Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Landschaft der Zukunft

Photos taken from a bus heading to Dresden from Leipzig, through the former DDR, once the most polluted country in Europe. I can't decide if these wind turbines, set in this empty snow-covered landscape, were awkward or graceful. They seemed without scale: neither tall nor short, quick nor slow, slim nor thick. Whatever they were, it made me happy to see them spinning. I hope that such scenes become familiar enough that the question of scale won't present itself, that wind turbines will earn their own genus in my personal scale taxonomy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I'm back. First order of business is to report—not without bitterness—that I'm postponing my application to grad school. Again.
It's become clear over the last stressful month (i.e., since my last post... oops) that I'm not ready to present myself naked at the base of the ivory tower, which means that the Ideal Six-to-Ten-Year Plan is officially foiled. Consequently, when I get back to the States, instead of bumming on your couches for a month before starting PhD studies at the philosophical powerhouse of my choice (so ran the Plan), I have to find a legitimate and sustainable yearlong occupation from summer 2008 to fall 2009 (at least). I don't expect to have that figured out anytime soon, but this seems like a good way to spend a month. A little expensive, but tempting. If you have other suggestions, you will find me uncharacteristically receptive right now.
Unwelcome uncertainty and Ideal Plan failure notwithstanding, my brain feels a lot better, and it will be easier to justify spending time on the important stuff I've been neglecting, such as:

• Talking to people other than myself (preferably in German)
• Making a big blue penguin costume for a brazenly late Halloween party
• Tracking down vegetarian currywurst and the good Lebanese food I keep hearing about
• Traveling (Münster, Köln, Heidegger's Schwarzwald hut, Bodensee, Heidelberg, the Alps, usw.)
• Fixing my bike; biking to the nearest castle
• Sending US-bound letters, postcards, gifts, holiday greetings, etc.
• Homework (logic! Adorno! marxism! grammar! vocabulary!)
• Hygiene (laundry, showering, beard mowing, putting the banana peels on my desk somewhere other than my desk, etc.)
• Finally settling on a marathon (Vienna? Prague?) and training
• Taking advantage of library access to research Alexius Meinong and the debate surrounding the ontological status of nonexistent objects (e.g., Pegasus)
• Drinking liters of beer from the 1L capacity glass (or Maß) my host family gave me
• Looking for a new place to live in 2009 (when hostfamily host-disowns me)
• Finishing Mansfield Park; starting The Road
• Contacting with these apparent kindred spirits
• Getting appropriately excited for the two-part made-for-TV German adaptation of my old favorite The Sea Wolf, airing November 24 and 25
• Finding an internship, to start in February, for Phase III of my program
• Buying tickets for The Wedding Present's November 29 Frankfurt gig
• This blog, of course

Current mental state

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Weiterfahren durch Keller und Dach... Gefährlich?

One persistent worry of this Fremder in a fremd land is that I will neglect to read some very important, even potentially life-preserving announcement simply because it's written in German and reading German still requires effort. Linguistically handicapped, I am constantly forced to ask myself, "Is this thing really worth reading?" A new fast bike. coupled with an old tendency to be late, intensifies the worry. My mental state as I zip around the city is often that of a squirrel stranded on a narrow highway median. I am aware of danger, but I don't completely understand it and I'm not entirely sure where to expect it. And I can see the woods where my squirrel wife is cooking some nuts, where my squirrel kids are due home from cat-baiting class, where I needed to be ten minutes ago. In my natural environment, I took for granted the power of the everyday written word, especially the written word in transition-poor-just-the-facts-ma'am-official-announcement style (z.B., DETOUR, HIGH VOLTAGE, or WARNING: PENDULUM EDGE IS RAZOR-SHARP), to shoot straight through my eyeballs into my consciousness without consulting the reading department of my brain. Reacting to signs was like pinballing off bumpers shaped like Creatures from the Blue Lagoon. I was a pro skier taking a shortcut through the woods to beat my rival in a contest for my true love's heart. I was a pro skateboarder on Fisherman's Wharf on a Saturday afternoon. I was a swallow in Capistrano, a bat or a dolphin in a dark cave. I was adept. Now I'm a bat visiting dolphin in-laws in a dark cave underwater. In scuba gear. A little drunk.

So far, I've managed to survive with good luck and American instincts, but the future looks more secure. The vocabulary is sinking in. I learn a new trick every time I bike from my suburban home on the edge of town to the Uni in central Frankfurt. Plus, goodhearted German folk are looking out for me. Last week, my host mom explained the easily missed but extremely important road signs that govern right-of-way at intersections. Apparently, German drivers will run a body down before sacrificing their right-of-way. Then, last Sunday, while biking with my eleven-year-old host brother to the bakery to pick up Brötchen, he noticed that I didn't signal when turning from one deserted residential street onto another, so he dutifully explained, at length, the importance of hand signals when turning. I apologized and briefly felt like a corrupter of youth before realizing with relief that young Jasper is securely encased in that special impregnable bubble of self-righteousness that is the exclusive privilege of over-indulged only-children. Still, bless his heart for the reminder. It seems that German bikers—unlike American ones—actually signal consistently, meaning that not signaling at an intersection is tantamount to signaling that you intend to go straight, and German drivers will hold you to it. AND if you do happen to be pancaked by a car or a bus, and you happen to survive, and your pancakehood happens to be your fault, THEN you have to pay for your broken bones and kaputt organs with the blood-saturated cash in your blood-filled wallet, because your German insurance won't bloody cover you.

The special occasion for this parent-worrying blog post: I was convinced my time had come yesterday. Disappointingly, my life didn't flash before my eyes. That's really the only thing about dying that I'm looking forward to, so it was a depressing revelation. If my life playback mechanism is actually defekt, some poor mortician is going to be stuck with the thankless task of reversing a very stubborn frown of severe disappointment on my cold dead face. You may be thinking, "If his life didn't flash before his eyes, he probably didn't really think he was in fatal danger," but if so, you're wrong. I lost all composure. I was frantic. It was dreadful.

I'm getting ahead of myself. One of my favorite things about my Uni—and there are lots of great merkwürdig things about it, but this might be tops—are the elevators, which are unlike any elevator I've ever seen or used. I have actually dreamed of elevators like these, but never in my life would I ever have imagined that.... And yet.... And yet!

Auf Deutsch, they're called Paternosteraufzüge, which translates to "Pater Noster elevators," which translates further to "Our Father elevators," which refers to the enduring Catholic practice of measuring the progress of one's penitence with rosary beads. Let's imagine an expert sinner after a particularly bad but still venial sin. Picture him or her on the way home from confession, perfunctorily clicking through his or her beads while muttering him or herself back into God's good graces. He or she is a penitence machine and is secretly proud of it. Now focus on the beads themselves as they pass—rhythmically, one after the other—through sinful fingers. And now replace the beads with wooden double-occupancy elevator cabinets, moving nonstop in a loop through twin elevator shafts. One goes up; the other, down. There are no doors, no buttons, no control. Instead, there are well-placed handrails, giggling Germans, and urgently necessary physical coordination.

Here's homespun visual aid:

The novelty persists. I ride every chance I get. I often ride for no good reason. I use the bathroom on the third floor.

Until yesterday, I didn't fully understand the reference to rosary beads. I failed to realize that the up and the down cabinets are really the same cabinets. I wasn't sure how the system worked, but my fuzzy working hypothesis involved two distinct loops and total cabinet collapse in complicated gear- and cobweb-filled netherregions beneath the basement and above the top floor. I pictured dark workings, inhospitable to non-collapsible human bodies.

So, when I absentmindedly rode Our Father past the ground floor to check my email in the basement, and the ride suddenly became very dark, and I realized with panic that the last chance to disengage with Our Father is actually the ground floor, I lost it. I thought I was going to join millions of poorly directed Marios, somewhere beyond the bottom of the TV. I screamed. I banged the sides of my cabinet. I cried, "Help!" (note: not "Hilfe!"). I muttered, "Oh, God..." (note: not "Mein Gott...," not even "Pater Noster..."). I braced myself against the walls in anticipation of a noble but ultimately futile final effort to fight the machine. In the near-complete darkness, I made out a large spinning wheel, surely the first and most benign piece of the hell that awaited me in a couple meters. Still bracing myself against the walls, senses at peak sensitivity, light gradually returned to my Pater Noster coffin. I was going up! I was back at the ground floor! A second chance! A chance to make it all right. A chance to make a difference in this mixed-up world. I stumbled out, saucer-eyed, on trembling legs, laughed nervously, and thanked Our Father for sparing the life of a foolish kid.

Sure enough, later that day, I realized that, between the first floor and the ground floor, there is a clearly posted notice reassuring German-literate riders that "WEITERFAHREN DURCH KELLER UND DACH IST UNGEFÄHRLICH." Continuing to ride through the basement and the attic is NOT dangerous.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Altmodisch ist Mode

Some photos, because I realized that my first post is basically contentless. These are from one of my last days in Köln. We stumbled on an ersatz fox hunt in the city forest.
After the main show, one of the wet confused dogs, possibly still trying to figure out how that wily old fox had up and vanished, jumped on me and stood with front paws on my stomach, apparently desperate for love and attention. Having love and attention to spare, I started to pet, but a shriveled woman, too old for her years from smoking too many Zigaretten and killing too many imaginary foxes, commanded in a gravelly voice, "Nicht streichen Sie," that is, "Don't pet" (literally, "Don't stroke"). Concerned for the morale of the troops—wouldn't want them to go soft on my account—and frightened by the whips, I stopped stroking, shook off the paws, and ran away.

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren:

In partial fulfillment of promises scattered up and down the east and west coasts, here is the introductory post of my Germany blog.

The blog's disclaimer: I take this step uneasily: early bloggerhood wasn't part of the plan. Maybe later, after I had accomplished something worthy of an audience, but certainly not before. Obviously, I am departing from the plan in at least this respect. Keen to start writing on a regular basis, secure in the knowledge that my posts will be interesting to at least one person, and encouraged by several fine examples of the medium's potential, I am blogging.

The blog's intention and scope: I will post accounts of the Merkwürdigkeiten—literally, things worthy of notice, or "remarkablenesses"*—that I deem worthy of remark during my remaining ten months in Germany. The dictionary defines Merkwürdigkeiten as oddities, curiosities, or queernesses, and I wager there will be plenty of posts that will fit this definition, but, as I'm using it here, Merkwürdigkeiten should be understood in its most stingily analytic and neutral sense. It would be misleading to play sideshow agent and promise a cabinet of German curiosities. You'd surely be disappointed—I wouldn't deliver—and I'd be unsatisfied because my hopes for the blog encompass more than just a catalog of WTFs. Hopefully, it will be a venue for reflections on my studies, hostfamily life, my job (when I have one), the books I'm reading, and my general situation. To give fair warning, I may occasionally post posts—modest ones, hopefully—speculating about my personal development. (You may want to skip those.) At the same time, this will be no comprehensive, red-tie-or-green? diary-blog. I promise to stay focused and keep this thing discreetly discrete.

The blog's occasion: Why start now, after two full months abroad? Why after I've left Köln and my first hostfamily to begin Phase II (the university study phase) of my program here in Frankfurt am Main? Why after the initial culture shock, which might prove to have been the most psychologically interesting event I could have recorded and reported? What was the holdup? The chain of causes leading to this blog's late start is long and boring; at this point, it will suffice to say that I haven't had the chance to do justice to a blog. The last two months have been busy and confusing, and the promised blog became a low priority because it was unfamiliar, intimidating, and, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Nevertheless, guided by a passive but unfaltering intention to start a blog, the primordial conditions necessary for bloglife to spark and catch have been steadily mounting. This week, chance simultaneously removed two key inhibitors to blog-gress: my host family went on vacation, leaving me alone with dependable wireless internet, and university orientation activities ended, leaving me a weekend with no mandatory scheduled events. The confluence of solitude and inactivity has proved crucially catalytic, and, this morning, the alarmingly long duration of my hostfamily's purportedly super-efficient dishwasher (still going...) provided a jolt of anxious energy, creating a need for distraction, which charged the pre-blog soup, subordinating its formerly diffuse components under a unified active intentional field robust enough to perpetuate itself in the form of willed activity. Thus began bloglife.

The blog's implicit social function made explicit: I listed some personal motives already (to which I could add the desire to document my time here, to help me remember everything later), but I also hope this blog will be a way to keep in touch with friends and family in America while I'm away. I have proven myself pretty bad at staying in touch with everyone to the degree that each deserves. So, friends and family, meine Damen und Herren, the existence of this blog should be interpreted as a non-intrusive drone of good will projected in your direction, kind of like those SETI messages broadcast into space. Whether or not you read what I post, the mere fact of the posts should signal 1) that I want to hear from you, 2) that I want to stay part of your lives, and 3) that I look forward to seeing you again soon.

*Merkwürdigkeiten, incidentally, exemplifies one of my favorite features of the German language: its semantic particalization. The verb merken means to notice or perceive, and the suffix -würdig indicates worthiness. Jamming them together creates the adjective merkwürdig. Then, adding -keit or -heit to the end of an adjective creates an abstract noun, which is here pluralized with -en. Merkwürdigkeiten! A supplementary example: Lebensmittel, groceries or food, is literally our "means of living". Another example: Staatsangehörigkeit, citizenship, may be semantically decomposed to "belonging-to-a-state-hood." It's linguistic Legos. This particalization facilitates the creation of new words and concepts, and encourages analytic decomposition. One begins to understand why the German language has fostered such a robust philosophical traditon.