Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Rivers

“Stadt, Land, Fluss” -- or "City, Country, River," -- is the name of a popular game here in Germany. To play it, you take a piece of paper and at the top write five or six categories. The categories are divided from each other by vertical lines. The first three categories must always be “City,” “Country” and “River” -- hence the name of the game. The other categories can be decided upon, but players usually go with, “Animals,” “Colors,” “Famous People” and "Professions."

After you have written out the categories, one player says the first letter of the alphabet out loud and then continues on saying the rest of the alphabet to himself. Another player then says, “stop” at the moment of his choosing and when he does, the player who had been saying the alphabet to himself tells the players which letter he was up to.

So, for example, if the player who had been saying the alphabet to himself  says he was up to the letter “S” when his opponent said "stop," all the players would then have to fill in each of their categories columns with a noun that starts with "S." For each entry you get correct, you get points.

Pretty simple game, huh?

Yeah, except there’s just one catch. The rivers. The rivers always snag people. People can think of a few rivers, but really not that many. Knowledge of rivers is gold in this game.

So why am I writing all of this? Well, I have a student who loves to play “Stadt, Land, Fluss” with me. Every time we play it, it’s like she’s playing the game for the first time; it’s all brand new, and I love that, find it very encouraging. The problem is, though, both she and I always get snagged at the rivers. It's hard to name rivers!

Well, last time before we started to play, a light bulb went off. I said to her, "Why don’t we memorize a river for every letter of the alphabet?  Well, we did that and the list we came up with is below. I hope to learn all 26 rivers and then be a champ at this game. I mean, the "Zam River"? Who's going to know a river starting with the letter "Z," let alone the Zam River (which is in Romania, by the way)?

The Amazon
The Biber
The Colorado
The Don
The Elbe
The Fish River, Alaska
The Ganges
The Harlem River
The Inn
The Jade River, Germany
The Kuban River, Russia
The Lena River, Russia
The Mississippi
The Nile
The Ob, Russia
The Peace River, British Columbia
The Queen River, Rhode Island
The Rhein River
The Seine
The Tigris
The Ural River, Russia
The Volga
The Weser, Germany
The Xin River, China
The Yellow River, China
The Zam River, Romania

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Birds


I once told a friend of mine that I was able to imagine myself becoming interested in birds when I got older. My friend and I would often laugh at this thought, picturing me as a gray-haired man with binoculars around his neck, on the lookout for beautiful winged creatures.

To this friend’s and my surprise, I’ve actually gotten into birds a lot sooner. The interest was spurred by having had the opportunity to observe the swan, geese and other waterfowl in the waterways near my home. Especially exciting was having had the opportunity this spring to observe a bird called a
Eurasian coot (pictured above) build her nest, roost on her eggs and then tenderly care for her chicks after they were born.

Below you will find an email I recently wrote to my mom about my new interest in birds, along with her response. My mother had always liked birds, but I never really paid attention when she would tell me about the ones that she had seen on her travels. I only paid half attention to her, like when she would tell me about the different types of flowers she had bought for her balcony. But now, of course, I’m paying attention.

I hope you see, as I do, the bit of poetry in this email exchange. Enjoy.


***

Hi Ma,

I forgot to tell you but recently I've gotten into birds. For my birthday I even got a bird memory card game and I was so excited when I learned my first bird. Remember when I told you this one bird looked like the Phantom of the Opera, with a white mask? Well this bird is actually called the Eurasian coot. You should look it up. I also now can identify a Eurasian sparrow, both male and female, and a Mallard duck and a mute swan.

Hi,

I think getting into birds is really cool.  They're great.  I checked out all the birds you mentioned and the Eurasian coot really is the "phantom" of birds.

When I go to Wakodahatchee Wetlands, I see wood stork, multiple varieties of herons, great white egrets, anhingas and other great birds. Sometimes there are so many great blue herons in the trees, they look like ornaments.  That's why I drive 70 miles round trip two to three times a week.  I've watched the storks build their nests this year, with two of them fighting over branches.  I saw the eggs and then the sweet little babies.

Send me the names of any other bird that you identify.  I'll definitely check it out.

Love,
Mom

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A rip-off

2015 01 Dutch elstar apples.jpgWell, that was quite the wake-up call.

Usually, I don’t look at the price when I’m buying produce. I mean, I have an idea what the items cost, but I just sort of let the cashier ring up the stuff and I'm content to pay.

Today, all the money I had on me was one euro.  With it, I figured I would buy two apples at the supermarket before going home. I have been eating a lot of yoghurt with fruit lately, so I thought two apples would be perfect -- I’d have a bowl of yoghurt with fruit now and another later.

When I got to the cash register, the woman rang me up. "1.45 euros."  I couldn’t believe it. “What!" I exclaimed.

“Oh, are they Elstars?" the lady said, referring to the type of apples they were. "Those are expensive."

But it really didn’t matter what kind of apples they were. 1.45 for two apples is a rip-off. I mean, just down the road at another supermarket, you can get a bag of 20 apples for about 2.50 euros, which means that the apples at this second supermarket are six times cheaper.

I just paid for one apple and left.

A wake-up call indeed.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Between Them



One thing I've noticed is I do a lot of explaining on this blog. Whenever I post something, I want to be crystal clear. This makes sense because as a writer, I have always prided myself on my clarity. I like to break things down for the reader.

But, I must say, doing so usually involves a lot of explaining. Sometimes I even over-explain, so much so that people who have edited my stuff have said to me, “Chad...we get it.” Well, for this next post, I thought I would do the opposite -- I would refrain from explaining.

Recently, I finished the book “Between Them,” a memoire that the author Richard Ford wrote about his parents.  As I read the book, I underlined the sentences and passages I especially liked. I do this with all my books.

In the following post, I’m going to reproduce each and every line or passage I underlined in "Between Them." But I’m not going to provide context -- no explaining, no set up, just the things I underlined. I thought this could be a fun exercise, as it will force you -- and me, probably -- to draw different kinds of conclusions.

So, without further ado, here goes.

***

“Whereas being ignorant or only able to speculate about another’s life frees that life to be more what it truly was.”

“…being together in a way that defines category. They more than certainly had that in them.”

“He was her protector, be she was his.”

“Possibly he dreamed at night … of winding curb-less streets without transients for neighbours.”

“Between them…”

“He was invisible, but different from how he’d been invisible. It satisfied him almost completely.”

“In retrospect, the advent of death can cast a too dramatic light on the events leading toward it.”

“There is one quality of our lives with our parents that is often overlooked, and so devalued. Our parents intimately link us, closeted as we are in our lives, to a thing we’re not, forging a joined separatness and a useful mystery, so that even together with them we are also alone.”

“‘Oh, yes. Your mother’s the cute little black-haired woman up the street.’ These were words that immediately affected me, and strongly, since they proposed my first conception of my mother as someone else, as someone whom other people saw and considered and not just as my mother.”

“It is, of course, a good lesson to learn early—cute, little, black-haired, five-five—since one of the premier challenges for us all is to know our parents fully—assuming  they survive long enough, are worth knowing, and it is physically possible. The more we see our parents fully, after all, see them as the world does, the better our chances to see the world as it is.”

“A life lived efficiently wouldn’t save you, but it would prepare you for what you couldn’t be saved from.”

“His job may have even have been harder than ours was—though only on that day.”

“The obvious question—how serious is all this?—can be dispensed with in a hurry: the very worst.”

“And still, in a way, even this news did not change things. The persuasive power of normal life is extravagant. To accept less than life when less is not overwhelmingly upon you is—at least for some—unacceptable.”

“I resumed my teaching and talked to her most days, though the thought that she was getting worse, that bad things were going on, and I couldn’t stop them, made me occasionally miss calling. It quickly became an awful time for me, when life felt to be edging toward disastrous.”

“And that was how we did that. One more kind of regular life between us. I went to campus, did my work, came home nights. She stayed in the big house with my dog. Read books, magazines. Fixed lunches for herself. Watched the Dodgers (this time) beat the Yankees in the Series. Watched Sadat be assassinated. Looked out the window. At night we talked—never serious or worrying things. With Kristina, who was working in New York and commuted on weekends, we went on country drives, looked at antiques, invited visitors, lived together as we had in places far and wide all the years. I didn’t know what else we were supposed to do, how else such a time was meant to pass.”

“My mother’s eyes were very brown.”

“I never saw her dead. I didn’t want to. I simply took the hospital’s word when the nurse called early one December morning, just before her birthday.”

“But, as I said, I saw her face death over and over through that autumn. And because I did, I believe now that witnessing death faced with dignity and courage does not confer either of those—only pity and helplessness and fear. All the rest is just private—moments and messages the world would not be better off to know.”

“My mother and I look alike. Full, high forehead. Same chin, same nose. There are pictures to show it. In myself I see her, hear her laugh in mine. In her life there was no particular brilliance, no celebrity. No heroics. No one, crowning achievement to swell the heart. There were bad things enough: a childhood that did not bear strict remembering; a husband she loved forever and lost; a life to follow that did not require much comment. But somehow she made possible for me my truest affections, as an act of great literature bestows upon its devoted reader. And I have known that moment with her we would all like to know, the moment of saying, Yes. This is what it is. An act of knowing that confirms life’s finality and truest worth. I have known that. I have known any number of such moments with her, known them at the instant they occurred, and at this moment as well. I will, I assume, know them forever.”

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Deliveryman


Recently, I have been researching a story about the 75th anniversary of the Bombing of Hamburg during World War II.  For my research, I have been meeting with people who survived the event. Actually, these are people who have not only survived the event but have also made themselves available to talk about it and any other event in history.  In Germany such people are called "Zeitzeugen," or contemporary witnesses. Zeitzeugen usually travel to schools and tell students how things were -- the good, the bad and the very bad.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with a Zeitzeuge, a woman who was about 9 years old when WWII broke out. We spent a few hours together at her home and she told me interesting things about the Bombing of Hamburg. However, I was more interested in some of the other stories she had to tell. Some of her best stories she had already typed out and had made copies of. Below is one the stories that she had already made a copy of. It doesn't a happy ending, but I do think it is compelling. The story was given to me on a sheet of paper in German. I'm going to translate it, of course, but I'm going to preserve her spacing. I hope you appreciate it.

***

"The Nice Mr. Wolpert"

My mother used to operate a tobacco and jam shop in Wilhemsburg, Hamburg. The small shop was attached to our house and it was my mom’s principal place of employment until a bomb destroyed our house.

I have a vivid memory from 1941 or '42, when I was around 11 years old, that is connected to this shop.

Mr. Wolpert, a nice man, was one of the men who delivered cigarettes to the store. My mother enjoyed his presence every time he came by. Sometimes I would be in the store during his visits and Mr. Wolpert and I would greet each other.

After he had finished discussing businesses with my mom, he would talk with me. He would ask about school and he would ask me which of my subjects was my favorite and whether or not I got to school by bike or by foot. Often he told us of his family and he asked whether I had nice friends and which books I liked to read. Every time after he would leave, he would nicely say, “See you next time.”

One day we were sitting eating lunch when all of a sudden my mom walked in, really upset. She had just come from the store and she said:  “You’re not going to believe it, but Mr. Wolpert just stopped by to say goodbye. On his jacket he was wearing his Jewish star and he looked very pale. He said that was going to get picked up soon.” “Where is he going?” I asked, to which my mother replied, “He will be brought to a labor camp [“Arbeitslager”] and he won't be coming back again.” My mother and my grandmother looked very downcast.

“Who exactly are these people, these Jews?" I thought to myself. My mom never told me anything about them. On the afternoons I would go to the Hitler Youth, we were told that Jews were a dishonest and conniving people and were mostly money lenders and fraudsters. But that absolutely does not describe our Mr. Wolpert! Never!!

 I cannot fathom it, I'm stunned.

 We never saw him again.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

That Was Difficult

This week I have been asking the students in my English classes to write a small essay about a difficult decision that they’ve made in their lives. After the students submit their essays, I mark them and then give each student feedback on his or her writing. The whole process is relatively easy for me. However, I haven’t once stopped to think about how the exercise is for the students. Is it very difficult to write an essay in another language? To be fair, I decided to write the essay that I have been assigning, in German. What’s it like to write a small piece in another language? Let’s find out.

 „Eine Schwierige Entscheidung“

Als ich meinen Bachelor-Abschluss in 2006 kriegte, kriegte ich danach sehr schnell einen Job. Die Stelle war eine Werbetexten Stelle für eine Firma. Jedoch entdeckte ich an meinem ersten Tag, dass die Chefin der Firma wolltet, dass ich „sales calls“ mache. Ich sagte ja, weil ich einen guten Eindruck machen wollte. Jedoch sagte ich auch, dass ich irgendwann schreiben wollte. Meine „kleine Chefin“ versprach mir, dass ich irgendwann schreiben würde.
Der ganze Sommer vergang, und ich schriebe gar nichts. Jeden Tag machte ich die blöden „cold calls“. Ich verdiente sehr gut aber ich war sehr unglücklich.

Also musste ich eine Entscheidung treffen. Soll ich in dem gutbezahlten Job bleiben oder soll ich den Job kundigen und dann nach einem anderen Job suchen.Ich kündigte. Es war schwierig, eine Entscheidung zu treffen, weil zurzeit ich nicht wusste, was passieren würde, wenn ich den Job kundigen würde. Jedoch war ich nicht glücklich mit diesem Job.
Vier Monate später kriegte ich einen neuen, besseren Job und ich war sehr glücklich damit. Ich denke, ich traf die richtige Entscheidung.

Phew. That was really hard. No joke. I thought it was going to be a little bit easier. But wow. It took me a good hour to get that as perfect as I could. I guess I should not be so cavalier next time I tell my students to just fire off an essay on the topic of my choice.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Invisible Transitions


I once read in a book about writing that the best transitions were none at all. What the author of the book meant was that a properly used transition word, such as “however” or “therefore,” can be effective, but the best transitions between paragraphs, or even sentences, involve no transition words whatsoever.

Today, as I was listening to the Gettysburg Address -- don’t bother asking why I was listening to the Gettysburg Address; I just was -- I noticed that it was a good example of a piece of writing that moves seamlessly from one thought to another without the use of transition words.

To show you exactly what I mean, I'm going to reproduce the super famous speech, or at least the part of it that relates most to my point, and I’m going to highlight the words that Lincoln uses to connect his ideas in subsequent pieces of text with those in previous ones.

I hope you find it all of  some interest. 
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.    
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that warWe have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this