Friday, March 28, 2008

I and this mystery here we stand

The curtain is falling on Berlin, and I feel like I am riding a tiny, broken tricycle down a steep, muddy gorge. It's starting to rain, and the slope is getting slicker. The ride is getting more dangerous, but also more fun. I may fall down and I will certainly get wet. But you can always do the laundry and start over again. All else failing, left, right; left, right.

Although I am always a willing ear if someone is willing to read out loud, I fell out of love with reading at some point after childhood WITH, however, the flagrant exception of the last three months, during which time I've managed to read 5 marvelous novels due to their titles having been implanted in my brain by more seasoned, less seasonal readers than me.*

I did however for some reason read Walt Whitman as a child, and it still seems to be the answer to my mood. Can you believe this stuff?


Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.


I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

*A Prayer for Owen Meaney (John Irving), This Boy's Life (Tobias Wolff), The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann), Herzog (Saul Bellow), and The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bad Anthropology

Last Sunday, with less than one week in Germany remaining, I got back on the very same train I had taken the previous day to Dresden, headed back again through Dresden but ultimately on to Prague.

I really like being on trains. My dad tells me that when I was a fussy toddler he'd put me into the baby carrier in our Toyota because, once inserted into a reclining, forward-moving scenario, I always either shut up or passed out immediately. He'd just drive. I'm now a grown-up fussy toddler with a lot of nervous energy, and sometimes nervous energy is fun because it allows you to bolt around and do lots of things. But sometimes I get tired of restlessness, and being stuck in a train for 5 hours can feel really good. There's nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being just out of college and it's the best oxymoronic-philosophic book title I've come across, with the possible exception of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which isn't oxymoronic and is only glibly philosophical, but which has the same cheeky one-too-many-word-iness about it. I haven't read A Heartbreaking Work, but I've always been taken with the title. I tried to tell somebody about it once, but since I can never remember the actual title, only the general idea, I came up instead with The Unbearable Craziness of How Good This Book Is, which sounded even better, and which is what I will call my first book, if I ever write it.

Unlike A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I did read Kundera, and for a long time I couldn't get it out of my head. The genius of Kundera's formulation in the Unbearable Lightness is something like "The harder life gets the better you feel, cause sometimes when life gets really good, you wanna run away and die." I'd like to see a Kundera Daily Platitudes for the Average Guy Calendar. Tuesday, March 25: "Quit while you're ahead." Wednesday, March 26: "You can never get out. Make hay." I like his attitude, and I've always wanted to go to Prague to see the city where the attitude came from.

Prague is indescribably beautiful. But I spent most of my time there taking photos of street signs. Give me a chance to explain. Here's a sign.

Now, if you didn't know any better, you'd think this sign meant something like, "Man Crosses Street" or, "That's a person, he's crossing the street; I'm a person, ergo I cross the street here." And you'd be right! You're in a country that's nowhere near the U.S.A. and you wouldn't expect the same street crossing sign, would you? No, of course not. And yet we here in Germany can still make signs with universally intuitive significance, and everybody gets along just fine.

Ah, but then we cross the street and things start to look a lit-tle more complicated. Here we are by the river. What's that sign, there?

Hmm. I'm feeling very 10% about my German these days, but from what I can make out the sign says something like "People aren't building buildings here; also, don't ride your bike and don't drive your car, either." But what's strange isn't the German, it's the big, red circle with a white middle. This sign could be telling me "Stop now or you are such toast," but to me, I get ... empty set.

But wait. The party is just getting started. Check this out.

I found this sign in Dresden across from a tram stop. Now, here's my thinking: In Prague, the exact same sign except printed UPSIDE DOWN means "Here is a Metro Stop." According to my logic, a metro train is sort of the exact opposite of a tram train since the tram is above ground and the metro is below ground. Therefore, an upside-down metro sign means ... tram. Ha! Problem solved. But then, what's this?

Don't go into the sex shop? And here:

Leave your flugelhorns at home?


Friday, March 21, 2008

An Airlock of One's Own

Boarding the train from Dresden to Berlin earlier this evening, I chanced to see a vision of my own personal hell. I'm not sure many people are lucky enough to have this experience, and then to be able to avoid it. But let me give you a little background first.

If you're traveling on a train within German borders, you'll find that it's not like most trains in the U.S. With, for instance, New Jersey Transit, there are maybe 60 seats per train car. Sometimes you sit facing the other passengers, but even in this case, you generally can flop the seat around to face the other direction. In Germany, each train car is compartmentalized into 10 pods, each of which contains 6 seats, 3 facing 3. The pods are claustrophobic, airtight inventions with one window each, but no ventilation, no legroom and thick plastic, possibly soundproof, bulletproof walls. If you've seen Aliens, it's the same idea.

Since you have no control over who you neighbors will be, and no contact with the outside world once you're in, locating your pod assignment is a little like being in Aliens. It's also like boarding an airplane. For instance, lemme recap a recent flight I took on American Airlines. I had seat 11C, or something like that. When you first get on the airplane you crane your neck forward past the line to see what's on the far shore. So, I'm craning, and up ahead I see one row that looks like it might conceivably be row 11 and there's a clear-eyed, quiet middle-aged man sitting there with a pocket-protector, absorbed by machinery, who will not bother me. But that would be too lucky. That would be row 9, which means row 11 is ... no! It's the two smootching teenagers from back in the terminal with hysterical private jokes about other people. Dang! At least they won't try to talk to me. No, wait. That's not right side of the aisle. I glance across the aisle. There's my seat, 11C, and next to it, in the middle seat, 11B, is an enormous man with gold jewelry in a Bears jersey. He sees me looking at him and he tries to look away but I'm there and there's nothing either of us can do. The jig is up. He gets up to let me in. Once I'm inside, barricaded between the double-paned airplane window and big, Bears-rooting sausage legs, the Second Coming could come and go and I'd still be stuck there with an eternity of pee to hold.

Being on the German Bahn is scary but in an entirely different way. For one, you're looking directly across an aisle the width of a protractor into the faces of three people whose legroom you're taking up. Two, you may or may not have to watch them pull delectable little homemade Easter treats wrapped in wax paper out of their bags and eat them in front of you. Getting on at Dresden, I was looking for Sitzplatz 26. I pass compartment 1-6, followed by 7-12. Up ahead I see a nice, dimly lit cubicle with what appears to be no one in it. How exciting! But no dice. The cabin with the dim lights is locked, and there's a loud din coming from 25-30. I peer into 25-30 from behind the door. Three snarling children are locked in a battle to the death over the heads of two huge mothers with huge buttockses. Rolling around on the floor and covering all six seats are coke cans, wrappers, small backpacks, shoes, coats, other small things, and possibly another child. They're moving so fast I can't tell. I'm not sure what language I'm hearing, and the walls are definitely shaking. I bolt into the hallway, and I think, I can just maybe stand here for 3 hours. That would be just fine.

But no, there are 3 unfriendly Czechs five cars down. I will sit with them.

Dresden was lovely. I could show you pictures, but you could also look on the web. Instead, I'd like to share some photos of Dresdeners and what they eat.

Are you getting a sense for the size of these things? Here, look again.

No, it's not a long stick of special Easter bread. It's a really big hotdog.

And now, for something much prettier.

It's Fred! In other news, I was sorry to see Fred leave Berlin ... for Paris. Fred spent his entire time in Berlin helping me look for a bathroom, and he didn't even get to go in the Reichstag.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Press is Press is Press

A write-up on our little Hyde Park salon project ...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I Will Be 13 for the Rest of My Adult Life

The first time we had a boy-girl dance in Junior High School, I showed up wearing a dark green Laura Ashley dress with print flowers and a big puffy skirt. Apparently I wasn't part of the phone tree where it got decided that everyone else would wear very, very tight, very, very short, stretchy miniskirts. My friend Katie was the only person to wear anything even remotely as unsexy as what I had on, but even she had had the sense not to show up in a dress. Six months later, at the next dance, I had the shortest, tightest, stretchiest not green with flowers skirt I could find. But by then, I was just another six months behind the curve.

Junior High School is nobody's favorite memory. If I had a dollar for all the people who told me (while I was still wading through the pool of angry vipers that is Junior High School) that they wouldn't go back to Junior High School for one million dollars ... But the point is, there's no way. My parents were constantly having to say things to me like, "Oh, that extremely cute and generally very well-liked girl who you couldn't resemble any less will SURELY become a hairdresser in 10 years, at which point you'll just be completing your medical degree." This made me feel worse (did they really have to work so hard?) but I also believed them. And believe it or not, a few years ago I walked into the Dairy Queen that still sits across the street from the old Junior High in Papillion, Nebraska, and recognized the guy working behind the counter. His name was Paul. He had been in my junior high class for three years. He had been super cute and super stared at by all the cool girls and was amazing in sports. I ordered a blizzard and walked out. I felt terrible.

There were definitely kids who had it worse than I did. The first day of seventh grade, a short little guy named Keith showed up wearing a sweatshirt that said, "I'm a Little Husky." If that wasn't the illest thing to wear on your first day of class, by wearing it AGAIN on second day of class Keith pretty much wrote his own one-way ticket to social oblivion city for the next three years. At least he had the gift of cluelessness and couldn't tell that people were foaming at the mouth laughing at him. I'm still paranoid about the intricacies of popularity and when anybody on the street glances my way, I generally imagine that my face is paved with boogers.

Why rehearse this agony? My whole life I've wanted bangs. Everyone in Berlin has bangs. Today, I threw in the towel. I'm stepping out. Yes/no?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Little German with that Foreign Language?

Usually at about 5 o'clock every weekday afternoon I start wondering if somebody slipped roofies into my diet coke. My German textbook starts sounding more and more like something Dr. Seuss and Salvatore Dali might have come up on a late-night bender. Lemme think about this dialogue:

"That allowed to are you not."

"Why? I wanted then only my bike to explode."

"And why could you that not on the street do?"

"That wanted I yes, but then had I no water."

"That may you not!"

(Tangram Aktuell, Niveau a2-1, p. 11)

But let's face it, four and a half hours of German is four and a half hours of German and even a classroom full of (practically speaking) adults can start getting a little dozy. The Italian guy who wasn't really making much sense in the early afternoon is coming out with stuff like: "Escht wulle ish un kunne nish," which sounds a lot more like cave speak than German, or even Italian. Usually at this point, the Chinese Humboldt scholar begins to eye the door, and I wonder if I can get away with going to the bathroom for the fourth time.

You probably remember moments in grade school when somebody did something funny behind the teacher's back and you along with the rest of class spent the next 30 seconds doubled over in hysterical, silent pain. I once I watched my brother Greggie stick a pea up his nose at the dinner table. We tried so hard not to laugh that he finally lost control and then reverse snorted the pea back up into his nasal passage and started gagging.

Something along the same lines applied today when, with twenty minutes of class to go, our teacher proposed a role-playing game between the slurring Italian and one of the Japanese ladies. I can't really do justice to what happened next, but it was a little like turning on the Spanish channel when two actors are having a heated argument, except this was more like the Spanish channel overdubbed in Japanese-Italian with the audio routed through a high-powered ceiling fan. I tried to stop from laughing by wedging my face between my textbook and the diet coke bottle, but the entire room had already lost its bearing on decency and erupted in mirth. We know how to make a joke at our own expense.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Opera will die in 2045

I haven't slept in Berlin since I got here. There's something about morning that wakes me up. And there's something for the rest of Berlin about nighttime that wakes them up. I stumbled out of bed yesterday at 7 having gone to sleep at 4, and walked toward the center of the city, which I happen to be in walking distance from. I passed Berlin's largest cathedral. Then I walked back and went in. The cathedral is everything you would want it to be. Big, impressive, echo-y, Protestant. I sat down and an invisible brass quintet played something by Bruckner. I struggled to maintain my composure. I become sentimental when I'm tired. But it was beautiful. I even sat through a sermon I couldn't possibly understand. But of course "Amen" would still mean Amen on the moon...

I went to a performance of Simon Boccanegra at the Deutsche Oper last night. Several things were thrilling about it. One, I knew the conductor because he had been our rehearsal conductor for Aida. He actually WAVED TO ME from the stage during his last bow. Two, I ran into the theater 3 minutes before curtain and still managed to sit front row, center. Can you imagine sitting front row center at the Metropolitan Opera for ten dollars having bought your ticket within three minutes of curtain? You can't.

However, everything else about the production made me embarrassed for the Deutsche Oper. I will try to explain why, but it demands the elucidation of a paradox which I am still at pains to understand myself: Opera lovers worldwide prefer staged opera to concert opera, but they actually seem to *prefer* bad staging.

As a quick preamble to a few comments I will make, let me first give you three instances of staging snafus in the show last night to give you a sense of what I'm referring to.

1. In Boccanegra, the first 20 minutes of the opera is actually a prelude to the rest of the action that happens "25 Years Later." Last night, in the prelude, the entire cast initially appeared looking like it had stepped off the set of A Christmas Carol: Boccanegra was dressed like Ebenezer Scrooge and the women wore bustle skirts. Then, inexplicably, for the First Act, the cast changed into modern-day dress. In other words, we sped forward in time from 1843 to 2008. Why, I ask you.

2. In another scene, Amelia is supposed to hit her lover over the head with a bottle in order to knock him out and then hide him in a closet. What actually happened, probably due less to lack of rehearsal and more to a lack of any discernible interest on the part of the singers in realistically executing the staging, was that, anticipating the blow, Amelia's lover fell backward BEFORE she even raised her bottle. Amelia, who was looking at the conductor and not at what she was doing, missed his head, striking him instead on his rear. The two of them then found themselves so far upstage of the closet into which the lover is supposed to have fallen that he actually had to throw himself 5 feet backward, and Amelia rushed after him to shut the door.

3. A final example: in the last 10 minutes of the opera, Simon has been poisoned. He is directed to fall on the floor to experience the agony of dying. But he has 10 minutes of singing left. It's difficult to sing from a reclining position so after 3 or 4 minutes he gives up, and stands up again. 5 minutes later he recovers his death instinct, staggers back to the floor (although this is at least a 5-step process involving knee pads and so on, since the singer weighs 300 pounds) and ... curtain.

The way I experience stuff like this is like trying to watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon where the sound track is six seconds behind the animation. You've had this experience. It's totally unnerving. The audio is so completely out of sync with the visual that it's just not worth the pain of mentally trying to piece the two back together. The really weird thing about opera, though, is that the equivalent thing could be happening onstage (meaning what's happening musically is happening musically, but what's happening visually is being beamed in from Mars) and no one seems to mind. This is the paradox I mentioned earlier. Staging's self-erasure is horrifying for me. It creates dissonance, for godssake. But for everybody else, staging cancels itself out, and then all that's left is music... music... glorious music.

Somebody, help me. When opera dies I wanna go down with the ship, in denial. But I need a new set of ears. Maybe by the time I'm 65...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stories to Sell to David Sedaris

It snowed a beautiful snow two mornings ago; and then the sun came out as if to say, whoops: my bad, global warming ...

As I mentioned in my last post, I have graduated to extremely bad German speaking (from zero German speaking) and I rain down with my bad German on this helpless city. ME, NO I, YES!! THAT IS IT, IS THE ONE, I MEAN, TO WANT IT IS ME NOW!! is how I order a croissant in the morning. To say no, I mean the croissant on the left with the giant hotdog bursting out of it, I say: WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH THAT? THE CHOCOLATE IS NOT HERE WITH ME, PLEASE: IT IS RESTING THERE! I gesture toward my mouth, toward the joy that pends eating hot dogs with croissant wrapping.

In this new month of Goethe classes, the number of Americans is up to three. I vocalize freely on behalf of the three new Japanese students. They do not yet speak extremely bad German. I will help them. I am at the top of my game.

I visited the Berliner Ensemble for their final production of Waiting for Godot. Naturally, we saw Warten AUF Godot, so I have learned that one waits AUF someone. The acting was peerless.

I also saw a second Neuenfels production; he has wormed his way into my heart. One had the feeling that this particular Rigoletto was under rehearsed -- much as the Nabucco had been three weeks earlier. But that also seemed to be part of the fun; as though part of the production process were to get the singers and crew into the theater at midnight the night before and pull an all-nighter painting sets and drinking scotch. The opera has the same tripped-out feeling as certain music albums that are only possible because of drugs. The costumer for instance was, I believe, chosen on the basis of his ability to costume an entire cast using only what you could find in the party section of Walgreens. Rigoletto shows up in the second act wearing a woman's pink, satin bathrobe, backwards, and a Crusades-era helmet that looks like it probably belonged to a Gondolier in a 1977 Gilbert and Sullivan production.

The asthetic reminded me in so many ways of my mother's production of The Pirates of Penzance with her 3rd, 4th and 5th graders last summer in Springfield, Nebraska. If there's a difference between choreography disguised as chaotic silliness and chaotic silliness disguised as choreography, you couldn't tell. Frederick is here assaulted by the 5th-grader Pirate King.

Mom, you would also have liked the male chorus of bees in Nabucco.

Last night I went to a Müller-esque, non-operatic Tosca at the Volksbühne. (Folks, there are a lot of theaters in Berlin; you have to be here to believe how many.) For my super cheap student ticket I sat front row, center and got covered with exploding fake blood capsules, champagne, beer & spit. It was disturbing and awesome. The man to my right had a huge glob of stage blood on his left eye for the rest of the show. Only shards of the opera made it safely into this particular version. That is, only the more ludicrous sections of the original plot (the painting of the Magdalena became a sci-fi-ish virtual, "live," i.e. moving, projection of a woman and a dancing baby) and the more sentimental/memorable bits of Puccini's score: when an aria seemed inevitable (in the music theater sense where the acting peeters out and there's nothing left to do but sing), the actors earnestly but hoarsely brayed out the original vocal line. To see the only person capable of imitating the actress playing Tosca squawking out a Tosca aria BETTER THAN the actual actress, ask Christopher Alden next time you run into him.

Monday, March 3, 2008

March comes in like a hairy, wet beast

I have some opinions about the Goethe-Institut, none of which I'll ennumerate because I'm beginning to learn how very public a thing is a blog (and I will now NOT go into how I came to discover this precisely because I am now wise enough not to). Ahum. Be that as it may, I had an interesting experience yesterday which involved stumbling through a series of 3 separate bureaucratic conversations with a handful of bureaucratic German employees of the state on the topic of whether my subway card was or was not valid and whether or not I should be required to purchase a different card at personal expense if I wished to continue riding the subway. Regardless of the fact that I lost all my arguments, it turns out I can speak German. Don't take this for braggadocio. I'm awful. But I've moved from zero to one, and I'm happy.

Another piece of news is that I'm going to Oslo. Or at least, I'm invited if I wish to go. For the month of May. Something to chew on.

The curtain call for the Aida premiere last night must have lasted twenty minutes. I was beginning to think Christopher & the rest of the production team would *not* be appearing onstage. The tiny cheerleaders with Little-Miss-Sunshine-beauty-contest hair came out TWICE for TWO bows, and the little boys in the pie-eating contest came out TWICE, as did poor Aida, who got booed rather badly. I will say, not to sound like a complete opera snob, that she was having trouble with the upper register yesterday like a balloon slowly losing its air. When I did a quick calculation nearing intermission, she'd already crashed through 8 or 9 high C's or whatever they were and had approximately one heap more to go. I decided that she was headed for a mudslide in the third act and mimed a small panic attack from my dark vantage point in the loges where the Deutsche Oper admin had unkindly decided to put me. (It was, like, Loge Box Z79 or something like that.)

Anyway, back to the unending bows. Twenty minutes of bowing goes by and for one thing I can't figure out why the 95% elderly audience hasn't already gotten up to go. At the Lyric in Chicago there is a solid majority of elderly opera-goers that bolt (well, bolt ... slowly) up from their seats at the the-opera-is-over-in-exactly-39-seconds moment and head for the exits like they'd broken down the gates of Hades and were swarming back into the land of the living. But they were all still in their seats at the Deutsche Oper, because the Germans knew something I didn't, which was that Christopher eventually HAD to emerge, and when he did, they were ready to boo at him. And how.

Christopher swaggered and grinned through his bows like a cowboy. Having clearly expected this sort of response he looked like he would have been disappointed if they *hadn't* wanted to kill him. How fun! BOO! they shouted. Christopher swaggered to the chorus and gestured, and clapped, and gestured and clapped gushingly at the orchestra. Boo! they shouted. Nerves of steel, I tell you. And opinions to match. I like the guy.

A few photos.
1) Marriott conference center/Salt Lake City revival/ ???
2) Little-Miss-Sunshine pageant contestants/cheerleaders
3) Radames drowning Aida 5 seconds before curtain