Sunday, February 17, 2019

It's Less Dangerous


There are certain times when teaching is very gratifying. One such time was last Wednesday when I was teaching a group of students all in their early 20s. Essentially, the lesson was about the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

I was trying to show the students how sophisticated the lyrics are, even if they don’t seem so initially.

When we got up to the chorus, I spent a lot of time on the first line: “With the lights out/It’s less dangerous.” I asked the students if they could imagine what this might mean.

And I was met with the sound of crickets.

No one had any clue what this line might mean. Remember, however, these are native German speakers trying to learn English, so it can be a little difficult. English is not their first language.

After about 30 seconds of nothingness -- no guesses, no hands raised, no nothing -- I felt compelled to give them a hint.

“How about sex?” I said. “Think about sex: ‘With the lights out/It’s less dangerous.'”

At nearly the exact time, all their faces lit up.

Poem: "She Said She Had Affairs"

I wrote this one today while sitting in the sun. The weather today in Hamburg is unseasonably warm and the sun sure felt nice. Enjoy.

She said she had affairs
And my ears perked up.
She said she had affairs
For now it was enough.
I couldn't help but think
Her words had held real power
And that my mother had had me
At the 11th hour.
"I've come to the conclusion
You must really love yourself."
I nodded and I smiled
But my mind was somewhere else. 
Swimming in the photo books
I looked at as a kid
Before I learned the Giving Tree
Doesn't always give.
Before I learned complexity
And what occurred between
10 p.m. and sunrise
When I'd be in my dreams.
"Chad, you there, you hear me?"
I could, I had, I did.
But my mind was on those photo books
I'd look at as a kid.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

"Fly Like a Raven"




It's hard to explain how deep of a connection I have to this song of Jewel's, “Raven.” Let me try by first telling you where I first heard it. In my car. In my 2008 Honda Accord in the parking lot of a Target in Watertown, New York. Now that Watertown, New York, place. It's going to be central to what I'm about to tell you, so listen up.

Watertown, New York, is a harsh place. It’s located in north central New York, not far from the Canadian border.  The first time I ever even heard of the place was when I was in college. One of my friends, Tara Fischer, had told me that she comes from Watertown. When I said I had never heard of the locale, she simply said, "It’s a little bit above Syracuse."

Oh, but there was much more to the story than that. What Tara neglected to mention was that her hometown was famous for its absolutely, positively, killer winters. In fact, Watertown is famous for two things: The US Army base Fort Drum, and snow. Lots and lots of snow. Snow that builds up in drifts the size of small buildings. The area gets so much snow because of how it is geographically situated.

So that’s Watertown in a nutshell. But what was I doing there? Well, in 2010 I had just come back to the US after having lived in Aachen, Germany, for nearly nine months. I had had an internship at Deutsche Welle, a news organization in Bonn, but wound up being unhappy with it and had decided to come back to the US to try and achieve my real dream: becoming a newspaper reporter.

And the first major interview I got was for a small newspaper called the Watertown Daily Times. And I was determined. I wanted this newspaper job so badly. I was really like a horse with blinders on. I didn’t care where I had to live, who I had to live with, what I had to do, what I didn’t have to do. I was 27 and I wanted that damn job.

And I got it. I was hired by the Watertown Daily Times to be the Fort Drum reporter. This meant that I had to learn a ton about the US Army and all its idiosyncrasies. But another of the Fort Drum reporter's duties was to cover, or write about,  several of the municipalities that were near the base. I remember these municipalities were sort of in the middle of nowhere -- just tiny little villages, really, with a couple hundred people living in them, with names like Pamela, Evans Mills and Calcium.

OK, so now you know what the heck I was doing in Watertown. But the song, “Raven.” What does it have to do with anything? Well, when I first got up to Watertown, while buying stuff for my apartment, I also decided to pick up Jewel’s "Lullaby" album. I had always liked Jewel, and I was intrigued because I knew how angelic her voice could be. So I got this curious album of hers, essentially made for little babies.

And I really liked it. Yes, her voice did sound nice and the songs were pretty. But I really liked the album because it would soothe me. It would soothe me as I would drive the hundreds of miles I had to for the job, day in and day out crisscrossing a northern New York landscape that was essentially alien to me.

So these days, whenever I hear "Raven," I’m transported back to 2010, to my car and to a time when it was just me, myself and I, trying to make it out there.

Straight Up

Sometimes when writing poetry, I’m not sure exactly how much to reveal. I wonder: Should I write this sentence literally or should I take a more circuitous route with what I’m trying to express?  There is something to be said for the writer or painter or whoever who says, “I don’t want to tell  people what I was thinking when I was creating the work." But I also think that such a statement is a form of hiding. After all, if we are unaware of the thing being measured, we can't measure properly.

So, with that being said, the poem below, "Safety Valve Theory," is about anger and passion. I have both and sometimes I confuse one for the other. What's more, I sometimes think it’s good to let my anger out, only to realize later that I probably could have handled the situation in a smarter way. I conclude the poem by saying that maybe letting out anger more often but in smaller doses might be the way to go. Enjoy.

“Safety Valve Theory”

I've got the fire of a furnace -- churning, hot, bright . . . 
That a membrane veils
To be polite. 

It's not a facade, but I’m not sure what
Is burning in my gut.

I know that they feel it, this heat, and that's cool. 
But am I just a fool? 

Repeating the past, and corny at that 
Instead of bridge building, painting it black?

The safety valve theory is better for me
Just a street demonstration, not an army.

Then maybe I’ll feel less of a need 
To please and be appeased 
A disease.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Proud


I guess this story starts in December, because that's when I decided to reread the book "The Catcher in the Rye." Not only that, but I also read the German version of the book at the same time.

And, well, after seeing what amazing results doing such a thing had on my own language skills, I was eager to have one of my students do it, too.

But my students are adults: they're employees, they're managers, they're parents . . . They are busy. But not Razia. Razia is a very bright student of mine who is 18 and always eager to learn.

So, one afternoon in early January, I sat with her in the Hamburg library and, without giving her any background info, simply told her to choose between two books: "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote or "Slaughterhouse 5" by Kurt Vonnegut.

Personally, I was hoping she would choose "Slaughterhouse 5," Kurt Vonnegut's seminal fictional/nonfictional/sci-fi novel about his experience of having survived the Bombing of Dresden as an American POW during WWII.

Razia did wind up picking "Slaughterhouse," and right after she did, I promptly picked out the English and German versions of the book and told her to read both. And we were off and running.

Or so I thought.

"This book is weird," she said to me a week later, when we met again for our lesson. "Of course, it is," I told her. "This is Kurt Vonnegut." However, due to her not not coming from the same age group as I and not having the same frame of reference as I, the comment didn't mean much to her.

I told her to push through, that the novel gets easier after the first two chapters are through.

She did, and still had trouble. She didn't understand particular references and had other problems, too.

At one point, I even said she could stop reading the book and change it if it was too hard, to which she replied, "No, I'm going to read it, but . . ."

Secretly, I was happy that she had said that. But I was still cautious.

And then the breakthrough. A few days ago, I got a pic from Razia in which she had circled a sentence in the book: "He didn't look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo."

"The book is getting interesting," she wrote, along with some smily faces.

I was truly proud at that moment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

From the Gut

When writing poetry, I sometimes like to "write from the gut." What I mean is, I don't always ask my brain what to write next; I ask my gut, or my heart, whatever you want to call it. And this method can be very effective. I have come up with some startling juxtapositions and interesting lines this way. The poem below is exceptional in that it was written nearly entirely "from the gut." Enjoy.

Mother don’t care
And father don’t care
Pink and purple underwear.  
Serving themselves
From the self-serve machine
I scream. 

Pounding the surf
In a far, far off place
Is the answer to all
Our parents’ mistakes. 

It rolls in with the moon
And comes up with the sun
It’s no more than three
But a few more than one. 

It’s lovely and cruel
And can make your heart crack
Mother don’t care
Father don’t ask. 

Just pay some lip service
And child support
Mission accomplished
Abort! Abort!

Just take what you will
Will you really take that? 
Mother don’t care
Father don’t ask. 

Swallow It Down...



The summer of 1995 was a little bit difficult for me. I was still getting used to living in a new neighbourhood in Long Island, away from my childhood friends in Queens.

One of the hardest things about my mother’s decision to move a year earlier was that I had to leave all my childhood friends behind.

But I guess I didn’t leave them behind entirely, because I still did visit them every now and again.

One of the friends whom I sometimes visited was Zhong. Zhong was my best friend for several years in elementary school. He was an only child who lived with his parents in a small albeit immaculately kept apartment a few blocks from our elementary school. His parents were both Chinese immigrants, and I remember his dad once asking me, jokingly, if I would teach him English by watching “21 Jump Street” with him.

One afternoon during this awkward sort of summer of mine, I found myself at Zhong’s house, paying him a visit. My other childhood friend, Everett, was there, too. Everett was a short kid, but he had serious pluck. He was funny and sarcastic and was not willing to take crap from anyone, though he never started fights.

Anyway, something happened that afternoon there at Zhong’s house that totally astounded me: Zhong said that he had an amazing CD to listen to.

I thought this was totally crazy because for the time that I had been close friends with Zhong, which was probably from 1st grade all the way through to the end of 5th (which was when I moved), Zhong had never really talked about music. He liked other things, but not music, never music.

And then all of a sudden there we were in his bedroom, which he shared with his parents (the room was divided by a curtain), and he was putting on this CD with this female singer who was full of rage and passion. The singer was Alanis Morissette, and the CD was “Jagged Little Pill.”

Now, I was up on the culture, but I had never even heard of Alanis Morissette before -- and both Everett and Zhong were shocked. But especially Zhong, who knew the entire album and could tell me all about it. He especially thought it was cool how she cursed.

But I’ll never forget that day. I mean, you leave a kid alone for one year and he comes back and he surprises you with this new love of music. And for the album to be “Jagged Little Pill.” That’s coming out the gate strong!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"Travels with Chad"

Between 2014 and 2015 I wrote a column for The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, an American magazine. The name of the column was "Travels with Chad," and it was all about cool objects and things that I came across during my "travels" in Europe. When the editor who was in charge of the column, and the woman I had worked with to create the column, resigned, the powers that be decided to scrap "Travels with Chad." But it had been so much fun writing these columns. Here is one I wrote about the Reeperbahn, a long street in Hamburg famous for bars, brothels, clubs and just all kinds of craziness. Enjoy.

Respect

It’s weird the things that are important to us.

Sometimes we even think certain things are not too important to us, but they actually are.

For example, there is this one dude who I play basketball with. He’s this big dude, six-foot-two, or 188 centimeters, and he’s built really strongly. This guy is bar none the best player of all the people I play with. His moves are graceful and always with purpose. He is not the best shooter -- he’s good, but not the best -- but he goes to work under the rim incredibly well.

Anyway, for the longest time, this guy -- I see him on Tuesdays and sometimes  Fridays -- had never really said hi to me properly. Other people I know who have also seen him had even described him as arrogant. And I kind of thought that, too. Why was this guy so gruff, I often wondered.

But I did notice something. The more aggressively I played -- the more, for example, I would drive to the basket or take a couple hits under the rim while trying to get a rebound -- the more this guy would acknowledge me. It was almost as if he was testing to see how tough I was and how loyal I was to the game.

OK, so that was the backstory. Skip ahead to last week. Last week at basketball I really gave it my all. I’m not sure if I played especially toughly, but I exerted myself like crazy and really tried to play smart.

Well, after the game I was in the locker room getting changed. And dude was there, too, getting changed right next to me. We didn’t talk or anything, but right before he left, he did something that shocked me.

He turned to me, looked me in the eyes (a first, really), extended his hand and said, “Later, man!” He then shook my hand heartily.

Though I hate to admit it, that made me feel really good.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Poem: "It's Early Morning"

It’s early morning 
And the dawn is breaking
And the sky looks like
A Rothko painting.
Another day
Another turn
For something more to learn. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Poem: "At the Rodin Museum in Philly"

This poem is dedicated to you. You know who you are.

At the Rodin Museum
In Philly
My blood sugar dropped.
Surrounded by black sculptures
Of marble and bronze
In some Greco-Roman building
I felt woozy, so sharply, so acutely. 
Surrounded by thinking men, busts and figures embracing
You gave me that pinwheel mint
That saved me. 


"You don't like blood?"


It's amazing how people from different cultures react to different things.

Let me back up. Because I've been living in Germany for so long now, I've become incredibly used to the German way of reacting to a tense situation -- usually practically, not personally.

But today when I was playing basketball I realised that other people, from other cultures, live in Germany, too, and sometimes they haven't adopted this practical German mentality to the extent I have.

So what happened? At one point while I was playing a half-court game, some guy on my team cut his leg open. And then, after touching his own blood, he said, "I'm fine" even though there was blood dripping down his leg and onto the floor.

None us players were too comfortable with his reaction, and I decided to speak up and tell him I didn't want to just keep playing -- I wanted him first to clean his leg properly. I told him I didn't feel comfortable with the blood and that I don't like blood in general. I thought I was being practical.

Well. This dude was not to happy about my comment. "You don't like blood?" he said to me, as if I were some kind of alien or my comment had no merit whatsoever.

Still, I stuck to my guns. "No, I don't. I just don't, OK?" After looking at me for a few more seconds like I had two heads, he finally said OK and proceeded to clean his knee properly.

I was shocked that he was so upset. In the US it would have been fine to say what I did to him, and especially in Germany, where everyone is so darn practical, my reaction was certainly not out of the ordinary. But maybe in the country where this person was from it isn't so nice to say that you don't like blood, or a person's blood, or what have you.

Oh well. You live you learn.