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.