Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Duel

As you've probably noticed, Lily's been writing a lot lately. I, on the other hand, have been somewhat empty after a big push in May. Tonight Lily challenged me to a duel.

We met over a table at Ebert's (which we still call Creperie, even though it's now called Ebert's). We each brought a notebook. I also brought a small dictionary and Jose Lezama Lima's selected poems, from which we pulled words or lines as prompts. With these prompts, we had two minutes a round to write something. Then we read the results to each other. We did ten rounds.

I talked loads of trash the entire time.

Everybody won.

Some Samples for you...

4) LIMA quote: "I can't. I mean it."

"I can't. I mean it."
i won't, you want it
i don't, we had it
i choke, i get it
i wouldn't anyway


"I can't. I mean it."
I should, I mean
I wanted to, or thought
it would be promising
to offer, that I might
see my way through
any obstacle, the mud,
but I spoke before
I lifted a finger
and that changes

5) THE REMIX - we took two quotes by Jose Cemí, from his novel Paradisio, read them aloud, shut the book and had to remix the images from memory.

"The president crossed the ballroom like a nicety on the lid of a cigar box."
"The house, the candles in their holders, seemed to stress its metals, as if preparing the fireflies of memory for the future."

A swarm of fireflies around the President's head. He plucks one out of thin air, cups it in his palm. Flickering flesh. Into a cigar box he drops it, closing the lid, then cracking it, making sure.

The president crossed the cigar box like a nicety attached to the back of a butterfly, a candle stressed to its metal, waxing in the glow of a flickered shutter.

9) LIMA quote: "You can erase from the book of life."

You can erase from the book of life. Dare me. I will replace from the look my wife gave me over tea. Engage another lever. Love a perishing weaver. Tar and feather the elbow leather of an elephant. Recant. Recount.

10) THREE WORDS randomly chosen from the dictionary.

grain introduce nipple

Let me introduce Miss Daisy Chain, she'll be performing for you tonight on the high wire, the hoops and the crystal jig-a-lig. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Daisy Chain is a one of a kind wonder, straight from the plains of Indiana to our Windy City. You think you've seen legs? A sassy derierre? A tantalizing glimpse of nip ... (time's up)

The Doc

A little urology humor ...

in honor of the Doc on Father's Day.

The Coach

For Fathers Day, a shout out to the 1975 Senators and their coach.

Needless to say, if anyone can find one of these OG Admiral track tops, I have cash or trade.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

See you later

One of the things that I have liked all these years is to be surrounded by people who know no english. It has left me more intensely alone with my eyes and my english. I do not know if it would have been possible to have english be so all to me otherwise. And they none of them could read a word I wrote, most of them did not even know that I did write. No, I like living with so very many people and being all alone with english and myself.

Gertrude Stein, from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

There is the language we use to share information, the language we use to create – ideas, images, imaginings – and the language we hear in our heads. Murmur, mutter, sooth the baby, cry for help, curse in anger. To be alone with one’s language can be the ultimate privacy or the ultimate prison, or it can become, I realized one night watching a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a place to lose ourselves.

It was the first play I saw when I moved to Germany. I went alone. The lights came up on a large elevated, tilted square covered in purple carpet across which hung a metal beaded curtain. The actors entered arguing, and from that point on, I was lost. I watched everything with a vague memory of the plot from the movie, but understood exactly nothing. It was, of course, all in German.

It was an incredibly lonely evening. In a darkened room full of people who understood, I didn’t. It was February 2007, and I had just left behind for the foreseeable future: my husband, my apartment, my books-records-dishes; my friends, family and city; the ability to read my mail or open a bank account, my understanding of state holidays, knowledge of customs and rituals; my language. But how could I resist the temptation to walk out of one life and into another? It was a chance to lose myself. In the process, I thought, maybe I would find something.

Well-spoken German has a hushy, pleasantly raspy sound and I liked not understanding it at first. But that soon began to shift. Laughter took on a disembodied, abstract quality, sounded manufactured. Movements looked like pantomime. I created mental super-titles: “The man lifts his drink to his lips, squints,” “The women clasp waists, one wobbling on her high-heels.” The actors were no longer people but symbols, forms imbued with indecipherable meanings. Architectural ruins, Egyptian pictorial alphabets, computer code. It must mean something, I thought. I’m sure it all means something. I shifted in my seat, my eyes dilated with effort. I forgot where I lived. I forgot what I was doing there. I forgot that I could speak. I tried to come back, repeating in my head over and over: You’re in Germany. You’re in a theater in Germany. You’re a dancer in a theater in Germany and you speak English. But it didn’t help. Intermission came, and I left quickly in relief.


Kassel is home to about 150,00 people, if you count the villages. Its claim to fame is the international art exhibition Documenta, which takes place every five years, but most of the time when people come to Kassel it’s to shop. They also come for the theater. Performances play on three stages forty weeks a year. I’ve seen many of them – been packed in with the laughing kids at Christmas shows, tucked into the upper loge for the second act of the opera, sat in the last row for the ancient Greek drama – enough to wonder about the other people in the audience. Where they come from, why they’re there.

Of his characters, the novelist Milan Kundera said, “They are my own unrealized possibilities. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented." We are sitting in our seats you and I, watching the characters lie, kill, writhe, leap, get drunk, get their hands dirty, neglect to say the most important thing. We let them fail, transgress, supersede and are content to watch. There is, in all of us, an urge to get lost in the story. And there is, in many of us – and not just those of us who stand on stages for a living – the urge to take part. We want to cross borders ourselves, to find unrealized possibilities, to lose ourselves over and over.


Amanda Knox is a 21 year old American currently on trial accused of murdering her former roommate during a semester abroad. She has been in an Italian jail for 20 months. Last week she was called to testify for the first time. It is a murder trial, a well-publicized and heavily analyzed spectacle that you can read all about on the internet.

Knox comes from Seattle, and when she got to Perugia, she started studying, found an Italian boyfriend and got a job at a bar. On the night of the murder, she was working at the bar. When she was finished working, on her way to hook up with her boyfriend, she sent her boss an SMS message which ended, “Buene notte. Ci vediamo.” Good night, see you later. The bar owner was a suspect in the murder, and when the police found this text message they called Knox in for questioning. With “See you later,” the police’s line of reasoning was, Knox meant she would see her boss later that evening - to follow through with their plan to kill her roommate.

Knox was brought in by the police, questioned for hours, berated and even hit by police officers, she said. “I wasn’t sure what was my imagination and what was reality,” she said of the questioning session. Eventually, she broke down and asked to write down her statement. In what later turned out to be false testimony, she wrote her account of the evening, accusing her boss of killing her roommate. The written declarations, “were taken against my will, and so everything I said was taken under confusion and pressure…In my confusion I started to imagine that maybe I was traumatized, and under pressure I imagined lots of different things because during the days prior the police had suggested many things."

Last week when she testified, Knox spoke in both English and fluent Italian, but at the time of her arrest, her Italian was only passable. She wrote an SMS message in her non-native language, using a common farewell, and this was enough to begin an investigation for murder. Amanda Knox is either guilty or she is not. She testified that she is innocent but there’s a good chance she is not. But I can’t even get far enough in my thinking to form an opinion. I’m still picturing her standing under a street lamp in the warm Perugia night, thumb-typing.


Parallel worlds exist simultaneously. Chinese rice paddies are cultivated while Hollywood wives get eyebrow waxes; traffic is jammed during Denver’s evening rush hour while on an island off of Sweden they’re celebrating the solstice; I am swinging high on a ferris wheel above the valley but across an ocean from me in Brooklyn a thousand books and records sit in a dark room to which only I have the key. It is easy to step out in and out of countries, languages, theater lobbies.

What we find is often different from what we seek. We end up far away from where we set out. Some things are recoverable, or like language can be learned; others are lost forever. Stepping out of the brightly lit lobby into the humid, ticking night, it may all look unrecognizably foreign, or uncomfortably and suffocatingly familiar. Or maybe there is no intermission, no chance to leave early. That’s the risk. That the casually tossed “see you later” at the end of the night might not actually mean that. Maybe I will see you later. Maybe I won’t.


Friday night, second-longest day of the year, ten p.m. and still daylight, dusky though, and lily and I home from a long post-dinner walk, watching "Nacho Libre" (terrible, don't ask) in the living room when we suddenly realize:

Thought 1: I left the burner on when I made popcorn and there's a flaming potholder with my name on it.


Thought 3: did the ancient lady downstairs, the one with serious dementia, finally forget to put out a cigarette?

Turns out it was a few buildings over. We got out of our jammies and rolled down the block to gawk.


Here's a movie from two angles, the front and back of the building.

By the time we left, there were two cherry-pickers up trying to get it under control.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The richest man of earth, right now

Sunday sunrise Kassel, 4am. Christian tells me what it is like for a dj to work with dancers...

To work in a dance piece is the most extremely enriching experience in my life. Because as a dj, it's logical to work with dancers. I've learned a lot in the last half a year because dancers have a different perception. They percieve space differently, acoustics differently, and movement differently. And they show me how you can always perceive things differently. That's why I'm the .....

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I grew up in a family of beer fans. My pops has been stinking up the basement of our house regularly for the last twenty-odd years, brewing beer. My brother also made beer for a minute, but he's more of an end-consumer. His six years in Germany were mostly spent south of here, where he did extensive field research.

So to the real geniuses of the family, I have a confession: I've been in Germany almost two years and until this week I had never set foot in a proper beer store. Sure, I've gone to beer gardens and bought beer at the grocery store, which is all well and good, but I always just rode on past the Getränkemarkt when out and about in Kassel.

A few weeks ago, Jason came over to watch soccer and eat dinner, and he brought with him a backpack full of very interesting beers. He also came wide-eyed to what he'd just experienced... "Fred, you've got to go to the beer store by my house. They've got lots of different beers."

Shamed (and thirsty), this weekend, on a cold and rainy Saturday evening, with Lily off drinking her own amazing beer in München, I cranked my bike up the hill to see what was what at G'mkt Weber.

Upon arrival: it's a low-slung windowless dump, something not out of place along Hamburger Alley in Henderson, KY.

Beyond the architectural crimes, I found just what I was looking for... if you're at all squeamish, I'd stop reading here. What follows can best be described as BEERPORN.

Flensburger, from the north of the north, on the Danish border. Rumor has it, profits from this beer fund right-wing political parties, making it the Colorado Kool-Aid of the German beer set. It's also rumored to be fantastically tasty. I'll just have one.

Three little bottles of Einbecker - Ur-Bock, Dunkel, and Ur-Bock dunkel (not pictured). The Ur-Bock is fruity, malty and relatively high in alcohol content. You can taste the booze. Lily likes this.

This is some Bayerisch lager. Not sure. Will report back.

This is a little flip-top bottle of Dunkel. Super smooth. Recommended.

A couple beer-geek websites (yeah, I do research) talked about this brewery as making the best doppel-bock in the history of mankind, or something. All hyperbole aside, I had the Hell and it's positively heaven.

I'll get back to you on the Bocks.

Back to the München monk styles. Lily raved about this beer on the phone to me, and lookie here, I can find some of it in little ol' K-town.


Unfortunately, Weber doesn't carry Augustiner's Weissbier, which is world-famous.

Fortunately, Lily came home with two half-liters in her suitcase.

What'll ya have?

Hochzeit revisited

The last weekend in May, I attended my first German wedding. I know, you're thinking, what about Cesar & Elisabetta's wedding last summer. Not the same. Not the same at all.

Meet Björn & Christina, residents of the town of Lohfelden, population 13,000.

Björn and I train and race together. We're about the same age. We run about the same tempos. Sympatico. Christina's also a teacher in Kassel and Göttingen, but she teaches kids, where I teach university students.

They got married in a thousand-year old church in Kaufungen, which was followed by a few German wedding traditions, some old, some new:

The new...

"Love Hurdles"

The Old:

Cutting a heart out of a bedsheet...

And crossing the threshold...

I learned a few things about German weddings.

For starters: the gift is money. But the object is to present the money in the most creative diorama... there were lighthouses with little paper (money) boats. There were wedding scenes with money guests (postmodern). At one point, four burly men entered carrying a North Sea beach diorama on a 4'x8' sheet of plywood. Melanie described it thus: "Wir (germans) sind alle oder gar nichts" (We are all or nothing).

For our diorama, we runners ran with another theme:

The reception was held at an old horse stables in Lohfelden. The sister and mother of the bride put on a kind of pageant, which included B&C having do stunts, a fashion show of old sports uniforms (C was a shot-putter when she was growing up), a "Guess the wild mushroom" contest (B spent a lot of time in the forest as a kid). All very organized... alphabetical, even.

Unfortunately for me, Lily had a performance of "Hair" that night, so I flew semi-solo. Luckily I sat with all my peoples at the best table:

Julia & Timm

Melanie & Martin

Markus & Dörte (w/Mel & Martin)

Paul, Robel & Fritzi

And Jörn, who in addition to running me into the ground, I found out can drink me under the table. Yikes.

The guy who is not my father who I also call coach, Herr Aufenanger, made the scene:

At midnight, they bring out another round of food, including the Schmalz pot:

fortifying us for the hours of dancing ahead. At 2:00 a.m., Lily started to worry. I rolled in just before three. Goodness.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Surfing in Munich

Munich for the weekend with the sisters for some baby-gazing. Big ups to Karen Virginia - not yet 4 months old and she's already working the passport.

In the city itself, it's germany germany, what you're picturing. Olde worlde charm meets fascist shadows, dressed in lederhosen, or a skinny suit. Drank beers one night at the Hofbrauhaus, der Führer's favorite, and another afternoon at the Augustinier Brewery, open since 1328. Checked out a huge selection of late Cy Twombly paintings. Watched the surfers on the river. Bought a silk shirt at a consignment shop from 3 little old ladies. After giving us directions to a nearby cafe, one of them suggested we tell the cafe owners that they had sent us; it would help things along. The other chipped in: "Stimmt. Anfänge sind immer schwierig." Beginnings are always difficult. Truth.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The place where we get what we need

There are the homes we choose and the homes that choose us. There are state parks and prisons, all-inclusive beach resorts in St. Croix and train depots in Philadelphia, sanctuaries and circuses. Sometimes our crying in public goes unnoticed and sometimes we’re greeted affectionately buying lettuce on Saturday morning.

I just went to NY for the first time in two years, and one of the only things I’ve been able to think about since returning to Germany is going back. The city had this seismic pull on me that came totally unexpected. I had expected to enjoy seeing friends. I had expected to be stimulated. I had expected to want to talk all night to the bartender just because he said so casually whatchu having, baby. I did not expect it to heal me.

But it’s not New York I want to write about. You’ve already read that, or lived it, or at least heard about it. City of rough edges, effort and clang, money, speed, vertical lines. City of stacked objects: panes of glass, soap streaks on windows, feathered earrings, toasted almonds, a homeless man’s blankets. I don’t know anyone who lives in New York who doesn’t lean back against the door after getting home at the end of the day, holding it closed just a second longer to keep the city out.

I want to write about the places we go to recover, what we’re looking for in those places, and where we find them. But first I want to tell you about the elephants.


Shortly before I left New York, a long article was published in the NY Times Magazine by Charles Siebert about elephant societies in Africa. You can find it on the web. This article made a huge impression on me at the time. Among many aspects of elephant society and its recent deterioration described in relation to neuroscience, psychology and African tribal history, was a section about how elephants deal with trauma.

Elephants are profoundly social creatures. I don’t use that adjective perjoratively. They share numerous astounding parallels to our human societies, like the way they grieve for their dead years after burial, and how they communicate with each other not only through noises but via subsonic vibrations sent to each other from their feet through the earth. They also are like us in the way they deal with stress and trauma. From Siebert’s article:

Today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss…have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture...Wild-caught elephants often witness as young calves the slaughter of their parents, just about the only way, shy of a far more costly tranquilization procedure, to wrest a calf from elephant parents, especially the mothers. The young captives are then dispatched to a foreign environment to work either as performers or laborers, all the while being kept in relative confinement and isolation, a kind of living death for an animal as socially developed and dependent as we now know elephants to be.

The elephants are suffering from what we would call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the methods of rehabilitation that work on humans also work on the elephants. Siebert cites Misty as an example, a circus animal who lashed out at trainers and was consequentially considered dangerous and banished. She is now at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, fully recovered. Their method is called the “passive control” system, because it is non-dominant. Unlike in circuses and with many trainers, there is no discipline, punishment or withholding of food, water and treats. Instead, every measure is taken to give the animals what they need to recover: a sense of safety, the freedom of choice, and continuous social interaction.


The first time I went to New York I was 20 and I went alone. I got into a taxi for the first time and gave him an address in the West Village, terrified. I let myself into a four-story brownstone on a quiet side street with keys that had been mailed to my parents by their friends, who’d inherited the place. I was in the city to dance, but what I remember most about that summer was walking around with my notebook, sweating constantly, and trying to find a different route from the West to the East Village every day for class. I didn't know anybody, I didn't meet anybody, and I don’t remember what exactly I learned about dancing, but there are streets I walked down three weeks ago - parts of Macdougal and Greene and 14th between 8th and 7th - that still remind me of that first trip over 10 years ago.

New York was the only place where what was happening around me seemed to fit what was happening inside me: the need to be at the absolute center of things while disappearing completely at the same time. I was absolutely invisible. I was the key witness.


The last apartment Fred and I lived in before leaving was in Park Slope, across from an old Armory. Lying in bed, I could angle myself so that all that was visible out the window were the sky, the branches of the trees, and the brick turret of the Armory, which looked like it belonged on a castle. This view was important to me, because from that angle I could not see another window looking back at me, and I could squeeze out the city. I was tired.

I am a very light sleeper, and every few weeks I’d be woken up by shouts, fights and the blinking of police lights from across the street in the middle of the night. The Armory housed a shelter for women who had been victims of domestic violence, and especially during the hot months of the summer, fights would break out and the police would come. Women screaming at women. Women screaming at men. Children protesting, resisting, being called out to. I couldn’t catch the gist, but the tone told everything: Don’t fuck with me. Get your hands off of me. Go to hell.

Living across from the shelter didn’t bother me. What did bother me was entering my own building and walking up the four flights getting closer and closer to the sound of our neighbor screaming at his wife. She worked full time and he stayed at home with their young son. Maybe he freelanced, maybe he was out of work – at any rate she had the “good” job in advertising for a pharmeceutical company. Once I was inside their apartment for a meeting. I was offered a drink. I noticed their fruit-of-the-month subscription: a carton of pears on the kitchen counter, an invoice. The pit in my stomach, looking at him.

It was suggested to me that I call Child Protective Services. They would surely come if they know a child was in the house. I called:
"I hear screaming, and I know there’s a baby in there"
"Have you heard anything breaking? "
"Have you heard the child crying?"
"Have you heard any sounds of impact, someone or something being hit or thrown?"
"Then I’m sorry, Miss, but there’s really nothing we can do. Unless we have some evidence that the child is being hurt there is nothing we can do."


Where is the place where we get what we need and how much? Space, health insurance, green grass to lie on. Love, a warm meal, time to oneself, quiet on the streets from 10 to 10, a glass of clean water, a pen and a piece of paper to write it all down. Safety, freedom of choice, continual social interaction. Do we have to leave home to find it?

I left New York with these questions on my mind. Both times: two years ago when I left for the green rolling hills, state-subsidized theaters and clean streets of Germany, and three weeks ago, hesitating. "New York is where we come for forgiveness" I'd overheard, scribbled down a few months before leaving the first time. Maybe I was always coming for the same reason: for absolution in the crowd. To scan the faces for traces of the guilt, regret, loss, betrayal, confusion I myself felt. City, wash over me.

The place we need changes according to what we suffered, and where. The sanctuary can be the old house or the new one, the porch swing or the hotel do not disturb sign. An Armory protects its weapons. A town sits in the valley, safe from intruders. The freedom of so many choices blurs and electrifies the city.