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.

Thursday, February 07, 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

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.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

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. 

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. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

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!

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.

Understanding


A couple weeks ago someone said something to me and I thought it was very moving.

The person was a woman I teach English to. This woman comes from Russia, and you should know that she dresses in a very exclusive and extravagant way. I’m talking about multicoloured vests, colorful Louis Vuitton bags, Fuchsia lipstick, Cartier watch.

If anything, I kind of liked this flamboyance of hers, as I sometimes feel that Germans can be too subdued, too unostentatious.

Anyway, I had been chatting with her about something -- I think it was something about politics -- when she said, “You know that’s why I like luxurious things, right?” When she said that I was a little lost. “What?" I asked, "What exactly do you mean, 'That's why I like luxurious things'?" and then she clarified. “We Russians," she said, "like luxurious things because it was so gray in Russia; it had been so gray.”

When she said this, she looked at me, and the sincerity in her eyes exactly matched the sincerity of her words.

I felt I understood her a little better as a person after that.

Poem: "You did me dirty"

You did me dirty 
Then you ran 
And left me holding the bag
After you robbed the safe 
You pointed my way 
When the cops came 
As if we didn't arrive in the same car
Or steal from the same jar. 

Friday, February 01, 2019

Poem: "When I shined a flashlight into my memory"

I wrote this poem last night. I had had the image of a person using a flashlight to look through his memory, and then, boom: poem. Enjoy.

When I shined a flashlight into my memory
What did I find?
Bits of conversation left behind 
Warning signs and orange rinds 
Stalagmites from the ceiling sharp
An angel’s harp
And turpentine 
An easel with no painting on
A life that only just begun
Boxes high and boxes stacked
Of letters that had been sent back
Stagnant pools and leaky roofs
And rocking chairs in splinters now
Is what I found 
With my little light.