Thursday, February 28, 2019

Angel Voices

One person who helped me improve my writing when I was younger was an English professor of mine named Lisa Neville. She had been my teacher for Academic Writing, a freshman class, and then later, when I got more into writing, would invite me into her office to discuss literature as well as things I had written.

One day when she and I were discussing a poem of mine, she told me that it is usually a good idea to try and add as many layers of meaning as possible into a poem. That way, she said, things are more interesting and the poem is automatically richer.

So, for example, if you have two similar words to choose from, but one of the words gives a double meaning, opt for that one. The finished product, she felt, will be all the better for it.

Below is a great illustration of what Proessor Neville was talking about, I think. It's lyrics from the Linkin Park song "The Messanger." The lyrics are pretty straightfoward, but thanks to the way things are phrased, we can interpret one particular line in several ways, and that adds to the overall richness of the text.

So without further ado, the lyrics:

When you feel you're alone, cut off from this cruel world
Your instincts telling you to run
Listen to your heart, those angel voices
They'll sing to you, they'll be your guide back home

Did you see it?

"Listen to your heart, those angel voices." 

That was the line. You can look at that line in two ways: "Listen to your heart and those angel voices" or "Listen to your heart, which are your angel voices."

More layers, more meaning. Thanks, Ms. Neville.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Dream

I had a strange dream last night that I was in some kind of waiting room with a bunch of musicians in their 20s. In the room next door was the band Fleetwood Mac, and these young musicians and I were all there to audition for the band, because they needed a new player.

I had felt completely comfortable, sitting there in the waiting room, until that was, I realized that I couldn't sing any Fleetwood Mac songs, nor could I play any on guitar.

After realizing that I didn't have the appropriate skills, I sat there for some time, thinking about what my next move should be.

I decided that when my name would be called I would walk into the audition room and tell the band the truth. I was embarrassed at the thought of doing this but I thought I would.

Until that point, however, I decided to just hang out in the waiting room with the musicians, which was what I did.

At one point we heard singing coming from the audition room. Apparently, someone had forgotten to close the door and we could hear the musicians as they were trying out. They weren't terrible, but neither were they good.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Heather Pushups

In high school, I had a friend named Heather Stepanek. Heather was cool. And a little weird. But I think that's what helped make her cool. I remember one time in Earth Science, she asked the teacher, right in front of me, if she could be moved away from me because she and I talked too much and she felt that this was interfering with her learning. I was so mad at her for that, and never really let her forget it.

Anyway, one thing that Heather once told me, and this must have been in high school -- maybe it was middle school, but I think it was high school -- was that every morning she would do pushups right after she would wake up. This was way before I started doing pushups or any other kind of real exercise, and I thought she was nuts. "Right after you wake up?" I had asked her, not being able to imagine that. She answered, yes, that doing so got her blood pumping and woke her up.

Well, these days, not every day, but many, I do pushups right after I wake up. Know what I call them? My "Heather Pushups."

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Journalism School

I really went "digging in the crates" for this one. It's one of my favorite stories from when I was doing my master's degree in journalism. I had long been fascinated with a governmental housing projects called Queensbridge, which is near the Queensboro Bridge, and had decided to head there to "find a story" when my teacher told us to go to a neigborhood we had never been before and "find" a story. I remember I was so nervous when I got out of the subway, but I calmed down when I realized that there was some kind of story going on at a deli in the area -- and that wound up being the story below. Enjoy.

A Night in a Queens Deli

The busy Akrah deli 




By Chad Smith 
May 30th, 2008

At 1 a.m. the Akrah Deli in Queensbridge locks its doors. But business is not over.

Until seven in the morning the deli’s employees serve the goods — whether it’s a turkey sandwich, Snickers bar or bottle of malt liquor — through a bullet proof cube, which swivels to allow the cashier in the locked store to collect money from the customer on the street.

“We’ve had kids selling cocaine in the store; the shoplifting’s ridiculous; we could get held up,” Jaber Mansour, Akrah’s chief cook, said on a recent Friday as he threw a mound of roast beef on the grill. “There’s no way we can keep our doors open that late.”

During the night the bulletproof cube speaks for the fear felt in this predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in northwest Queens, known for its tough streets and insular culture. But during the day as customers stream in and out of the deli the mood is different. During the day, humor, familiarity and patience hold the social fabric tenuously together.

“This is how you’re going to make my sandwich: I want bacon. I want white bread. You’re going to put mayo on once slice of the bread and not the other. I want American cheese, double cheese. I’m serious,” shouts a man wearing a red baseball cap standing underneath an “order here” sign. Mansour, 42, rolls his eyes but gets out the bread.

“You can’t have a quick temper and work here,” says Jeffery Saleh, 19, whose Yemeni father owns this deli on 20th St. and 40th Ave. “People get hostile if you’re talking back to them.” Saleh, second in command at the stove, often wins the crowd over, especially the girls, with a smile he flashes without hesitation.

“Jeffery, Jeffery, you remember what I ordered?” a teenage girl asks a little later at the sandwich counter.

“Salami, right?” Saleh says in the thick Arabic accent he is yet to shed, even after living in the U.S. for two years, above the deli.

“That’s right, Jeffery. You’re good,” the girl says,”Jeffery,”she continues after hearing he had difficulty pronouncing her order, “Spell salami.”

“I’ll spell it if you define it,” he retorts.

Most of Akrah’s customer’s live down the block in the Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in the U.S., with over 7,000 residents. Illicit drug sales and turf wars have long been a problem here, especially in the 80’s and 90’s. Although numbers show crime has dropped — the 2007 murder rate was down 76% since 1995, according to New York Police Department statistics — some say the neighborhood seems not to have changed much.

“My school got shot up last week,” a young girl says to a chorus of “Oh my gods,” belted out by three middle age woman in response. All four stand under the “order here” sign. After the young girl leaves, one says, “Isn’t that horrible? This little girl is trying to get an education and her school’s gonna get shot up.”

Neighborly concern is echoed later, when a flotilla of baby carriages assembles in the deli. Daycare has let out and several mothers stand around chatting. None in the group seems bothered when one mother reproaches another’s errant child trying to head for the deli’s exit.

The afternoon wears on. Some people come in for sports drinks, chips, a sandwich or candy. An equal number come in for alcohol.

Colt 45, Molton XXX, Steel Reserve, Old English. All are favorites and all are well stocked. Colt 45, a lower-end beer, seems to fly from the shelves, an unsurprising choice: Queensbridge’s average gross annual income is less than $20,000 and the average rent is a little more than $300 a month.

Later, a tinny female voice is heard singing in Arabic from a hidden stereo behind the counter; hip hop is heard outside.

Mansour and Saleh say they’re at best ambivalent about working in an area where they’re a minority.

“[For two Middle Easterners] working here isn’t bad, but it’s not good,” says Mansour, originally from the West Bank, Palestine.

“The one thing I can’t take is the racist remarks. I hate that. When someone who doesn’t know me walks in here, calling me an ‘A-rab’ or calls me a terrorist, that hurts me. But what can I do? I can’t fight with everybody.”

###

*This story was published on Pavement Pieces, an NYU Web site that showcases journalism students’ work.  https://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/archives/pavement/index.html


Marina

Everyone likes to hear praise. And I'm no exception. After I have written something and someone tells me it’s good, that makes me happy. Sometimes people highly praise what I've written or say something very personal about it, and that brings me even to another level of happiness. And why not? I don’t write in some kind of vacuum. I don’t just write for myself. I want other people to like it. Not always, but usually.

Well, the other day, I wrote a poem for a friend of mine, Marina. And that’s what she is, a good friend. So I thought I would write her a poem. Because her name is "Marina," and a "marina" is a place where boats are kept, I saw a water connection and ran with it. When, after reading the poem, she wrote to me, "Never in my life have I gotten such a lovely poem," I was brought to that other level of happiness. And I'm not ashamed to say so.

Marina with the ocean name
And are those waters blue
With flowers in her hair she shares
A tender word or two.
She's wise beyond her years and yet
Her spirit's young and true
With flowers in her basket she's
Picked a bunch for you.
She's thought of you, her heart is big
Just like the ocean blue
Aqua, azure, turquoise, green, and other earthly hues. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Happy Friend-A-Versary

Happy friend-a-versary, Maya!

Twelve years ago today, around 9 p.m., I had just exited the A train at 59th Street and Columbus Circle, near Central Park West, and was on my way to meet a friend at the mall inside the Time Warner building. To get there, I had to cross Broadway. But the light was red and I had to wait. Also waiting to cross the street at this very moment were two girls, one with brown hair, the other with blonde, and they were speaking German. Because I had taken German in college for four semesters, and because I was in a good mood, I decided to say something to them -- in German. They both smiled, because what I must have said was probably wrong, but all three of us immediately started talking (in English) and continued to do so for about 15 minutes. The girl with brown hair was named Anika, and the girl with the blonde hair, Maya. Maya wound up being my girlfriend for 10 years, until 2017, and is the reason why I moved to Germany.

On the phone with her this morning, when I jokingly mentioned that today would have been our 12-year anniversary, she said, "Happy friend-a-versary!"

Well, to you, too!

Budni


You know, it's funny, the things we appreciate.

Yesterday, I had woken up really early, 5:30 a.m., and had had nothing to really do between that time and my first appointment, 8 a.m. So what I did was, I took the bus to a stop near my appointment and chilled out with some coffee at a bakery.

After my appointment, I still had free time, but didn't know what to do, and was a tiny bit down because I thought no shops at all were going to be open. After all, it was 8:15 a.m.

But then I walked by this drugstore that we have here in Hamburg called Budnikowsky, or Budni,  and to my surprise, it was open.

Well, it was like a little palace when I walked through those two automatically opening doors. I mean, after all, here I was thinking that I was going to have to walk the streets with nothing to do or look at for a good hour until other shops opened up, and all of a sudden, I was in a little Shangri-La of goods.

It was very interesting, too, because there were hardly any other people in the store, and all the employees, about four of them, were all very quietly stocking the shelves. I even said hi very jovially to one of them, and, though she smiled, didn't seem to share my enthusiasm, which I could understand.

I bought hair gel, hand cream, tooth paste and bar soap, and, I swear, couldn't have been any happier, at least for that brief period of time.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Street Animals of Istanbul...

In the winter of 2015, I went to Istanbul. And I’m glad I did. It was one of the coolest experiences I ever had. The city bursted at the seems with culture, enchantment and history. One thing that completely jumped out to me when I was there were the street animals, particularly the cats. Everywhere in Istanbul are street cats -- and they are actually revered. There are street dogs, too, but they are much less respected than the thousands of cats that live in the city.

Anyway, full of amazement at seeing all these animals on the street, I had an idea for a story, one that I thought would've been a great fit for the children’s magazine Highlights. Unfortunately, the folks at Highlights turned down the piece. But I still have a special place in my heart for this article. Enjoy.


The city of Istanbul is a very busy place. The streets and alleys are filled with merchants selling clothes and fabrics. Men and women go to mosques during the day to pray. Fishermen fish by the city’s shores. Musicians play on street corners and tourists constantly run from one ancient site to another.

But if you look a little closer at this bustling metropolis, you will notice that a whole other world exists: that of the city’s street animals. Observing these creatures and their daily routines is interesting and helps us learn about the fascinating city they call home.

Istanbul was founded thousands of years ago by the Greeks. It was later captured by the Romans and then by the Ottomans, a Turkish Muslim dynasty. The city was built on a series of big hills and is unique because it spans two continents, Asia and Europe.

Incredibly, about 50,000 stray cats live in Istanbul and every morning many of them can be seen walking up and down the city’s steep cobblestone streets looking for food or sunning themselves on ledges or sleeping in cardboard boxes that have been set outside for them.

The people of Istanbul look at the cats favorably. One reason is because the religion of most people in the city is Islam and cats are revered in Islam. Cats are also expert hunters and help reduce the city’s rat population.

Because cats are so loved in Istanbul, they are granted a lot of freedom. Observing the animals in the unique places they are often found, due to the freedom they are given and tolerance they are shown, actually helps us learn more about Istanbul.

For example, cats are often seen outside carpet shops, curled up on stacks of fancy rugs. This makes sense because Istanbul is a hub for the worldwide carpet trade, so the city has many carpet shops. Cats are often seen nimbly crossing streets throughout the city. Well, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world -- it has many streets. Cats are often seen sitting in front of kebab stands, begging for scraps of meat. Kebab, which is roasted meat on a stick, is very popular in Istanbul and is sold on almost every other corner.

Although the city’s cats are one star of the show, they do have competition. Down by Istanbul’s shores, the seagulls attract much of the attention.

Istanbul is located on Europe and Asia, and both continents are separated by a narrow body of water called the Bosporus Strait. Every day, people commuting for work or traveling for other reasons take ferries from one side of the city to the other. As the ferries crisscross the waterways, swarms of seagulls can almost always be seen hovering over the rear of the vessels, searching for fish in the water stirred up by the boats’ motors. Istanbul’s waterways are so full of seagulls that if one of the many fishermen who fishes from the city’s bridges throws a small fish straight up into the air, chances are a seagull will catch it.

Though the European side and the Asian side of Istanbul are both beautiful, the most popular tourist sites are on the European side. There, you can find domed mosques made of stone, thousand-year-old churches built by the Romans, and grand palaces built by the Ottomans, who captured the city from the Romans in 1453 and created their own empire, using Istanbul as home base.

The European side is also where many of the city’s street dogs can be found.

But these street dogs are not mean. They have been documented by the city, which makes sure the animals are tame enough to interact with the public. Once the animals are certified as safe and are sterilized, they get a blue ear tag so they can be monitored.

These dogs with blue ear tags can be seen napping on the lawns of the grand palaces or walking up to tourists who are strolling the manicured walkways that connect the various mosques.

One place dogs are unlikely to be seen, however, is inside a building. This is because Islam states that dogs should live outside structures that humans inhabit.

Still, every now and then, a stray dog does walk inside a building. And when it does, the people are not mean to it. Instead, they tell the dog it must leave by using hand motions or by gently saying, “Shoo!”

Despite this, the people of Istanbul really have affection for the city’s street dogs. This is seen in many ways: butchers often leave large bones outside their shops for the dogs, cars slow down when dogs cross the streets, and sometimes, when it rains, street vendors allow the animals to take shelter under their stands — a unique sight indeed!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Poem: "Against All Odds"

This one is another flight of fancy. It's interesting, though.

Against all odds,
Their bets, they've placed --  
They've doubled down 
On this race. 
They say it's in the genes, the breed, 
They're smellin money now. 
But the dark horse has some chase, OK,
And's in the race somehow. 

Somewhere in the owner's box 
Amid smoke of good cigars, 
A man who holds a scepter 
And can move stars 
Is smiling ear to ear, of course, 
He holds the betting sheet. 
He holds the bets and wishes of
The people we all meet: 
The cancer patient in her bed, 
The beggar on the street, 
The athlete with the shattered bone, 
The single mother all alone.

He holds their fates 
Like kids hold jacks
And’s known it this whole time:
Which horse will pull ahead, dead last,
And cross the finish line. 

"Chad Smith: The Hamburg Years"


Sometimes I like to joke to myself that one day, when I become a big famous writer, publishers are going to want to have a look at all my stuff -- that is, writings of mine that haven't yet been published, and they are going to want to publish all the work in one or two or maybe even three big volumes.

And in my little fantasy, one of those volumes is called "Chad Smith: The Hamburg Years." Reason being: I have written so much stuff since having moved to Hamburg that hasn't been published. But so it goes. It's a part of being a writer.

Anyway, below is a piece that I tried furiously hard to get published in a dog magazine in 2014 but had no luck doing. It's a listicle: "10 Things You Learn About Dogs Only After Getting One." The article is pretty old, so the girlfriend I refer to is now my ex-girlfriend, but, hey.

So without further ado, I present to you the first piece from the very exclusive, very beautifully bound "Chad Smith: The Hamburg Years."

***

When I recently let my live-in girlfriend get a Weimaraner, I knew I'd probably have to get used to going outside several times a day for walks. I also knew our furniture might get chewed. After all, I had a general knowledge of dogs and all my friends who had owned dogs always told me about their experiences. I therefore thought I knew what life with a canine would involve.

But then we actually got the dog. And I quickly realized just how little I knew.

Who could have predicted, for example, that many puppies love to eat dirt or that dogs like to “investigate” when you and your significant other are getting intimate or that so many people are actually frightened of dogs?

All those things came as a major surprise.

Below is a list of some lesser-known, or lesser-discussed, facts about dogs and dog life -- facts one could only learn after getting a pooch and living with it for several months.

Many people are scared of dogs. Sure, one would expect that small children might be frightened of dogs, but it turns out that a very large number of adults are also seriously scared of canines -- even puppies. Just the other day on a public bus, a tough looking man in his 40s shrank in fear after our 7-month-old Weimaraner, Filou (FEE’-loo), walked past him. And then there was that tall stocky guy who was carrying groceries through the park and froze the moment Filou sniffed him. According to a Gallup Poll conducted in the early 2000s, dogs rank ninth on a list of Americans’ top 10 fears, just after flying in an airplane and mice. Some people, for religious reasons, are not even allowed to touch dogs and will hiss at your pup  and glare at you  if it comes too close.

Hundreds of people will stop you on the street to tell you how cute your puppy is. If you take your puppy to public places, prepare to be stopped -- and stopped a lot. Police officers who have caught site of Filou from their squad cars have shouted “nice dog” to my girlfriend and me; homeless people have stopped us to chat about the dog; an elderly woman continued to talk to me about Filou’s cuteness despite the fact that my girlfriend, who had just fished a piece of glass from Filou’s mouth, was upbraiding me for not watching her carefully enough.

The supermarket, the doctors office, the bank. People will stop you anywhere to talk to you about your puppy.

You will start to take pride in your dog as if it were your child. As soon as my pup started playing with other small furry friends, I began to hear myself say things like, “Filou plays so much more nicely than that other dog” or “That breed is not as smart as the Weimaraner.” In short, I began to view my dog as if it were a child. Research shows, though, that more and more people in the Western world are viewing their pets like children. One reason might lie in the fact that more Western couples are childless or are having fewer children, says Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who’s written extensively on dogs. Another reason, Coren says, might revolve around the fact that more extended families are living further apart from one another nowadays. As such, grandma now only has her Shiba Inu to spoil because her grandchildren live so far away.

Your dog will not just lie down and relax when you are getting intimate with your partner. Before Filou, I had only owned cats. And felines usually just lie in a corner or hide when you’re getting down to business. So imagine my surprise when my girlfriend and I were getting intimate and our dog behaved “differently.” On several occasions Filou actually jumped into the bed to have a look around. Another time, she tried to tuck herself between us. One reason for this behavior, says Nathan Williams, a Sydney, Australia-based dog behavior specialist, is that during sex, a person’s sweat glands and pores open, respiration quickens and adrenalin is released. The human body, Williams says, is in a similar state when a person invites a dog to play. So the dog might just be getting confused.

Puppies love to eat dirt. And about everything else. I always knew dogs loved to eat. But I never knew that if given the chance, dogs would plop down on the sidewalk and continually lick the dirt lodged in the cracks of the pavement. I also never knew that most puppies will put everything they come across into their mouths. They won’t necessarily eat the item, but they’ll investigate it. Dr. Terry Curtis, a veterinarian and a clinician at the University of Florida’s department of small-animal sciences, has an answer: “Puppies are ‘mouthy’ for the same reason babies are -- they’re going through the ‘oral stage’ and are processing their environment through their mouths.”

As for the dirt, a dog might eat it because it may simply be bored. Still, the behavior could be a sign of malnutrition or some other underlying health problem.

You will be automatically inducted into a new community. Milka, Ushi and Raisin. Know what those are? Just a few of the names of some other dogs that live in my neighborhood; I know many more. When you get a dog, you will quickly get acquainted with many pooches in your area, as well as their owners. And you will learn a lot. The owners will tell you about their pet history, what brand of dog food they use, who their trainer is. When it comes to the dogs, you’ll learn their names, ages, temperaments, ailments and more.

You will wind up getting a lot more exercise than you thought. Sure, you know that getting a dog would probably result in your getting more exercise, what with all those walks you’d have to go on. But what about all the other, smaller deeds you’ll be forced to do when you get a dog, things you probably never even thought about but still require much exertion, like yanking the leash every time your dog tries to pull you or going up and down your apartment stairs nearly a half dozen extra times a day.

Be prepared for a huge amount of love. I always knew dogs were loyal and did a lot of face licking. But nothing prepared me for the amount of love they actually show. Filou, for example, will jump in my bed, cuddle up with me nose to nose and simply look into my eyes. She even spoons me. If I’m in a lake, she will quickly swim toward me if I go under the water. She will seek me on command; curl up to me if I’m ill; position her body between my girlfriend and me if we are fighting. And perhaps best of all, greet me in the morning -- and that’s every morning, it turns out -- with a wagging tail.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Poem: "Last Night Was a Full Moon"

Last night was a full moon
I didn’t know until
I shut the lights to go to bed
And I could see still.
The light poured through the window
So I craned my neck
And saw that shiny quarter 
From right there in my bed.

Last night was a full moon
And I had some crazy dreams.
Instead of being in the grave
My old cat was just 19.
We all gaped in sheer amazement 
That this cat had grown so old
In the place she’d always been: 
Right under our nose.

But there was more and it disturbed
I dreamed proud animals were
The victims of some maniac
He used them for his work.
He fused them all together
Like some grotesque centipede
Then lobotomised them all
And marched them in the streets.

But the creepiest of all
Was a dream about a painting
’Cause the author of the work 
Was a man named John Wayne Gacy.
Yes, the “Killer Clown”
Had made the piece for me
And sicker even still
Had packed it carefully. 
Layer and then layer of
Tissue I removed
To see what forms were issued by
The sick hand of the ghoul. 

I woke up in a sweat, forget it 
My legs were morning dew.
The full moon up above was gone
Or to my eye it was. 

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.

Thursday, February 14, 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. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

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!

"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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

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.

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. 

Monday, February 11, 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. 


Sunday, February 10, 2019

"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.

Friday, February 08, 2019

"Junk"

If you read this blog, you know that I like music. I love it. From the first second I get up, almost to when I go to sleep -- but definitely right when I get up -- I’m listening to music. Maybe one day I would even like to write about music professionally. I’ve never done that but could imagine doing it.

Anyway, point is, I like music, and if you’re reading this blog, you're gonna hear a lot about music and my relationship to it.

So, with that in mind, here is a photo I took today here in Hamburg, Germany. It was a gray, wet day, and the moment I saw this box on the doorstop of an apartment building I was walking past, I thought of the song “Junk” by Paul McCartney. I mean, it was instantaneous. I was like, "That's 'Junk.'" Of course there is the connection with the lyrics, but maybe it also had something to do with the gray day. Enjoy.

The pic:
























The song:



The lyrics:

“Junk”

Motor cars, handle bars
Bicycles for two
Broken hearted jubilee
Parachutes, army boots
Sleeping bags for two
Sentimental jamboree

Buy! Buy!
Says the sign in the shop window
Why? Why?
Says the junk in the yard

Da, da, ya, da, da, da
Da, da, da

Da, da, ya, da, da, da
Da, da, da

Candle sticks, building bricks
Something old and new
Memories for you and me

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Poem: "Funerals"

I said that you attend a lot of funerals
But the subtext was your life is passing you by
And you've died enough for others
Your sister and your mother.
You ain't got no brothers, but a lover 
Who's like smog on your skyline
A chastity belt on your soul.

Poem: "Gemini"

This one is totally different. But it's interesting. Enjoy.

***

They asked me what the title of my biopic would be.
“Gemini,” I replied, and a gasp swept through the gallery.
“Can you justify this name?”
The one who took the lead 
Said to me, as I stood there upright
But struggling inside.

Yes, it's easy, in fact, I can. 
I love and hate each man.
I’m a planner and a mapper,
But live catch-as-catch-can.
I’m a thief and yet I’m Robin Hood,
Crystal clear, misunderstood,
Fire and ice, fire and ice,
Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right.
A Gemini, baby, born in May
And that’s how I’ll stay
Till the day I die.”

When I looked up at the folks around, 
Everybody was looking down,
As if I’d shamed them with my words,
As if they’d never heard such words.
But to me, you see, duality’s fine:
I can walk that line.
And though they demurred initially,
They came to see
That I was right
Because they gave my film the green light. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Angel Standing By

It's funny. When we look back on our lives, some people appear in our consciousnesses as clear as Albert Bierstadt paintings. Some people are fuzzy, like Seurats. Other people, and the dramatic moments we associate them with, appear like Rembrandts.

I want to quickly talk about someone who appears in my memory more like a Seurat -- that is, grainy, not fully clear, but still someone who is there and who made an impression.

Her name was Melissa and she lived on the female side of the dormitory that I lived in during my 2002-2003 year in college. She had long black hair and a nose ring and sort of had a tiny bit of a goth thing going on for herself. I have no idea how we became friends, but we did.

I mention her because I basically remember her for only one thing. And that's where the whole Seurat thing comes into play: she's more just like an impression, but she's there.

Melissa, I remember, had the coolest screen name ever.

Now, you must realize, this was back in the day when people, at least people at my college, communicated principally through a program called AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, for short. AIM was convenient and practical. We didn't use mobile phones to communicate -- they weren't really around -- we just shot each other messages over a small chat window in the corner of our PC screens.

And Melissa's name was just so killer good. It was "AngelStandingBy" -- and that's "standing by" in the sense of "on call," "ready when needed." I'm sure there had been some arbitrary number at the end of this screen name of hers, but who cares. That was it: AngelStandingBy. Of course, she got the name from a Jewel song -- one of Jewel's best songs, but...

But how killer is that name? And this girl was a really good listener, too, which perhaps adds a little more texture to the story. She really generously lent an ear whenever you needed it.

And there she was, in the dormitory of Fitzgerald Hall in the 2002-2003 school year with that dope screen name: "Angel Standing By."

Emily Dickinson

Do you like podcasts? I do. One that I listen to is called "The Daily Poem." And that's what it is, a daily poem, analyzed by some cool, smart dude.

The poem that was analyzed today was by Emily Dickinson, whose work I love. I thought that the host of the podcast was spot on with his take on Dickinson's poem and the poet herself. He stressed the fact that Dickinson really opens the door to new realms with her writing, so of course one needs to reread her poems many times if one really wants to "get" them.

 Below is the poem that was featured today. It's famous in American literature.
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
'Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Even if you don't know anything about this poem, think about that feeling that you get
when you are sitting in a living room and a beam of light comes pouring in through the window, illuminating the dancing particles of dust in the air. That's what "There's a certain Slant of light"  is about -- that and more, but basically that. 

Eating Crow


For some reason I have this thing with crows: they sort of fascinate me. Maybe it has something to do with Poe’s “The Raven," as I always loved that poem. But, honestly, I don’t know what it is . . . crows . . .  I like them.

Anyway, today I had an interesting interaction with a crow. It all started when I was walking through a fielded area and saw a crow standing on the grass up ahead of me.

The moment I saw the bird, the expression "for the birds" jumped into my mind. This probably happened because I had had an apple core, which I had been looking to throw away, in my hand.  (For those of you who don't know, if something is "for the birds," it is, in a sense, garbage. It’s leftover junk that a bird might like to eat.)

So, with this "for the birds" saying in my mind, I was very curious to see if the crow would eat the apple core. Honestly, I didn’t think the bird was going to eat this leftover part of the apple because crows are very skittish. If you so much as make a motion toward them, they usually fly away. I thought that the second I threw the apple core, the crow was going to fly away.

Well, I threw it, and do you want to guess what happened?

The crow didn’t fly away. Instead, he stood right where he was until the core landed, and once it did, he hopped toward it -- and began eating it. I felt very satisfied when I saw that.

And then, even better, right before I was about to go into the U-bahn station, I looked back at the crow and saw that he was still pecking at the apple core.

What can I say, it was for the birds!

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Faulknerian


Below is an email that I recently got from my aunt. I used to think that her emails were a little crazy, considering that she doesn't really use punctuation and sometimes one thought flows into another without any signpost. Originally, this style of hers had irritated me a bit. But, honestly, after I began reading William Faulkner, I got a whole new appreciation for my aunt's emails. Faulkner very often eschewed the conventions of grammar and style in an effort to capture human thought in a more authentic kind of way.

Now, I don't think my aunt likes Faulkner or is writing like how some of his novels read on purpose, but, honestly, I definitely now think of her more wild emails as poem-like, Faulknerian dispatches.

In the email below, she's talking about sports and then the Super Bowl and how the New England Patriots recently won another championship. She concludes the email by totally botching the spelling of my dog's name.

Still, you must admit, the email's got heart, and in the end that's why I love it. And her, really.

Years ago. Once I'n a while
I even went years ago to hockey
Game. I just can't get over six wins
Lisa told me that his wife I's worth
Over three
Million. Top model from brazil
I just dabble I'n everything
Sports  vintage cars animals
Etc. I like music from Bruno mar to
Light opera and country.etc
Are you still playing the guitar
Grandma played some piano
love. Did you talk to your mom?
Hugs to you and Fiolo. Lv me

Sunday, February 03, 2019

In Another Country


When you live in another country, where another language is spoken, words can be a funny thing.

For example, when I got a dog here, I learned the command “Auf dein Platz.” "Auf dein Platz" is what you tell the dog when you want him to go to his little mat in the corner where he sleeps. You might command the dog to do this because you want him out of your way or because he has been bad, etc.

But the thing is, one day someone asked me, “What’s 'Auf dein Platz' in English?" And ya know, I didn’t know. I had never had a dog before moving to Germany, so I never had to use that kind of vocabulary, and didn't.

Words can be a funny thing when you live in another country.

But we're not done, not just yet. One last thing, and it also concerns dogs. For the longest time, I had heard people at the dog parks and dog runs talking about “Richbacks,” these big, brown and gold dogs, and I had thought nothing of it. "Look," I had sometimes thought to myself, "there goes a 'Richback.' What a nice dog."

But then one day I looked this dog up online, and when I did, Google asked me, "Did you mean 'Ridgeback'?" Apparently I did because the name of the breed is Ridgeback. However, the way Germans pronounce it, it sounds like “rich.” Funny, right?

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Short Story

Here's a short fictional story I wrote in the summer of 2010. I remember I was crossing a street in Manhattan when I was struck with the idea to write this piece. Enjoy.



-->
“The Envelope”
The envelope, brown and oversized, was lying on the lobby floor underneath the row of mail slots along the lobby wall. Mara, who had been out buying rolls, had just walked through the archway and up the step when she saw it, the brown envelope propped against the wall. No need to switch on the hallway light for this one. She could read the label fine: Mara Strum, Grossbrunnen Strasse 34. She knew what this was. This was not a good way to start the day.
First off, there was the mailman. He couldn’t just knock on the door? Okay, she hadn’t even been home when he made the delivery, and this was how some post arrivedespecially the post too big for the cubbies but he couldn’t even leave a note or something? Then there was the issue of the envelope itself. The same goddamn envelope that had been sent to her for the last three years, for as long as she’d been in university, with the same damn questions. As if anything had changed.

At the foot of the staircase Mara reached into her pocket for her keys and then started up the stairs to her apartment. The stairs at Grossbrunnen Strasse weren’t as steep as the ones at her last place. Plus, they were wider. The plant was the best thing, though. Because each floor looked nearly identical, it was easy to lose track of which floor was which on the way up. But she always knew she was about to reach her floor, the fifth, because a neighbor had placed a plant on the landing between four and five. You know Germansthey love their sunlight and their plants.

The apartment was dark and quiet. By the door, she hung her coat on the coat rack and shouted “Hello.” No answer. Good, he was out. Sharing an apartment, especially with a man, wasn’t exactly an ideal situation, but there was no choice. It had to do with money. When you don’t have that much money, you don’t have the luxury of not having a roommate. Dirk slept in a small bedroom across the hall but he dominated the living room and the other rooms in the apartment, which was old but nice because of the high ceilings. He was probably out giving music lessons that morning. Mara looked around her bedroom and then down at the brown envelope in her hand. As if anything hand changed. She threw it across the room and it landed at the foot of the hamper.

The red light on her answering machine was blinking.

“Mara—I’m going to be in your neighborhood later. Should I come over? We can have tea or something. I have to go to a store first but I can come over after. Call me.”

It was Romy, Mara’s best friend. Well, Mara’s decent friend. All right, Romy was her best friend, but to be honest Romy annoyed Mara. Mara didn’t even know why sometimes. Maybe it was the way Romy  never put her own dishes in the sink after she ate. Or how she still didn’t know her way around Hamburgeven after living in Hamburg her whole life. Even after 24 years, Romy  still couldn’t tell you what streets to take to get to Sternschanze from Landungsbrücken, by the port, where she lived. She knew which subway to take, sure. But if you asked her if she knew the same route on foot, she’d tell you she didn’t.

Mara’s mom was next on the machine.

“Hello little one. How goes it? I’m going to be making dinner tonight—Spanish, paella. Do you want to stop by? Oh, if you need to use the printer at my job tomorrow, you have to come very early. I won’t be around if you come later. I just wanted to let you know. Okay, that’s it. Stop by for some yummy food if you want. Ciao.”



That one annoyed Mara even more. Her mom knew that she had been really tired because she had been opening at the ice cream store all week. Why the hell, then, would she tell her to get up even earlier to use the stupid printer? Things weren’t terrible enough already. No, of course they weren’t. Maybe Mara should call her mom back. “Yeah,” she’d tell her, “You know what, Mom? The goddamn envelope from the offices came today. Do you want to open it? No, go on, I think it would be a really good idea if you opened it, Mom.

The envelope was still by the hamper. Maybe she’d just call Romy back. At least, after all this bullshit today, the idea of drinking some tea still sounded nice.


Mara stood at the railing outside her door and looked all the way down five flights to the square of lobby floor. She wanted to see what kind of hand would grab the staircase banister. When she saw that it was a female’s, and then saw the edge of the coat, she knew it was Romy  who was climbing the stairs. Still, Mara always liked to make sure that whomever she’d just buzzed into the lobby was the person she thought, at least while she still had the high ground.

“Well, you. How are you?” Mara said. Romy  wiped her feet on the mat.

“Good, good.” 

“What were you doing around here anyway?”

“Returning a shirt for my mom...” Romy  took off her shoes and they both walked down the hall to the kitchen.
“At H+M?” 


“No, my mom bought this shirt, which wound up being too small, at this really pretty boutique
“By the Schäferkamps Allee?”
“No, but have you seen how many new boutiques they’ve opened there lately?” 
“Yeah, I love that.”
“Me, too. No, it was actually by this cute place near Schulterblatt. I figured I’d just go return it for her, and maybe look around a little.”
“That’s nice. You are always so sweet with your mamacita, Romy-litta.” Romy  giggled. Mara noticed that Romy had lost some weight. She hadn’t seen it by the door, but Romy  definitely had lost a kilo or so, which probably had to do with her not drinking Guinness every day like she had been when she was abroad in Ireland. Or was it because her hair was down?
“So what did you want to tell me?” Romy  said.
Mara got up and took the teapot off the burner even though it wasn’t exactly whistling yet. She poured the hot water into the two cups on the table.
“I don’t know. I just feel like shit.”
 “And why?” 


“I don’t know. You know how I told you my new semester starts in October?  I’ve got to take care of all this shit with the offices. The German offices. They want all this information from me.”
“Yeah, but that’s normal. Right?” Romy said. “They are going to give you money, though, right? I mean, they had before so…”
“Yeah, I know. But it just makes me feel like shit having to go through them. I fucking can’t stand my mom for...ugh! I don’t know. Dumb cow.
“Mara. Don’t be so mean. You shouldn’t say that about your mom.”
“Yeah, it’s easy for you to say. Your mom pays for your school, right? Right, because you have the money, which is fine. I’d be happy if I had the money, too. I know I’d probably never be having conversations like these, but” 


“No, I understand.”
“Anyway, I just can’t stand it, you know? It’s just like saying, ‘Strip yourself naked and show us what you got.’ It’s like the offices put me down so bad when they do this shit. They did it to my mom, too, you know. I told you. When she was really having a hard time, when things were really bad. I told you about that one-euro-a-day job she had, cleaning. That was crazy. One goddamn euro.”
“But the state supplemented her, right?”
“Still! You’re earning one fucking euro a day. Do you know how much that bothers you? And then they check up on your every move. They want you to submit all your paperwork, all your receipts, all your bills.”
“I know.” Romy  put her teacup down.  “But just get it over with.” 


“Yeah, well, what else am I supposed to do, you know?” 


“And that’s the only way that you can get money? Like, I mean, if you don’t…then you don’t…”
“Right, if I don’t prove it, then I don’t get shit.”
“So when do you have to have it in by?”
“Next week.” 
“Did you get it yet?”
“Yes, of course I did. It’s in my bedroom. I just threw it on the ground.”
“Well, you should do it, so...”
“Yeah...let’s just talk about something else. I don’t feel like talking about this anymore...”

The sunlight was pouring in through the window by the bed. For some reason, Mara sat there and watched the whole time. She watched Romy  slowly cross the street, walk up the block and then disappear around the corner at the intersection. Romy  said that she wanted to go meet up with her boyfriend, Dennis, which was fine, but now Mara didn’t know what to do exactly.
She lied down on the bed and looked up at the poster on the wall. “The Kiss” by Robert Doisneau, 1950. Such a great picture. So simple. Just a guy kissing a girl on a busy street in Paris...but really kissing her. Exactly: If you really love someone, you show itno matter what. Mara looked around her room. The walls looked incredibly white because of the strong sun but the laundry on the line was drying well. The passing cars outside rumbled over the cobblestones. She was bored.
She read the movie titles on the spines of the DVDs, which were on the rack near the dresser: “Paris, Je’taime”no; “Love Me if You Dare”no;  “What a Girl Wants”no; “Together we Are Less Alone”hmm...no. Yeah, she was definitely bored.
The envelope was still lying there by the hamper. Mara rolled her eyes and then got out of bed to go pick it up. For a second she pretended that a friend had sent this envelope and it contained a long letter on thick paper from some faraway place, perhaps the Near East. The handwriting would be curly and the message would be concerning the difficulties of finding the exotic brass trinket that Mara had requested as a souvenir. But no. This letter in the brown envelope was concerning something else:
Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. Federal aid for students.
She opened it. There were the papersreally, just a small packetthat she needed to fill out if she wanted to get money from the state that semester. And she needed the moneyshe needed that aid. She hated to say it, but she did. She needed it to pay tuition, to pay rent, to eat, to do everything that a living, breathing university student in Germany does. Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. The word was long by even German standards. No wonder almost everyone abbreviated it. They called it Bafög. But even that sounded ugly, “bah fuhg.”
Mara sat at her desk and took out a pen. The first few pages were easy. Address, employment history, current boss’ name if applicable, phone numbers, university details. The first few pages were always easy. The form at the end less so. And she knew it’d be there. It was there every other year, and Germans don’t like variation.
There it was.
She printed her name on the very first line at the top of the page, Mara Hellblau Strum. Right next to that, they wanted her reference number, 700103.
The title was in bold and was underlined:
“Statement regarding a parent’s failure to fill out Form 3 due to ignorance of that parent’s whereabouts”
She read on, to the beginning of the sworn text: 
“I know that I am first and foremost required under the law to furnish a Form 3  detailing both my parents’ personal data and financial affairs in order to be granted federal aid to study."  
“However, I am not able to provide a complete form because I’m ignorant of the whereabouts of my­­­­...”
Mara checked the first box. “Father.”
“I haven’t been able to locate my parent since...”
Yeah, Mara knew. She was supposed to write some sort of year here. But her circumstances were a little different.
“My whole life.”
“My parents were 1) never married or 2) married to each other until...”
That space after 2 was reserved for yet another year, the one your parents broke up if they’d been married. Mara chose 1.
She put her pen down for a second. She wanted to call up her mom right at that exact moment, call her up and yell at her, just scream at her: “You fill this crap out.” And if it all wasn’t bad enough already, the offices were asking for more information this year. 
“I undertook the following unsuccessful efforts to try and determine the current address of my missing parent:”
There were only two lines to answer this one, so Mara wrote really, really, really damn small.
“Well, since my father’s name is Gustave and there are about 20,000 Gustaves in FranceI know, I’ve looked at phone booksand since I don’t know his last name, and since I don’t even know what city in France he lives in or came fromor if he even still lives in Franceand since my mother never wrote down his last name, and since he stopped writing me letters when I was 2, and since we have no idea what shipping company he worked for when he met my mom at the port in 1986, I would have to say it’s a little difficult for me to determine his address or even try to.”
Then Mara wrote something she knew the German offices wouldn’t be happy about:
“You try and find one kernel of corn in a cornfield.”
What else did they want?
“My relatives and any other personal contacts believe that this is the last known address of my mother/father...”
Mara just wrote “France.” She then checked another box:
“I have never received financial support from the parent in question.”
And finally:
“I assure that everything written on this form is true and complete and I will immediately report any new developments if the situation changes.” 
Mara signed her name and filled in the date and place of her signing.
Mara Hellblau Strum, 14 September, 2010; Hamburg, Germany.
She took out her own envelope, licked the sweet flap and sealed it. She was going to put it in the bin downstairs for outgoing mail. But that would be too long. She went to the post office to mail it. She did it that very same day.