Thursday, December 17, 2009

The American question: Health care

Sorry, one more post about American politics. A timeline:

December 5: Atrios emails Booman to suggest liberals should feign coolness to the Medicare buy-in compromise.
December 13: Lieberman comes out against the compromise
December 15: Lieberman says he opposed Medicare buy-in because liberals, notably Anthony Wiener and Howard Dean, supported it.
December 16: Howard Dean pens an op-ed (to be published the following day) saying that now the bill is unsupportable.
December 16: Jay Rockefeller calls Dean's comments irresponsible.

As the poet says, "Same night, same fight, but one of us cats ain't playin' right." Am I the only one coming to this suspicion?

If you haven't yet read them, and you care to, I think Nate Silver's comments on all the bill is ("To claim that a health care bill without a public option is anything other than a huge achievement for progressives is, frankly, bullshit.") and Matt Yglesias's on all it ain't ("That's what leverage looks like. Supposedly pro-reform Democrats have failed to exert any real leverage in this fight.") are worth a read.

My own thoughts? The president, in his address to Congress earlier this year, said somewhat aspirationally, "I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. " If one were to take that as a goal, this bill is a failure---more action will clearly be required by future presidents, because the compromises made in getting a bill passed will need to be fixed. But it's oddly unfair to the president to take him at his word on this; he was speaking almost certainly rhetorically. I think that what liberals should think of the compromise really should turn on whether one thinks the present bill would provide a platform for that future action, or else short-circuit popular support for more drastic change and further entrench an imperfect system. I suspect most experts believe the former, but I really have sympathy for the latter. But honestly, what the heck do I know?
Update: In which I repeat myself in comments, and Ezra Klein ignores me. Dead to me, Ezra. Dead. To. Me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fahrrad mishugoss

So a few months ago I locked my bike outside a bar on Mariannenstrasse (called, perhaps too transparently, the Bar on Mariannenstrasse), wheel-to-frame but (significantly, as it'd turn out), not locking the frame to the already-full bicycle rack.  A few hours later I returned to find it... not there anymore.  Someone with a pair of bolt cutters or (more likely) a van to haul it away had come across it and taken it.  It's a story I'll tell perhaps at another time.  For now, I only bring it up to introduce an old and familiar truth, that one forms attachments to a bicycle, like one does a pet or a favorite childhood toy, or maybe the girlfriend who you break up with because you didn't want to be tied down but you never knew how good you had it until after three horrible relationships later, when something someone says some beery night reminds you of her.  Especially when you got it second-hand, you gradually begin to think of all the curious features of the thing, like a malfunctioning bell or the awkward slope of the handlebars, less as shortcomings and more as quirks or oddities, and eventually the things you love most about it.  I paid only thirty-five euros for the thing, but as I put twenty-euro repair after twenty-euro repair into it, I became more and more invested (fiscally and emotionally).  The night it was stolen, I had gotten to the point where I had never loved a bicycle as much as I did this one.

The new one's all right, though.  The light doesn't work and the handlebars are shorter than I'd prefer.  The first one had these long sloping handles, the curve of the handlebar was really a thing to behold, and the handles just came off the end looking like a decorative hilt of a samurai sword.  The new one's got short functional handles, as long as my hands are wide with not an inch to spare.  Spare, that's a good word for them.  Functional, with nothing to spend on grace.  It's got a boxy feel to it; the frame is this huge imposing triangle, all straight lines and hard edges, and you have to swing your leg out to get on or off; the old one had a curve to its frame and you could sort of step-through to get on.  I got this one at the Flohmarkt for forty euros and should have known I'd put more into it soon.  The front tire blew out on the way to the library one day, and the rear wheel started making this awful scraping sound afterwards.  Just this awful sound like grinding your teeth against a chalkboard with your fingernails poking into a wet unhappy housecat.  Awful.  The guy at the bikeshop down the street said it was the axle and replaced it, but two days later the sound came back; turns out the whole wheel was beschädigt and had to be replaced.  He did give me a discount roughly equal to the price of the axle I'd already bought.  I had put a lot of money into the first bike, and never knew how good I had it.  Ah, I never should have broken up with that girl.  Bicycle, I mean.  

Well, of course I've been using the new bike since then.  Locking it quite carefully, one will note.  I've even been riding it a lot just for exercise, since I hurt my knee my first attempt at a run since eleven miles in Barcelona, the night of history's worst-ever for-lack-of-a-better-word-I'll-call-it-a-date, which is a story I really gotta tell when I get a chance.  The knee appears to be okay, although I'm keeping to shorter distances to be safe---this took me twenty and a half minutes today, good for a seven-minute pace---and for longer bouts of sweating I've been keeping to the bike.  

This is of course in addition to the use I get out of the bike just in terms of getting around town.  In medium traffic I move as fast as cars (in heavy traffic, faster), and I don't need to look for a parking space, just a signpost, and if it gets too cold or I'm running late it only costs 1.50 to take it on the U-Bahn.  I absolutely love having my bicycle as a transit option---which it is in Berlin, and isn't a lot of other places, because of the accommodations Berlin makes to cyclists, like plentiful bike lanes and especially car drivers who know bicyclists are on the road and look out for them.  I don't mean to belabor this point, but it is a real difference between the Germans and Dutch et al, and the Americans.  Also:  Foreshadowing!

Some of the improvements I'd paid for with the first bike were removable front and rear lights.  I'd unclipped them and slid them into my bag when the bicycle was stolen, so I still have the heavy bits that make the light, but they are missing the clamps by which they're attached to the bike itself.  Since those clamps are only for sale in kits for the entire light set, I haven't replaced them and have been riding lichtlos.  I know that's against the law.  I don't know how serious an offense it can be, technically.  But I'm an immigrant without work or, really, any visible reason I'm living in this country, and it's not so far to the time I was here without a visa and technically subject to deportation if anyone had found out, and that mindset doesn't shake off all at once.  Once you live like that there's an edginess that creeps back up whenever you see a police car, a fear no matter how irrational that lingers, makes you wonder if they're not coming for you, finally.  

I say this by way of explaining why, once I determined I wasn't hurt, I didn't wait for the police to come or insist on exchanging numbers or otherwise make a big deal of it when a motorist collided with me as I came around the corner of Dresdener between Oranienplatz and Kotbusser.  Right about here.  The way it happened was, I was coming from the west and veered right onto Dresdener as a car that was parked to my right pulled out of its spot, its driver looking the other way.  Given the turn and (as I remember it) what must have been a truck or other obstruction, neither of us could see each other from far away, although I was definitely the first to see him, as he kept rolling after I'd started veering to my left.  I was going too fast to turn any more, but I think he eventually did see me and brake, and the collision---right on the knee, natch, but not the one that's been hurting---felt pretty soft.  I fell over, but caught myself on the way down.  I got up, stepped on both legs; they were fine.  The other guy pulled back into his parking space.  He didn't turn off the engine right away, but stayed there, lights off, the motor humming.  As I watched him it was as though I could read his mind, so clear it was what he was thinking.  Drive away, quick, before anyone sees.  I would have been thinking it, too.  But then he killed the engine and got out and I told him I was fine.  His car might have been scratched, I guess, but if so I didn't see it and he wasn't terribly interested in checking.  I told him he could go and he did, quickly.

At the time I thought the bike was completely intact, too.  Well, this little plastic claspable case that sits under the seat, and the purpose of which I've never been able to figure out, had fallen off.  But it's a cheap thing that I didn't particularly want.  I'd walked it the few steps to the curb and everything seemed completely fine. It was only as I went rolling away did I hear that sound again of something grinding against the rear axle, not the same noise exactly as what the axle had been making that precipitated two replaced parts, but damn if it didn't make me think of just that.  And as I pedaled through the streets of Berlin with a satchel of groceries slung across my back, all I could think about was that I really don't know how much more I can afford this city, how I keep thinking I have a budget I can sustain only to find out there's a dozen incidental costs of things that I hadn't planned on, and how much longer can I keep this up, and how much worse it could have been if I had medical costs, good lord.  But I've taken two bikes into the shop I don't know how many times now, and I'm tired of paying for it, and I'm just getting ready for this one to be a full chain and gear or something more expensive than another crappy wheel.  I notice the sound only comes when I pedal and not when I coast, so I do that, coast, as much of the way home as possible, pedaling furiously and then just leaning forward as long as I can, feeling like I can drift forever as the city grows darker and colder.  The sun had gone down long before.  

The next day I walk it down the street.  My German's at least better here and I can explain what was happen with the passive "was hit (by a car)"/,,wurde von einem Autofahrer geschlugen."  It has much less of an effect than I had assumed, and he just flips it onto its seat, turns the pedals with one hand while watching the chain, and in two quick movements bends a metal plate until the chain no longer rubs against it.  So my bikeshop guy thinks I'm retarded.  "Oh, you have a problem with your bike again?  This problem here, that disappears when I apply pressure with my hand?  Yeah.  Wow.  Those can be a killer. 

Today, though, I noticed that I'm liking the new bike more.  The short handles even; they kind of feel right, you know?  Spare.  Economical.  Practical, minimalist, no pointless flourishes.  

Sigh.  This thing'll be the death of me.  

Thursday, December 3, 2009

,,Hat nummer sechs keinen Witz bekommen?'' ,,Doch,'' sagte der Bartender, ,,aber du erzählst ihn falsch''

Small complaint, but I have to get this off my chest: In Deutschkurs we did a few days involving humor, Witze, Scherzen, und so weider. Supplemental homework was to learn a joke, each member of the class being expected to tell one over three days. Well, I don't know any German jokes, but how different could an American or English joke sound in translation?

Pretty different, it turns out. I volunteered on the first day, so I had completed my obligation. Nearly no one else even attempted to come up with one, however, which left a lot of dead time at the end of the second day, when it was obvious our instructor had counted on the tell-a-joke exercise to eat up a good twenty minutes that she otherwise would have had to spend teaching. Well, not to brag, but I'm one of the better speakers in the class, so I offered to tell a second one the next day, and then today when the clock showed minutes still left with no volunteers, the instructor came back to the well a third time.

Three days, three chances to tell a joke, three times I got it all out without any curse words and no grammatical mistakes so gruesome that they would have made it impossible to understand. Three jokes. Not one person laughed, not one time.

"I would, but I really need the eggs." "My dog, he has no nose." Nothing. Fuck you, humorless language students---how's that for a joke?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

,,Halt es mal nicht für Krebs. Halt es mal für Krebs-chen.''

Language courses continue. It seems that's the only verb the noun "language course" can take. It cannot "succeed" or "come to completion," only "continue." I still find it often difficult to say exactly what I want, or that when I believe I have succeeded I've in fact conveyed something quite different from what I intended, but I believe I'm getting better. The class does not seem to be moving as fast as it could. I missed a solid week with what could have been the flu or a bad cold, or even food poisoning. I'm insured but don't go to the doctor for the three days, and on the fourth I cannot find the right clinic at first, and on the fifth my symptoms seem to be on the decline. When I return to class the following Monday I appear not to have missed much that I can't recover immediately. I wonder how much I'm paying for this, but then set about relearning the subjunctive past tense. Ich hätte gerne, einen verschiedenen Kurs zu nehmen.

Full moons, or else the damp chills that these days seem permanent in the city, bring foul moods, and tempers don't flare but smolder beneath the surface during the section on interrogatories and statements of the form, Er/sie fragt, warum du ... hast. Our teacher asks the bubbly Spanish woman who always wears fashionable boots why she's incapable of punctuality. The Spanish woman in cute boots asks our fifty-something teacher why she has never been married.

The next subject is getting sick and seeking medical treatment. It comes a few days after I have returned from my own illness, and I brood over the ironies that the first immediately practical bit of language we have learned has come precisely when I can no longer use it. My own poor mood takes as its object our coursebook and its silly examples of patients who are incapable of sustaining a conversation any real human being is ever going to need. "Doc, you gotta help me---I get these terrible stomach pains after about my fifth cup of coffee that don't subside even if I have a second apfelkuchen." Du isst nie Frühstück, weil du musst zu früh nach Arbeit, täglich trinkst du nur Kaffee und isst selten Mittagessen, und manchmals du kommst nach Hause um neun oder später, und du weisst nicht, warum dein Magen dir weh tut? Meine Diagnose ist Schwachsinnig-heit.

We move on from the doctor's office to the workplace. We learn about jobs that are selbständig, autonomous, and those that offer Aufstiegmöglichkeiten, or opportunities for advancement. Our Lehrerin expresses her opinion that lawyers have excellent control over their working conditions, Arbeitsbedingungen, such as their hours, and have excellent prospects for advancement. I unwittingly am recalled to the four years I spent in those salt mines, the nights and weekends I was literally ordered to be in my office, and the dozens of associates who were fired or driven to quit before one was made partner. I chuckle bitterly to myself as I sip from my coffee, which I have dosed heavily with cream and sugar, but which is black again when it leaves my lips.

We are asked to list verbs that take the dative case, or the dative plus the accusative. I find the exercise very difficult, coming up with only the most obvious examples: "to be pleasing (to someone)" and "to seem (to someone)" in the former category, and "to give (someone) (something)" and "to show (someone) (something)" in the latter. The class lists off their entries, and I am apparently alone in having this trouble. After the fact I come up with schmecken, to taste good (to someone). Ja, says our Lehrerin. That is very important, wichtig. The next suggestion is winken, to wink. I think this has an exclusively flirtatious connotation, but I am not sure. Our Lehrerin responds Ja, but that dass ist nicht wichtig. The Spanish girl in cute boots begins to laugh and cannot stop herself. While she stifles the noise as best she can behind two hands, our teacher explains passen. "When I shop for clothes, I find, 'these pants are too small, these pants passt nicht.'" The Spanish girl in cute boots loses it completely.

I have now learned to translate the active voice to the passive, whether or not it makes the slightest bit of logical sense. "One is not permitted to beat children" becomes "children are not permitted to be beaten," which invites the question how to translate a Homer Simpsonic "...'cause if they do..." and accompanying shaken fist, into German (other than, of course, unwisely). Kinder dürfen nicht geschlogen werden, und wenn sie so tun, dann bekommen sie ein Schlagen!

My writing proceeds slowly, frustratingly. I have finished a draft of one short story and shown in to a few friends. One has returned a verdict (negative). It's entirely of my own making, but for the moment I'm trapped between two languages: I can't immerse myself in German while I'm devoting so much of the day to English, and I can't really get the work done in English while I spend half the day in German-mode. Each proceeds slowly, in its own way, for the time being, and I have decided (evidently) to let it be. Eventually I shall have to make a decision, I think. But for the time being I'm pretending I don't know that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lock the door on the Hall of Fame: The leader boards

Can it be? a baseball post?  After I up and moved to Europe?  Well, it's this or nothing from me, so quit your damn yelping.  It's award season, and I'm thinking of history.  

Zach Greinke, the best pitcher in the American League, won the Cy Young award, which is supposed to go the best pitcher in each league.  That qualifies as news, because the voters are not widely thought of as able to identify the best pitcher, and pretty much everyone was waiting for them to give it a pitcher who achieved more wins by virtue of not pitching for the woeful Kansas City Royals.  As Joe Posnanski noted, a pitcher with as few wins (16) as Greinke had really not won the Cy except in very odd circumstances.  Joe Mauer overcame the handicaps of leading the league in all three triple-slash scores (average, on-base, and slugging) and playing the most demanding defensive position to win the AL MVP despite not playing for the Yankees, and accordingly lacking the mystique and aura that are widely known among baseball people to follow truly great players.  Lincecum beat Carpenter and Wainwright for NL Cy honors and Pujols winning his third MVP, which aren't as interesting for being either too hard a question or too easy of one, respectively.  

Anyway, for reasons I don't recall right now, I was looking at this list of the players with the most career runs scored, all time.  Probably it was because I was arguing with a friend over whether Rickey Henderson, recently elected to the Hall of Fame, or Greg Maddux, not eligible for a few years yet, was more deserving of a unanimous Hall ballot, which as you sure know, no player has ever received.  My argument:  Maddux did everything right, pitched to contact while still striking out a ton of batters, avoided the walk, won 300 games---there's no argument against him, whereas Rickey was a great player who still had a curious lack of power from a corner spot and wasn't the best outfielder in baseball during the time he played---not even the best left fielder.  The counter-argument:  What records has Maddux broken?  Rickey is #1 in runs, #1 in steals, and while maybe Bonds was a better left fielder, no one's ever been a better leadoff hitter.  Well, he's also #1 in being caught stealing, and being #1 ain't necessarily all you think it is---the pitcher with the most strikeouts is one of the weakest Hall selections in history.  So I decided to look at the rest of the guys with the most runs scored in their careers, hoping to find some guilt by association with which to besmirch the good reputation of my dear friend.  

Wow, is it not there.  Looking at the runs leaders, one does not easily find any irregularity in terms of quality.  In fact, up until #74, the list comprises three and only three subsets:  Hall of Famers; active players or recent retirees not yet eligible for a vote, and Pete Rose (okay, Tim Raines is in there, too, but he should make it in during the next few years); and dead-ball era guys whose last game was in 1903 or earlier (well, Arlie Latham came back for four games as a pinch hitter and late-inning replacement at second in 1909 after a ten-year absence; he batted zero in two trips but must have reached on either an error or a fielder's choice, as he stole a base and scored a run; he fielded the ball cleanly and made the throw to first on both of his defensive chances---how's that for reading a century-old box score?).  Finally at number 75 you get a real omission by the Hall of Fame, someone who played during what I'll call the Hall Era and who has become eligible, in Dwight Evans.

Well, that seemed interesting to me, that the top 75 run scorers would all be Hall guys, except for the last one.  It's a curiously round number, no?  How 'bout RBI leaders?  Excluding Hall of Famers and ineligibles, you start with #29 Harold Baines (who's still eligible for a vote but only squeaked by with 5.9% last ballot), then #34 Andre Dawson (who collected the most votes after the two inductees with 67%, and has two more years to get 75%), and at #51 (Dave Parker) or maybe #53 (Rusty Staub) you start to see the picture start to look mixed.  Home runs? it's more complicated, as you start with #32 Jose Canseco, but you follow that up shortly with #35 Dave Kingman, then #42 Darrell Evans, and at #48 (Dale Murphy) it peters out into a steady drip of non-Hall players, plus you got Fred McGriff and Juan Gonzalez and Andres Gallaraga mixed in there, who aren't eligible until next year but who have shaky cases and who almost certainly won't all make it in.  

So by runs, the Hall has inducted more or less all the 75 career leaders that it can, and looks to induct the remainder when their time comes; in runs batted in, it's the top 50; and in home runs, the top 35.  What about absolute numbers?  There you notice something interesting, as the cutoff for runs is 1,475, maybe 1,480.  Runs batted in goes to 1,500 (between Mickey Mantle and Dave Parker).  Home runs could be anywhere from 443 to 451 (the collar around Bagwell).  So let's call it 1,500 for R and RBIs, 450 for HR.  That seems about right; when you imagine a BBWAA voter looking at a generic player, it's easy to imagine him being impressed by the big round numbers.  The homers number is a little weird, and perhaps by coincidence sits directly between the 400 that represented a lock before the for-whatever-reason homer-happy 80s and 90s (I'm not avoiding attributing it to steroids, but I'm not absolving the new parks or expansion-era pitching, either) and the 500 that it became after.  With hits it departs from the round-number pattern, as it's the 45 with 2,800 (again, excepting current and recently retired players, Pete Rose, and Harold Baines), or 2,775 if you assume Dawson and Griffey are in.  Clearly anyone with 3,000 is an A+ lock, and it looks like for practical purposes, the Hall recognizes how out of reach that milestone is for even the greatest players and is willing to fudge that number for an A-minus student, as well, but won't give a full 10% discount.  (Yeah, that's the best rationale I could come up with.)  

First thought:  What's particularly curious to note is that the runs leaders are comparatively overrepresented relative to the sluggers; I would have bet anything that the contrary were so, just based on the voters' reputation for overvaluing homers and ribbies in doling out the MVP awards.  I suspect that the reason for this is that players who have great mashing seasons aren't especially likely to have great mashing careers, but true quality players score runs consistently across their seasons.  That is, the RBI bias might result in a Justin Morneau MVP campaign for the length of a season, but it's unlikely to sustain a Hall of Fame career, whereas the skills that get ignored over a single season reveal themselves in the fullness of time to be more truly valuable.  

Second thought:  The round numbers of lock-candidates on the respective lists reflects an artificial symmetry, and one what's really on the brink of collapse.  The HR/RBI numbers include a lot of players suspected or proven of using steroids, and Mark McGwire (who never failed a test) has been passed over twice now; it certainly seems that more of the leaders will wind up being excluded from the Hall for suspicion of using PEDs.  Additionally, even though he's not thought of as a steroid user, Harold Baines appears right in the middle of the hits and runs-batted-in lists, but he'll be kept out of the Hall because those career numbers were because of a long career in a high-scoring era, and in spite of average rate stats.  If you reexamine the lists for likely exclusions, the bottom of the "lock" lists becomes defined by (in each case: ballpark career numbers, number of Hall members-last guy kept in, first guy left out) the following, and forgiving/ignoring Rose and Bonds because you really have no choice:  
  • Hits:  North of 3,000, #23-Lou Brock, Raphael Palmeiro, or if you ignore Raphael, 2,800, #39-Babe, Baines
  • Runs:  1,700, #25-Bill Hamilton if you end the chain at A-Rod; #29, Winfield if at Palmeiro; or #33-Ripken, Sheffield
  • Runs batted in:  1,800, #13-Ted Williams if you end at Palmeiro; #18-Frank Robinson if at Manny; #20-Honus Wagner if A-Rod or Frank Thomas
  • Home runs:  #5-Griffey if Sosa; #7-Frank Robinson if McGwire or A-Rod; #10-Killebrew if Palmeiro; #14-Mike Schmidt if Manny
Third thought:  All told, I think this points to a welcome trend of the voters (in the aggregate if not individually) really internalizing a lot of the new knowledge of baseball.  Whether it's in spite of themselves, as you see with runs being valued relative to RBIs, or as a result of the schismatic episode of the steroids era, or (my personal theory) the more traditional view, as reflected in the round numbers-test, simply becoming obviously unworkable as the historical context evolved, there is at least a hint of baseball's highest honor being awarded more rationally.  It's only a hint, still, but in light of a pleasantly sane bit of year-end voting, it seems that we may finally be on the right side of the arc of history.  (Well, Jeter did get another Gold Glove, so there's still a lot of work to do.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Me and E. (an email correspondence)

Me:  You know, I'm actually liking the Dune miniseries (I'm watching the second one, Children of Dune, now)

Me:  On a totally unrelated note, the actresses who play AliaPrincess Irulan, and Chani are all totally number fours.  Oddly, they're quite a bit older than you'd expect for actresses (Alia, who I think is the h4wtest of the three in a contest where placing third is really no shame, is 43...). . 

E.:  I didn't know they made a second one...

Me:  Yeah, I guess.  2003.  It encompasses the books Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, I think.  

E.:  I'm getting old.  Like, old for the earth.  I thought the Dune miniseries was recent...

Me:  Nine years ago ain't recent enough for you?  The Yankees had just won the World Series, a Democrat was in the White House and Republicans were spreading crazy stories about how he was going to murder people... feels like yesterday.  

Monday, November 16, 2009

The New Yorker Swimsuit Issue (a.k.a., the food edition)

The New Yorker Food Issue just arrived in my inbox, and I've been spending the last hour or so reading about, inter alia, Thanksgivings abroad.  

[Sidenote:  I've been describing said issue over IM all day, and the absence of convenient italics therein forced me to experiment with capitalizations I found less than ideal.  "The New Yorker Food Issue" is clearly deficient, suggesting as it does a single title, and while I settled on "The New Yorker food issue," I didn't like the casualness of that lower-casing of the issue.  This is all by way of confessing my intense punctuation-and-style geekdom, that the availability of italics in this medium comes as a genuine relief.  Also the reader kindly will note that while standard Bluebook style is not to italicize Latin phrases such as "inter alia," that rule follows the policy of underscoring vocabularies the reader is expected to find unfamiliar extends only so far as the presumption that a legal audience will be familiar with them.  In other words, it's a genre-specific rule that really shouldn't be leaned upon for more than... oh, I'm sorry, is this boring you?  Hey, fuck you, then.]

The waiter arrived and placed before Maxime a large white plate. At the center was her foie gras, a short pillar of puréed duck liver on a piece of crisp toast with a lacy web of caramelized sugar on top; the sides were studded with cherries and sprinkled with pistachios, and a transparent sauce, made of white port gelée, surrounded the entire creation like a moat. She considered the dish for a few moments, as if trying to determine the best angle of attack. With the side of her fork, she broke off a piece of the complicated construction, and tasted it. The dish, which I later tried, activated every sense with which humans are equipped: the foie gras was smooth and as rich as butter, its silky texture contrasting with the caramelized sugar, which shattered like a pane of microscopically thin glass against the teeth and tongue, its sweetness offset by the sour cherries, the rounded aromatic flavor of the toasted nuts, and the texture and taste of the port gelée.

"Excellent," Maxime said.

I asked her what she liked about it.

"It's not really a 'like' and a 'not like,' " she said. "It's an analysis. You're eating it and you're looking for the quality of the products. At this level, they have to be top quality. You're looking at 'Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?' And then you're looking at the creativity. Did it work? Did the balance of ingredients work? Was there good texture? Did everything come together? Did something overpower something else? Did something not work with something else? The pistachios—everything was perfect."

When her second appetizer arrived—the crab toast topped with toasted sesame seeds—she dipped the tines of her fork into a thick line of dark-green sauce that bisected the narrow rectangle of crab toast, and touched it to her tongue. Her eyes grew wide.

"This sauce is really good," she said. "It's so Jean-Georges. He does this French-and-Asian thing." She warned me that she would need a few seconds to figure out its precise ingredients. (She refused to divulge them, on the ground that Vongerichten would consider the recipe "a trade secret." I later learned from one of the waiters that the ingredients include powdered English mustard and soy sauce.) "It's so complex," she said. "It makes me smile."

Her Arctic char arrived, on a bed of watercress rémoulade, and accompanied by a julienne of apple. She took a bite. "It's perfectly cooked," she said, excitedly. "I mean, it's textbook."

I don't know if I have a whole lot to say about this other than something just below the surface itches, that I'm pretty sure it pisses me off.  I'm no ascetic---hell, I'm a fat guy---but there's something intensely respectable about the Buddhist credo that one should eat in order to live, not live in order to eat.  That is, it goes without saying, completely incompatible with a carmelized sugar crust atop a slab of foie gras studded with cherries and pistachios.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

War, warst, warum?

Greetings, Agent Handler. You'll have to forgive me if I'm hard to understand, as I'm talking through a cold, one of the real drippy ones where one side of your head or the other feels heavier in the morning for having been the side you slept on, and until you get into the shower and just stand under water as hot and for as long as you can tolerate, it doesn't feel like your head is made of different tissues like bone and blood and cartilage, and certainly doesn't feel like you have discrete structures like sinus cavities in there, so much as it's all just one mess of coextensive jellied goo, harder on the outside surface for having crusted over perhaps, but essentially all the same stuff, your cheekbones crammed full of snot, what you thought was your brain just a three-pound booger having achieved a dim self-awareness since you last rousted yourself to use the toilets. Or in other words: I have nothing of real interest to report, really, or at least nothing you'd want to read more about. Language school proceeds. For the first time since before college I'm reading what I suppose qualifies as a "text" despite having more square meterage photos or cartoon illustrations than printed words. And those printed words ain't much to write home about, neither. The authors know that they're writing for an audience with exceedingly limited vocab and grammatical abilities and who accordingly can understand only basic sentences. It results in this weird Ray Carver-esque tone in a context where that dark tone seems a bit eerie.

A young man stands outside the gates to a school. If you were to see him, you'd think he were waiting for someone. But for whom; no one comes out of the gate. He watches a car as it passes. He sees his reflection in a window, pulls a comb from his pocket, and runs it through his hair. It's nice hair, shiny and thick still. He probably won't notice it thinning until he's nearly to forty. At least, it's nice to think so. A blond in winter clothes walks by. A pretty girl. He winks at her and grins, but she just walks by, the kind of girl that won't talk to you unless she knows you already. Well, how are you ever going to get to know someone if you won't say hi, he asks out loud, but low, growling to himself, really, and anyways she has walked on by already. He refuses to watch as she turns the corner and is gone. He waits more. The gates open, and a mousy little girl, dark hair tucked up underneath her an unfashionable hat comes out. She sees him before he turns to see her. She walks up to him and touches his arm. He turns and smiles. A polished smile; a convincing one. It's as though nothing of the in-between had happened.

There's also the revelation of the class fault lines within the class. Our instructor, I think, is genuinely sympathetic, but there's just a difference of experience that results in someone like her (someone like, say, me) not really getting it, not understanding just how different people's lives can be for the simple reason of them coming from, you know, like China or someplace. The Continentals and the residents of the former Commonwealth (just this Yank and an Aussie so far; I'm hoping for a Rhodesian soon, but I'll take a Canuck) take full advantage of the new vocabulary for frequency and durations of time, but the questions about how often someone goes out to dinner, on vacation, or to the spa turn one half of the class into the auslaenders who say ,,Nie." (Yeah, I know. Sorry.) It strikes me that this is a movie I've seen before. And how often do you eat candy bars? And how many do you eat? Oh, no, it's just that there's a funny---do you guys know "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in Eritrea? No? Oh, well, it's a long story. Similarly, a exercise on the past tense that I'm quite sure was intended, at least, to be self-evident turns out instead as some combination of bizarre, hilarious, and vaguely cruel, as the Chinese and Koreans become puzzled what contrast there could be against a past where grandparents, parents, and children all live in the same dwelling, and one of the Middle Easterners insist that women don't really work outside the home today, do they? (Our Lehrerin insisted: Yes, we do. No doubt thinking: Some of us even teach German to clueless chauvinists.)

I still feel somewhat interstitial, though; I feel bad not really having down the technical points about which pronouns take which case (mit, dative; für, accusative, und so weiter), and don't think I'd feel right asking into the next class up, nor am I entirely sure I could hack it. At the same time, I suspect I'm not really being challenged sufficiently at this level, amusing as the malapropisms frequently become. During a bit of open dialogue on Sehenswerdigkeiten that tourists in our home country find berühmte, we learned that in Korea there is a place of indeterminate location where one can find many women, numerous rocks, and a lot of wind. I'm pretty sure that was the result of a mispronunciation, but under cross-examination the blushing witness just nodded in order to get the whole thing over with.

Then again, I've lingered with this cold for a week and a half and still don't know what I'm going to do for money in the future. I could just be grumpy.

Currently listening, watching, and obsessed with: This. (Downloadable here.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pat blogging! less-special-than-you'd-hope American news edition!

[Ugh---updates from Deutschland are forthcoming but taking longer... I know, regular readers have been on this train before and know it takes a while, but I'm trying, really. In the meantime, here's more stuff from my latest foray into the Internets.]

Rush Limbaugh a victim of a left-wing smear campaign, you say? I had no idea thirty-two fat white billionaires now constituted the Left. A good rule of thumb is that when your political argument entails this guy or this one wearing a Che t-shirt and putting up ANSWER posters, you probably need to rethink that explanation. Liberals are making a mistake when they rush to defend one side of what is not their fight. Limbaugh versus the NFL owners is new money versus old; it's a story older than the sport, but that's what you get when half of the electorate proudly advertises they don't read books---you can't analogize to Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. Limbaugh wasn't kept out of the league because of some fabricated quote attributed to him praising Martin Luther King's assassin; he was kept out because he's not their kind of people. And that's disgusting snobbery, and he's a horrible person, and I feel no need to take any side in it.

Mike Huckabee... what to say. I actually like Huckabee (the Colbert bump, what can I say), or at least find him personable enough. And it's worth noting that he's straight-up a die-hard on two of the three legs of the GOP platform: a former Baptist minister, he's got the evangelicals and the cultural conservatives down with Huck-a-bee[fn1], and while he's not particularly noted by the foreign policy establishment as a particularly comprehensive conservative, his views are no less confused on that score than anyone else the party's thrown up. But there it is, that third leg, the part of the party that demands its nominees recite the Club for Growth Pledge of Allegiance, and Huckabee's said things in the past that terrify those people. Like, you know, working people need a fairer shake from Big Business. (Yeah, they get terrified by some downright decent shit, these guys.) He's from Arkansas, represents people who shop and work at WalMart, and unlike a lot of supposed Christian conservatives seems to have taken some of that shit about the meek to heart. That, as you know, makes someone a crazy populist in today's Republican party, where straight-up anti-populism is officially a Traditional American ValueTM. (Don't sneer, Democrats. You remember the only one of your candidates who did so much as talk a good game about poverty? Right, John Edwards. How'd that work out for him?)
fn1: Yea you know me!
In unrelated news, a Times reporter who authored an unbearably entitled pity-fest for the now-merely-super-rich and their struggles in the present economic climate (example: it's harder to give $100 million to the Met when your trust fund dwindles from $500 million to $350 million. No, really.) predictably got a lot of resentful letters from the unwashed not-rich-at-all set. What strikes me as most interesting is that nearly all of the letters were about the reporter falling down on the job---yet he was incapable of viewing them other than as a psychologically unhealthy bit of jealousy at the rich people portrayed in his article. I've been thinking about this for a while---I think a lot of what you see in the Washington Post online chats, for example, makes more sense when you realize that establishment reporters are incapable of conceiving that their judgment has ever been in error. It just does not compute. So they ascribe criticism to foulmouthed lefty bloggers who just have a political ax to grind, or else poor hicks in flyover states obviously in need of a good 5th Avenue psychotherapist (that they can't afford).

Okay, hopefully in the next few days a real update. Sorry folks.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A word from die Heimat

Well, awards season wraps up---no, you trivial tart, not that awards season, the one that matters---with the Rijksbank Prize in Economics Sciences (commonly misnominated the Economics Nobel) going to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, the former the first woman to win the award.  (Unlike the other five awards, which've been around since 1901 if memory serves, the foundation for the economics award dates back only until 1969, so it's not quite as bad as if say the Medicine or Literature prizes hadn't yet been awarded to a woman.)  

It's worth a petulant mention that the two new laureates are---well, they're not exactly nowhere on the list Mankiw disseminated earlier, but it's fair to describe them thus, them each being 50-to-1 shots.  That list appears to have been generated by the London equivalent of Vegas oddsmakers---ah, the English, so adorable... they with their tea to our coffee, cricket to our baseball, international awards for advancement in economic theory to our college hoops and horse races----so one should note that it's not entirely fair to hold up that list of an actual estimation of real likelihood, or indeed anything more than a diversion for fun and profit.  Yet this morning, I think, an awful lot of people were looking at the list as an actual estimation of real likelihood.  (By the way, read some of the comment threads these stories generated.  I'm convinced from reading a few of the Planet Money comment threads that economics, more than any other topic, inspires those who know the least to shout the loudest.  As a comparison to the rest of the Internet, that's saying something."

It's also worth noting that Eugene Fama was listed as the most likely winner on that gambling pink-sheet.  Like, Gene Fama?  The award previously seems to have been given to an interesting mix of scholars---for the really titanic works (Paul Samuelson, Ken Arrow, Akerlof, Ronald Coase, Friedman), the odd innovation in finance (Scholes) or behavioral insight (Nash, Kahneman) or cross-disciplinary genius (Sen).  There's the occasional crank thrown in, too---Lucas, Becker, Hayek---so there would have been some precedent.  Still, it seems (with the luxury of hindsight, of course) preposterous to think the committee could have chosen, in the context of the present economic situation, a theorist whose major contribution has always been employed in the defense of the proposition that less economic regulation is necessary.  (And I mean always has so been employed.)  The committees are supposed to be insulated from fits of populist sentiment (umm... heh, funny story about the peace prize this year...), but for them to have endorsed the efficient markets' hypothesis now, you'd be talking about levels of insulation not so much on the "domestic residence in Nome, Alaska" level and more on the one of "personal apparatus appropriate for extravehicular space walk" variety.  

And indeed it seems the committee did pick, at least in Ostrom, a scholar whose work shines a little brighter in the present situation, looks a little more prescient.  Prof. Ostrom is, in addition to the first woman, also not an economist but a political scientist, although her work on commons' theory fits into what is sometimes called political economy.  Now, I have a fair bit of training in some of these areas and I'd never heard her name, nor do I recognize any of what Wikipedia calls her notable works; one expects that had they thought to do this a decade ago, or were there no rule against posthumous awards, it'd be Garrett Hardin receiving the honor.  

But I'm sure it's well deserved, and congrats to both the new laureates.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this breaking news....

Okay, so this is supposed to be about my new home, but damn, I do miss New York.  This article about the dwindling existence of Jewish delicatessens in Newark is like a Philip Roth novel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Part of the cover story for my being in Berlin is that I'm here to learn German. "Cover story" referring to how I justify my rather absolute departure to my parents, not in the sense of obscuring my true purpose here of espionage. Well, that and the formal reason required for requesting a visa, I suppose, but I don't think anyone expects you to fill that out in unlimited candor. Long story short: I'm not a spy.

Although my discoveries about the city would make an ... interesting chapter in the history of the American intelligence apparatus. "Dear CIA Handler, Although I understand the need for secrecy I feel odd not addressing you by name. May I call you the obviously pseudonymic 'Agent Handler'? I have discovered that beer here is very cheap. Also, they talk very fast and make unsuccessful attempts to be polite when they ask if you wouldn't rather speak English instead. The game is afoot, Agent Handler."

Back to learning German: It's actually something I'd like to do, as I'm getting embarrassed at my limited language skills. So I've enrolled in a language school, the one that The Roommate enrolled in for her own courses. As she speaks much better German than I do, it seemed a useful enough place to start. They gave me a quick interview, let me sit through a practice session of level A2, where it seemed I was probably best suited, and I paid my money and got ready to start the next day.

I have only the most obvious observations to make, but starting a new course in a language you already somewhat speak has this mildly schizophrenic feel to it, invariably---the chance that a new entrant knows exactly as much as the rest of the class is roughly zero, so there's bound to be some material the new kid is the only one not to know yet and also some drop he has on the rest of them. For me in this class, the rest of the class all know a ton of words from last week's lessons that I don't remember from sophomore year, yet the more advanced grammatical concepts and a handful of useful phrases that I know already perfectly well are still to-come, and get me nothing but blank stares when I answer the instructor's Kann mann seinem Vater Parfum schenken? that It's not impossible to give one's father a bottle of perfume, yet still it might come as something of a surprise. Yet my vocabulary's still limited, and my ability to understand spoken German still woefully below average, so moving up a level is, I fear, for the moment a foreclosed option. So I endure grammatical lessons I don't need, trying to amass vocabulary and remember the gender of all these damn words.

The word schenken, to give (as a gift), proved useful in demonstrating the difference between the Akkusativ and Dativ cases, or what we term in English that between direct and indirect objects. In grammar lessons the example was dissected "Jenna gave me a rash." Jenna: subject. Rash: direct object. Me: indirect object, and possibly projecting. It's not truly remedial school, but it's still pretty basic. I succeeded in containing my groan at being softballed through concepts I learned literally a decade and a half ago.

I was less successful with the groan that came when I realized how old that makes me.

When the mind isn't sufficiently challenged it tends to wander, to find avenues of amusement for the excess capacity not being required for the task at hand. So my suggestions to complete the model sentences tended not to resemble the offerings of the rest of the class. My brother gives me the same gift I gave him for his last birthday, in a resealed box. I give my parents heartache. I give Seth Rogan two more top billings to put it all together, tops.

I'm not relying solely upon German-for-Third-Graders to get me up to fluency. The classes are merely serving as the center of a makeshift language-immersion program. The plan for the next month is to spend as much time as possible in classes, or listening to my German tapes and podcasts, or reading the second-hand German novels I've purchased, or consuming German-language TV, movies, and radio. (I'm not sure how to fit in this blog without writing it in German, which the English-only readers won't like and the German-speaking readers will like even less.)

No time like the present to start, I supposed as I left the schoolroom, and on my way to the library to sit down with Schmidt's Bewährung, I slipped on my headphones and listened to DW's slowly spoken German news podcast. The first story was, to my still imprecise ear, about John Yoo, former Bush administration torture-enabler (big ups to Boalt Law School! by the way! great hire, fucknutz). However, as the word "Hollywood" and phrases that I gathered were the German translations for Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Home Alone came out, I realized it must have been John Hughes instead.

Holy shit, John Hughes died? I really don't know if I had heard and then forgotten that, or else if it was still news to me when I heard it. Much more than Farrah Fawcett, Hughes seems to me the third iconic corner of the triangle that passed this summer, along with Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy, figureheads who got their rise in the 1970s, when I was born (albeit more of a resurrection in the case of the 1960s' Kennedy), became megastars in the 80s, when I was growing up, and started if not a decline than an extended phase of middling-through in the 90s, when I was officially entering adulthood and one starts to realize that the beautiful illusions of youth are invariably complicated, that heroic stories are all myths or else lies, that the real nemeses of adulthood are compromises rather than villains. That these deaths came during the summer as it turned to fall, as the days shorten and memories of winters past return, I'm sure, already has been remarked upon by abler chroniclers of the culture than I.

It wouldn't be so troubling if the Hughes obit were merely another of the headstones one sees when reviewing the landscape of youth. But his death itself had been news to me It's not that it's unusual---it's precisely that so much of this is news to me; I used to be a regular consumer of perhaps a dozen news blogs, the New York Times in physical format, and the New Yorker and Atlantic and Foreign Affairs. Now it's a handful of commentary sites that keep me vaguely apprised of the general tenor of news, but hardly in-touch. It were as if my connection to America were disappearing not only from the past forward, but also from the present back into the past, a candle burning at both ends, dwindling twice as fast toward a vanishing center. Is my identity as an American necessarily the casualty of seeking a new home in Berlin? Do the forces of History simply always work like that, erasing like some overeager villain in a clumsy spy thriller of crime caper the traces that bear witness to the past?

The plot thickens, Agent Handler.
[Update: More than merely clumsily, I inserted several egregious grammatical errors directly into the part where I was talking big about how all the grammatical rules are so easy for me; my face is quite red, and thanks for the correction, "beyondo98"... if that is your real name.]
Off-topic: If all the playoff games are like last night's one-game play-in, it'll do more to make me resent being in Germany rather than New York more than a thousand visa worries, bureaucratic snafus, and linguistic frustrations combined. Of course, if they're all like last night's game... buy stock in the suppliers of cardiac medication and devices, I guess.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A riddle

Ruth, Hornsby, Hornsby, Hornsby, Hornsby, Hornsby... more Hornsbies, Klein, Gehrig, Williams, Williams, Musial, Williams, Musial, Williams, Williams, the other Robinson, Yaz, Lynn, Brett, Walker, Helton, Bonds, Bonds, Mauer.

Reports from the internet


Congratulations - you have completed Movie Lines.

You scored 4 out of 11.

Your performance have been rated as 'Failed'

I get nightmares. Evidently. Or something like them.

Okay, beyond-odd confession.  I've been having this recurring dream wherein I'm playing this computer game that somehow becomes real? you know? not like in Tron but sort of, but where all of a sudden the game pieces that I manipulate on the screen are duplicated in the real world around me?  Anyhoo, this particular game seems to be a sort of board-game Dungeons & Dragons type, where you can generate archers, cavalry, peasants to till fields, etc., then deploy said pieces and watch them fight.  (Note:  This was probably inspired by the video game Trogdor.)  It being a dream, the context is always a location that's almost familiar---e.g., it's the hotel where I stayed that one New Year's Eve when somebody still loved me, but out the window it looks more like Los Angeles in the summertime, and if you go around the corner, it's the sixteenth floor at my old law firm job.  This particular time it was part of Treptower Park where I like to read when it's nice out, only in the middle of it was my father's house, and then next door there was a Hardee's.  I believe this last point was a plot point my subconscious intended to develop in a later scene but somehow lost track of.  Anyway.

One of the pieces available to the computer but not to the player (i.e., me) is a piece called the Black Knight, who can travel anywhere on the game board, has many different kinds of weapons like a mace and a sword, can attack every variety of the player's pieces, and is incredibly difficult to defend against.  So when that piece appears on the screen, and accordingly, appears in real life, it is of course rather a nerve-wracking experience, as this armored and powerful figure is now trying to kill me.

Now, here's where it gets weird.  The Black Knight character, when it appears, stops obeying the rules that govern real life.  For the moment, kindly pretend that the "rules that govern real life" can be read to permit video game characters to leap out of your screen and chase you around your father's living room and/or old office building.  Just humor me on this point; I'm hoping later to engage Ms. Pac-Man in an adult-themed fantasy you may wish not to think too closely about.  But I digress.

Anyway, here's where it gets weird.  The Black Knight, which as far as I can tell in the game is the one character who can use many different kinds of weapons---like a spear against cavalry, or a sword against peasants, or a torch against ... enchanted haystacks, I don't know---when he comes into my so-called real life abandons even that little bit of restraint, and starts using crossbows (not that weird) and ninja stars (weirder) and those stormtrooper-style laser guns from Star Wars (weirder...).  

No, wait:  Here's where it gets weird.  The Black Knight, this faceless, hulking creature tramping around in six feet of black armor, like with wings on the helmet and stuff, flips up his visor to reveal that he's none other than 1980s and '90s pop star and former Smiths frontman Morrissey!  And not current Morrissey, either, the one you can vaguely imagine being beefy enough to trudge around in a full suit of armor and angry enough to shoot a crossbow at someone.  No, this is '86 vintage Morrissey, the one who wouldn't hit his worst enemy with anything deadlier than a gladiolus.

Interlude:  When he pulls up the visor, Black-Knight Morrissey is singing this song, this song I don't quite recognize but that I can hear vividly in my memory even as I wake up, but of which I now can remember nothing other than the phrase "wonderful world" (not "Wonderful Woman").  And not a Smiths-era song but more one of those plinky-plinky songs from between Kill Uncle and Southpaw Grammar like "Sunny" or especially "Swallow on My Neck," like---but it still sounds like a really good song.  And now I can't remember a damn bit of it other than those two words.  You remember the story of how Paul McCartney originally dreamed "Yesterday" then woke up and played it on the piano and wrote it down and the next thirteen days kept asking all his friends if they'd heard it before because no one gets so lucky as to write a song in their sleep?  Yeah, this is, uh, a different story.  To say nothing of a different song.

So here's the thing.  Apparently the only thing that can hurt the Black Knight is this crossbow that's a real pain to wind up and only shoots this dinky little arrow, so I'm winding it up and aiming carefully and shooting at him.  Meanwhile, Morrissey the Black Knight has abandoned his sword and mace for---and I'm not making this up----an M-60 upright machine gun.  Wikipedia says it fires 600 rounds a minute, which are now coming more or less directly at me, as I'm trying to squeeze my entire body behind whatever cover there is, which is invariably something like a big bush.  (There may be variants of bulletproof bush in the computer logic of the video game, but not in quote-unquote the real world.)  So I'm hiding, trying to duck machine gun fire behind the shrubbery, winding up this pain in the ass crossbow, and then I duck out, point and fire, and the arrow hits him, but apparently you need to hit the Black Night three times or something, so he starts firing back and me, and I just sprint and leap behind this really short stone embankment that barely covers me as I squeeze into the corner where the bank meets the ground, I can feel the air being torn by ten bullets a second  passing just millimeters over my shoulder blades, which just. won't. squeeze down any farther, and without moving my arms enough to push myself over the bank I'm fumbling with the crossbow to try to reload it and it just won't fit right...

... and that's when I wake up.  So I gotta stop eating before bedtime.  I think, perhaps, maybe for a solid twelve hours before bedtime.  

And a very merry Yom Kippur to you as well

[ed. n.: Back to regularly irregular blogging schedule. Thank you, and good to be back/I'm so, so very sorry]

Most or all of my readers are former New Yorkers, at least, if not outright Landtsmen (sp?) themselves, so my announcement that yesterday's sundown ended the Days of Awe likely comes as no news at all. I haven't belonged to a synagogue in... far too long, and Berlin's not, um, noted for its vibrant and active Jewish community, so I didn't attend services. To be honest---that is, to confess my omission---I didn't even know where the nearest synagogue is, or where any is at all. Checking now, there appear to be four---the Rykestraße Synagogue in Prenzlauerberg, the Stiftung Neue Synagoge in Mitte (that address doubles as that for an Israeli restaurant) , the Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judiacum in Wittenau (another restaurant, this one Russian-Jewish and called Kadima), and the Joachimstaler Street Synagogue in Charlottenburg (on Joachimstalerstraße... natch). It's hard to tell for sure, as many Google hits are duplicative---the Stifting Neue receives foreign-language hits as both "Jewish Synagogue" and "La Grande Synagogue"---and the Stiftung and the Centrum Judaicum share not only the generic nomenclature "Neue Synagogue" but, confusingly, also the same street and number (Oranienburger Str. 28) albeit in separate neighborhoods. (I did a reverse search using each address and they appear to be legit. Odd. But I suppose when you're talking about the existence of a synagogue at all in Berlin, you're already agreeing to suspend your disbelief.)

Surprisingly, two days ago when I checked Google yielded few results for "things to do in Berlin on yom kippur" (the abbreviated "yom kippur in Berlin" yielded---no exaggeration---but a solitary hit, in the ahistorical hypothetical).

Going back online for the first time was an odd thing---I shall have to try it as a regular habit, to the extent consistent with my obligations to you-the-humble-reader. Well, I suppose it's always odd, but there's an extra layer to unfamiliarity when you don't quite speak the language on local teevee screens and newsstand front pages. Maybe it's just hte summer of Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, et al., but when I see an old celebrity's face and/or name, my first thought is the most final. But Roman Polanski (btw, least effective segue from Polanski to football. Ever.) evidently did not die but has merely been arrested in Switzerland.[fn1] Bridget Bardot has evidently only turned 75. William Safire is really dead, apparently of cancer. (He'd want it noted that no one ever died of "apparent cancer.")

Shanah tovah, everyone. Fifty-seven seventy, woo.
fn1: Those notorious intermeddlers in world affairs, the Swiss. Honestly, even with sixty-odd years intervening, is there not something a bit outrageous about the inconsistency? "Gold for the Nazi war machine? Eh, not my department. Director hiding out in France to avoid prison for a rape thirty years ago? This will not stand, man, this aggression."

The "X" isn't for "Xavier"

Hey, so this thing has been going on a while, and no one's asked about the extraneous first initial in the email address up there in the corner. But I'm out of things to talk about, so: How many names really begin with X, anyway? The one that springs to mind the fastest to the most people seems to be Xavier (alternately pronounced "Havvy-air" and "Zave-yer"). Would that it were so, but no. One, I'm not Catholic; two, I feel like Xavier's only ever a middle name (following Francis, after the Catholic saint; cf. point "One," supra). Three, I'm enough of a comic book nerd that, were my first name even slightly relatable to Marvel's X-Men, you can bet your sweet patootie I'd be broadcasting that fact.

(Note: If you or a loved one is addicted to gambling with their patootie, the State of Nevada urges you to call the gambling helpline. Trained professionals are waiting to help you get the help you need.)

This is all by way of the elaborate buildup that's necessary when one is explaining that his damn hippie-cum-yuppie parents, two highly-educated urbanites with perhaps a slightly deficient grasp of the classics, decided to name their firstborn "Xerxes." Couldn't even be "Xander," like the other way to shorten "Alexander," which while distressingly analogous to Topher Grace's name, at least sounds kind of tough.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, this was not me. I wish it had been, as I probably am keeping too much stuff, but it's not. Godspeed, young man, whoever you are.)

Anyway. One long and meandering digression to say: I kind of hate my parents.

Ein volk, ein ball, ein volkerball!

[Disclaimer:  Due to an unforeseeable sports injury involving the blogging muscle, I have not updated in, to quote one reader, "a bazillion forevers."  Posts previously conceived  and/or composed, including this one, are being processed as quickly as possible and will be released when I goddamn get around to it!  Please note that the time and date of posting bear little if any relation to those of the events recounted.]

Okay, my bad with the Hitler reference in the post title there.  Fine.  Sheesh.  Get more sensitive about it, whyncha?

The Volkerball tournament!  The American squad comprises about a dozen members some of whom even show up to both the mandatory practice and the match, including, conveniently enough, The Roommate.

You might think of it as a fun, low-key way to spend a sunny weekend afternoon.  Or you might think of it as basically like the Olympics, a zero-sum struggle amongst the peoples of all the world's nations for glory, eternal fucking glory, on the field of sport, but unlike the other Olympics here it's just the one sport, because there is only one sport, and that sport is dodgeball!  (This was the attitude of at least one enthusiastic participant I shan't name.)  Or you might think, as did evidently that team in the green shirts with the tin-foiled helmet and the alien theme, that it's the one German context where it's legally permissible to participate in Scientology rituals. 

In addition, the teams are expected to bring concession goods, usually food, that are somehow representative of their homelands.  I'm happy to report that The Roommate's mac-and-cheese was a tremendous hit, and I'm informed my own humble contribution (apple pie, with shredded cheddar mixed into the crust) was popular... although there was an awful lot of it left over at the end.  Oh well.  

At the end, the Americans made the first cut, surviving qualifications, and were shortly dispatched in short sets of the main event.  But it's a moral victory.  Or that's what we keep telling ourselves.  Next year, I'm making the team, and it's going to be like the '69 Mets when Tom Seaver and Tug McGraw got out of their early-twenty jitters and finally put it together.

... reading:  Middlesex by Eugenides.  Comes highly recommended by several dear friends with whom I evidently have seriously different taste in literature.
... listening:  "Roadkill" by Dubfire.  I know it's last summer.  It still pwns.


[Disclaimer: Due to an unforeseeable sports injury involving the blogging muscle, I have not updated in, to quote one reader, "a bazillion forevers." Posts previously conceived and/or composed, including this one, are being processed as quickly as possible and will be released when I goddamn get around to it! Please note that the time and date of posting bear little if any relation to those of the events recounted.]

Further note: The events recounted in this post were originally recollected in the author's travel diary, an honest to god travel diary which is this adorable little physical item left in the author's apartment by two lovely ladies in thanks for one wonderful weekend. Aforementioned ladies shall go nameless, and the character nicknamed for inexplicable reasons AtoZ shall receive no further identifying characteristics, as the mention above and the details below may qualify as defamatory and may be actionable, depending on jurisdiction.

I write this whilst returning from Iceland to Berlin after spending one week there (Iceland) with AtoZ. I landed last Thursday night, just a bit before midnight, not to the hostel until well after midnight (still light out), and didn't see AtoZ until the next morning. Although it should be conceded that I heard him as he entered our shared room, boozily and some time after... I suppose I'd place it around three a.m. Friday and Saturday nights we moved from our affordable hostel to more impressive digs, a hotel in the center of Reykjavik, and then rented a car to tour the rest of the island. (Each of these itinerary points was at the suggestion of AtoZ, who'd recently broken up with his girlfriend and had heard that Icelandic women are easy and ... well, you can imagine, can you not, what was on his mind?)

Credit must be given: AtoZ's a natural traveler. His strategy (such as it was) of stopping at tourist info centers and asking the clerks, or assistants, or whatever, to suggest sleeping accommodations in the area where we were likely to end our day, and upon receiving such suggestion to lean on them to phone ahead and make reservations on our behalf, was inspired (if forward) and never steered us wrong. I shudder to think, though, what would be the fate of two Icelandic vacationers in America without a plan who hoped for such a favor to be repaid them as they drove down, say, I-95. But then some countries speak about crime in terms of "the murder" (no exaggeration, there---they had one murder there. Not one in all of last year; not one since 2001---one.) and some countries eat their young.

The rumors are, I can report, all true: Everything in Iceland is the most beautiful gorgeous got-damn thing you've ever seen. Well, in the case of the women it's exaggerated: people there look just like people. But Reykjavik is very pretty, and the countryside is nothing short of spectacular. AtoZ can't drive stick, and in any event spent the days dozing while trying to recover from what he blamed on a hangover and then overwork and what I suspect was swine flu (recall), so it was me behind the wheel as we cruised counter-clockwise 'round the country, my cursing at the natural splendor becoming more repetitive each time we turned the corner upon another scene of really just incomparable beauty. "Goddammit!" "Jesus Christ, will you look at hat?" These required more effort than was consistent with maintaining appropriate concentration upon the road, and after the first day or so took second stage in favor of the simpler replacement: "Fuck." That was short for "This scene of the Iceland countryside rushing past my eyes is so astonishingly beautiful I'm rendered incapable of but the most guttural and monosyllabic utterances." But within the cabin of that car perhaps most of the subtlety was lost.

The Icelandic believe in elves---not the Santa's-workshop variety, but human-sized dark creatures that lurk amid the countryside at night and play pranks upon their neighbors---but believe in them, not in the sense of belief in the afterlife or in humanity's inherent goodness but like belief that the sun will come up tomorrow or that it's carbohydrates that make you fat, like of course there are elves out there in the darkness beyond the bedroom window. But you can't really understand that intellectually, or at least it feels immediately different when you've been there, crossed the countryside. The eastern coast of the island, where the island's sole highway turns northward along the short, climbs the mountainside one hundred feet, and passes between the deep blue waves making their assault on the rocky foothills below, slashing through the jagged surfaces and points of the mountains' tiny pickets, those points and edges shearing the aerated seafoam swept along atop the waves, a beach if there even was one appearing only amid brief coincident moments when the tides all ebbed at precisely the same time, the ocean's spittle ricocheting off hard black stone and taking to the air as a blanket of mist soothing the angry surface of a stormy sea, below, and above, the mountaintops stretching up until they seemed to puncture the clouds in the sky, immense and glowing green with the grasses that managed everywhere the impossible feat of clinging to their near-vertical face, here and there a shelf appearing where the winds and the rains and the ices of winter had pried loose a stone wedge from the stony giant, where you hadn't actually yet you would've sworn you must have spied a lone eagle circling slowly above it all. It's so much more beautiful than anything you've ever seen that the natural world, that mundane thing you deal with all the time, seems somehow insufficient as an explanation. Here one understands superstition. Here one cannot disbelieve in magic, or in elves.

Our nights we spent in those few inns randomly dotting the highway map we got from the rental agency. Tourism seemed an oddly underdeveloped industry away from Reykjavik, in keeping with the generally depopulated tone of the back country. Travelers could (as we did) sleep in a converted schoolhouse in the southeast, an odd sailors' lodge in the north. But for three quarters of the perimeter of the country, which encircles probably fewer than ten thousand people (although possibly more sheep), the evidence of human intrusion into the land is only occasional. Settlements reaching a size worthy of the title hamlet are the exception, although one of which yielded us our beds on our first night away from Reykjavik. The rest of development consisted solely of a farmhouse and a barn, perhaps some odd other structure useful for agricultural purposes, but not after that first night's stop did we see a church house until the whaling village all the way on the other side of the island, in the northwest.

A few more highlights from the road:
  • Glaciers are imposing things. The first we saw up close we came close to treading upon, but only watched it, as it stretched from mountaintop to valley floor on its way to a long black sandy, hilly span between land and sea, from a little ridge to its west. The second had already plunged into a bay and was in the process of breaking up, surrounded by flocks of birds swooping, otters splashing, and one assumes fish, although those last remaining at a safe depth beneath the surface away from the innumerable predators floating or flying above. Barn-sized slabs of eerily blue ice hung in the water, the water the same perplexing color as the undersides of the icebergs, which invited the question which, ice or water, was naturally that color and which only reflecting the hue of the other. It seems water at that temperature, a thin sliver above freezing, adopts a new property whereby its coldness becomes visible, as though its component molecules were brittly near to solidifying as semisolid ice the same temperature but instead vibrated faintly on the surface of the sea, giving off a telltale pattern of little shivers. The icebergs, lapped on all sides with the slow waves from the otters and the sea birds' business, appear almost to be rocking back and forth, but when one focuses the eyes again the movement becomes that of the water surrounding them, and the 'bergs remain still, moving if at all only downward at an imperceptible pace, sinking lower into the water a thin sliver above the freezing point of water or the melting point of ice, as amid the caws and squawks and chortles and camera snaps and whirs, one imagines it possible to hear a dull, slow cracking sound.
  • There's a tiny ancient village squeezed among the inlets and coves that shred the island's northern shore. Or actually there are many, but I'm speaking of one. There's a village up in the north, enormous if you're coming from Reykjavik in the counter-clockwise direction and in three days you haven't seen anything larger than two farmhouses back to back, where when you drive into town you're greeted by what appears a great whale skeleton, a cluster of mere trace outlines against the sunlit sky until you get closer and see it's actually a structure built of thick beams the size of masts, lashed together as a building began and abandoned, or else some odd plaything for children to climb atop, which one later learns is or was once intended for great hides to be stretched and dried. A town where a handful of east-west avenues cross but a single north-south street, yet that street changes names multiple times without so much as a traffic sign to warn visitors, so comfortable is the assumption that one must be a native, mustn't one? One imagines being built up when the whaling trade could support a town of such size, and dwindling with the passage of time and the revolutions of the earth out of that era when whaling could support a town like that, before the rise of the petroleum age at once made going to see an expensive proposition and provided a cheap substitute for the whale oil that was the whole point of the venture, before humane causes scowled on the whole practice of whaling and a newly small world pulled away all the children who once might have grown to learn the trade, and one imagines a Northern summer, chilly and short yet bright, inexorably giving way to the long winter of history. And then one imagines the same town being discovered by the industry of international tourism, of a town nearly forgotten to history awakening sleepy-eyed and confused by the thought that Americans, Italians, South Africans would pay to ride along on the ships, the same ones that once hunted whales in these waters, and merely take photographs of them.
A beautiful country. I could say more, I could go on forever saying more---and perhaps I should, perhaps it's not fair that I even should try to wrap up this week in scant paragraphs---but they're announcing our descent into Berlin now. It's odd---I could tell when I really had moved there when flying into New York felt unmistakably like coming home. There's no other home for me, now, but Berlin doesn't feel like that. Not yet, at least; hopefully soon.

... reading: The Recognitions. Still. I am... very still.
... listening: Billie the Vision and the Dancers. Everything by them. Especially this one.
... obsessed with: ... pitching a reality show: "Housecat versus Roomba. Two will enter. One will retreat to the top of the dresser and look nervous until dinnertime."

Fahrrad beschaedigt

[Disclaimer:  Due to an unforeseeable sports injury involving the blogging muscle, I have not updated in, to quote one reader, "a bazillion forevers."  Posts previously conceived  and/or composed, including this one, are being processed as quickly as possible and will be released when I goddamn get around to it!  Please note that the time and date of posting bear little if any relation to those of the events recounted.]

So I took a very long bicycle tour the other day, and wouldn't you know it, the bike I bought from a street vendor for thirty-five euros isn't quite the most solidly built thing I've ever put my ass upon.  (That honor, of course, being reserved for yo moms.  Ach, schnappen!)  Anyway, at about kilometer ten or twelve or so in the midst of crossing the street and attempted to make the right turn into the bicycle lane...

... and suddenly felt the front tire wobble out beneath me.  While I'm, mind, more or less flush in the middle of the car lane.  n what turned out to be a minor freeway's on-and-off-ramp.  Thankfully no automobiles were terribly close by and I hobbled to the side of the road, legs stretched out on either side and tilting left and then right 'til sneakers scraped pavement.  

On the sidewalk, the diagnosis was easy to make, even for a layman---the axle that connects the center of the handlebars down through a shaft at the front of the frame and joins the center of the front wheel, evidently the victim of pronounced metal fatigue, had been wrenched 90% of the way around, or far enough that the remaining portion clung on but hung over the side like the top of an opened can of tomatoes.  It was, to put it lightly, not ridable for any farther distance.  

I walked it (slowly, agonizingly, like tourist-visiting-New-York-City slowly) to the nearest S-Bahn stop (which was probably this one, if I recall correctly---out there), bought myself a ticket, bought the wounded bicycle a ticket, and wheeled it to the bicycle shop down the street (mercifully still open).  I picked it up the next afternoon, good as new.

The next weekend I blew out the rear tire.  Not far enough from home to take the train, it still felt like forever to walk it back to the bike shop.  Although this time it was simple enough that I could get it fixed while I did my grocery shopping (conveniently, the store's across the street and I'd brought my bag).  

These two trips, plus the front and rear lights I've had installed, have run to eighty euros plus.  Which is more than double, not quite triple, the original price of the bike.  And if you include the bike lock I bought from another shop, post-purchase investment is 314% of the sticker price.  


... (about to be) reading:  two books by Doris Lessing, whom I just realized I'd never before picked up before.
... listening:  The National's Alligator.  Boxers has two great songs at least and I loved Cherry Tree, that latter an EP, but am finally giving this one a try.  Worth it.
... obsessed with:  the possibility of creating a "Don't"-themed monster-mashup with Foreigner, Pussycat Dolls, Simple Minds, Crowded House, The Human League, ATB and Brazilian Girls (both "Don't Stop"), R.E.M. ("Don't Go Back to Rockville"), Feldberg's "Don't Be a Stranger", et al.  If you're the kind of person who read that last sentence word-for-word, I would bet that now you are obsessed, too.