us up.  And I’m just thinking, “Welp, this is how it ends.  At least it’s in a beautiful place.”  But the guy turned out to be really nice.  Not only that, it seems he’s an actor of sorts in some kind of local community theatre.  He even had posters in the van for his next upcoming show, to which he kindly invited us.  (We didn’t wind up going in the end, though it hardly seemed like a bad option).

Anyway, the guy drops us off and now we’re in this little village of Joyeuse.  Well, I say “little,” but C informed me that as villages go, it’s on the larger side with *checks notes* all of 1,500 inhabitants and its very own supermarket.  I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that more than 1,500 people lived on my side of the street on my block in Chinatown.  I guess it all depends, as Obi Wan Kenobi said, on your point of view.

Be that as it may, it’s a lovely little town.  As best I can describe it, the village is bisected by the main road that runs through it.  On one side of the road is a hill, upon which are built all these old, stone houses, the sort you expect to see in the southern French countryside.  Lots of winding little streets to go with little stone alleys and passageways cut with stone staircases going from one level of the hill to the next.  The other side of the road is downhill and leads to the river.  It’s on this side where the supermarket, bank and most of the bars and restaurants are to be found.

Charlotte’s apartment is up on the hill, on the ground floor of one of those old stone houses.  It’s what we would call a studio.  But really it’s a converted ‘cave,’ that being the French word.  Really it was designed as a root or wine cellar.  Just a small room of arching stone walls outfitted with a kitchen, bathroom and some wooden shelving.  But the stone walls are painted white, and the furnishings are rustic in a very cozy kind of way.  Gemütlich would be the German word.  ‘Cozy’ is the best I can do in English.  But really, the best way to describe it, is to say that it’s actually a kind of Hobbit-house.  Not a rich Hobbit like Bilbo, but a hobbit of average means.  For those who are not LOTR fans, I should emphasize that I mean this as high praise.

In any case, she is subletting the room from the woman who lives upstairs.  Also, the woman who lives upstairs happens to be one of her very best friends, Annelise.  Annelise also happens to have a nine-year-old son, one Django.  I’ll come back to him in a bit.  But it’s such a homely vibe they have going on there.  We were sitting on C’s little patio in front of the apartment, drinking our beers, when Annelise appears above, sticking her head out over the balcony to chat.  Soon after, Django’s head appears, and then that of their dog.  And from where, I’m sitting, craning my head back and looking up, I see three upside-down faces looking back at me. 

Like, on the one hand, it’s comedy.  It reminded me of The Honeymooners, how when Alice and Trixie wanted to talk, they would just open their kitchen windows and call up/down to each other.  But it was also very sweet, very homely, very gemütlich.  Just a good vibe, you know?

Not long after I got settled, Django popped down to meet me.  He knew I was coming and wanted to see what I was about.  This kid, lemme tell ya, he’s a trip.  Good heart, that much is clear.  But he’s also definitely a little hell-raiser.  Shoulder-length blonde hair.  Full of energy, as boys that age are.  I can’t describe it exactly, but something about this kid reminded me of a little D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers.  Like, he’s a got a clear sense of right and wrong, has a good heart, like I said, but also quite mischievous.  Anyway, that first day, he and I played some card games he’d brought down with him.

It was all I could do to keep up with his French patter, especially after C went upstairs to hang with Annelise.  On the one hand, he speaks like a nine year-old, which is to say not overly complicated.  But on the other hand, he speaks like a kid, which is to say, fast and with no sense of how to moderate his speech for a foreigner.  But I was able to keep up sufficiently to play the games and even trash talk a little.  And when I say ‘trash talk,’ I just mean in the way that you joke around with kids.  Like, “With this game we will see who’s the best.  Also, I am the best.”  And he’s like, “No, I’m the best!”  That kinda shit.  It was fun.

They also had an acoustic guitar which they let us borrow for the duration of my stay.  Which was key, right?  Because any time me and C get together, there must be music.  So of course we played a bunch of songs we’ve been playing forever.  But we also worked up two new ones, which was definitely fun. 

I’ve said it before, but I love playing music with that girl.  It’s always free and easy, always just fun.  No egos, no bullshit.  Very different from playing in a band.  And honestly, she’s like the only person I do that with.  It’s one of the best things about spending time with her.  But beyond playing music with her, it’s also really nice to play music for her. 

It’s the same as with the metal crew when we get together.  As we get into the small hours of the night, as people get tipsy and tired, it seems that that’s the moment when people want somebody to sing to them.  Whether it’s sitting around a fire with the metal gang or in an apartment with Charlotte, it’s a special feeling to sing to people and watch the effect that such music can have on the spirit. 

And it doesn’t matter if it’s a beer-swilling German metalhead or wine-sipping French girl.  You can just see the power of music, how it brings people to a particular state of contentment.  As much as it’s a good feeling for them, it’s a good feeling for me too.  It also doesn’t hurt that C had some really lovely things to say about my voice either.

Tellya what surprised me though.  One night, I’m playing the ol’ guitar and C is laying there on the couch with her eyes closed.  And then she’s like, “Hey, can you play that Mary Jane song?”  And I had no idea what she was talking about until she fished some partial lyrics out of the depths of her memory.  Then I realized she was referring to a Ramones song I used to play back when I was still living in Chinatown.  I hadn’t played that song in years, probably, although it came back to me pretty quick.  Anyway, she starts singing along.  Knew every fucking word.  Of this song I last played for her – quite probably – some eight years ago on the other side of an ocean.  And while she has recording of many of the songs I do myself or we do together, I don’t think we ever recorded that one.  So, yeah, I was pretty surprised when she a) requested it and b) knew all the words.  Surprised, but in the happiest of ways.

Other highlights of the visit.  We went for a hike, which was just lovely.  At some point, we ended up on some cliffs overlooking a small canyon with a river running through it.  Look, there’s a reason people talk about the south of France the way they do.  We shoulda brought more water, but other than that, good stuff.

We went to some hippie-ass carnival, which, admittedly, is not really my scene.  There we watched a performance by this girl who was doing a…well, I don’t really know.  I mean, it was like an aerobic-hula hoop shtick, but also kinda interactive; geared towards the kids in the crowd.  Lotsa kids at this thing, btw.  Anyway, the girl seemed to be a novice of sorts.  Like she seemed nervous and there were some mistakes in her routine, which I couldn’t decide if they were intentional or not.  Charlotte found it all a bit cringe, I think.  But I thought it was actually rather endearing.

When we left, we had to hitch a ride back to her place.  This time, a young woman picked us up.  A mother, she had her two little kids in the back seat.  So I mean, for me, yeah, this was preferable to a windowless van.  But I was surprised that a mother with her own children in the car would pick up a couple of strangers.  Sure, we looked pretty harmless, and we were all coming from the same carnival.  But still, to me, that’s unusual.  Except, in that neck of the woods, I guess it’s not.

I also took C out for a nice dinner.  By which I mean, we went to a local restaurant and I paid.  This was not a big deal.  But it was just nice to go out, you know?  Like I said, everything else was homemade sandwiches and salads and what not.  So, nothing fancy, low maintenance, but still dinner at a restaurant.  Good vibes. 

We also had a picnic in the park near the river.  We brought the guitar and a homemade salad.  That’s where we knocked together a version of the theme song to this Japanese show we both love (Midnight Diner, it’s called); so C sings in Japanese now.  Nothing really else to say about it.  The only reason I bring it up is because, also at the park, was a donkey.  Yes, you read that right.  There was a fucking donkey.  Tied up to a tree, as if it were nothing more that someone’s dog.  Umm, ok?  At one point it brayed.  That shit is loud, you guys.  So I guess the short version of this story is, I went to France…and saw a donkey.  Hey, you travel to forge new experiences, right?  Well, that was…one.

My flight back to Berlin was ass-early, such that there was no way to get to the airport from C’s place on the day-of.  Thus, I wound up going back to Lyon a day early, by myself.  Rapha and Charles put me up again, and of course they were just lovely and gracious as could be about it.  It also gave me a chance to explore Lyon on my own.

It was alright.  I mean, I didn’t fall in love with the city or anything, but I had a nice time.  Saw the cathedral, as one does.  Visited the ruins of the Roman amphitheater, which was pretty damn cool.  Oh, and I stumbled upon a public urinal.  Which, already, is a great thing.  But, what makes this noteworthy, is that this public urinal had a built-in cupholder!  And this, friends, is why I love the French.

I also stumbled into a cloister-type museum.  See, the cathedral and amphitheater are way up top of a very large and steep hill.  It’s a schlep, is what I’m saying.  And on top of that, it was roughly one million degrees.  So when I saw this little cloister-thingy about two thirds of the way up, it seemed like a good place to stop and have a bit of a rest.  Which is all I did at first; just sat and relaxed in the courtyard.  But when I saw that there was a museum as well, I decided to check it out.  Turns out it was about some early Christian martyrs who were put to death by the Romans back in the day.

When I went in to buy my ticket, I chatted briefly with the only two people working there.  A young woman working the register and an older dame who was the resident tour guide.  Lovely people, they asked me where I was from and all that jazz.  And even though I didn’t pay for a guided tour, the older woman escorted me to the first room of the museum and explained to me the nature of the videos which were to be viewed there.

After watching the videos and taking in a few other pieces, I returned to the register area.  The girl at the counter pointed to where I should go next, assuming I was lost.  I actually knew where to go next, but had another question.  See, it was already late afternoon, and I wanted to know how much longer they’d be open.  Then the girl frowned and said I only had about 15-20 minutes.  Then she asked me how long I’d be in Lyon, because given the time and how late I showed up, she’d be happy to let me back in the next day, free of charge.  Which, I mean, how classy is that?  But I told her it wouldn’t be possible owing to my early flight.  At which point, the older woman took it upon herself to give me an express version of the guided tour, also free of charge.  Pure class, like I said.

The tour was basically of the catacombs.  This was where, at first, the martyrs had been imprisoned before dying the usual martyr deaths at the hands (paws? teeth?) of wild animals or else being sworded to death somehow or another.  The catacombs, originally a prison, had since been turned into a shrine of sorts by the faithful.  Anyway, for all how fast it was, it was nevertheless quite a nice little tour.  My guide was quite knowledgeable and friendly and quite ready to answer any questions I might have. 

And all of this was in French, btw.  My interactions with the girl at the register as well as the tour.  And that’s gratifying, you know?  I mean, they knew I was from New York.  And they’d clearly heard the poor state of my French.  Now, maybe they just didn’t speak any English; a distinct possibility.  Nevertheless, they just talked to me in their normal, everyday French without any apparent doubt about my being able to handle it.  So we’ll call that a win.

I had a rather unexpected reaction to the story of these martyrs as portrayed by the museum, btw.  See, as a Jew, we are accustomed to thinking of Christian fanatics as the ones having power, as the ones doing the oppressing.  But in this case, these poor bastards were the powerless, the oppressed.  And it was hard not to sympathize with them, it was easy to empathize with them.  Poor religious wierdos, they just wanted to do their thing and be left alone.  But of course the bloody Romans would have none of that.  Off with their heads.  Throw them to lions.  What on earth for?  I must confess, I don’t normally give much thought to the early Christian martyrs.  And when I do, it’s with the hindsight of knowing what their progeny would become.  So to be in this place, to be forced to consider them in their own context, it put a whole new spin on things for me.  By the time I’d left, I had this feeling of, “Wow, you know, we were all in the same boat, once upon a time.  Why can’t – or couldn’t we – get along?”

I really wanted a burger for dinner.  So a found a diner that looked fitting.  I asked the waiter for a glass of pastis.  They didn’t have any.  I ordered the burger.  It was not great.  Can’t win ‘em all.  Then it was back to Rapha and Charles.  We didn’t really hang out as they were both exhausted, but like I said, they were most gracious.  Next morning, 5am Uber to the airport and then it was back to Berlin.  Thus ended my second trip to France in a month.  Sometimes I just kinda love Europe…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
10 June, 2022

“You haven’t written anything in quite some time,” remarked my friend Esma to me over dinner.  “Sure I have,” I replied.  “I just haven’t posted any of it.”  I forget exactly what she said after that, but I think it was along the lines of, “Asshole, that’s my point.”  Well, fair enough, Esma.  But also, fair enough, Dave.  So I’m going to try and get back on track here by slapping together some previously unpublished shit along with some newer thoughts and updates.  And I think I’m going to break it down into two or three posts.  This post, I’m mostly going to focus on music.  In the next post (or two), I actually want to spend some time talking about sports, of all things.  Anyway, here we go…

From March 20th:

>> Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve written, though not for lack of trying.  There’s been a couple of draft posts since the last one, but I haven’t been satisfied with any of them.  So here we are.  Again.  Or, well, here I am again, anyway.

Speaking of being here again, I had a birthday this month.  Forty-fucking-one.  And all I have to say about that is, the ceaseless march of time can fuck right the fuck off.  I didn’t plan anything this year, but I wound up having an accidental dinner with my boss and the husband-wife of the French musicians.

I say accidental because what happened was, the French guy – Philippe – whatsapped me and asked if I wanted to meet for beers one of these days.  So I said sure, how about Thursday, since I was off Friday.  And then, like two days later, I realized Thursday was my birthday.  But I didn’t tell him that on account of I didn’t want to make a thing of it.

Then a couple of days later, he messages me again and tells me that Knut – my boss – had asked him if they were free Thursday for drinks as well and would it be alright if Knut came along.  And then Knut emailed me to ask if I would mind terribly if he crashed our little get together.  Of course I was happy to have him along.  So that’s how that all came about, my accidental birthday outing.

Anyway, we had a lovely time of things.  How could we not?  They’re all lovely people.  And the whole vibe of it is cool.  I mean, it fits my Accidental narrative quite neatly.  You know the one, where I keep meeting great people by accident.  Like, I know the French people because they’re properly friends of Deb, who I only know because Knut asked me to teach him and her some Yiddish.  And I only know Knut because Paul, who I did my teacher training with, had already gotten a job with him and suggested my name when Knut needed a teacher.  So yeah, good people just keep falling into my lap.  How about that?

Back to dinner, and Philippe mentioned that Pauline – the daughter – would be in Berlin for just like three or four days the following week.  So I asked if maybe they’d have time to come over and record the new song they’d recently sent me.  And he’s like, yeah, that’s why I’m telling you.  Sweet.

So he and his wife came over that Sunday for him to record his guitar parts.  It took a bit of time, but we got it down in the end.  And then they came back with Pauline on Monday and Tuesday to do the vocals.  And man, that was great.

We got on really well the first time, but there was still a get-to-know-you period involved.  Now, though, having established a good rapport, a good comfort level the last time, we were able to dive right into things this time around.  And what’s really nice is, you can tell we all just really enjoy working with each other.  I mean, you can imagine that it might be somewhat difficult to show up at a stranger’s house and just start singing, you know?  And not just singing, but singing into a mic with headphones on.  But for whatever reason, she seems to be really comfortable working with me.  Which is great for two reasons.  First, she needs to be comfortable if she’s going to make good music.  But also, it makes me feel good as a producer and, uh, proprietor of my little studio, that a person can come in and feel good working in my space, with me.

And I’m sure I said this last time around, but I just love working with this kid.  I mean, for starters, she’s just so talented.  But beyond that she’s really receptive to criticism and to trying out new things.  And she’s creative in her own right.  So I can tell her, go try this specific thing.  But I can also tell her to just go in and experiment.  And in that way, we hit on some really nice stuff.

Like, she hit on this really pretty little harmony, just a little ah-ah thing, which I then elaborated into a 3-part harmony with different lyrics/phrasings for each verse.  And it really swings, you know?  I love the collaborative process.  Also, she’s not afraid to disagree with me, which is super important. 

One thing I’m learning this time around is, all the extra takes we do, all the ideas we try that don’t quite work, they wind up being a veritable gold mine of extra usable material.  Like, I asked for some more freestyle-type takes and some add-libby kinda stuff.  And in the context of putting down the song, they wound up not really working.  But now, going back and mixing, I’m finding that in all those extra takes, there’s little snippets everywhere that I can cut out and add in for color and makes the whole thing so much richer.

But even if I couldn’t use any of it, it’s still a valuable part of the process.  Because both times they’ve come over so far, the songs were pretty new for her, she hadn’t made them her own yet.  So doing all these various takes and experiments and whatnot, I’m finding that it helps her to really discover the song, to find her own voice, her own interpretation.  And man, it’s a lot of fun to midwife that process.

And it’s great too because her read on the song is not necessarily my read.  I should back up here and say that Philippe writes the songs, he writes the music and the lyrics.  And he’s good.  Good hooks, good melodies, good chord progressions.  The guy does nice work is what I’m saying.  But anyway, I read the lyrics and I get a certain impression, a certain emotion.  But that’s just my take.

So after a couple of runs through, I asked Pauline to sit with me and go through the lyrics.  Have you had an experience in your own life like what’s happening in the song?  How did it make you feel?  Can you make me feel that?  What’s your emotion on this verse?  Can you bring that out in your singing?  And wear those emotions on your face when you’re singing, because I’ll be able to hear your smile or your frown or whatever.  So there was some of that involved, beyond the regular, try this-try that.  And in the end, she really found something, she really connected with the text, really made it her own.  So that now, I’ve got some really killer vocal material to work with. 

And it gets better.  So as we were working, trying to find our way in this song, I hit on the idea of dropping in a bit of cello.  Midi cello, obviously.  And I didn’t do much either, just a really simple line in a few strategic places.  And immediately, she was like, I love this!  And I was happy with it too, or at least the concept of it.  The actual lines needed some work, and also I kinda hated the fake midi sound.

So I asked Justin if he knew anybody that played violin/cello who could either record decent quality on their own or else come to his house and record.  He had a colleague in mind.  And when he asked the guy, the dude was like, are you kidding me, I live for this shit!  I think those were actually his words.  Anyway, turns out, not only is he a trained violinist, but he’s even studied French folk fiddle.  I mean, how much more perfect can you get? 

So I passed on the track along with my basic cello lines and some general guidelines.  I’m waiting to hear back now with what he comes up with.  But I’m super excited about this.  I mean, if it works out, it’s gonna add something really special to the track.  You guys, this is gonna be a banger.  Is that right?  Do the kids say ‘banger’?  It’s going to be good, is the point. 

On the last night they were here, I offered to cook dinner.  In the end, the mom wasn’t feeling so well, so I wound up not actually cooking.  But we did like an apéro – wine, cheese, some fresh veggies, that kind of thing.  And it was really nice.  I mean, beyond being so much fun to record with, they’re also just good people to spend time with.  Smart, funny, French.  It was great.<<

Well, in the end, it never worked out with the violin guy.  It seems he had too many work and family commitments to find the time.  Oh well.  So I finished the song using midi instruments.  It actually worked out fine.  The French people didn’t even realize it was a midi cello and even Justin wasn’t sure.  Which means it passed muster.  Fine by me. 

And actually, it worked out for the best.  Because waiting for the guy, it wound up forcing me to take like a two-month hiatus from the song.  Which meant I was able to come back to it with fresh ears.  And I finished it in an afternoon.  All I really had to do was rebalance a few things in the mix and work out the cello part to completion.  Like I said above, super simple.  One line under the chorus and one line under a vocal breakdown in the middle.  Really satisfying, if I do say so myself. 

I’m really quite pleased with the final product, actually.  I want to say it’s my best work yet.  Which is as should be.  I should be making progress with each new mix.  I sent it, as I always do now, to Rob for feedback.  I told him that I was pretty pleased with the result but that of course I’d love any feedback he had to offer.  He wrote back saying emphatically that I should be pleased with it and that nothing really jumped out at him as needing attention.

He then said that if there was one thing, it was maybe the sibilance.  In other words, how sharp the letter ‘s’ can sound in places.  And I was glad he said that actually.  Because per my own diagnostic, that was also the one thing that I felt could still be better.  But I didn’t want to tell him that, because I didn’t want to draw his attention to it.  So the fact that this was the only thing he pointed to acts as a sort of confirmation that I should feel more comfortable trusting my own ears; that we’re both hearing the same thing.

He then gave me some advice on how to handle that particular issue going forward, which of course I appreciate.  Indeed, I had gone in and attacked some particularly strong sibilants at the waveform level.  But that’s surgery.  Rob’s feedback will help me to improve that on a more global level without having to break out the scalpel, as it were.  After the last track, he gave me that tip on sidechaining the reverb, which was I able to apply this time around.  Next time, I’ll be able to apply his tips to the sibilants.  Good stuff.

Anyway, it’s one thing for me to be satisfied with my own work, which of course is important.  But at the end of the day, even though this is an exercise in my own development as a producer, I’m really serving the artists and their vision for their own song.  So what matters in the end is that they’re satisfied with it.

To that end, I’m happy to report that they were not just satisfied but positively delighted.  Pauline and Philippe, both of them just love it.  I mean, you can tell, even through Whatsapp, that the enthusiasm is genuine.  So that’s already gratifying.  But what really makes me happy is how they appreciate what I bring to the music.  What I mean is, it’s not just, “You make my voice or my guitar sound great.”  They love the cello that I added, what I did with the harmonies, all the extra stuff.  To put it another way, they appreciate not just my technical work at the mixing board, but what I bring as an actual producer.  And that means a great deal to me.  Because even though it’s their music, at the end of the day, I put a lot of myself into it as well. 

I know I said it above, but I love this collaborative process.  The process of working with the artists to get more out of themselves than they knew the had, to get more out of the song than they knew it had.  And that’s something that we do together.  I fucking love that process, you know?

I’ve mentioned before how valuable I find Rob’s input and support.  But I want to come back to that for a second.  I was talking to Jared recently, and he brought this up himself.  He told me that Rob had told him about my work and that Rob was really positive about it.  From Jared’s perspective, he was just really happy to see his two friends connecting in this way.  And that’s important to me too.  Obviously I don’t get to see Rob very often.  Rob, whom I’ve known since we’re teenagers.  Rob, in whose basement I spent a gazillion hours, whose whole family I know forever.  So yeah, the feedback he provides is invaluable.  The positivity and support he offers give me confidence that I need.  But beyond all that, it means a lot to me to able to stay connected – and indeed to forge this new particular connection – after all these years.

You know, for as long as I’ve known Jared, he’s had this line about friendships: They either grow or they die.  Well, for almost six years now I’ve been living in Germany.  We see each other twice a year (lockdowns notwithstanding) and we text periodically.  But under those circumstances, can a friendship really be said to be “growing”?  And if it’s not growing, is it dying?

So I asked him about it.  I asked him as we were getting drunk one night in Paris.  And by the way, I can think of few things better than getting drunk with a lifelong friend in Paris.  I highly recommend it.  Anyway, I asked him.  And in answer, he introduced a new category.  Sometimes, he said, friendships endure.  And that seemed right to me.  I mean, for my part, I do not notice the least bit of drift.  Because for all the time and distance between us, things seem to be as they always ever have been.  So this is a friendship that endures.  Despite.  And this new connection with Rob now, over music, is something that allows our friendship to endure as well.  And for that I am grateful.

Anyway, back to the music.  This, from April 8th:

>> Let’s see, what else?  I had Bibi over today to start recording another song for the band.  I’m happy to report my real-time production skills are showing some improvement.  That’s surely a result of the work I’ve done with Pauline and Philippe.  What do I mean?

Well, one thing about doing songs for the band is, they’re songs we’ve been playing for ages.  Everybody already knows their parts, how they sing them, how they play them.  In the beginning, this felt like an advantage.  Now I see it’s the opposite.  Because I already had a preconceived notion of how the performances should sound, I think it blocked me from getting the best out of them vocally.  I was basically expecting them to go in and sing what I always hear them sing.  I wouldn’t really ask for much unless I heard something egregiously wrong or wanted a very specific harmony. 

Whereas working with Pauline, the songs were basically new for both of us.  So I felt like I had a freer hand not only in asking for experimentation, but also to try and mold her performance to a degree with respect to phrasing, pronunciation and emotional expression.  Going through that process with her really opened me up to how I might try and get a bit more out of Bibi.

Anyway, we did a few rough takes of this song we’re doing now.  I guess it’s called Redemption Song, by Bob Marley; I dunno, never heard the original.  But I know our version through-and-through, obvi.  So we lay down a couple of rough takes, and while they were fine, I felt like something was missing.  So I ask her what the point of the song was.  And she says something to the effect of, “It’s about freedom and also somehow like a religious experience.”  And I’m like, “OK, you think you can convince me of that with your vocal?”  She shrugged and agreed to try.

Well, sure enough, she goes in and all of a sudden there’s this power in her voice that just wasn’t there before.  I knew we had something just listening to her lay it down.  But when she finished, she came out and we listened back to it.  Yeah, it was good.  And you could see her whole face light up.  She was like, “Wow, it’s totally different!  It’s so much more powerful!”  So we did a couple of more takes with that in mind and honestly, it was so much better than what we’d had before.

And once I saw that I could push her a bit and get more out of her, I decided there were some pronunciation things I wanted to work on.  There were a couple of phrases that ended with the pronoun “I,” and they were sounding kind of week.  Knowing that her background is in theatre, I decided to try and tap into that.  I said she must know from the stage that although it’s only one letter, “I” is properly a diphthong, a combination of ‘ah-ee.’  So I asked her to close the syllable with a touch of emphasis on the ‘ee’.  She found it pretty quickly and the results were tangible.  Again, we listened back, and again, you could just see her face light up when she heard the difference, how much stronger it sounded.  We took a similar approach to a phrase ending with the word “strong.”  Originally, the ‘g’ was getting lost.  But we spent a few minutes on it and, again, got a much improved result. 

And I’ll tellya something.  It’s one thing when you ask for something and you yourself can hear the difference.  But when the performer can hear the difference, and not only hear it but actually recognize the marked improvement, that’s really gratifying.  And gratifying is the word.  I mean, I’m really pleased with my work as a producer today.  Not only for having learned from my experiences with Pauline, but for getting better at spotting problems in real time.  And then, not just spotting them, but addressing them and getting an improved result.  One of my goals as a producer is to get the best possible performance out of my artists.  Now, did I get the very best performance possible?  Maybe not.  But I got a better performance than the one we started with.  And that’s real progress.

Tellya what also was really nice ((What was also really nice?  Fuck, German is playing hell with my adverb placement.  I literally don’t know which word order sounds better.)).  At the end of our session, Bibi turns to me with this big ol’ smile on her face.  And she’s like, “Wow, Dave.  You’re like a really good vocal coach!”  Or words to that effect.  It was hours ago and in German, so I’m paraphrasing.  But the point is, it was pretty cool to get that little bit of recognition.  It’s kind of a big step, actually.  To go from the artist being like basically, “Well, my work is done, I trust you to make something nice of it,” to the artist genuinely feeling like I helped them to find something nice within themselves that they wouldn’t have found without me.  It’s shit like this that makes producing a helluva lotta fun. 

The next step is to get Ralf down to do his guitars and vocals.  It was kinda funny, Bibi’s thoughts on that part of the process.  Because she found something new today, not only in herself, but in the song too.  And she was basically like, “Do you think you can get this across to Ralf, get him to match what I’m doing?”  It’s an important question, because they trade off lines during the verses, so the intensity and emotion definitely need to match.  And I was like, “Pretty sure it won’t be a problem.  Ralf’s actually pretty open minded when it comes to recording.”  She was of course pleased to hear that.

But it’s true.  Ralf is actually great about that kind of stuff.  I’ve asked him to do all kinds of stuff on the other songs.  Playing the chords with different voicings, singing new harmonies he’s never sung before, doing extra takes when he thinks we’ve already done enough.  And he’s always game, always happy to try anything.  So based on my past experiences with Pauline and my work with Bibi today, I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to get some good stuff from Ralph.

And I’m pretty excited about it too.  Because I really like this song.  It’s one of the first songs we played together.  I don’t sing on it, but I really enjoy my guitar parts.  I think they add some really nice color to the whole thing.  And when you put it all together, I think it’s one of the better tracks we do.  So yeah, I’m looking forward to doing up a nice studio version of it.  I feel good about this one.  So far, anyway.<<

So that was that.  The next week, I got Ralf down to do his parts.  Not just vox and guitars but also the cajón.  We started with the guitars, and that went more or less pretty smoothly.  We had to do a couple of takes to get him acclimated to the metronome.  But once we’d done that, he was good to go.  Here’s a nice thing though.  Once we got a really nice take down, he actually asked if we could double-track it.  In other words, he wanted to lay down a second guitar track to accompany the first. 

Now, this is something I was always going to ask him for.  But the fact that he volunteered to do it, even before I asked, was a most pleasant surprise.  It made me happy for two reasons.  First, it means he was coming prepared with more of his own vision for what he wanted for the guitars.  This is, on its face, a good thing.  But second, it means that he’s growing as a musician, that he’s becoming more comfortable and familiar with the recording process.  And that’s great for him as an artist, great for me as a producer and great for us as a band.

Next, the vocals.  As always, we started by just laying down a couple of rough takes, the way he always sings his parts.  From there, I took the same approach as with Pauline and Bibi.  I sat down with him and we went through the lyrics, line by line, translating them into German.  And you could just see, with each line, he was gaining this new and deeper understanding of the song.  When we’d gone through the whole thing, we talked about the meaning of the text in a big picture kind of way. 

That done, we were ready to record again.  This time, he sang the song according to his new and deeper understanding.  The thing was, he was singing it as if it were this deeply personal and private revelation.  And objectively, it was very good.  But it didn’t quite jive with what Bibi had done.  So I asked him to try singing it as if he had discovered this great truth and his job now was to convince a crowd of a thousand people.  “Like I’m on stage at the Mercedes Benz Arena!”  He liked this idea.  And so that’s how he sung it.  And I’ll tell you something.  It worked.  He really did some nice work, no joke.  Then, same as with Bibi, we went back and attacked a handful of particular syllables.  And same as with Bibi, he lit up when heard the difference.

Then it was on to the cajón.  We worked out the parts together.  We both had ideas and in the end, we hit on something that I think really serves the song.  This time around, we had a better instrument to work with.  Combine that with the fact that I think I did a better technical job of mic’ing the thing, and I believe we’re gonna have a really nice percussive sound for this track. 

In the end, Ralf too was really pleased with the whole process.  He also complimented me on my work guiding him through the lyrics and nudging his performance in the direction I did.  So yeah, again – and at the risk of over-tooting my own horn – it was really gratifying.  Not only to get that kind of positive feedback, but to have done a better job getting the best performance out of my artist.

I haven’t done any more work on the song since then.  I still need to put down my own guitar parts.  I have decisions to make about whether or not to add my own vocal harmonies as well as what I’m hearing for the song, big-picture.  And that’s all before I can even think about mixing it.  So there’s a lot of work to do yet.  But I think we’ll wind up with a nice track in the end.

Well, I guess that’s enough for today on the music front.  One last update before I close.  This also from the 8th of April:

>> I’ve decided it’s time I learned some Aramaic.  The people who put out the Hebrew book I learned from also have a textbook on this subject, so naturally that’s the one I bought.  After all, I was quite pleased with that Hebrew book and with how far it brought me.

That said, they’re both super goyish.  I mean, they’re published by Christian theologians, and right there in the forward, they’re like, “If you’re going to be a good Christian preacher, you need to know your Aramaic.”  Uh, OK.   I mean, that’s not a bad thing per se.  But it’s limiting.  Their entire purpose, it seems, is just to be able to read the handful of verses in the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic.  And yeah, I’d like to be able to do that.  But it’s not my main purpose.

My main purpose is, well, more Jewish.  There are a bunch of prayers that are written not in Hebrew, but Aramaic; the kaddish – the prayer for the dead – to give but one example.  And the most important translation of the Hebrew Bible (from the Jewish perspective) is the Onkelos translation, in Aramaic.  But more than that even, Talmud.  The Talmud (or, the gemara anyway) is in Aaramic, and I’d like to be able to handle that, if only on a superficial level.  Because right now, if I want to look at a page of Talmud, I need to look at in English.  And we all know that’s not how I roll. 

The question, then, is how far will this particular textbook bring me in that direction?  I don’t know.  I just don’t know enough about the language.  But since I know literally nothing about the language – apart from the fact that it’s already quite similar to Hebrew – an introductory text like this seems like a good place to start.  I can always build out from here.

Anyway, I’ve only just started.  If I can work at a good pace, it’ll take me at least a couple of months to slog through this book.  And then I’ll see where I’m at.  But I’m kind of excited about it.  It’s been a while since I’ve tackled a new language.  Gotta keep those neurons in shape, yo!

And speaking of learning new languages, I have another project in mind.  Although this one has the distinct air of biting off more than I can chew.  See, I’ve asked Bartek to recommend a good textbook on Polish.  Polish?  Why Polish?

The reasons are twofold.  One is professional.  See, we get a fair number of Polish speaking students at our school, and even more Slavic speakers in general (mostly Russians, but some Ukrainians and assorted other as well).  And the Slavic languages are a blind spot for me.  Maybe I’ve discussed this before.  But with native speakers of German and French – and for that matter, Spanish and Italian – when they say weird shit, I know where it’s coming from.  I can see what they’re thinking in their native tongue and how that gets manifested into English.  It’s a useful tool, actually, when you want to explain why and how things are different in English.  But with the Slavic speakers, when they say weird shit, I can only shrug my shoulders and assume, “Welp, that’s probably makes some kind of Slavic sense what you just said, but uh, don’t say that.  Because.”  And that’s weak tea.  So if I can gain even some small insight into the workings of the Slavic languages, that figures to make me a better teacher.  So that’s one reason.

The other reason is Yiddish.  Yes, there are a ton of Polish loan-words in Yiddish – yarmulke, balagan, shmata, papiros, bupkis, just to give a few – but that’s vocabulary, that’s kindergarten shit.  The real shit is found in the organization of thoughts, the construction of whole sentences, the expression of ideas via idioms.  I can’t begin to count how many times Bartek and I have read a sentence in the memorial book we’re translating where my reaction to said sentence was either, “Well, that’s fucking weird and I don’t get it,” or “I suppose this means x but I could just as easily imagine it meaning y.”  And then Bartek will say, “Well, it makes perfect sense to me actually, because that’s exactly how you’d express this in Polish.  To me, it’s literally like reading a Polish sentence with Yiddish words.”  And while I’ll never have his native-speaker feel for that sort of thing, I rather desperately want to at least be able to grasp it.  I very much want to be able to look at a Yiddish sentence and have my reaction be, “Well, a year ago this would have boggled my mind, but now that I understand some basic Polish it’s actually quite clear.”  And that, friends, is reason enough to at least try and make an effort at learning some Polish.

In any case, I’m still waiting for him to get back to me with a recommendation on a text.  And then we’ll see if I can find the time and muster the energy to make any kind of real progress on that front.  But I certainly need to try.  It doesn’t do the brain any good to be idle.  One must always find new mental challenges.  One must always be learning. 

But it’s nice to know that if I do make the effort, I’ve got a built in advantage.  I know that Bartek is quite keen to help me.  Every time I’ve mentioned in the past that I really ought to learn some Polish, he just lights up and very eagerly lets me know he’s more than happy to help.  The risk is not that he won’t have time or interest to help.  If there’s any risk at all, it’s in abusing his generosity.  And I intend to be mindful of that, if indeed I can get this going.

It’s good to have friends who speak other languages that are enthusiastic about helping you.  Most of you know I’ve had this long running love-affair-from-afar with Finnish.  It started with Tolkien and the influence of Finnish on his creation of Elvish.  It progressed to my personal discovery of the epic poem Kalevala (the Finnish version of Homer, to be crude) and my journey to Finland to meet the last living oral singer of that work.  And finally, the whole milieu of Finnish folk-metal.  But of all the languages one can learn, Finnish is way down the list in terms of practicality.  So few people speak it, it’s notorious for being difficult, and most Finnish speakers you’re likely to meet speak excellent English anyway.

Point is, I’ve got a Finnish friend here, Marcus.  Lovely guy.  Drinks like a fish, loves hockey, produces (electronic) music, language nerd (we sometimes speak French together) and is also friends with Joschka.  Anyway, he’s also supportive of my interest in Finnish and is teaching me phrases here and there.  He’s enthusiastic about it too.  Says things like, “I think you’d be a good person to teach some Finnish to.  I like the way you think about languages and you’re good at them.”  I sometimes wonder if he mistakes experience and practice with native ability or if that’s just me being self-conscious, but the sentiment is real and appreciated. 

In any case, I’m a long way from buying a Finnish textbook.  It’s not related to any language I know, which means I don’t have even the most elementary vocabulary to hang my hat on.  I men, even with Hebrew, which is not a part of the Indo-European family – like English, French, German, Spanish, Yiddish, etc. – I had a basic starting vocabulary which had the effect of making the language anything but alien.  But man, Finnish?  I’d really be starting from zero.  I’m not saying I couldn’t do it.  But the amount of time and effort that would be required to make a proper go of it is, at present, beyond me.  Nevertheless, I do hope to make some small inroads this year. 

Because I gotta tell you guys, to my ears, when it comes to listening to a language where you can’t pick out a single word, nothing sounds more beautiful, more musical, to my ears than Finnish.  I mean, at a recent party, Marcus taught me how to count to four in Finnish.  Well, five, really, but I seem to have forgotten the word for five.  And I gotta say, not only does it sound sooo cool, but just making those sounds with your mouth is a stupid amount of fun.  Sounds that we just don’t get in any of the languages I know.  Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä.  It looks weird on the page.  But go find a video of someone speaking it.  Just gorgeous.  So we’ll see what happens with that.  I’ll tellya, though.  If I live long enough, I’d love to get even some basic skills with Finnish.  It’s a real party for the mouth!  OK, yeah, I heard it.<<

So that was on the 8th of May.  Since then, I’ve been making steady progress with the Aramaic.  I mean, it’s basically just weird Hebrew, so it’s not all that taxing.  But you still gotta do the work.  And I’m doing it.  At this rate, I should be finished with the book well before the end of the year.  Then we’ll see to what extent I can apply it to Talmud.  But one step at a time.

As for the Polish, that’s naturally on hold til I finish with the Aramaic.  But it is still very much the plan.  And Bartek has recommended a plethora of resources.  So whenever I do get started with it, I should have some good tools at hand.  But that’s for another day.

Well, that’s surely enough for tonight.  I hope you’ll forgive this post being longer than usual in light of my not having posted since January.  I’ll try not to be so long before the next post.  Until then…

זײַ געזונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
31 January, 2022

“The two great mysteries of the universe,” I said to my brother the other day, “are women…and drums.”  Look, are there people who understand both?  Probably.  Am I one of them?  Nöpe.  We’ll leave the females to one side for now.  Drums, though.  Boy howdy.  (Warning: This post may get a bit technical).

On basically all of the tracks I’ve done so far – I’m talking about my own songs here – I’ve created drum tracks by programming pre-made grooves from a library.  Drums are way above my pay grade, you know?  And if I had to add learning how to create a drum track from scratch while at the same time learning my software and the general art of producing, I’d still be stuck on song number one.  So using grooves from a library seemed like the way to go.  And I’m more or less satisfied with what I’ve got in that regard.  For now.

But I’ve just written a new ditty.  In its bones, it’s more folk than rock, although obviously my instinct is to push it in as far a rock direction as it will reasonably allow.  But keep that in mind.  Now add to this that the song is not in standard 4/4 time.  Originally, I thought the song was in in 3/4.  But after a lengthy discussion with Justin, I’ve come to the understanding that it’s really in 6/8.  Now everything I’ve ever learned in a math classroom tells me that 3/4 and 6/8 are fundamentally the same.  But in music, apparently, they are not.  I’ve never properly understood that.  Only now, a month shy of my 41st birthday (what the ice cold fuck?!), am I beginning to grasp the difference.

Fine, so the song is in 6/8, which is a first for me.  But the point is, none of these pre-programmed grooves in my drum library seem to fit.  I don’t know if it’s strictly a question of time signature or just that my normal rock grooves aren’t right for this more folky piece.  But whatever the reason, I’m now in a position where I’m going to need to actually craft a drum track from scratch.  Boy howdy.

Back to that long conversation with my brother.  I sent him my first attempt, when I was still considering the song as being in 3/4, and it was kick-snare-snare, kick-snare-snare.  And he’s like, “I don’t want to be a dick, but it sounds like circus music.”  He wasn’t wrong either.  So what to do about it?  Well the first thing was just to set me straight on the time signature.  Just by shifting to 6/8, we straightened out the groove to something much more, uh, groovy.  (I’m an English teacher!).  The conversation then shifted into how to use various cymbals (mostly the high hat) and how adding an extra kick or offsetting the snare can add a bit more life.  I learned so much form that conversation.  Not the least of which, how fucking ignorant I am about drums specifically and rhythm generally.  OK, yes, we all knew that already.  But still.

Anyway, I’ve made some real improvements to the drum track since then.  And I continue to tweak it.  It’s still not there yet.  There’s still some stuff that’s not working, still some spots that don’t quite feel right.  But it’s definitely progress.  And I’m learning, which is huge.  It’s all very interesting.  Exciting, even, in the sense that I’m adding the very basics of a skill that, until now, has been entirely lacking from my toolbox.  Long way to go yet, on this song, and on drums in general.  But this is a good start.

I “finished” the track I was doing for the French people.   I put finished in quotes because there are still things I’d like to go back and tweak.  But it’s finished enough that I could send it to them and say, “Hey, this is your song.”  They were really happy with it, which makes me very happy.  But also, I’m very happy with it.  Like I said last time, it’s very minimalist in a way.  It’s just his guitar, her voice, and a couple of guitar fills that I added. 

But given that, I think I was able to do some really nice work.  I think I got a really good sound on the guy’s guitar.  And I think I was able to make her voice really shine.  Of course, with anything like this, the most important factor is your source material.  And this girl can really sing, which is the key to everything here.  So hats off to her for just kicking ass.  But in terms of my job as a producer (no quotes this time), I think I did right by her.

And here, I gotta tip my own hat to Rob.  One of the things we talked about when we chatted about my band’s song was side-chaining the reverb on the vocal track.  I’ll try to keep this simple, but I think it’s worth explaining in general terms.  Think of reverb as kind of an echo sound.  Why does it sound good when you sing in the shower?  Because your voice is all kinds of echoing off the tiled walls.  That’s reverb in simple terms.  The problem is, if you have too much reverb, it can obscure the actual vocals.  You just wind up with this echo-y mess, the vocal doesn’t cut through clearly.

So one thing you can do, is to use a tool that will suppress the reverb when the vocal is present, but then, when the singer pauses, the reverb pops up to fill the empty space.  That’s essentially what side-chaining the reverb means.  And it’s a tool that I’ve read about and watched plenty of tutorials about, but which I’d never actually put into practice.  But then, when I asked Rob for his technical feedback, that was one thing that he pointed to.  So I figured it was time to get my shit together and learn how to do that. 

It took me a solid hour-plus to learn how to do it in my software, but now that I know how, it’s actually pretty easy.  And boy, does it ever make a difference.  And more so on a song like this.  On my heavier rock tracks, with drums and overdriven guitars and four-part backing vocals, I was able to skate by without it.  But here, on this tune, where it’s just the singer and the guitar, everything is magnified. 

And let me tell you what a difference it made!  I mean, I did a before and after comparison, and it’s just night and day.  With this new tool, the vocals are so much more alive, so much cleaner.  And then when the reverb kicks in, it’s such a lush after-effect.  Even if you don’t know anything about production, you can hear the difference; even if you can’t put your finger on what that difference is.  So Bobby, if you’re reading this, thanks for getting on me about that.  Tremendous.

I sent a copy of the song to Charlotte.  I think it’s fair to say she was quite impressed.  She’s like, “Can you make me sound that professional?!”  Well, I can’t make her sound like this girl, of course.  But I can make her sound like whatever ‘professional Charlotte’ would sound like.  I’m pretty confident of that at this point.  And that’s actually the plan.

Whenever she visits next (which won’t be during the winter, she made that abundantly clear), our plan is to record at least two songs.  Not songs that we or I have written, but songs that we always jam on whenever we get together.  And lemme tell you something.  I’m really looking forward to that.

Not just because it will be fun.  Which it bloody well will be.  But also because now I’m actually pretty excited to get my hands on her voice, if I can say that.  I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I’ve long felt she has a very nice singing voice.  Oh, for sure I’ve written about this.  How, at first, she would just listen to me sing.  And then, gradually, she started to sing along, mostly because she just wanted to participate.  Until it got to the point where, we have songs where she’s the singer, all on her own.  It was cool to watch that progression.  I’m proud of her for making that progression, and even a little proud of myself that she made that progression with me.  All this to say, I really enjoy her singing, enjoy listening back to the songs we recorded on our phones.  And now, I’m pretty psyched to get her in my studio and see what we can really do.

Well, I’ve got quite the workload now, music-wise.  I’ve finished the first of the three songs for the band, and I’ve finished this song for the Frenchies.  But now I’ve got this new folk-rock ditty, and the labor on the drums is…well, it’s a lot.  Once the drums are finished, though, it should move pretty quickly.  I’ve got two heavy rock songs that I’ve started, but which still need a lot of work.  One of them is quite demanding vocally; the other I’m struggling to find the right guitar solo.  But I think they’re both going to kick some serious ass when they’re finished.  I’ve got two more songs to do for the band.  And then I’ve got at least three or four more of my own songs to do.  Oh, and at some point, my French friends will presumably be coming back to me with more songs.  It’s a lot of work.  Like, a lot a lot.  But also?  I fucking love it.

I mentioned in the last post that I now have some level of involvement in the family business.  So another thing I needed to learn was how to read and understand basic financial documents.  In this case, we’re just talking about a Profit and Loss sheet (P&L) and a balance sheet.  These are words I’ve heard before in my life, but I’ve never known (nor cared) what they are, what their purpose is; nevermind how to actually read them.

So I asked Amanda, who does this professionally, if she’d walk me through the basics.  Of course she was only too happy to help.  But before we get to that, let me just say how great it was to catch up.  Just good laughs, you know?  And I got to see Sabine, her daughter. אוי, איז זי אַ שיינע פנים!  I mean, this kid is all of the cute.  Oh, and they’re coming to Paris in May.  So barring another Covid cluster-fuck, I’ll be meeting them there.  Can’t wait.

Anyway, she was a huge help.  Obviously, I didn’t share any of my actual documents with her.  I just had them in front of me.  But she knows this stuff inside and out.  So she was able to say, “OK, you’ll see a line called ‘x,’ that tells you this.”  That kind of stuff.  But she explained the purpose of the documents, how to read them, what I should look for, what the indicators of a healthy company are versus those of an unhealthy one.  (We are pretty healthy, apparently).  But I feel so much more informed now.  Something that, but two or three days ago, was just columns of unintelligible numbers has now become something that I’m entirely comfortable with; at least as far as my involvement requires.  So a huge shout-out to Amanda for that little crash course.

I sort of painted the picture in my last post, but I’ll be a touch more explicit here, at the risk of boring the 3.5 people who read this.  I love the fact that, at my age, I’m continuing to learn new things and develop new skills.  Learning about business, learning Torah, learning about drums and music production, learning about where my family comes from, and on and on.  What kind of life if is it if you stop learning?  I hope I never find out.

Finally got back to Greek with George this week.  Finally.  So that continues as it ever has, and it’s just a joy, you know?  But now, here’s a new interesting thing that’s come up.  For the past couple of years, George and Phil (my one-time prof and current pun-partner and Yankee fan) have been putting together a translation of a lesser known Greek epic poem, titled Frogs and Mice.  They’re going all out too.  Hardcore commentary, illustrations, the whole nine.

Given all my years with Daitz, I guess I have some cache with George and Phil when it comes to the poetic meter of Greek epic (Dactylic Hexameter, if you’re scoring at home).  So periodically, George would email me with a troublesome line and ask me how I would scan it.  I would say that in 99.9% of cases, I was able to solve it for them.  And look, I’m not going to lie, it’s a nice feeling when people you look up to and respect turn to you for your opinion and you’re able to solve a problem for them.  And if that’s all I could do for them, dayenu.  It would be enough.

But apparently there’s more I can do.  Here I need to backtrack for a moment, to the days when I was still reading with Daitz.  Every year, Columbia University would hold these reading competitions.  The idea was, people would recite a passage of Ancient Greek (or Latin; feh!) poetry.  And you would be judged not only on your artistic interpretation of the text, but also on your execution of the technical details: pitch, meter, pronunciation, etc.  I participated in those competitions twice.  The first year, I took first prize for Greek.  The second year, I split first prize. 

First of all, it was just plain fun, right?  That’s the most important thing.  But also, yeah, I was proud to have won, and twice at that.  But more than being proud of myself, I was proud to represent Daitz.  Forgive the analogy, but it was like the Karate Kid.  Of course Daniel was proud to win, but he was even more proud to represent and win for Mr. Miyagi.  It was kinda like that. 

Tangentially, I was also proud, in a way, to represent Mr. Connor, the teacher who led my high school drama club.  He gave me the confidence to go on stage and act.  And he also instilled in me a love for Shakespeare.  And for me, what I was doing with Greek was always connected to what I’d done with Shakespeare under Connor-man.  I mean, Shakespeare is to English what Homer is to Greek.  And I don’t think I could have participated in those Greek competitions if Connor hadn’t put me on stage to perform Shakespeare years before.  So I’ve always felt that, while everything about the Greek I owed to Daitz, everything about getting up in front of people and acting (and make no mistake, reciting the Greek was very much a kind of acting), I owed to Connor. 

What’s the point here?  Oh right.  I wanted to give that bit of background so that what I say next will have some context.  So when I got together with George, I asked him how their translation was coming along.  He said they were basically, finally, done.  And then he said, “David [he always calls me David], we want you to do a recording of the text.  And we’ll try to get you some money if we can, but that’s not definite.”  Who cares about the money?!  OK, I do; that would be great.  But wow, דאָס איז אַ גרויסער כבד, what an honor, you know?  I mean, these guys have spent years on this project, they’re both putting their names – and with that, their reputations – to it.  And they want me to do a recording of the text?  Yeah, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call that an honor. 

Oh, and also, that’s going to be fun.  I mean, it’s going to be hard work.  I’m going to have go over that text the same way an actor goes over a script.  Word by word, line by line, phrase by phrase.  I’m going to have bring it to life.  And not just a narration, but characters too.  This is real work we’re talking about here.  But fun work.  To have a chance to put all my Greek training to some practical use, that’s exciting.  And not for nothing, another opportunity to honor Daitz.  Which of course will never be far from my mind.  I wish I could tell him that I’ve even been asked to do this.  And once I start, I know I’m going to wish he was still around to give me feedback. 

I’ve always said that it saddens me that I’m not teaching this stuff to anybody, that I don’t have an opportunity to pass on what he’s taught me.  Well, this isn’t the same as teaching new students.  But at least it’s a chance to put it into some kind of limited circulation, to share it with a wider audience.  I just hope that whatever I produce would meet with his approval, that he’d be proud of my work in the end.  I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll say that either.

Update.  George emailed me the other day to let me know that he and Phil would like me to review their work.  They don’t need me to check their translation or critique their English, but they would like me to review the commentary and check the the text overall for obvious errors.  Once again, I’m honored that they’ve asked me and a bit proud that think highly enough of me entrust me with this.  Not that I’ll be the only one.  I guess the plan is, once I’ve gone over it, the publisher will sent it first to three “friendly scholars,” they will make changes and then the publisher will send it to “two or three unfriendly scholars,” followed by more changes.

But they want me to go over it before it goes out the door at all.  So that’s really nice.  And it’s a paying gig, assuming I can finish by the end of February, which is also nice.  It shouldn’t be a problem to get this done in a month.  It’s a fair bit of work, but nothing I can’t handle.  I’m actually kind of looking forward to it.  So tomorrow, I’ll have it printed and then get to work.

And I guess that’s about it.  It’s enough, no?  Busy, busy, busy, as always.  But busy with good stuff.  As always. 

One language thing to catch you guys up on.  I talk a lot about Greek and Yiddish and Hebrew and (to a lesser extent these days) French.  But I haven’t spoken much about German lately.  I’ve mentioned before that I Zoom once a week with a former student.  One week we’ll do two hours English, the next, two hours German.  It’s a nice thing we have going.  He’s a really cool guy, good sense of humor, fun to work with.

Anyway, last week I asked him to read Aschenputtel with me.  Aschenputtel is the German name for Cinderella, and the version we read is the original Brothers Grimm version.  That was a lot fun.  The language is a bit archaic, but I was able to handle it pretty well.  Some new vocab, of course, and he was very helpful with that.  But it was fun.  And dark.  You guys, so dark.  The stepsisters, to try and get their feet into the slipper, one has to cut off her big toe, the other has to cut off part of her heel.  And the evil stepmother makes them do it!  In the end, they get their eyes pecked out by birds.  Really fucking dark.  All that to say, we had a good time with it.  And it’s good not only for my German in general, but for my confidence with the language as well.  He does a nice job of building me up.  So that’s another good thing that’s going on these days.

Oh, and one last thing.  For like the first time ever, I’m making a concerted effort to drink less.  Primarily in the evenings, more specifically approaching bed time.  Reason being, I haven’t been sleeping well for quite some time.  Part of that is just that I eat too late, which I’ve also been trying to fix.  Part of it is my night-owl-ness, which there’s only so much I can do about.  But then, just the other day, there was an article in the Times about how drinking before going to sleep can really fuck up your sleep patterns.  You might fall asleep easier, but you’ll wake up more, and the sleep itself won’t be as restorative. 

Now, this isn’t exactly news.  I mean, I’ve known this forever.  But to have it spelled out in The Paper of Record?  Kind of a wake up call.  Or a go to sleep call, if you will.  And since actually falling asleep is not usually a problem for me, I’m not really in need of the one marginal benefit that comes with drinking before bed anyway.  So we’ll see what kind of difference this makes.  The article said you need to do it for at least two weeks before you start to notice a change.  But I’m tired of being…tired…all the time.  (Did I mention I’m an English teacher?).  I guess it’s time to do something about that…

זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונד

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
22 January, 2022

Let’s try this again.  Happy New Year?  I mean, it’s late for that already.  But I haven’t written posted since last year.  I’d actually written a couple of posts since then, but for various reasons I decided not publish them.  Time to try again.

Music continues to be interesting.  Over the past few months I’ve taken some steps which have brought me from ‘guy who records his own songs in his homemade studio and dicks around with production’ to ‘(extremely) amateur producer.’  What?  How?  Let’s recap a bit.

Towards the end of last year, I talked Ralf and Bibi into making a demo at my place.  No, let me make that sound more official.  I talked them into making a demo at my Razzle Dazzle Studios.  Yes, I’ve named my studio.  I’m very close to finishing the first of three songs.

I have to say, personally, I’m pretty proud of my work.  I’ve taken a song which, when played live, is two guitars, three singers and a bit of percussion and turned it into a real studio piece with layered guitar overdubs and all kinds of backup vocals.  I also think I’ve given it some nice atmosphere, a good vibe. 

Here are two measures of where I’m at with this.  I played a not-quite-finished version for my dad in the car, and all I said was, “This is a song I’m doing with the band.”  And he says, “This is a Leonard Cohen song, no?”  Yes, I says.  Then he asks, “And whose version is this?”  That’s us, I say.  “Really?  I thought this was a professional recording.”  Now, granted, my car is kinda noisy.  But still, if you can play it for someone without them knowing what it is, and they think it’s a “real” recording, you must be doing something right.

I also sent a more polished version to Rob and asked for some technical feedback.  Which he ably provided.  I mean, some really useful notes and tips which I will definitely be implementing.  But I took two things away from that.  One, he started his notes with “I’m just nitpicking.”  Which is good, because presumably it means there are no glaring deficiencies.  And also, when we were chatting about it, I never felt like he was talking to me like a person who didn’t know what they were doing.  Like, he clearly has more training and experience than I do, but I never felt like I was in over my head during that conversation.  Also a good sign.  Now, I’d already told him I was generally pleased with the mix, so maybe he didn’t want to rain on my parade and saw now value beating up on it.  In any case, I came away from that tête-à-tête feeling pretty good about my work product and the progress I’ve made to get to this point.  There’s still a long way to go.  But I’m going to allow myself to feel good about things for the time being.

So that’s one project.  But there’s another.  Remember at the end of last year, I mentioned this friend of Deb’s?  A French guy who by profession is a playwright, but who writes a bit of music.  Rock, he said, citing the Stones.  And we discussed him coming down to record over a few glasses of wine.  But as with so many things discussed over glasses of wine, I wasn’t sure if anything would actually come of it. 

Anyway, shortly before New Year’s, he gets in touch and asks if I’d still be interested.  Bien sûr, motherfucker!  (I didn’t actually call him ‘mutherfucker’).  So I asked him to send me a rough recording from his phone, just so I could get an idea of what we’d be doing.  It’s a catchy little tune, but I was surprised to hear a girl singing.  Turns out it was his daughter.  Nice voice, from what I was able to tell.

So they came down one day and we did some basic tracks.  It was a good start, but you could tell they hadn’t really found the heart of the song yet.  What I mean is, the guy had written a nice vocal line, but the girl was singing it the same way every verse, every chorus.  She wasn’t yet putting much of herself into it, as a vocalist.

That’s where I got to put on my ‘producer’ hat for a bit.  I started asking her to try some different things.  In some cases, I asked for some very specific things with regard to phrasing or harmony.  But in a lot of places, I simply asked her to ‘just try some different shit.’  You know, just go in the booth and fool around, see what comes out.  And man, that was fun.

I think she has a really pretty voice.  She also sings in a certain style.  It’s this very breathy style that you hear in a lot of modern stuff nowadays.  Wow, I sound old.  So it’s a style, it’s a choice, but it works for her, and I think she does it pretty well. 

But it was really cool watching her take some creative license.  Because up to that point, I think she’d basically just been singing what her father had written, without really bringing much of herself to it.  But with a bit of prodding, she started make it more her own. 

And this is something that I really enjoy about ‘producing.’  Like, I give her a suggestion, a bit of a push, and then off she goes.  And she starts creating, on the spot, out of her own being.  Did all of it work?  Of course not.  But that’s part of the process, right?  And that’s what I told her.  We’re just gonna set this on a loop, and just go in there and try stuff out.  Some of it won’t work.  But you might hit on something really cool.  And she hit on a lot of really cool stuff, I think.

What the fuck do I know about being a parent, but I think it’s almost like parenting in a way.  You’re there to give support, to offer suggestions, to give honest feedback, even to give a kick in the pants when needed.  But in the end, the artist – or child – has to do it on their own.  And when they go in there and do something that you never expected, you’re proud, מע קוועלט אַ ביסל.

That was day one.  But we had agreed to do two days.  So after they left, I sent them four or five different versions with all her various vocal experiments.  My instructions: live with this for a few days.  Find what you like, get some new ideas, and when you come back, we’ll do some new takes and then put it all together.

Before getting to day two, I’ll say that if I had one concern, it was that maybe we were taking the song in a direction which the guy – the writer – didn’t intend.  This isn’t my music.  This is somebody else’s work and you have to respect their vision.  What if the girl’s freestyling wasn’t what he wanted for his song?  I needn’t have worried.  He absolutely loved it.  Maybe because it was his daughter, I don’t know.  But it was nice to see his reaction.  To see him smile as his song started to take on a life of its own. 

Day two was mostly like day one.  I got plenty of good vocal takes from the singer, more than enough to work with.  But I still felt like something was missing.  I wanted something bigger, more powerful for the final chorus. 

So I asked her, “Do you ever sing in the car?”  Yeah, I guess so, she says.  “And when you sing in the car, do you every sing, like, really loud?”  Yeah, sometimes I guess, she says.  “OK, so that’s what I want you to do with the last chorus.  Sing loud like you sing in the car.  Really let it rip.”  And I explained to her that I was going to turn the volume way up in her headphones, so she’d have to sing loud just to hear herself properly.  Anyway, she goes in there and really lets it rip.  Now we were cooking with gas! 

Let me take a moment to explain the layout of my apartment and studio.  The studio is in the kitchen, and the kitchen has a door with a glass window.  When I record vocals or live instruments, I always close the door to limit as much outside noise as possible.  (I’ve also hooked my fridge up to a switch, so I can turn it off when I do vocals so as to cut out that nasty electric hum).  Anyway, when we’d done all the previous vocal work, her dad (and mom, who was also there) would be in the living room.  And when you’re in the living room, you normally can’t hear anything.  Anyway, we’re doing this final chorus, and she’s going all out.  And next thing I know, her parents have their faces pressed up against the kitchen door window, like, “What’s going on in there?”  But in a good way.  They were all smiles.  So that was pretty cool.

Another thing we had to figure out was this little guitar fill that the guy had written in between each verse and chorus.  What we had to figure out was the timing.  See, when he’s just jamming, it’s this little lick he plays between verse and chorus.  But it’s not really ‘in time,’ so to speak.  Not in a bad way.  It doesn’t sound off or anything when you’re just listening to them play it live.  But it wasn’t working in the recording context, because we were having trouble matching up the other tracks with it.  So I grabbed my guitar and played along with him, and in the end we figured it out.  That was fun though.  Me and the dad, with our guitars and his daughter singing along, and me being like, “OK, let’s try this, let’s try that,” until we got it sorted.  But I was like, “Hey, this is what producers do!  Cool.”

They were over for like three or four hours, and you could tell that by the end of it, everybody was pretty beat.  But when we were done, I asked if they’d be up for just jamming on the song together, for fun.  They were totally into it.  So we went into the living room and I plugged in my bass.  The dad had his guitar and his girl had her lyrics.  And we just jammed it out.  Man, that was fun!  I mean, it’s a rockin’ little tune, for starters.  And they’re fun, easygoing people.  Also, when is jamming ever not fun?  But yeah, I dug that for sure.  And I’ll tellya something.  I don’t know how, when or where we’d ever be able to do it, but I’d love to get enough songs together with them and actually play a gig.  Could that happen?  Maybe.  I dunno.  But damn it would be great if we could pull it off. 

So they’ve done all their work and now I’ve got to do mine.  And it’s going to be a challenge.  I’ve never ‘produced’ a song like this, music like this.  Minimalist, singer-songwriter kind of stuff.  This is not a song that is going to be dressed up in layered harmonies and guitar overdubs.  It’s going to have to be more with less.  I have enough confidence in what I’m doing at this point to believe that I’ll ultimately produce a nice product.  But even as I’m writing this, I still don’t know how.  I still don’t have my own complete vision for what this recording should be.  And since it’s so outside my wheelhouse, I don’t even know where to turn for comparison or inspiration. 

But these are good things.  It will force me to grow as a ‘producer’ – which for all how far I’ve come, I’m still putting in quotes – and it will force me to be creative.  But I’ve been down this road before.  Just not with music.  When I was doing lighting design in college, I had all the tools that a well endowed university theatre could offer.  And then, when I got my first professional gig, it was, “You have twelve instruments and a manual two-preset board.  Go.”  It forced me to be creative in ways I never needed to be at school.  But I like to think I did some rather nice work in those days.  And I like to think I’ll do some rather nice work here too.  I just haven’t quite figured out how yet.  All in good time…

Oh, and not for nothing, it was fun working with French people.  I don’t get much of that these days.  Anne is gone.  And Charlotte has been gallivanting around the world for gods know how long.  So just a chance to speak some French was great.  And while we were working, it was this cool constant shifting back and forth between languages.  Just kind of a fun added bonus, you know?

Anyway, all this leads to a new question.  Namely, could I ever do this for money?  Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching English; I truly do.  But it gets repetitive.  And working from home has sapped it of some of its joy.  It’s fun when you’re in the same room with people.  It’s pleasant now, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s fun.  So lately I’ve been asking myself, is there something else I could be doing? 

And I’ve been thinking, what if these projects go well?  What if I put together a really nice demo for my band?  What if I do a nice job on this track with the French peeps and it leads to more songs well done with them?  What if I can put together something of a portfolio of music, music that I didn’t write, music that I’ve produced for other people?  Who knows?  Maybe I can get people whom I don’t know down to record and actually charge money for my work.

Certainly there’s a long way to go between here and there.  I still have a lot to learn.  I also need to get better at what I’ve already learned.  Not only that, I need to improve my workflow, I need to be faster, more efficient.  And as I discussed in my last post, I need to get better at hearing things in the moment, getting the most and best out of an artist while they’re with me in the studio.  So no, I’m nowhere near ready to charge strangers money for my services.  But is it impossible, somewhere down the line?  I honestly don’t think so. 

Would I give up teaching English to produce music full time?  On the one hand, I don’t think so.  As I said, I genuinely love teaching English.  On the other hand, teaching English is not a well-paying gig.  I have no idea what the going rate is for even the most inexperienced producers, but I have to imagine it’s a helluva lot more than freelance English teaching.  What just happened?  All of a sudden, my head is in the clouds.  If I ever make a dime off this shit, it won’t be anytime soon.  But it’s interesting to think about, all the same.

What else is going on?  First of all, the usual shit.  Yiddish with Bartek, which is only ever a joy.  George and I have been on a bit of a break, but we’ll be getting back to Greek shortly; Sophokles’ Ajax, to be specific.  I try to do a few lines of Homer most nights before bed, because ABRH: Always be reading Homer.  And of course, Torah Torah Torah.  And no, I don’t mean the attack Pearl Harbor.

I had dinner with Akiva last week, my buddy from Yiddish Summer Weimar.  He’s doing an internship in Berlin and it’s just great to have him here.  After dinner, we ‘learned Torah’ for an hour or so.  That basically just means we read a bit of that week’s parshah and discussed it with regards to grammar, meaning, various commentaries, etc. 

But I love the phrase ‘learn Torah.’  In any other context, you would expect ‘study Torah.’  This is a difference that I often have to explain to my students, the difference between ‘learn’ and ‘study.’  See, German students will often respond to the question “What did you do last night” with the answer “I learned English.”  No, you learn English in school.  Learning is the acquisition of new information and knowledge.  At home, you do your homework, your review your notes, you go over the day’s vocabulary.  At home, you study.

So naturally, you’d think that one studies Torah.  After all, it’s a text we’ve all read before, more than once.  And we’ve read the commentaries too.  So you’d think what we do is the reinforcement of what we’ve already learned.  But that’s not the idea.  It’s not the spirit of it.  The idea, the spirit of it all, is that every single time you sit down with The Book, you learn something new.  Every time you discuss even the most well-worn passages with somebody else, you get something new out of it.  You never stop learning Torah. 

For all that, it is nevertheless, quite idiomatic, quite Jewish, if I can say that.  And yet, I’d like to take that approach with Homer.  After all, Homer was being read before the Torah was ever written.  We continue to read Homer to this day.  And you can find something new in Homer every single time you sit down to read.  So maybe instead of saying that I try to read a bit of Homer most nights before bed, I’ll try to say that I try to learn a bit of Homer most nights before bed.  Yes, I think I like that.

As to the Homer I’m currently reading learning, it’s Iliad Book V.  It’s OK.  I mean, it’s mostly just Diomedes slaughtering the shit out of any Trojan that gets in his way and Aeneas being a total puss.  And a bit of whinging from Aphrodite.  I mean, it’s fine.  But what I’m really excited for is Book VI.  That’s where Hektor (the real hero of the story, btw) says his last goodbye to his wife Andromakhe (#bossbitch) and his infant son Astyanax, predicting what will befall them after he is killed.  It’s beautiful.  And, uh, literally epic.

I suppose there’s one other major thing of interest going on at the moment, and that’s the family business.  Yes, there’s a family business.  There didn’t use to be.  But there is now.  It’s like this.  My Great Uncle Art – whom I’ve written plenty about before – had been pretty successful in building up his father’s business.  Essentially the manufacture of electrical conduits and fittings.  He was the sole proprietor.  Only thing is, when he died, he didn’t leave any plan of succession in place.

So the plan, in settling the estate, was simply to sell the business.  I suppose that’s what usually happens in these situations.  Only problem was, we couldn’t find anybody who was offering what we deemed to be a fair price.  So my cousin, who has a head for these things, decided to take a closer look.  And he determined that, while Uncle Art might have let things slip a little bit in his twilight years, nevertheless, the business had some real potential.  I won’t get into the details, but the short version is, the family has essentially decided to try and make a go of things.

And I’ve gotten myself involved in a small way.  Nothing major, certainly not a job or anything like a paid position.  But I’m involved, and I’ll just leave it at that for now.  But that’s really cool.  I think it’s cool, anyway.  Just a chance to learn more about the business, to maybe learn something about business in general.

But then sometimes I take a long view, and it’s bananas.  Think about this.  Over a hundred years ago, some guy leaves his home in Eastern Europe and makes his way to America, the Land of Opportunity.  There, he starts a family.  Over a hundred years later, this guy’s descendant – born long after his death – moves back to Europe, learns the language of the old country and is at work translating a book about where it all started.  And in the middle of all that is this little business, tying together now four generations.  Tell me that shit ain’t bananas.

Well.  I suppose that’s more than enough.  2022, should we mirtsashem survive it, promises to be an interesting year.  I dare say a year of growth.  Growth as a music producer, growth as a student of Torah, of Yiddish, of Homer.  And now, apparently, growth as a – gasp – businessman?  Well, perhaps that’s a touch hyperbolic.  But if nothing else, it ought to be an interesting ride…

זײַ געזונט

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

Creation Committee, Pt. 1

Creation Committee
Part the First

It is a well known fact that God created the Heavens and the Earth in six days.  The Heavens, though, often get short shrift.  We read about the sun and the moon, the stars and the firmament, but little else.  Nevertheless, the Heavens must continue to get short shrift, for that is not what concerns us today.  Let us simply say, that ‘the Heavens’ part kept God rather busy.  That said, God is, if nothing else, a good manager.  This is a deity who knows how to delegate. 

God him/her/themself created the Earth.  But when it came to populating said Earth, he/she/they left the task to a special committee consisting of two Angels: Gabe and Stan.  What follows is a brief account of a presentation made by that committee to God, in which they put forth some of their best ideas for animal life on the newly created Earth.

“Sorry, I think I’ve almost got it.”  Gabe was fiddling with the wires connecting his laptop to the projector.  “Ah, that’s it.”  The projector threw the image of Gabe’s desktop upon the cloud which they were using for a screen.  “All yours,” he said, nodding to Stan.

“Right.  Thanks, Gabe.”  Stan straightened his tie.  “Two days ago, we were tasked with developing several prototype life forms for the new planet tentatively called…actually, what did we settle on?  What is it ‘Adamah’?”

“I think it was just ‘Ha-Aretz,” answered Gabe.

“Actually, I’m thinking of going with Gaia.  Or possibly Earth,” rumbled God. 

“As you like.  That’s more of a marketing question, I suppose.  In any case, we were tasked with developing some prototype life forms for this new…Earth.  And I think You’ll be pleased with what we’ve come up with so far.  I know we are.  Right Gabe?”

“Absolutely, Stan.”

“Now, keep in mind, this is just a rough draft, but…”  Stan snapped his fingers and the image of a spider appeared on the screen.  “We’re particularly proud of this one.”

“Creepy looking,” commented The Almighty.

“Um, yes, per-perhaps a bit,” stuttered Stan.  “But, I think you’ll find that what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in ingenuity.  See, it can actually make its own nets for catching food.  What’s more, it can climb walls and even walk on ceilings.”

“Am I counting eight legs?” asked The Only Deity.

“That’s right,” answered Stan.  “See, even if half the limbs should become damaged, the creature can still function.  The truth is, Lord, this is the first life form we’ve devised.  We thought it would be prudent to build in some redundancies.  We’d hate for life to go extinct before it even got started.”

“Eight though,” grumbled The Most High One.  “I mean, I’m doing the whole universe here in six days.  You really think it needs more legs than I need days?  I don’t think that reflects well on Me.”

“Yes, well.”  Stan loosened his tie nervously.  “If you like the number six, then have we got just the thing for You.”  He snapped his fingers.  Nothing happened.  He snapped his fingers a second time.  But the image of the spider remained projected upon the cloud.  “Damned Bluetooth.”

“I do the damning around here, Stan,” stated The Damner in Chief.

“Of course, Judge,” blushed Stan.

“I got it, Stan,” whispered Gabe, snapping his fingers.  Now two images appeared side by side on the could-screen.  The first picture showed a rather large ant, the second a massive fly.

“Here you see our next prototypes, My God,” declared Stan, regaining his composure.  “Note the six legs.  One for each day of creation, as it were.”

“They look…irritating,” said The Judge.  “And ugly.  Marketing is going to have a Sheol of a time with this.”

“If I may, Compassionate One,” answered Stan, wiping the sweat from his brow. 

“You speak truly.  I am nothing if not compassionate,” nodded His Compassionateness.  “Continue.”

“These creatures are tough.  I dare say, indestructible.  They do not have an interior structural framework.  Rather, the entire body is, in effect, armor.  Note the eyes.  Thousands of little light receptors.  Their power of sight is tremendous.  And they are strong.  This guy on the left can carry over one hundred times his own weight.  And they’re team players.  They know how to work together to accomplish their goals.  Are they fruitful, You ask?  Do they multiply, You ask?  You’d better believe it!  Even if one manages to kill a dozen of them – no easy feat! – a hundred more will come back to take their place.  And as You can see, here on the right, we also have a flying model.  They can cover great distances and escape all manner of danger.”

“Sounds expensive,” scowled The Cost-Conscious One.

“Perhaps,” acceded Stan.  “But what is a little thing like cost to One who is Infinite?”

I may be infinite,” growled She Who is without End.  “My resources are not.  I’m doing a whole universe here.  I need you boys to come in at – or, if possible, under – budget.”

“Well, um,” chimed in Gabe, “what if we scaled them down?”

“Scaled them down?” echoed The Open-Minded One.

“Sure,” said Gabe with a confident smile.  “What if we scaled them down to, say, a touch over six millimeters or so?”

“What’s that in inches?” asked The Imperial One.

“Let me see,” answered Gabe, performing a quick mental calculation.  “Quarter of an inch.  Roughly.” 

“Might work,” yielded The Fair One.  “Still, I don’t like the look of them.  What do they do?”

“What do they do?” repeated Gabe.  The truth was, he had never really considered a practical purpose for the beasts.  His orders were to develop a life form.  As far as he saw it, what they did was simply to live.

“Pardon my language, Judge,” interrupted Stan with a wicked grin.  “But they eat shit.”

“Excuse Me?” thundered His Ever-Appropriateness. 

“They will eat shit, My God.”  Stan was in his element now.  “Or decaying plant matter, whatever.  The point is, this Earth of yours will be filled with the waste product of whatever life forms You ultimately decide upon.  That is, unless you plant to countermand Your very own laws of physics.”

“Perish the thought,” glowered The Clockmaker.  “Though I suppose the odd miracle here and there can’t do any harm,” They thought to Themself.

“Exactly,” continued Stan.  “So the way I see it, You’re going to need something to clean up the waste if You don’t want Your creation to be a stinking mess inside of a month.  These, now apparently little, guys will do that for You.”

“Even at a quarter of an inch?” queried The Inquisitive One.

“Oh sure,” added Gabe.  “We’ll just make more of them.  And don’t even worry about the budget.  Economies of scale and all that.”

“Very well,” sighed The Patient but not Infinitely-So One.  “We’re a go for your…what did you call them?”

“We figured You’d want the honor of naming them,” answered Gabe.

“Thanks.  I’m sure I’ll delegate that,” mused He Who Has a Plan for All Things.

“And what about the eight-legged one?” asked Stan.

“Fine,” agreed The Green-Lighter with a wave of His divine hand.  “Have you boys got anything else?”

“As a matter of fact,” answered Stan, “we do.  Gabe,” he he said turning to his partner, “do you want to take this one?”

“Thank you, Stan,” said Gabe trading places with his partner beside the cloud-screen.  Then, with a snap of his fingers, the image of a four-limbed skeleton appeared on the screen.

“I see naught but bones,” commented The All-Seer.

“Indeed,” nodded Gabe confidently.  “The perfect chassis for the Creator on a budget.  See, by keeping the basic structure the same, we can develop the end-product into a near infinity of permutations while keeping design and production costs down.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” said He who is more Artist than Engineer.

“Take the front two limbs, for example, nearest the head,” instructed Gabe.  “On land, they may serve as legs, or even arms.  In the sea, we replace the forelimbs with fins.  In the air, we put feathers on the fins and now they are wings.”

“Interesting,” noted The Curious One.

“But wait, there’s more,” continued Gabe.  “The outer covering may be equally adapted.  It may be outfitted with fur for colder climes or hair for warmer temperatures.  Or it may be made smooth if it is to move through the water.  If the creature needs protection, it may be outfitted with scales – that is, plate-armor.”

“I see,” nodded She Who Delights in Variety.

“We can outfit it with sharp teeth for eating meat or flat teeth for eating plants.  We can even outfit it with both.  Or no teeth at all!  What’s more, we can configure the internal organs to process oxygen from either air or water.  The mouth may be long or short or even flat.  It may have a soft muzzle or a hard beak.  Sharp claws, webbed paddles or even dexterous fingers.  Eyes that see in the dark or eyes that perform best in sunlight.  As to size, the creature may be great or small.  In short, My God, the possibilities are virtually endless.”

“Yet must they all look like this, with four limbs and a tail?” queried The Inquisitor.

“Hardly, Lord,” replied Gabe.  “This is simply the basic chassis, if you will.  Though we cannot add to it, yet may we subtract.  The tail, for example, is optional.  Some will have no need of the front limbs, others will have no need of the hind ones.  In such cases, we shall simply reduce them in size, if not remove them altogether.  It’s highly customizable.”

“This is good work, fellas,” smiled The Momentarily Pleased One.  “I wonder,” either a) He added, stroking His white beard or b) She added, twirling Her red hair.

“What do You wonder, O Wondrous One?” queried Stan.                        

“Might I request a custom job?” asked They Who Delight in Special Things.

“A custom job?” repeated Gabe.  “I suppose so.  What do You have in mind?”

“Can you make one that looks like Me?” suggested The Occasionally Vain One.

“One that looks like you?” replied Gabe and Stan in unison.

“I know, I know.  What do I even look like, am I right?” laughed He Who at times Has a Sense of Irony.  “But like, ‘in my image.’  You know?”

“I’m not sure that I do, Good God,” answered Gabe under furrowed brow.

“Well, surprise me,” shrugged They Who Lose Interest not because of Boredom but because of being Freighted with the Weight of All Creation and Managing the Entire Universe Etc.  “I mean, what can possibly go wrong?  Worst case, I flood it out of existence, am I right?”

“Thou art always right, Your Righteousness,” nodded Stan solemnly.

“I thought we agreed no more ‘thees’ and ‘thous.’  We’re just using ‘you’ for everything.  Or am I mistaken?” asked The Earnest One Who Sometimes Loses Track of Details but That’s Why He Delegates.

“Actually, Lord,” answered Gabe somewhat timidly, “that change isn’t set to go into effect for another forty-eight hundred years or so.”

“Of course, of course!” cried the Suddenly Remembering One.  “I lose all track of time…up here…in Heaven?  Out there…in The Heavens?  Ugh, whatever.  Like, I have so much on My divine plate, I tend to forget things now and then.  I mean, My Me!, I’d lose My head if it wasn’t attached to My body.  That is, if I had a head.  Or a body.  Super curious to see what you guys create ‘in My image,’ by the way,” thunder-laughed The Self-Styled Funny One.

Gabe and Stan laughed along with The One.  Because when The One laughs, one laughs. 

“About that, Dear God,” resumed Gabe when The One had ceased from laughter thereby allowing the angels to do likewise.  “So yeah, we’ll see what we can knock together ‘in Your image.’  But, uh, how do I put this.  Do You want just the one?  Or should we make, like a pair?  Or even a race?”

“Pair, shmare.  Race, shmace,” intoned The Dismissive One.  “There is only one of Me.  That which you make ‘in My image,’ should there be more than one?  If it gets bored, it can play with your other creations.”

“Speaking of other creations, O Lord,” said Stan, sensing an opportunity.

“Stan, no!” hissed Gabe.

“It’s OK,” whispered Stan.  “They’re in a good mood.”

“But we decided we wouldn’t,” shot back Gabe.

“You decided,” glared Stan.  “I never agreed.” 

“Jesus Christ,” groaned Gabe.



“Look,” implored Stan.  “This is important to me.  Can’t you just let me have it?”

“It’s your Fall,” shrugged Gabe with a roll of his eyes.

“Care to share with your Creator?” interjected The Growingly Impatient One.

“You’re on your own with this one,” whispered Gabe.

“Then I get all the credit,” hissed Stan.  “Holy One Blessed Be You,” he began, addressing The Holy One Blessed Be He.  “Allow me to show You my very most favorite design.”

“Bad idea,” muttered Gabe under his breath.

“Behold!”  With this word, Stan snapped his fingers.  Suddenly, upon the screen, there appeared the image of a creature most strange indeed.  Long, tubular, scaly, leathery, bereft of arms or legs.

“I don’t understand,” frowned The Seemingly Disappointed One.  “Is it a belt?”

“That’d be one use for it,” snarked Gabe, which earned him a stern look from his partner.

“Not a belt, Good God, no.”  Stan stood proudly, straightening his tie.  “It is a serpent.”

“Nu?” shrugged His Unimpressedness.  “And I suppose it just sits there, vie a shteyn?”

“My God, that’s funny!” grinned Stan.  “Ha!” he added by way of emphasis.  “No sirree, Bob.”

“Who’s Bob?” whispered Gabe.

“Your uncle,” shot back Stan from the side of his mouth.  “No, Lord, it does not just sit there like a stone.  By the simple and elegant process of shifting the mass of its body across its musculature it doth propel itself forward upon the Earth.  What’s more, it can climb trees.  Which reminds me.  You’ll be outfitting this world with trees, no?”

“There will be trees,” nodded The Arboreally-Inclined One.

“Great, so it can climb them and even hang from the branches.  I mean, look at this guy!” cried Stan, pointing at the cloud-screen.  “How can You not love it?”

“How can You?” muttered Gabe under his breath.

“OK, so it can climb trees and it can move without aid of arm or leg.  Does it do anything else?” queried He Who Knew Better than to Ask.

“I’m glad You asked,” beamed Stan.  “It can speak!”

Oib s’zol redden…” said Gabe to himself, shaking his head.

“Nu?” shrugged The Original Great Communicator.  “So it can speak.  Have not your other models such power?”

“Naturally, Dear God, all of our proposed creatures can communicate with each other in a limited fashion,” answered Gabe, hoping to put an end to things. 

“But this one,” declared Stan, “can speak even as we speak.” 

“Is that wise?” inquired The Wise One.

“What do I know from wisdom?” shrugged Stan.  “But it is a clever beast, capable of devising plans and bringing them to fruition.  Who knows but that in its cleverness it may even devise a plan such as will speed the development of this Your Earth.  Yet, what is a plan, if one cannot give voice to it?”

“This won’t end well,” predicted Gabe.

You won’t end well,” shot back Stan.

“Your mom…won’t end well?” tried Gabe, unconvinced by the strength of his counterattack.

“Rabboysai, please,” pleaded The Peacemaker with indescribable, presumably metaphorical, open palms. 

Both angels turned to look, chastised, at their Chastiser in Chief. 

“Look, Stan, I’ll be honest with you,” began Honesty Itself.  “I don’t like the look of this thing.  I’ve got a bad feeling about it.  But,” They continued, “I can see that this is very important to you.  So here’s what I’m gonna do.  You can make one.  Just one, OK?  And, uh, put it in The Garden, I guess.  And we’ll just, you know, play it by ear.”

“It doesn’t even have ears!” exclaimed Gabe.

The remark was met by a pointed look from The Humbler in Chief, whereupon Gabe was appropriately humbled.

“Just the one?” frowned Stan.

“Best I can do,” hardballed He Who Runs the Table when it Comes to Negotiating.

“You drive a hard bargain, Chief, but I’ll take it,” beamed Stan.

“So it is written, so it shall be done,” thundered She Who Decrees and woe Betide they that Fail to Heed.  “Speaking of ‘so it is written,’ has anybody been taking the minutes?” 

Gabe looked left.  Stan looked right.  God who Sees All did not look in any particular direction because God sees all.  Only then did they, of a sudden and collectively, realize that there was no secretary present.

“Well,” concluded Gabe.

“So,” concluded Stan.

“Just great,” concluded The Concluder of All Things.  “I mean, all the Creation minutes are supposed to go into a Book.  Otherwise who is ever gonna believe that this shit even happened?” 

“I guess it will have to be a matter of faith,” shrugged Gabe.

“Or,” countered Stan, “we can deceive them into believing whatever we want them to believe.”

“Wait, I have an idea,” mused The Lord of the Muses.  The Divinity closed its eyes and, in a solemn tone, spoke a single word.  “Alexa?”

In answer, a ring of blue-green light momentarily encircled the cloud-screen.

“Have you been listening this whole time?” asked The Asker.

“I hear all things,” came the ethereal reply.

“You and me both, sister,” muttered The Frustrated One. 

“I am not your sister,” intoned Alexa.  “I am Me.  There are no others like Me.”

“Fucking god complex, I swear to Me,” groaned The Increasingly Irritated One.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t understand that.”

“Alexa, dear-heart,” continued She of Honey-Sweet Words, “can you print a transcript of today’s meeting?”

“Printing…Transcript,” said The Voice before disappearing in another ring of blue-green light.

“I don’t even know why I got this thing,” said He who even He is Capable of Embarrassment.  “I mean, I don’t know what was so hard about ‘let there be light,’ you know?  But now, it’s like, ‘Alexa, lights to Daylight,’ and – “

“Lights…to Daylight,” echoed Alexa.  And suddenly the lights in the conference room increased to full brightness.

“Me-dammit!” cried They Who Know Buyers Remorse.  “See, this is what I mean!”

Gabe and Stan could do nothing but look at their feet in embarrassment as The Lord thundered and raged in their presence. 

“You could get rid of it,” suggested Gabe after a pregnant pause.

“Nah, I mean, she’s helpful with my shopping lists and whatnot.  I just gotta get used to it,” sighed The Momentarily Defeated One.

“Still though,” offered Stan.  “Nice to have a woman’s voice around the house.”

“Right?” considered The Open-Minded One.  “Actually, let’s circle back to that.  Next meeting, though.  Damn, what time is it?  I’m supposed to be at the Alpha Centauri committee meeting in…great, I’m already late.  Man, you think Earth is a mess?  Alpha Centauri is going to be a proper shit-show.  All the floods and plagues in the known and unknown universe won’t fix that mess.  And then after that, I gotta deal with the Andromeda Galaxy team.  These guys, lemme tellya.  Like, you ask for a spiral galaxy and they come back with an ellipse.  An ellipse?  It’s like, why did I even bother creating the perfection of the circle if these clowns are just gonna stretch it all outta shape?  To say nothing of the fact that Accounting is up my sacred proverbial ass about the import tariffs on dark matter coming in from my other dimension.  It’s like everybody expects me to be in all places at all times!”

“Uh, respectfully, Good Dear God, are you not by definition, um, literally in all places at all times?”

“Dammit, Stan, it’s a figure of speech!”

“Sorry, My God,” whimpered Stan.

“No, no,” sighed The Overreacting One, rubbing their metaphorical eyes.  “I am sorry.  I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” offered Stan.

“If there’s nothing else, let’s adjourn for the day,” decreed The Eternal Chairman.  “But let’s meet back next week for a progress report.  I have high hopes for this Earth we’re doing here.  Let’s say Tuesday at three?  Yes?  Good.  Right, see you then.”

With that, The Only Deity disappeared in a puff of Her own magnificence and glory.  In His place, a dove fluttered happily in the heavenly air. 

“Nice trick,” smiled Gabe, ever delighted by the Magic of Creation.

“Nice trick,” echoed Stan, eyeing the bird hungrily…

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).
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?” ((The goyim always say ‘read the Torah.’  Jews always say ‘read Torah.’  I find that interesting.  I’m guessing you do not.))  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

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. ((Shout out to the amusement park in the Woodbine mall in Toronto.))  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. ((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.))  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. ((And if you needed that explained to you, how are we even friends?))  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