Saturday, May 08, 2010

Good karma


The other day at work, it must have been late afternoon, I had a craving...a craving for sweets.

See, sometimes, especially when I've worked jobs that have forced me to keep strange hours, I develop serious cravings for cookies or candy. It probably has something to do with the fact that I'm not exactly getting the right nutrition as it is — due to the crazy schedule I'm working — and the craving for sweets is a manifestation, more or less, of malnutrition.

Anyway, so there I was, at work and in the mood for something sweet. And I wanted it bad, you know?

So I looked in my wallet for a dollar for the vending machine.

Wallet was empty.

I really had no idea what I was going to do. No colleague from whom I could borrow money was in my vicinity, and I needed something.

Then I remembered...

That desk.

One woman who works near the vending machine always kept a bowl full of chocolates on her desk. The chocolates, I presumed, were for everyone. Sometimes, when I had no money but was really in the mood for something sweet — it was usually during after-hours time — I would walk by her desk and help myself to a few chocolates. It was good chocolate, too, Dove.

Anyway, so after checking my wallet to see I had no cash and after giving up on the idea of asking anyone for a dollar, I was really happy to remember this woman and the chocolates on her desk.

So I walked back to her desk all excited. My craving by this point was huge and I was also quite proud of myself for remembering that this bowl existed. It was time to seek my reward.

I reach her desk.

One chocolate left.

Just one little Dove chocolate wrapped in sapphire-blue tinsel. The last piece in the bowl.

And so I think to myself.

Why is it this way? Why must there be only one piece left? If the bowl had two pieces left in it, I'd have absolutely no problem taking one piece and leaving the last one for her — whoever she is — benevolent owner of the bowl.

But no.

There's just one last piece of chocolate left. I can't take this piece.

See, I may have taken a lot of chocolate from this lady's desk in the past, but I never left the bowl empty. After all, even though the chocolate is out there for the offering, it's also there for her.

Nope, can't do it. I turn around and start walking back to my desk, more in the mood for sweets than ever — I was primed! — but not willing to take the last piece.

And so there I was, walking in this one corridor, back to my desk, utterly dissapointed, when I look over at a table near a water cooler I was passing on the way.

Oh, hell yes.

There on this table, someone, some kind soul, had put out a spread of cookies. And not just any cookies — Girl Scout Cookies. Shortbread, Lemon Chalet Crème and Peanut Butter Sandwich.

I took a handful, smiled and walked back to my desk.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Reflecting


Here's something I wrote while sitting/thinking in a Barnes and Noble Cafe. I was reflecting on what I was seeing and places I've been and things I've felt. Enjoy.

Sitting here in a cafe with wet socks from the walk here. The cafe is the Barnes and Noble Cafe in the Barnes and Noble bookstore. The Barnes and Noble Cafe, I’m informed, “proudly serves Starbucks” coffee. I’m sitting here at a table with my laptop. The other people sitting at the tables around me read books about Windows 7. They read People magazine and Architectural Digest. Some of them still wear their coats even though we’re inside. One woman, an older lady, sits at a table underneath the Barnes and Noble Cafe sign, which is rectangular in shape and is suspended from the ceiling. The sign says, “Barnes and Noble Cafe”; the letters are backlit. The round Starbucks logo is conjoined to the bottom of this rectangular sign.

The older lady sitting underneath the sign wears a black ski cap and makes use of all three chairs at her table: one for her coat, the other to stack the magazines she’s brought with her to the cafe with the intentions of reading, and the last to sit on. I’m sitting at a table in front of the cooler near the counter. You can buy Fiji Water, Nantucket Nectars and Red Bull, among other drinks.

I opt for coffee. In my wet socks from the walk up here I opt for coffee and grab a magazine from the bookstore’s “newsstand.” The New Yorker. As I sit at my table and leaf through the sweetly perfumed pages, I see an article by George Packer: “Letter from Dresden. Embers. Will a prideful city finally confront its past?” The picture that comes along with the article shows — in a panoramic style — a city of baroque buildings and church towers abutting a river, the Elbe, over which spans a heavy stone bridge that looks like it’s from Roman times. All at twilight. A smaller black-and-white photo next to this panoramic-styled one shows Dresden during less happy times: right after the Bombing of Dresden, in 1945. The city, in this black-and-white photo, is in ruins — nothing to see but shards of grays and blacks and deeper blacks, gutted buildings with no roofs and wispy smoke.

As I read the article, which is good, I can’t help but think back to my time in Germany. I think of a girl I knew from Dresden, a girl I met this summer who proclaimed that Dresden was the most beautiful city on Earth. Fine, I thought at the time. I’m not one to argue. After all, I often heard fond things about Dresden during my time in Germany: Dresden is beautiful; you really ought to go.

Dresden is also the place where a rabid xenophobe this summer stabbed a pregnant Egyptian woman, an immigrant, to death in a state courtroom in front of the courtroom guards too stunned or slow to come to her aid.

Sitting here in my wet socks in the Barnes and Noble Cafe, with a kid standing in front of the cash register asking his friend next to him, “Dude, actually, can you spot me a dollar?” I think of that bread Dresden’s famous for, that sweet bread powdered with confectionery sugar and stuffed with nuts and raisins and marzipan. I remember how I bought the bread one time in Germany because I was curious about it. I bought it even though I knew it was possible to buy it in places other than Europe, namely in America. I didn’t eat all of this bread after having bought it. Too sweet. Instead, I left most of it wrapped up in plastic on a shelf in my girlfriend’s pantry and looked on in horror a few days later, when I was again in the mood for it.

Fruit flies had made their way into the plastic and were using the bread as a breeding ground. Dozens of them crawling about inside the packaging, feasting and laying eggs.

But Germany wasn’t all that bad, I think, as I read this Dresden article and take small pauses from the solid New Yorker text broken up by cartoons and weird poetry to look around this “cafe,” where many teenagers and old men and women sit at their respective tables and snack on processed, tastes-the-same-in-every-Barnes-and-Noble-Cafe cupcakes and cookies, and drink warm sugary drinks made with opaque syrup and other beverages made with non-fat syrup and still other beverages, warm and chocolaty with foam on top for the pleasant texture.

I sit in this cafe with people who read People, old men and women who wear scowls, even though their face muscles are at rest, who come to this Barnes and Noble Cafe, which “proudly” serves Starbucks coffee. Proud, huh? Is that the same “proud” as in “Proud to be an American”? or “Proud parent of an honor student”?

I digress.

Germany was actually pretty nice. My time there was well spent, aside, of course, from that experience with the Dresden sweet bread that they’re so proud of. I turn back to reading this George Packer article about Dresden, which forces me to think more about this baroque city on the Elbe.

But my thoughts just as quickly turn to another German city, as I sit here in the Barnes and Noble Cafe with wet socks from the walk here and high school students around me, studying for the SAT’s, and other people around me who are also importantly typing away on a laptop. I think of Dresden’s sister city to the west, Leipzig.

Now Leipzig isn’t known for the grandeur Dresden is known for. But one experience I had in this less glamorous and more industrial city starts to take hold.

That church.

I think of that church that Rosa, my girlfriend’s friend, showed us. We were visiting Rosa in Leipzig, and she wanted to show us around the city on Sunday. On Saturday all three of us had attended a late-night Halloween party where people came dressed as vampires and Sponge Bob Square Pants and vampires. My girlfriend and I chose not to tour Leipzig on Saturday before the late-night Halloween party because we needed to rest up first from the nine-hour train ride we’d just endured from Aachen, Germany’s westernmost city, to Leipzig, near Poland. Sunday, we all agreed, would be the day for checking out the city.

And so on Sunday morning, out for our tour, we came upon this church. It was nothing spectacular from the outside. In fact, the church was a bit squat and had beige bricks forming the facade. The roofs were slanted and shingled with charcoal-gray shingles. The church had a not-so-high tower in front with an octagonal balcony wrapping around it. It was a Lutheran church, kind of sober. Fine.

But, Rosa tells us, we shouldn't be fooled. This church is an important church. In front of this particular church in the autumn of 1989, men and women, young and old — 70,000 in all — held a candlelit, passive-resistance-styled protest against East Germany's Communist government.

See, for months prior to this particular protest, Leipzigers had been showing up to this church, the Saint Nikolai church, to hear “sermons.” These sermons centered on certain messages in biblical texts, yes, but they also dealt with other themes, namely freedom and democracy. The Saint Nikolai meetings continued until the Communist government decided that they were growing too insurrectional in tone. Police were dispatched. They beat some people in front of the church and dispersed a crowd that had gathered after the violence broke out.

For many Leipzigers, enough was enough. A few days later, they gathered in front of the Nikolai church and their numbers overflowed into a nearby public square. No one was budging. The message, Rosa tells us, was simple: less maltreatment, more freedom. The police, shocked by the amount of people who had amassed to have their message heard, didn’t act.

The balance had shifted.

The people saw that they had more power. They saw that if they gathered in large enough numbers and remained resolute, they could speak their minds publicly — they could demand more freedom — and the government would not, or could not, act against them.

After this act of defiance in Leipzig, more people in the GDR began following suit. More people started amassing in the eastern states to speak their minds, including the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in Berlin on November 9, 1989 — a gathering so large and full of energy it eventually precipitated the Wall’s falling. But, if it weren’t for those initial Nikolai protests, many would have you believe (especially if you're in Leipzig), there’s a chance that the Berlin Wall would not have fallen.

Anyway, so there we were, in front of this plain looking church, famous for an act of rebellion that had occurred 20 years prior. But it wasn’t just roughly 20 years ago that this act occurred. As I stood in front of the Nikolai with my girlfriend and Rosa, Germany was in the midst of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — it was almost to the day.

Now. Although the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s falling may not have been the biggest news in America, it was huge news in Germany. In fact, the German media, in the run up to the historic day, managed to explore every angle of the story possible. Every anecdote, halfway interesting recollection or personal history was rehashed. It all filled the newspapers.

Germans, you see, are proud that communism, for all intents and purposes, was defeated on their turf. They like to draw attention to this history and, in some cases, even cash in on it.

With that last fact in mind, I stood in front of the St. Nikolai with Rosa and my girlfriend. Although by this time we were all well aware of the church’s history, which seemed interesting enough, it was really on a whim that we decided to walk in.

And this part I’ll never forget.

We walk in the church and start heading down the main aisle toward the altar. The vaulted ceilings are high, and the columns that line the aisle are painted a pastel pink. What really strikes me, though, are the capitals. The highly ornamented capitals at the top of each column depict foliage: stone leaves that shoot from the columns and seem to support the vaulted cathedral ceiling. The white pews to my left and right also stand out. Sure, this is a pretty cathedral, I think, as I walk further down the aisle. But in all honesty, I’m not that excited. After all, pretty cathedrals are omnipresent in Europe. In fact, as I continue to walk down the aisle with Rosa and my girlfriend, I kind of get the feeling that they, too, are not so enthralled — our body language subtlety betrays our sentiments. In fact, it was right then, right when each of us began to slow down and look in each other’s faces, as if to say, “All right, well, I’ve seen just about enough,” that the very first notes were suddenly heard.

The beautifully drawn out first few notes emanating from violins — notes rising up to meet the ear, clear and bright, like rays of light, but for the ears. These are the first drawn out, sorrowful notes to “Adagio for Strings.”

The church all of a sudden resounds with the sound of violins. Then, just as quick, deeper notes are heard — bass notes, which counterbalance those sharp, rays of light for the ears.

Yes, this is definitely “Adagio for Strings,” that undulating, powerful, morose, has-the-tendency-to-knock-you-off-your-ass-with-feelings-of-sorrow-and-longing piece by the composer Samuel Barber. You know, “Adagio for Strings,” the title theme from Oliver Stone’s 1986 film “Platoon.” This is the classical song that brought the drama in that Vietnam-War-era movie to an entirely new level.

“Adagio for Strings” can break your heart. You don’t even have to like classical music.

Those violins, which cut like knives one moment and then, suddenly, come to a complete stop, the last of a sharp, bright sound zips off the many bows. A dramatic pause. A dramatic pause that surely must be one of the most famous in classical music — it’s that spellbinding. A dramatic pause that’s eventually broken by deep cello notes, which begin to mingle with the violin notes that have started up again.

It all sounds as if God were having a conversation with angels.

So I’m walking down the main aisle with my girlfriend and Rosa when this huge song, “Adagio for Strings,” begins to fill the church. A few moments after I heard the first few notes, though, I was already smiling. Or shall I say smirking. Yeah, it was more like a smirk. To be honest, I was smirking because this is what was going through my mind: “Adagio for Strings,” as beautiful and deeply stirring a song it is, as resounding and as fitting it seems, is only being played in this church through a set of speakers for one reason: to make the experience of touring the St. Nikolai a more moving one. And if the people are moved, I'm thinking, they will be more likely to open up their wallets and donate to the church. Cha-ching!

I get it, this ploy, I think, as I stand in the aisle among the pink columns listening to the music. Very clever. Play a deeply stirring and well known piece of classical music through some speakers (you’ve got the acoustics in your favor) and watch as the experience moves people. Coin purses will be unsnapped by the dozens. Real clever of these church people, I muse. Play dramatic music in the same church where, 20 years prior — almost to the day — protests began, protests for freedom, which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall, a historical event already considered intensely dramatic, and watch.

Watch as people — tourists, natives, whoever — open up their wallets. Watch as the power of the music and the sights move them into doing so.

After all, who can resist?

Religious or not, when classical music is paired with such sights — angelic frescoes, stained-glass windows, sweeping cathedral ceilings — the joining of the two combines to form a sensory experience that pulls at the soul, whether you want it to or not. (In a flash, after having heard those first few notes, I’d gone from coolly detached to emotionally involved.)

And, while you’re at it, why not make the most of the fact that a lot of historical significance already surrounds this church? Why not capitalize on the drama that’s already there by adding more drama? That’ll surely work the people up enough to ensure that they donate more.

I recognize this ploy, these speakers, which must be the source of this sound, because the sound is so voluminous, so perfect, the timing is so right....I get it: just a CD, some well placed speakers and a little faith that people will be moved enough by the whole bit to open their wallets and donate more money.

And then I turn around.

I turn around while standing in the main aisle and I look up. And up there, below the modest pipe organ, there is a balcony, and on that balcony I see six violinists, instruments at the neck, all sitting in a horseshoe arrangement, with a bassist on one end of the horseshoe and a cellist on the other. Standing in the center of this horseshoe arrangement is a man. A man with a wand.

And I listen. And now I watch, too, as the violinists’ forearms move slowly, methodically, with quivering precision. I watch as they saw their bows over the strings in graceful unison. I look to their other hands, running up and down the fingerboards, again in unison. Those hands then pause at the same time, then lock in an identical position — six wild vibratos.

And I listen and watch as all their bodies jerk in their seats in good time with the music, moving with the music. Then suddenly stop.

And I watch as the conductor slowly points his wand in the bass player's direction, and the bass player, bow in hand, slowly saws that bow across his big instrument’s belly. It moans. And I listen as the cellist and a violinist come in. Deep tones dominate....They undulate invisibly but vibrate in the chest. And then the conductor flicks his wand and suddenly all the violinists are again slowly sawing their bows across the cherry wood instruments at their necks, up and down in graceful unison, bright, sharp, beams of light for the ears.

And I stand in the aisle and look up at these eight musicians playing “Adagio for Strings.” Why are they doing it? Just cause, it seems. Perhaps they are warming up for a later performance, perhaps not. Who really knows why. After all, they’re wearing regular clothes — jeans, sneakers and collard shirts.

And I just stand there and look up and feel. Feel the music wash over me, surround me, shoot right down me, vibrate and rattle. The music, in fact, transfixes almost everyone in the church who looks up at the balcony to see. To see one hand wave a wand through the air while others perform wild vibratos. To see bows being brought up and down, obscuring the musicians' faces, then revealing them, then obscuring them again. All gracefully. All in unison, in good time, on a Sunday afternoon.

And so my eyes open wide and my mouth parts a little and I continue just standing there. And as I stand there and hear the music, feel the music, I quietly and privately censure myself for having been, just moments earlier, so sharply, so purely and so undeniably cynical.