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

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 April, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of celebrations, did you know I recently turned 40. ((#fml))  Joschka, bless his heart, had planned a special night for me.  First of all, he organized a Zoom.  Actually, two Zooms.  One, with all our metal friends from around Germany.  The second, with a bunch of people from home.  That was really special.  But it was also just the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne, meanwhile.  So that bitch up and left.  I’m kidding.  Kinda.  Nah, look. She’d been unhappy here for some time, and I knew that.   She was done with Berlin.  Well, whatchagonnado?  So she and her boyfriend bought a house in Bretagne and that’s what she’s gonna do. And of course I’m happy for her. And I absolutely look forward to visiting her in France.  But you bet I’m sad she’s gone.  Yeah, I lost my drinking buddy and my dear friend.  But it’s more than that.  I feel like I’ve lost an arm, you know?  Like, she was my expat friend.  She was the one who knew what it’s like to be a stranger in this land.  She was the one I could complain about Germans – and German culinary culture – with.  And now she’s gone.  We still do Skype meetings, which is great.  But it’s not the same.  Like I said, it’s what she wanted, and I can only be happy for her.  But I’d be lying if I said I was happy for me.  It’s tough.  But you better believe we tied a few on before she split.   Well, alright.  Let’s look at it another way.  I’ve already got family in the south of France via Charlotte.  Now I’ve got family in the north of France via Anne.  Silver linings and all that. ((“Silver linings and all that.”  It’s an imperfect analogy, but it serves as an example of what makes reading Bashevis so difficult.  If you’re a native speaker – or just super fluent in English – then you’re familiar with the saying “every cloud has a silver lining.”  But if you’re not a native speaker or super fluent? What kind of sentence is “silver linings and all that”?  How can you possibly hope to make sense of that?  Perhaps that gives an idea of the challenges of reading literary Yiddish.))

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

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

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

זײַט זשע מיר אַלע געזונט

The Witch: A Love Portrait

The Witch
A Love Portrait

It’s not that I don’t like parties.  It’s just that I don’t really excel at social situations.  I’m not good at talking to people.  And it’s not even really that.  I mean, I can fake it when I need to.  It’s more that I don’t enjoytalking to people.  Well, most people.   I like talking to interesting people just fine.  But when was the last time you met a properly interesting person at a party? 

When I ran with an academic crowd, years ago, I met loads of interesting people.  Interesting in how far up their own asses they were.  And later, when I ran with a tech crowd, I met plenty of people whom I was told were interesting.  But I never knew what the hell they were on about.  And thank the gods for that.

So I decided to give the artist crowd a try.  Turns out they’re both up their and own assesandI had no idea what they’re on about.  Worst of both worlds, if you will.  I was actually about to give up on the artist crowd.  But last weekend, I was invited to an artist party.  In a perfect world, I probably would have declined the invitation.  But this was the first party I’d been invited to since The Lockdown was lifted.  So what the hell, am I right?

Anyway, there was this girl there.  Said she was a witch.  And I don’t mean a goth, nature loving Wiccan.  I mean an actual, honest to Satan, witch.  Well, maybe it was all a joke.  But there was something about her eyes.  The way she looked at me.  She seemed to see right into my soul.  Yeah, look, I know how that sounds.  But just listen to this.

“Hi, I’m Dave,” I said. I would have offered her my hand, but you know, PLSD: Post Lockdown Stress Disorder.  Anyway, I introduced myself and she just starts laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked, not a little annoyed.

“You are,” she giggled. “I mean, I’m a witch, right?  But you…you’re just plain weird!”  This is what I mean when I say she saw right into my soul.

“You’re a witch,” I repeated.  It wasn’t a question.  I mean, it was a question.  But in Alex Trebek, olav’a’shalom, terms, I hadn’t phrased my response in the form of a question.  “And I’m supposed to know that, how exactly?”  Because she’d said it as if it were obvious.  But it was not, in point of fact, obvious.  She was wearing a yellow sundress.  She was not wearing black eye shadow.  And the cross that hung from her neck was not upside down. Am I an expert on witches?  No.  Am I possibly trading in offensive stereotypes?  Perhaps.  But to a Yid like me, she just looked like any other shixa.  Albeit a cute shixa.  

“You’re a witch,” I said again.  “And I’m the weird one?”

“I’m pretty sure,” she answered with a mischievous smile.  

“We’ll come back to that,” I rolled my eyes.  “But in the meantime, would you mind if I asked you some questions?  I mean, I’ve never met a proper witch before.”  Which was true.  So far as I know, anyway. 

“Sure,” she shrugged. “Anything’s better than talking to thoseclowns.”  And she waved her arm to indicate the rest of the room.  “It’ll be nice to talk to a normal person for a change.”

“I thought you said I was weird,” I countered.

“Oh, you are, honey. Normal is weird these days.  Or haven’t you heard?”

“I suppose.”  The times, they are a-changin’.  “So, umm, where do you live?”   Well now, that was a stupid question.  But like I said, I’m not good at social interactions.  

“Here in Berlin,” she offered nonchalantly.  

“Well, yeah, I figured that. But where in Berlin?”  She didn’t have an accent, so I assumed she was a fellow expat.  But then again, if she really was a witch, was the mastery of any tongue within her power? Yes, I was seriously entertaining the notion.

“Just outside Köpenick. Say, didn’t you used to live in Köpenick?”  I don’t know what surprised me more.  The fact that she knew I used to live in Köpenick, or the fact that she introduced a sentence with the word ‘say’ like it was 1947.

“How did you know…”

“Hello?  I’m a witch.”

“Right, right, what was I thinking.”  I’m not sure I was buying her story just yet, but I was willing to play along.  “Just outside Köpenick.  Where exactly?”

“In the woods, by the Müggelsee.  You used to go for walks there, actually.  Though I’m sure you never saw me.”  I did used to go for walks in the woods by the Müggelsee.  I used to love that, in fact.  

“And you know that because you’re a witch,” I suggested.

“Look out girls, this one’s a fast learner,” she shot back sarcastically.  I narrowed my eyes in matching sarcasm.  “Sorry,” she shrugged.  “It’s a bad habit.”  

“It’s all good.  I appreciate a bit of banter.”

“I bet you do,” she winked. Was the witch flirting with me? But being socially inept, I went straight on with my questions.

“So you live in the woods?”  

“All real witches live in nature,” she assured me.  “I mean, I have an apartment in Neukölln, but I’m hardly ever there.  It’s hard to cast a good spell indoors.  And anyway, it’s much easier to get all the bits and bobs you need when you’re in a forest.”

“Bits and bobs,” I echoed. “Are you British?”  

“My soul is, I suppose.” 

“And what does that mean exactly?”   

“Well, think of it this way,” she tried to explain.  “You’re from Brooklyn.”  Of course she knew that.  “But you still carry around a bit of the shtetl with you.”

Emes?” I instinctively answered in Yiddish.  “I mean, I do?”

“You see my point,” she smiled.

“I suppose I do.  But anyway, what do you mean by ‘bits and bobs’?”


“Guess?”  This bitchwitch was alluring, if nothing else. “Well, what sort of bits and bobs would a witch need from the forest?” I pondered aloud.  “Rats’ tails?  Spider legs? Bird shit?  Sorry, I suppose I’m stereotyping now.  But you told me to guess.”  I was rambling.

“So, I’m actually a vegan witch,” she started.

“Typical Berlin,” I muttered.

“How’s that?”

“Nothing, sorry. Please, enlighten me.”  I looked around to see if anybody was listening in. It didn’t appear that anybody was.

“Well, as a vegan witch, spider legs and rat tails are right out.  And as far as bird shit, just, eww.  I mean, gross!”  She started laughing.  It was enchanting.  Pun possibly intended?  “No, I’m more of a mushroom and moss kinda gal.”

“I see,” I said, not at all seeing.

“No you don’t,” she called me out.  “But that’s OK.  Hey, don’t feel bad.  I’ve never met a Jew before.  I’m sure I’ve got loads of questions for you too.”

“Jewish person,” I corrected.


“When you say ‘Jew,’ it sounds a little…”

“Dude.  You literally just asked me if I collected bird shit. Maybe we can cut each other some slack here?”  Her tone was more playful than annoyed.  But she had a point.

“Fair enough,” I conceded. “So you live in the woods,” I pressed, trying to pick up the thread of our conversation again.

“That’s right,” she nodded. “Well, in the summer, anyway.  I spend the winters in Neukölln.  I mean, winters in this town are shit, aren’t they?”

“Oh, my god, they’re fucking terrible!”  We both started laughing.  “Like, all you can do is just stay in bed and Netflix it til spring.”

“Exactly!”  She exhaled a sigh of relief.  “Finally, someone who gets it.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who are all ‘Well, if you only live in the woods in the summer, you can’t be very serious about your witchery.’  Like, dude, come on.  Gimme a fuckin’ break!”

“Gimme a fuckin’ break!” I repeated enthusiastically.  Gods, it’s been so long since I’d heard another person say that.  I mean, it’s such a New York expression.  That idiom has been absent from my life ever since I moved to this town.  But then a chill went up my spine.  Wasn’t her ‘soul’ supposed to be British?  How did she know that phrase?

“And now you’re wondering how I knew to say ‘Gimme a fuckin’ break.”  Her eyes were shining.  Deep, green eyes.  “Dude, I’m a witch.  I’m full of surprises.”

“I’m getting that,” I conceded.  “I guess I’ll have to get used to that.”

“I guess you will,” she grinned.  Were she anybody else, I would have said that she grinned wickedly.  But I somehow had the feeling that ‘wicked’ was not a word to be thrown about casually with this broad.

“So you live in the woods, in the summer,” I tried again.  She nodded.  “And do you like…this is such a stupid question, but…do you, like, bathe?”

“Well, that depends on what you mean by the word ‘bathe.’”  Poker face.

“I don’t follow,” I answered honestly.

“Well, I wash myself in the river every other day or so.  But I bathein goat’s blood by the light of the full moon once a month.”  I searched her face for any sign that she might be kidding, but she just stared at me with those green eyes.  I was getting goose bumps.  But my fear was soon overpowered by my sense of logic.

“I thought you were a vegan,” I said coldly.  But she just kept staring at me, those deep, green eyes penetrating my very being. Maybe she did bathe in goat’s blood. Nevermind where she got the goats from. I mean, this is Berlin.  I’m sure there’s some hipster shop that fucking specializes in ritualistic goat blood.  Or maybe it was some kind of vegan ‘goat blood.’  You know, Portobello mushroom juice and cranberry sauce or some such shit.  A smile crept over face as she tracked my mental gymnastics.

“Dude, relax!  I’m just fucking with you!”  She reached out and touched my elbow.  Human contact!  I’d forgotten what that felt like.  #PLSD

“You bitch!” I exclaimed with a laugh.

“Witch,” she corrected. “Bitch sounds so…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I rolled my eyes.  “Cut me some slack.”

“Slack cut,” she giggled. “Hey, you know something?  You’re pretty sweet.”

“I am?”

“Sure,” she answered, touching her bright red hair.  “Don’t get me wrong, you’re weird af, but you’re sweet.”  I looked at my feet as I grabbed my left elbow with my right hand. I didn’t know where else to look. “And you’re kinda cute, too,” she added softly.  I looked up. But now she was the one looking at her feet whilst grabbing her right elbow with her left hand.  Was she left handed?

“OK, so you don’t bathe in goat’s blood,” I said by way of confirmation.

“Of course not! Fucking gross!  Gods, I mean, could you imagine?”

“Gods,” I repeated. “Did you just say ‘gods’? Plural?”

“I did,” she affirmed. “But so do you.”

“Well, yeah,” I admitted. “But that’s just something I picked up from – “

“Battlestar Galactica, I know,” she smiled.  “That show was sooo good!”

“I know, right?!”  Green eyes, red hair, sarcastic, Battlestar fan.  Was I falling in love with a witch?

“But in all seriousness,” she went on, “I do bathe in the lake every other day or so when I’m living in the woods.  But when I’m in my apartment, I shower just like everybody else.”  I looked at her.  “Ew.  Don’t picture it.  Perv!” And she smacked my forearm.   

“I wasn’t – “

“Picturing it and yes you were.  I can read your thoughts, don’t forget.”

“You can, huh?”  I mean, she’d already proven as much.  But we were flirting now (I think), so why not play along?  “Then what am I thinking right now?”

“You’re wondering if I’m really a redhead,” she answered sharply.  I wasn’t, actually.  I’d already inspected her eyebrows and was sufficiently satisfied in that regard. But then, she knew that.  Which made her next words all the more enticing. “And if you play your cards right, you might just find out.”

“Tarot cards?” I volleyed. 

“If you like.  But you’ll learn more than you bargain for,” she returned.

“There’s nothing I don’t want to learn about you.”  Nope, that shot went straight into the net.

“Stoopid,” she rolled her eyes.  “Tarot cards are for you to learn about yourself not to learn about me.”  She smiled.  “But nice try.”  Clearly, I had a lot to learn about us both.

“Anyway, gods,” I tried again.

“Oh, right.  So, as a witch, I do believe in a variety of greater and lesser deities.  Well, ‘deities’ really isn’t the best word.  More like ‘spirits.’  But that sounds so new-age-y, you know?  And ‘nymphs’ carries with it a whole host of inappropriate sexual overtones.  So ‘deities’ will have to do.”

“You’re being serious now?” It was so hard to tell with her.

“I am.  I mean, it’s hard to talk about these things without sounding like a complete whack-job, unfortunately.  But like, everything has a…gods, I hate this word…spirit?  What I mean is, we’re not alone on this planet. We share it with everything else that’s alive here.  Life on this world is greater than the sum of its parts.  But we can start by recognizing that everything that’s alive does have a part.  And we need to…or, rather, I try to…respect those parts.  Humans, sure.  But also fungi, fish, even the water.  And let’s not forget,” and now she touched my hand, “the birds and the bees.”

“And educated fleas.”

“Ooh!” she exclaimed, rolling her head back in surprise.  “A boy who knows Cole Porter!  You’re good!”

“You ain’t so bad yourself, sister,” I said, taking hold of her hand.  “I think I might be feeling that old black magic.”  

“No,” she pushed my hand away.  “Wecan say that.  Youcan’t say that.”

“Oh, gods, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean – “

“Relax!”  She grabbed my hand.  “I’m just fucking with you.  But you really are sweet.”  She could melt me with those eyes.  “For a fucking weirdo.”  She giggled. And in that giggle was the sound of birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind, water gurgling over stones in a stream.  I was, perhaps, beginning to understand her connection with nature.

“What’s your name, anyway?” I was dying to know.

“Esmeralda,” she muttered dejectedly.

“Esmeralda?  Like in the book?”

“You’ve read it?” she asked earnestly.

Notre Dame de Paris?  Oui, je l’ai lu,” I answered in French.

“Then you know she’s a basic bitch,” she grumbled.

“Oh, completely fucking useless,” I agreed.  “But it’s still a beautiful name.”

“Well, thank you,” she smiled shyly.  “But I prefer Merry.  Anyway, what’s your name?”

“Dave,” I shrugged. My name was not nearly so exotic. 

“David.  It means ‘beloved’ in Hebrew,” she declared accurately. “That suits you.”  And she squeezed my hand.  The way she touched me, the way she knew the meaning of my name, it warmed my heart.  But as she had no love for her namesake, I decided to downplay my own.

“Well, but Dovid’a’Melekhwas kind of a dick,” I offered, using the Yiddish epithet for King David.   She started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“King David is kind of a dick,” she giggled.  “Wasn’t one of his tasks to bring back a literal bag of foreskins to King Saul?” Her giggle exploded into outright laughter.

“That’s the story,” I shrugged, laughing along with her.

“But you haven’t done that, have you?” she thrusted.

“Once a month, by the light of the full moon,” I parried.

“Never buy gribenesfrom a moyel,” she countered.

“It’s so chewy!” we cried out in unison.

“A girl who knows Mel Brooks!  You’re good!” Yes, I was falling in love with a witch. Not knowing what to say next, I fell back on a bit of small talk.  “So, um, do you have any hobbies?”

“Well, I like to cast spells,” she said innocently.

“I was never much good at spelling,” I confessed.

“Stoopid,” she giggled. OK, I was kinda loving the way she called me ‘stoopid.’  

“What kind of spells though?”

“Mostly healing spells.”

“You mean for like foxes and squirrels and shit?”

“Sometimes.  But also for people.”   

“Do they ever work?” I asked.

“Well, they don’t hurt,” she winked.

“I do know one thing though,” I offered.

“You do, huh?  What’s that.”

“You’ve certainly put a spell on me.”  Nice. Good one, Davey-boy.  Smooth operator.  She’s gonna eat that right – 

“No I haven’t.”  She looked confused.  “I would never cast a spell on someone I just met.  It’s unethical.”  Nice.  Good one, Davey-boy.  Smooth operator.  I lowered my glasses onto the bridge of my nose and peered over them at her with narrowed eyes.  “Oh, I see,” she frowned.  “Fuck, I ruin everything.”  Her frown gave way to a gentle smile.  “Aww, that was actually really cute.  Say it again.”

“What say it again? The moment’s passed.  It won’t be the same.”

“I know, but I wanna hear it anyway.”

“You just heard it though,” I protested.

“Lemme get this straight. A girl is asking you to say something sweet to her and your answer is, ‘No, sorry, I’ve already told you’? Smooth operator, Davey-boy.”  She whistled in faux dismay.

“Riddle me this, sweetheart. Casting spells on someone you’ve just met is unethical but reading their thoughts ain’t?”

“Touché, salesman. Tellya what, though.  I like it when you call me ‘sweetheart.’  So you’re off the hook.  This time.”  She was blushing, which really set off her freckles.  Oh, did I mention she had freckles?  Too cute.  I fucking can’t.

“Anyway, spells.  What else do you get up to in your free time?” Just keep the conversation moving, pal.

“Music.  I like to play music.”  

“Oh, cool,” I nodded. “Do you play an instrument? Sing?”

“I sing,” she said confidently.  With a voice like that, it would be a tragedy if she didn’t.  “And I play a bit of harp.”

“Lemme guess, your harp is made of deer antlers and catgut.”  It was joke.

“Well, as a matter of fact…”

“That’s not very vegan of you,” I said with a touch of mock-scorn.  

“I know, I know!  I actually feel kinda guilty about it.  But my grandfather made it.  Different times, you know?  And it would be a shame to just throw it away.”

“No, I get that. Makes perfect sense.  Hey, we should jam sometime!”  I made the suggestion as soon as it had come to me.

“Oh, thank gods,” she sighed.


“For a second there, I was worried you were gonna say, ‘We should make beautiful music together.’”

“Hey, now.  Clumsy, not creepy.”

“Yeah, I’m getting that,” she said with a smile, touching my forearm.  

“Seriously though, we should jam sometime,” I tried again.

“I dunno.  I’m really shy about singing in front of other people,” she said softly, looking at her feet.  Then, without looking up, she said, “But I do think…if there was anybody I would feel OK singing in front of…it would be you.”  Her head was still tilted downward, but she looked up at me beneath fluttering lashes.  

“I’d like that,” I smiled. And I made the bold move of brushing the back of my hand against her fiery hair.  She raised her head, revealing a soft smile.

“What about you?  What do you play?”

“Why don’t you tell me, you little mind-reader.”

“You,” she started, staring at me intently, “play guitar and you sing.  And you have a nice voice, too.”  

“Nice is subjective,” I deflected.

“Don’t be modest,” she scolded.  “What kind of music do you play?”

“You’re not going to tell me?” I asked.

“Nope.  I wanna hear you say it.”

“Rock and roll,” I shrugged. “But you know that, so why did you want to hear me say it?”

“Because it’s refreshing.”

“It is?”  I didn’t see how.

“Of course it is,” she explained.  “These days, everybody has to give you a five-minute lecture on their kind of music.” She lowered her voice into a mocking, mimicking tone.  “’So, like, I play jazz-infused rockabilly, but like with synths and house beat underneath.’  It’s so fucking tedious,” she added, returning to her normal voice.  “Just plain old unpretentious rock and roll. It’s refreshing.”  Was it?  Now would be a good time to mention that I’m not very good at knowing when to leave well enough alone.

“Well, actually though, now that you mention it, I do try to bring in elements of – “

“Shuddup,” she interrupted, with a forward thrust of her head.  “Just shut up, OK?”  I nodded silently.  For a few moments, neither of us a said word.  When the silence had become nearly unbearable, she spoke again.  “So, how long have you been in Berlin?”  I shrugged.  “How long?” she tried again.  I tilted my head to one side.  “Well? Aren’t you going to answer me?”  I shook my head.  “Is this because I told you to shut up?”  I nodded.  “You’re impossible.”  I nodded again.  “You know I can cast a spell on you to make you talk, right?”  I raised a doubtful eyebrow.  “I’ll do it,” she threatened.  I rolled my eyes.  “Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  I shrugged.  “Hocus Pocus, Alacazam / You speak, therefore you am!”  And she snapped her fingers.

“Seriously?” I exclaimed. “You speak, therefore you am?  Do they not teach you English in witch school?”

“First of all, pal, it’s called The Academy of Light and Dark Arts.  And second of all, I think I liked you better when you didn’t talk.”  Her face was stern but those lashes were a-fluttering.

“Shoulda thought of that before you spelled me back into speakery,” I retorted.

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.  And also, ‘spelled me back into speakery’?  You’re really going to lecture me on English?”

“I’m an English teacher, sweetheart.  It’s literally my job.”  

“You’re lucky I like the way the word ‘sweetheart’ sounds on your tongue,” she jabbed.

“Well, if you like that, you’re gonna love what else my tongue – “


“What, nope?”

“Just nope.”  That stern look again.  “Gods, I mean, you’re so close.  Do you really want to ruin this now?”

“I, I am?” I stuttered. “I mean, of course not!”

“Because that would be a real shame.”

“A tragedy, even.”

“An epic tragedy,” she clarified.

“Of epic proportions,” I re-clarified.  But she just looked at me, a hint of disappointment in her green eyes.  “Yeah, no, I heard it.”  I exhaled sharply.

“An epic tragedy…of epic proportions,” she repeated, putting it all together with a shake of her head.

“I said I heard it,” I frowned.  “Ooh, of…of seismic proportions?” I tried again.

“Better,” she smiled.

“Of earth shattering proportions?” I said, giving it another shot.

“Meh.  A little Wagnerian, don’t you think?”

“I suppose,” I agreed, screwing up my face.  “Seismic then?”

“Seismic,” she nodded.

“Sorry, what are we even talking about?  I’m afraid I may have fallen down the rabbit hole here.”

“We were talking about how close you are and how, if you blew it now, it would be an epic tragedy of seismic proportions.”  Her answer came quick.  I may have lost the thread for a moment, but she knew exactly where things stood.

“Right, right,” I nodded. “So, um, what do you say you and me blow this pop-stand.  You know, before I say something stupid.”

“Oh, honey, that ship has left the barn,” she said, shaking her head with a grin.

“Don’t you mean, ‘that horse has sailed’?” I offered, inverting her mixed metaphor.  Also, I’m a sucker for mixed metaphors.  Which she surely knew.  

“Six-and-a-half of one, Baker’s half-dozen of the other,” she shrugged.

“I don’t think that’s how – “

“Yes.”  She cut me off abruptly.

“No…I’m quite sure it’s – “

“Stoopid.”  Shining green eyes, burning red hair, glowing cheeks. “Not ‘yes,’ the idiom.  ‘Yes,’ let’s blow this pop-stand.”

“Oh, I see,” I reflected. “Oh!” I realized.  “Shall we?”  I offered he my hand.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she cooed, taking my hand.  We left the party and headed downstairs to the front door of the building.  A moment later, we were standing on the sidewalk, under the streetlights on that warm, dark summer evening.  I looked at her.

“You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever encountered in all my years on this earth,” is what I thought to myself.  Now, here’s what I actually said.  “I love your freckles.  They’re like little almonds in a sea of milk.”  Oh yes, friends, I am a smooth operator.  And I defy you to find one smoother.

“That was…such a nice try,” she smiled.  And she patted my cheek gently.  I blushed. 

“Like…little islands of honey in a…still sea of milk?”  Never give up, that’s what I always say.

“Nah, too biblical,” she grinned.  

“Wait, I can do this,” I protested.  “Your freckles are like…”


“I’ve got something for this, just gimme a sec…”


“Nope.  I got nothing.  Sorry.”

“Then maybe shut up.” With that, she raised herself up on her tippy-toes, leaned in and kissed me sweetly on the lips.  That old black magic’s got me in it’s spell…that old black magic that you weave so well…

But just then a gust of warm air blew my hat from my head.  Spinning round on my heels, I was just able to grab it out of the air.  But when I turned back around, she was gone. My Esmeralda had disappeared!  She had vanished, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

So bewildered was I, that at first I didn’t even notice the butterfly hovering before my eyes.  It was a most beautiful specimen, delicate, elegant, with wings of deep green and bright red.  It hovered there for just a moment before alighting upon the tip of my nose.  Twice, it fluttered its gorgeous wings.  Twice, the wingtips batted against my eyelashes.  A butterfly kiss.

I raised my hands, as if to take hold of it.  But before I could do so, it took to the air, flying off into the warm, summer night, heading East towards Köpenick and the Müggelsee beyond…

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.) #8

The Adventures of Col. Starrkin (ret.) #8
A Vaguely Star-Wars-ish Kinda Thing
Mostly for Dale

The following represents a hypothetical alternate timeline…

The young corporal sat at the firing controls of laser battery Starboard-164.  The massive star destroyer had over two hundred laser batteries lining each side of its massive hull and each battery was manned by two men: a corporal and his commanding lieutenant.  Needless to say, the massive ship had an equally massive crew compliment.  If there was one thing the Galactic Empire did well, it was bureaucracy.  But if there was another thing it did well, it was massive.  Massive star destroyers, massive crews, massive cities and (though still mostly top secret at the moment), massive, planet-destroying space stations.

So there was young corporal John Paul Jones, sitting at the controls of laser battery Starboard-164. Over his shoulder stood a young lieutenant Starrkin, offering the young lad some well deserved encouragement.

“Nice shooting, Jones!” Starrkin patted him on the back. “You really gave those rebel scum what for!  I particularly enjoyed how you took out the communications array on that Corellian corvette.”  The rebels had given them a bit of a chase, but that was all over now.  There was a lull in the action now that they had taken the renegade ship into their hold.

“What do you think will happen now?” asked Jones.

“Hard to say,” answered Starrkin.  “Lord Vader himself is leading the boarding party.  So one can guess.”

“Oh yeah,” squirmed Jones. He pinched his thumb and forefinger together while making a slight choking sound.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t see that,” grumbled Starrkin, hands clasped firmly behind his back.  “Anyway, rumor has it Senator Organa is aboard. Scuttlebutt is, she stole something important from Central Archives.”

Meanwhile, two batteries down, at Starboard-166, there sat another young corporal with another lieutenant standing behind him.

“Sir, an escape pod!” reported the corporal as a small, metallic tub flashed across the view screen. “Sensors show two droids aboard but I read no life signs,” he added.

What is life?pondered the lieutenant.  Could a sentient droid be said to be alive?  Should sentience be equated with life?  Or must life be organic?  Must life be unique?  If so, could a sentient droid be said to somehowmorealive than a clone?  Personally, I don’t much associate with clones.  Or droids for that matter.  On the other hand, the Empire wouldn’t run without either of them.  On the third hand – and many spices have three hands, nothing wrong with that – there’s a war on and I’ve a job to do.  On the fourth hand – and many species have four hands, nothing wrong with that either, although come to think of it, where are the species with four breasts?  That’s what I’d like to know  – I’m not likely to get my riding pants through idle philoso…phating?  Philoso…phering?  Philoso…pining?  Ugh, I never was much for wordsmithery.

 All this flashed through the lieutenant’s mind in a parsec. And yes, he’d learned that a parsec was a measure of distance in his spatial mechanics class.  But it just sounded so…fast. In any case, he was just able to get a grip on himself before the escape pod was out of range.

“Nothing wrong with a little target practice, eh corporal?”

“Not a thing, sir!”

“You may fire when ready,” nodded the lieutenant.  With that, the corporal let loose a barrage of laser fire, incinerating the escape pod in mid-flight.  A brief explosion, and then nothing.

“I think you hit it, corporal,” commented the lieutenant sarcastically.


“I counted no less than nine laser blasts, corporal.  Do you know how much firepower is contained in a single laser blast from an Imperial star destroyer?”

“One-point-twenty-one gigajoules, sir!”  The corporal had studied hard for his gunnery exam.

“That’s right.  And do you know much energy is needed to destroy an escape pod like the one you just vaporized?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” answered corporal Jinku.  “That wasn’t on the gunnery exam.”

“What on Coruscant are they teaching you kids these days?” grumbled the lieutenant to himself.  He cleared his throat.  “Certainly not more than one half of one gigajoule.”

“Well then,” surmised Jinku proudly, “it didn’t stand a bloody chance!”

“No more of a chance than I stood at my divorce hearing,” mumbled the lieutenant.  He pressed his hands against his pants.  Flat pants.  Not riding pants.  Would he ever achieve riding pants status?  “Corporal, do you know what the Empire most prides itself on?”

“Bureaucracy, sir!” snapped the corporal professionally.

“Obviously.”  The lieutenant rolled his eyes.  “But what else?”

“Size, sir. Awe-inspiring, breathtaking, erection-inducing size.  In a word, sir, massivity.”  It was a textbook answer.  Although the lieutenant couldn’t remember ‘massivity’ actually being a word when he was coming up.  But language is fluid, he knew that.  In any case, it was not the answer he was looking for.

“Efficiency!” yelped the lieutenant.  “Efficiency! For example, do you know how many TIE pilots the Empire employs?”

“Thousands, I’d say, sir.” It was a guess.  And not a very good one.


“Four, sir?”  Jinku was sure the lieutenant was pulling his leg.

“That’s right, corporal. Four.  The rest are just clones.  Efficiency!”  

“I see, sir.”  Jinku did not, in fact, see.

“Do you, now?”  The lieutenant’s words were cold.

“I think so?”  

“Well, let me spell it out for you, so there’s no mistake.”  The lieutenant straightened up and folded his hands behind his back. “We here at the Empire pride ourselves on efficiency.  We do not waste nine laser blasts when one will do.  Furthermore, if you fire nine laser blasts when one will do, that’s not exactly ‘target practice’ is it?  It’s more like…”  He trailed off, unable to find the word.

“The wonton flaunting of Imperial Might, sir?” tried the corporal.

“What?  No, of course not.  To be sure, the Empire revels in the wonton flaunting of Imperial Might. But it’s only flaunting if there’s anybody there to see it.  And fearit.  What you just did was rather an example of…”  The lieutenant still couldn’t find the word he was looking for.

“A thorough checkup of the battery’s capacity, including, but not limited to, tracking and targeting systems, firing mechanisms and cooling tanks?” tried Jinku.

“Hardly, corporal.  We have diagnostic readouts for that sort of thing.”

“Of course, sir,” nodded Jinku.

“Inefficiency!” barked the lieutenant.  Thatwas the word he was looking for.  “That was a display of gross inefficiency.”

“I see, sir.”  He did, finally, see.  “I’m sorry sir.”  

“Well, you can’t unfire a laser, as they say,” shrugged the lieutenant.

“Do they say that, sir?”

“Well surely somebody must,” he scowled.

“Still, though,” offered Jinku.


“What if, sir…” Jinku trailed off, unsure if he was overstepping his rank.

“Go on, corporal.”

“What if, sir, and I mean, it’s just a thought.  But what if the rebels had hidden something important in that escape pod?”

“Something important?” repeated the lieutenant.  “Like what?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, sir. But scuttlebutt has it that they stole something important from Central Archives.  Isn’t it just possible that they’d rather jettison whatever it was rather than be caught red-handed with it aboard their vessel?  I mean, wouldn’t that be worth nine laser blasts?  Sir?”

“I suppose it would, Jinku. I suppose it would.  But really, what are the odds of that?”


Some weeks later, young lieutenant Starrkin was having lunch in the mess with the lieutenant from battery Starboard-166 and their respective corporal gunners.  Suddenly an announcement came over the ship’s PA.

“We interrupt your noble labors in service of the Galactic Empire to bring you the latest news in The Troubles with the Rebellion.  Earlier today, the Galactic Empire unleashed its new massive weapon – the Death Star – against the rebel scum.  We are pleased to report that the rebel base on the moon of Yavin has been completely destroyed, and with it the last hope of victory for the rebels.  Although the rebels threw every fighter they had at us, in the end, they were no match for the Death Star and its impenetrable defenses. What remains of the Rebellion must have surely lost all heart when their base, and indeed the entire moon, was destroyed by a single blast from our massive moon-sized battle station.  We expect to mop up what little remains of their forces in the coming days.  All hail Emperor Palpatine!”

“You see!” cried lieutenant 166 jubilantly.  “Efficiency! I told you Jinku, no need for nine laser blasts when one will do!”

“Efficiency?” echoed Starrkin sarcastically.  “You call building a moon-sized space station and destroying an entire moon just to take out one little base efficient?”

The chastened lieutenant silently gulped down a glass of blue milk.

“Still though,” chimed in Jinku.  “Nothing wrong with a bit of wonton flaunting of Imperial Might, eh gov?”  The lieutenant looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Err, sir?” winced Jinku.

“Oh, come on, you should be happy!” offered Starrkin encouragingly, patting the other lieutenant on the back.  “We’ve basically won the war!”

“Oh, yeah, great,” grumbled the lieutenant.  “But now that the war’s basically over, how will I ever get my riding pants?!”