Friday, December 21, 2012

A "moment of silence" meditation

For the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook Elementary

The whole world is thinking of you in your tragedy today. The flurry will one day settle down, and your lives will make their lurching way forward. I am on this road with you. You face your first holidays without your child. This year is the ninth without mine. Here are my wishes for you.

May you freely and fully inhabit your own lives.
May you feel perfect joy and delight when you think of your dear child.
And may you have the patience and resolve to grow whole again.

For the times when, temporarily, nothing at all seems possible,
rest in the great love that surrounds you today, and always,
until the flow of possibility returns.

Memorial Service for Simon, a boy who loved color, especially magenta
August 28, 2004

[For regular readers of this blog, I've made a related entry in Language & Such on the German word "Opfer", which means both victim and sacrifice.]

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On the Death of Children

I have a child who died at the age of seven. Since Friday I am hearing too often in the news about twenty first graders, aged six to seven, eradicated in a moment's shooting at their school. It's news that hits all of us hard; I can't for sure say if it hits me even harder.

Simon Craig Vodosek
School meant so much to my son, Simon. He loved recess more than anything. He barely ate his lunch because he didn't want to miss a minute of playground time. When I picked him up after school, he'd be sitting on the school's front lawn, eating his sandwich.

He also loved his first-grade classroom: being with other children and doing all the different activities and tasks, like the morning poetry page to read and circle the rhymes, illustrate with a picture. I think his first-grade classroom was the place he came closest to forgetting he had cancer and to feeling he belonged, just like every other kid. He was truly jealous of his friend Thomas' perfect attendance on 180 out of 180 school days. Simon managed 120. He would have loved making it to second grade.

School was sacred. It was his sanctuary.

How can we imagine school as a place of threat and slaughter?

I feel deeply for the families robbed of their children in Connecticut. As deeply as my own colossal pain leaves room for me to feel. I'm pretty crippled. It is hard to be an "orphaned" parent or sibling or grandparent or cousin or aunt or uncle. In Simon's case, death gave us the courtesy of forewarning. The shock of sudden loss is one I don't know first hand, nor the anguish of knowing evil was deliberately inflicted by human hands.

We did everything we could to keep Simon from losing his life, but his cancer was a threat over which human effort had no power. I have no evidence that Simon's cancer was avoidable; I have to view it as a very cruel twist of fate.

I believe that everything about what happened last Friday in Newtown was avoidable. Is avoidable. Yet we are witness to so much sacrifice, so much gratuitous harm.

Cancer is a devious foe that will demand more sacrifice and loss before it is vanquished. But guns? Just get rid of them. Imagine that. No more people shot dead. If only it were that easy to eliminate cancer. Can anyone imagine that we would not take the necessary steps?

Gun violence is inexcusable. And it is fully in our human power to make it go away.

I am sad to know that so many other families face tomorrow without their beloved first grader. It's an unfathomable loss.

[Readers who would like to know more about Simon and his struggle with cancer are invited to Simon's Place.]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Time release culture shock

It's the Christmas season. Car-clogged streets. Multiple-light-change waits at intersections. Glass-ball-infested trees blocking shopping center passageways alongside racks and racks of goods for sale. Fa-la-la-la-la-la. This morning I needed to pop into a downtown bookstore for a completely non-Christmas book. 'Twas the opposite of a quick stop.

Nonetheless we've begun to find some holiday cheer. This Christmas will be our third since moving (back) to Germany. We're spending the holiday with family here this time, as we did two years ago. Last year we visited my family in Ohio and our friends and old haunts in Utah. Here in Germany it's starting to feel as though we know our way around. Last weekend we finally made it to the Bad Wimpfen Weihnachtsmarkt* (Baht Vimpfen Vie-nachts-markt, vie as in vie for something, and for the rest just say one consonant after another until they're all done). It's reputed to be one of the loveliest of the outdoor markets, and with its narrow streets, cobblestoned hills, and lights tracing the silhouettes of historic towers, it really is beautiful. My sister, Julie, was here for the weekend, and I think she took some photos; I'll ask her for one to post. I'm sure she tried the Glühwein (for "ü" make lips for "ooh" but say "ee" to get glü-vine)--we both did, in red and in white. It's a mulled wine the keeps the cold away while you wander from booth to booth, snack to snack.

A part of adjusting to living in a different country is learning where to find the stuff you need. Mayonnaise, for example, is only tolerable to my palate from a single source: the Kraft product I can find at only one of the grocery stores I shop at. Low-fat ground beef you pretty much have to ask a butcher to grind fresh for you (the standard around here is half pork half beef, but A) it tastes and acts different and B) my daughter refuses to eat pork). So we adapt and become strategic. With other items, I've found it's best to accept their temporary loss in our lives. I have been in abject withdrawal from Mexican food. Annaheim peppers? Jalepenos? Tubs of ready-to-go pico de gallo or guacamole or spicy salsa? Black and red beans? Mexican rice? Yeah, I can make some of this stuff myself. But Rico's, Red Iguana, and even Rubio's (all in Salt Lake City)… The yearning is extravagant. (Please do not ask me about the establishments we have located so far in Germany that use the term "Mexican".)

I guess I was taken unawares yesterday afternoon when I had the quick thought, while shopping in downtown Heilbronn, that it would be fun to crunch up a candy cane and sprinkle it on ice cream for dessert. We had a friend coming to dinner and were planning on a "mix-in" style vanilla ice cream with Markus' homebaked Lebkuchen (labe-ku-hcen)--gingerbread. So, I went to the candy section of a big department store. Chocolate. Santas. Chocolate. Santas. Lindt. Milka. Ritter Sport. Hachez. Ferro Rocher. And so on. All chocolate. I found one plastic tub on a bottom shelf with red-orange-yellow-white striped candy canes. They looked fine, but I was sure they weren't mint. The lady sent me to another store, where I found the same thing: a few candy canes in fruit flavors.

For the first time in my experience of Germany, I began to think about candy canes. I expect this means, in more than 8 years of living here, candy canes have never crossed my mind before and they have not been a primary need for me. Still it came over me like some sort of clarifying revelation of a family secret: Germans don't like mint candy. Now that I think of it, there's nary a dish with those small thick red and white pinwheel hard candy disks, twisted in clear crinkling wrap between two fan-shaped fins. No strips of miniature red and white candy canes encased in never ending plastic ropes. Or their green and white counterparts. Or green, white, and red. Not at Christmas, not any time. Mint must be toothpaste-ish or medicinal here. No wonder I ate chocolate chip mint ice cream in the US last summer--it might not be my all-time favorite, but some part of me knew I'd better store up.

Perhaps I'm not the hugest devotee of mint candy, but I really like do it now and then. Cheap, wrapped, visually interesting, they're everywhere, year round in the US. Candy canes in all sizes and variations appear for the Christmas season. Take a look at the images on Google. It seems these candies haven't changed since I was a child, and I'm guessing much longer than that. It's hard to imagine a world without those little round mint pinwheel candies, and suddenly I'm realizing that's exactly where I live. I'm having delayed culture shock, like some time release effect. I guess I just assumed that EVERYONE wants mint candy. Apparently not. Here's my festive mint candy fantasy for right now: Peppermint Bark from V-Chocolates (Salt Lake City).

If you're in North America, or somewhere else with the candy cane culture, take a look around you this Christmas season. Now imagine all of that not there. Sure, there could be a lot of really high quality chocolate in place of the candy canes. But still.

For those who might also be interested, I found a blog post that gives a history of the candy cane, including its roots in Germany. However, the introduction of mint flavor seems to be an American affair.

*Website warning. This is a godawful website: music you didn't ask for, ads in your face. However, if you find the "Media Galerie" link and locate the pictures there, you will get a look at a lot of aspects of the market, and the opening panorama zoom video gives you a lot to see if it doesn't make you ill.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Accomplishment: Infinite Jest

Congratulations to anyone who can attach meaning to the title Infinite Jest. Either you are aware of the David Foster Wallace novel, or perhaps you recall the line in Hamlet when Yorick (the king's jester, now a skull) is described as "… a fellow / of infinite jest". I learned of the latter in the process of digesting the former. The novel, Infinite Jest, takes a lot of digesting.

While I perused the English language books at my local German library over the summer, this one gleamed at me from the W shelf. As I mentioned in my July 15, 2012 post, I decided to pack the book home. It weighs 1.2 kilograms (2.6 pounds). I put it on a shelf for a good two months, eyeing it now and then and wondering if I dared take it on and if it would be something for me. 1,071 over-sized, densely worded pages, of which the last 88 pages contain 388 David Foster Wallace style footnotes: maddening, hilarious, enlightening--the kind of thing I had to redouble my determination to get through, especially the multi-page ones, but which almost always rewarded the effort. You find things like this: a lengthy filmography that cites a film production company called Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited. (And what's the book called?) Repeated allusions to the new, slightly future-projected continental alliance O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations). (This is a book about self-destructive pursuit of pleasure.) Or sub-footnote 110a: Don't ask. And 110b: Ibid. (Talk about getting jerked around.) That is a miniscule sample.

Obviously, I eventually got started on reading Infinite Jest. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew it was really the thing to read, if you're talking DFW. A kind of rite of passage in my literary journey. I had first read David Foster Wallace for an intro to literature course at the University of Utah in 2007. My instructor assigned Wallace's essay called "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (an amusing and unsettling travelogue about an ocean cruise written for Harper's).  I was smitten and read the whole eponymous collection of "Essays and Arguments."

It's hard to summarize IJ, but the story is set around 2009 as a future projection from the early 1990's when Wallace wrote it. There's a delightfully characterized tennis academy filled with boys and girls and administrators and instructors; a half-way house and its attendant drug addicts and recovering addicts and hilarious/heartening scenes from Alcoholics Anonymous; stunning and grungy views of Boston; secret agents attempting to intercept and prevent dissemination of a film "entertainment" that literally brings lethal pleasure to the viewer. Does that even offer a clue?

After about 200 pages, I decided to get the 1.2 kilo weight off my lap, and I bought my very first iBook to read on my iPad. The good news about the electronic format was less weight to hold and a built in night light for reading in the dark. I also loved being able to select a word and tap on "define" to get quick aid from a dictionary. DFW has a way of dropping a Latinate and/or medical/scientific word into an otherwise rambling and vernacular sentence. It's tempting to blow past the unknown word, but it can be fascinating to learn its meaning, which is usually astonishingly apt for the situation. Here's an example: "…he's wearing a bright-black country-western shirt with baroque curilcues of white Nodie-piping across the chest and shoulders, and a string tie, plus sharp-toed boots of some sort of weirdly imbricate reptile skin…" I tap-tapped on "imbricate" and discovered that it describes overlapping scales. See?

Suffice it to say that there numerous guide books and blogs and wikis devoted to unpacking Infinite Jest. My favorite so far is a blog called Definitive Jest, which often had explanations for obscure items that I could find nowhere else. I also appreciate the site's "wordle" style word clouds in the banner image. Another helpful reference on David Foster Wallace is a 2011 BBC radio documentary available for listening on uTube.

Back in Utah, David Foster Wallace came up again during a non-fiction writing workshop I took in the fall of 2008. We students had heard the news that morning of Wallace's death. He had hung himself at the age of 46. His insight into his depressed characters, quite a number of which are in IJ, seems to come from personal experience. Our professor had not yet heard the news, which we casually repeated for her. Her face went very still. "I know him," she said. "I used to work with him." A 2008 David Lipsky article in Rolling Stone takes a close look at Wallace's final years: The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.

I loved reading Infinite Jest. It took me just under two months. When I finished it this past Sunday, I had the urge to start right back over again, partly because of the thousands of details I know I missed and partly because the book spits you out at the end, wanting more. On the other hand, I'm glad to be out of its grip and free to navigate somewhere new. To close this post, I want to share a few samples of the sensory descriptions I find so arresting in Wallace's writing. (Let me know if you're dying for a print page number citation. That's one thing my enotes on the sporadically paginated iBook don't reveal, but I could flip through the printed book until I find them…)

At sunrise, "…the east's Mountain of Rincon range was the faint sick pink of an unhealed burn."
"…like Nature, the sky, the stars, the cold-penny tang of the autumn air,…"
"…scalp-crackling gust of Phoenix heat…"
"The pond is perfectly round, its surface roughened to elephant skin by the wind,…"
"Heat began to shimmer, as well, off the lionhide floor of a desert."
"His heart sounded like a shoe in the Ennet House basement's dryer."
"…his…rosary of upper lip sweat"
"The A.M. light outside has gone from sunny yellow-white to now a kind of old-dime gray,…"
"…he wore [his hair] in thick dreadlocks that looked like a crown of wet cigars."

Amazing stuff.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

English titles at my German library

Let's not ponder too long what makes for a gap of many months in the posts of a blogger (if I can call myself that). November to July? OK. I've had a few suggestions. Maybe Facebook is what happened. Yes, maybe. In any case, I'm pleased to be inspired to toss something out today, a sunny/rainy Sunday in quiet Flein.

I went to the library yesterday afternoon with Miriam. It's become a habit, one that is prescribed somewhat by due dates. For example, a "new" film on DVD can be checked out for one week only and always costs € 1.50. So, when we've borrowed a movie, we have to show up to return it to avoid late fees. Our most recent was an Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston goofy comedy called Just Go with It. It's always amusing, if not nauseating, to see how films are retitled in German. In this case: Meine erfundene Frau (or My Invented Wife). An all-time favorite (=nauseating) re-titling is a 1986 Robert Redford/Debra Winger movie called Legal Eagles. Granted, the rhyme and nuance of the original are hard to duplicate, but how about this: Staatsanwälte küßt man nicht (You don't kiss district attorneys).

We often have good, if very random, luck searching the DVD collection at the library. Because the German norm is to dub foreign films, we can't watch English movies in the original language in theaters (unless we travel about an hour to Stuttgart or Karlsruhe), so we rely on the marvel of the DVD. The newest films offer the soundtrack in dozens of languages. Stunning, really. Television in Germany is always dubbed, and SOMETIMES we can stand watching Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep spout rather neutral sounding German, but mostly we go to the library for DVDs and gratefully select English as the language before we press "play". Mind you, none of us is opposed to watching movies in German if they were made in German. It's just the slapping on of translated language that bugs us, that and seeing familiar actors with the wrong voice. In defense of the dubbing practice, German speakers have told me, "But they always use the same German voice every time it's John Wayne or Gary Cooper." How can you ever replace something that iconic?

The challenge of the DVD collection at the library in Heilbronn is that the discs are filed by director. How impossibly non-commercial. I was trained at Blockbuster and Hollywood to search by film title. Weren't you? So, browsing my library here goes a little like this. Hmm, no one's standing in front front of the "L" section. I'll flip through those. Do I know any directors? Oh, yeah, George Lucas. What did he direct? (Not very erudite, eh?) Then I remember the other directors whose names I know: Eastwood, Allen, Spielberg. Mostly it's an exercise in random flipping and everything seemingly mixed together: Japanese, French, German, British, American, and more. Currently, we've got American Beauty, Death of a Salesman (with Dustin Hoffmann and John Malkovich--never heard of it before), Woman of the Year, and Walk the Line. I do not know who directed any of them. Miriam is happily working her way through season two of Glee.

Before hitting the DVDs with Miriam, I habitually check in with the English language book section. There are about 8 shelves, 12 feet wide, filled with English titles. The first segment is exclusively "Crime Novels". The remainder is everything else that's in English, by author. I've been genuinely pleased at what I can find in the library. Last year I read Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping, and I was thrilled to pull both Gilead and Home from the shelf in Heilbronn. My reading continues to be driven by what I can find there. Joan Didion's recent Blue Nights is on my nightstand stack. Right now I'm partway through Don DeLillo's Falling Man, which seemed to be the only title of his there (not in translation), and I'd grown curious about this author.

But it's a funny place to browse, the English collection. It puts Stephen Hawking just down the shelf from Ernest Hemingway. Yesterday I noticed a novel by Joyce Carol Oates right next to two nonfiction books by Barack Obama. Another interesting sequence: Alice Sebold, David Sedaris, and pretty close by, William Shakespeare. My favorite sighting, however, was several novels by Philip Roth followed by, what? The Harry Potter series. Of course, Rowling.

I love reading. And, all fun-making aside, I love libraries and especially the chance to find books in English at my local library. I see it as an interesting selection to work with. Once I've read what's here, I can find interlibrary loan or buy used on Amazon. Meanwhile, I've got plenty to read. Here's what jumped off the shelf and into my hands yesterday: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Check back with me on that one (1000 pages, 400 Wallace-style footnotes, we'll see).