Thursday, November 28, 2013

I won! And another excerpt

NaNoWriMo ends officially on Saturday, but when I validated my word count this afternoon, I passed the 50,000 mark and became a winner. Here's the story in a graphic:

NaNoWriMo winning results on November 28, 2013
The accomplishment feels really, really good. A daily writing mandate can carry you through times when you aren't clearly motivated to write. You just sit down and write the next thing.

As the graph shows, I had short days (when I was teaching) when I added 500 words or so. That's where the curve flattens out. The sharper rise is on the days when I did not have to teach, and I used those days to catch up (2,500+). According to my own altered schedule, I was actually "ahead" the whole time, although it only felt that way when I reached the grey average line last weekend.

I set out to write the story of being the mother of a child who died of cancer. During NaNoWriMo I drafted seven chapters. I am working chronologically and with the expectation of cutting lots of what I wrote and finding ways to make it non-chronological in the end. Where did I end up? I reached Christmas of 2001, when Simon's diagnosis was confirmed. I have a long way to go. The story grew heavier to write in the last few days--no wonder.

Here's an excerpt from chapter seven. Maybe it will never be part of a book, but I bet Ann Arborites (and others) will enjoy it anyway.

Without overtly trying, Markus and I have managed to live together in the USA only in cities that make top-ten lists for livability. In the late 1980s, not long after we became a couple in 1987, Markus had an internship to Madison, Wisconsin. I followed him there and stayed for a year of graduate school (in textiles). The gorgeous lakes Mendota and Menona, the bikable city, the cultural offerings, and Chicago only two hours’ drive away. We followed that up with Portland, Oregon for two years. Markus got his MBA at Portland State, and I studied textiles at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts and worked out of a studio in the not-yet-gentrified industrial north side. Glittering tall buildings with green and pink glass reflecting Mt. Hood when the cloud cover cleared, the Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden (where we became engaged), the Pacific coast a 90-minutes’ drive, the early days of Starbuck’s and brewpubs.
1992-1995 took us back to Germany, and we lived in the city of Karlsruhe for three years. Bikable, unusual in its classical city structure fanning out from the palace at its center, plenty of culture, the French border and Alsace-Lorraine a mere 30-minutes’ drive. Markus set his sights on a PhD program, and that search landed us in Ann Arbor. Eight years later, in 2003, his first job as a professor took us to our fourth “most livable” place in the USA: Salt Lake City, Utah. But that’s getting ahead of the time in Ann Arbor.
One of the highest quality-of-life aspects of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has to be Zingerman’s Delicatessen. Its Detroit Street deli in an old red-brick shop with outdoor seating and a spill-over building next door attracts a sandwich line that often stretches out to the sidewalk. Outrageously delicious deli meats and cheeses, olives, oils and vinegars entice shoppers to consider outrageous prices. We came most often for the bread. Zingerman’s has its own bakery, providing bread to meet (and sometimes surpass) our German standards, even at $4 a loaf. The family favorite was Farm Bread, which had a crack down the length of the oblong loaf. Simon said the bread, when sliced, looked just like a rabbit. It had a chewy crust that flaked on a fresh loaf, the inside just a little more putty-colored than white. Another favorite, more for the grown-ups, was Cherry Chocolate Bread, a tiny round loaf of dark brown bread filled with rectangular bars of a fancy sort of chocolate and soft cherries.
Zingerman’s breads became available at several supermarkets in addition to their deli, but the best place to go was the Bakehouse itself. Hidden in the winding drives of a warehouse park just past the highway that runs near the mall south of town, the Bakehouse is a room full of ovens, mixing vats, boards, and bakers with flour on their hands. You can watch it through a glass window from the salesroom. There’s a stool for kids to stand on. My first visit, I had to drive in circles around the mostly unmarked buildings until I spotted a truck with the Zingerman’s logo parked at the back. Soon, I learned to find the place as a stop on my way home from church Sunday mornings. Pastries, soups, dairy products, salty snacks, focaccia. But what we really came for was the wall filled with round and cracked and flour-topped loaves of bread.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013

Perhaps you've heard about the project called National Novel Writing Month. People all over the world sit down in the month of November to write a novel. I believe the project was initially directed at youth. Now it has expanded to entice writers of all ages to commit to a month of steady writing. The task: write 50,000 new words of a novel. The FAQ page on the NaNoWriMo neatly answers questions about authenticity and other issues. For instance, I'm actually writing memoir, not a novel. Officially, that classifies me as a "rebel". I like that.

Basically, you answer to yourself alone, and that's all you need. The website offers a handy place to track your progress. Here is what my graph looks like today:

Daily progress in words written, November 1-24, 2013

NaNoWriMo was in the periphery of my awareness until friends from the Writers in Stuttgart group encouraged me to give it a try. I had to teach a full schedule of Business English courses in September and October, but my November looked enticingly more free. So I mapped out my own course. Rather than the recommended average of 1,667 words per day, I planned to write 500 words on my teaching days and while traveling (9 "short" days). For the rest, I've been working 2,000-2,500 word days. I was thrilled yesterday when I finally caught up to the target line. Today I surpassed it!

The project is working. I will have 50,000+ words by Saturday when the month ends. There's a word count validator on the NaNoWriMo site that will declare me a "winner" once I cross that mark. I anticipate twelve chapters, probably more. Some of the chapters I mapped out have split as I work. Realistically, I will have eight or nine of the chapters written at the 50,000 word point. The full work will be longer.

And what is my subject? I am writing about my life as a mother--becoming a mother, having two little children, going through my son's cancer, being a mother after a child's death. I'm using this project to guide me through a chronological account. The project helps me stay steady on this straightforward path of telling.

Yesterday I posted an excerpt of new writing (on a familiar subject) that I expect to put in a final chapter. Today I want to share a paragraph from the draft of chapter FIVE about life with two little children. There's a 28-month age difference in my son and daughter, and here the memories fuse.
        Can I remember what it was like to live with my children when they were very young? The time vanishes like dead skin cells sloughed off in silence, without the slightest thought. Old experience makes way for new. Children grow moment by moment. You watch them raptly, like a time-lapse sequence of an amaryllis coming into bloom. You don’t want to miss even one small change, one step toward maturation, one moment’s learning. Now he can raise his head from a belly position. Now she can roll onto her back. Now he can sit unsupported without falling over. Now she can sit herself up. He’s crawling, but he tends to go backward and wedge himself under sofa and chairs. She’s crawling, but she drags her left hip along as her right leg and arms do all the work. He’s discovered the foot of the stairs—I guess a gate would be smart—he’s up a whole flight of stairs—we need the gate now. She’s pulling up to standing. He’s letting go of our hands to walk on his own feet. She’s outside with our cute teenage neighbors, and suddenly they’ve taught her to walk.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

For November 17th, Simon's half-birthday

Another pumpkin-growing season ended in September. To be exact, I harvested pumpkins for the 9th time in my backyard garden, all of them descendants of the first pumpkin--Simon's Pumpkin. In the spring of first grade, 2004, Simon came home with a styrofoam cup of dark dirt and two small plants from sprouted seeds, a pumpkin and a sunflower. Both were moving past the initial two oblong leaves that emerged from a seed into the more differentiated growth of each plant's shapely mature leaves. I set the plants near one another in the backyard, and they grew all summer.

The sunflower opened a first bloom on August 7th, the morning after Simon died. The petals were a somber brown tinged in fiery red. The pumpkin sent one strong shoot straight toward the house, toward the room where Simon lay. At the time of his death, there was one sole pumpkin, dappled dark green. It was a hospice nurse who suggested saving the seeds. "Grow them every year," she said. "That's Simon's pumpkin."

In 2010, the one year during which I grew no crop of pumpkins because we left our Utah house, we moved to Germany. And here the project continues. On Sunday, November 17th, I halved two pumpkins, pulled out their seeds, and baked the halves face down in the oven until they were soft. With the drained cooked flesh I made a pie (and froze the rest). Miriam carved a dedication to Simon into the baked pie. Three heart shapes fill the space around: 16.5 Simon. He would have been sixteen and a half this week.

For a writing project this month of November (more on that soon), I am drafting a memoir about my early years as a mother, the years with a sick child, the years after his death. I want to present an excerpt here of the text I wrote on Sunday, after making and sharing the pie with Miriam and Markus.

A Simon's Pumpkin Pie, November 17, 2013

From a manuscript in progress, working title: A Partial Mother (please keep in mind it's a draft)

The juice of a pumpkin dries like a strange new skin on the palms of my hands. I can’t wash it away. I’ve just sunk both hands into the innards of two pumpkins, separating plump whole seeds from the stringy insides. I will clean, dry and save the seeds. As I work, I suppress the impulse to find every last seed, the pile inside my red plastic bowl already nearing the rim. I am saving the seeds to grow pumpkins again next summer, just as I have done every year since 2004. Well, except the year we moved to Germany (2010) when I didn’t grow pumpkins at all.

I scaled the project back this year, looking for the right perspective. I keep envelopes of seeds in the basement, marked by the year the pumpkin grew. Last year I set in seeds from almost all the prior years, starting with the 2004 Ur-pumpkin. Year after year, I grow seeds harvested from that first pumpkin. Year after year, I seem to come no closer to running out of those seeds. My garden choked last year under all those plants: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011. (I skip 2007 because those pumpkins were long, pale and strangely like zucchini, and because that year is one I prefer to forget.) I watch the plants grow with a misplaced pride: the 2004 pumpkin—Simon’s own pumpkin—sprouts first on the window ledge indoors, where I stick seeds into pockets of dirt in an egg carton I’ve labeled with the corresponding date. The 2004’s sprawl most confidently over the garden, burst open the first flowers, and nearly always create the earliest and best-looking fruit. As if it were a competition, as if there is some winning to be found in that plant—that vintage—being the best one. When I harvest a pumpkin, I trace its ridged and twisting vine back to its origin in the ground to find a little sign with the year of the seed. “2004” I notate in black Sharpie on the underside of the pumpkin, near the blossom stub—the flat navel of the fruit. In September I rescue the fruit from under mildewed and crumbling leaves, from shredded, rancid vines. I rinse the pumpkins off and set them to ripen in the sun, for Halloween or pumpkin pie.

Today will be pumpkin pie day, and it is fitting. November 17th is Simon’s half-birthday. He would be sixteen and a half years old today. Or he is sixteen and a half years old today. I lack the certainty to say that he lives, that he is aging alongside the rest of us, that his development continues in a measurable way. Because I do not know where Simon is now. We do not speak. He does not come to me in dreams. My imagination falls weakly aside when I try to picture him with a deep voice, with a neck drawn taut by testosterone, with armpit or pubic hair, with dreams for his own adult life. Miriam is tall now, like Markus. She dwarfs me on the rare occasions she’ll accept a hug, all the while telling me how small I am. Would Simon be tall, too? Or was he going to be smaller, like me? When he died—when he was seven—the top of his head reached the base of my sternum when I hugged him to me.

My power of imagination meets another challenge. Do I picture Simon as a nearly grown young man, unaffected by illness? Or do I see him with the late effects of cancer treatment: stunted growth, cognitive deficiencies, the psychological legacy of a sick kid? I asked Markus the other day, in some situation where Simon came to mind, if he envisioned him progressed through time with no sign of cancer, or if he factored all that in somehow? It seems easier, we agreed, to imagine the entirety of Simon’s cancer away. Why not, if all we have is what we can imagine anyway?

I do not fault myself for projecting a mother’s pride onto the pumpkin Simon brought home in first grade. As I slide the seeds from their fibrous trappings, I marvel at nature’s prolific production. There are hundreds, maybe a few thousand, seeds inside one pumpkin. All of that (and the leaves and vines and any other fruit of that plant) grew from the power contained in one flat cream-colored pointy-ended seed. The pumpkin, like other plants, does not rely on bearing just one or two offspring (as we humans do), but creates these hundreds of seeds, all of which hold the potential to replace that one pumpkin in another year’s growing cycle. Think of a tree laden with apples. Think of the dandelion’s silvery head. I always also have to think of cancer: just one lousy mutation can perpetuate itself into a killing force. I used to fantasize that I could remove Simon’s cancer cells, by hand, carefully and doggedly, the way I sort through the slime and the seeds in a pumpkin. I would have persisted for hours, for days, forever until I cleaned out every last killing cell.

My fingers search. My eyes see another pocket of off-white seeds tucked like a stack of coins against the pumpkin’s flesh. I could get every last seed. I have to force myself not to try.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

August 6th, part 2

With the perspective of two weeks, I want to share about the passing of another August 6th. This year marks the tenth time the date has scored my life directly, going far beyond the vaguer meaning instilled when I was a teenager in Japan. The actual day Simon died was Friday, August 6, 2004. That was the original mark. And the date has come and gone again nine times since then, with our lives growing new life rings around a jagged scar.

The anniversary effects of weather and location are diluted because we live in a different place now. Still, summer temperatures and long daylight hours work on the body and the mind surreptitiously. The night sky. The foods we choose to eat. The looseness of summertime. The season brings memories and feelings to the surface, although this year they haven't been "on cue" so much as slowly emerging. 

Yesterday, two weeks after the anniversary, I experienced my deepest crying. I occupied the living room for a yoga practice while the apartment was empty for a few hours. Lying on my back, hugging one knee to my chest, then the other, I felt a sadness squeeze out of me. It's always a relief when that happens. Why then? I don't know. I learned yoga when Simon was young, pre-cancer. Or maybe it was a muscle recollection of holding his infant body on my shins while lying on my back, thighs and knees raised in a 90-degree angle, doing post-baby exercises while he "airplaned".

I looked around me. Should I light the "Simon candle"? I drew the second knee close to my chest and let the tiny bit of moisture from my tears run past my temples, into my hairline. I looked for a photo of Simon in the room. His first grade picture, with the slightly frozen smile, sky blue T-shirt, short hair. Or another one, where's he's bald as an egg shell and playfully lifting a flap on his chest that opens the mouth of a grey wolf. I kept at my yoga.

October 2002 in Oberlin. Simon (5) was about six weeks post stem-cell transplant.
I love everything about this shot, including its view of his wide little hands (like his dad's).

Anniversaries strangely emphasize points in time. What's so important, actually, about a 50th birthday (mine was in June this year), for example? We humans are counters. We like to measure the passage of time as well as its accumulations. Disneyland Paris, which Miriam and I visited last week, is celebrating 20 years (oh, I remember how skeptical the Europeans were about that idea, back when Markus and I were living in Karlsruhe in the early 1990s). On the one hand: who cares? On the other: sure, we'll take that 20% commemorative discount on our ticket, thank you very much.

For those of us who are missing Simon, a tenth anniversary looms. Addressing a few things this year, in writing and photos, may take some pressure off how things will feel in 2014. If I were back in Salt Lake City, I would certainly want to visit his grave on the anniversary of the day he died. So, I have put together a slide show from my most recent visit to Mt. Olivet Cemetery. While visiting Salt Lake in June, I took a long, solitary afternoon to tend the grave and carefully clean the letters on the gravestone, drinking in the beauty of the cemetery and the truly perfect weather.

Here in Flein, we have a physical connection to the Salt Lake City grave. Another sculpture by Chris Coleman, the one that served as the model for Simon's sculpture, stands in our backyard. (It traveled to Germany, just like the beds and sofas and piano, in the container when we moved.) This sculpture is titled "Flying Thinking Man". It's about 10 feet tall and constructed of salvaged rusting steel and a wooden mold for a concrete footing.

Overcast morning light in August, looking at our backyard from the deck.

As every year, the anniversary of Simon's death occurs close to Markus' annual trip to the Academy of Management conference. Over the years Miriam and I have sometimes joined him, putting us in Philadelphia, Anaheim, and Boston on or near the date. Once we were with my parents in Ohio at a park with a frog pond and river for skipping stones. A few times we were together in Salt Lake. Maybe we've had to be separated once or twice. At the first anniversary, Markus went alone to Hawaii for the conference.

What to do to commemorate the day? Markus was packing to leave for Florida on August 7th, and Miriam and I were headed to Paris for 6 days on August 8th. Nonetheless, we had a worthy list for the 6th, most of which Miriam had proposed the night before. At 4:00 we'd bike along the Neckar river into Heilbronn to an ice cream shop. For dinner, we'd recreate Simon's favorite Spaghetti Factory meal (spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs plus a family favorite of fresh garlic bread). Then we'd watch a movie and eat popcorn, like the old family movie nights for Pixar flicks with Simon. At some point we'd toss dried rose petals around the sculpture, something we used to do at the cemetery. Not a bad list, only here's how it went.

At 4:00 pm, on cue, the skies opened in a downpour. We scratched the ice cream trip. While Markus and Miriam ran errands, I followed a Joy of Cooking recipe for meatballs (make the German meatballs up to step three, but leave out the capers, then add…). Miriam made fabulous garlic bread with a baguette when she got home, and I finally had the sauce and meatballs ready for an enjoyable enough dinner. By then it was late, and Markus excused himself to finish packing for his early departure the next morning. For thirty seconds we scattered rose petals in the fading light. Miriam and I, too full for popcorn, set out to pick a movie to watch. It should definitely be Pixar. Which movie? We considered watching Brave, a pretty new one, but it felt more authentic to pick a movie Simon would have seen. Right there the passage of time becomes clear. Simon knew Toy Story and Toy Story 2. A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. The last Pixar film released before he died was Finding Nemo. He never saw The Incredibles or Cars. Or Ratatouille or Wall-E or Up. Or Brave.

We picked Toy Story 2. And also watched the special short (For the Birds) and the Outtakes (I always smile at the memory of how Simon called them "Take Outs" and how he loved their silly ironies). But it was a strain to immerse in an old favorite. Miriam had trouble keeping her hands off her iPhone. Markus wandered in the background. I sat there feeling less engaged, too. Still, it's a stunning movie. And my favorite Outtake gag is when Woody sits on the roll of packing tape and his butt falls through the hole. Simon, buddy, I laughed with the memory of laughing with you!

Having all traveled well and having made it past the ninth anniversary of the day Simon left us, we are nearing a second August milestone. Three years ago (almost--August 25 to be exact) we arrived in Germany. We're moving forward into a new year.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

For the solemn date of August 6, part 1

(Please excuse the time delay. Here is a post partly drafted last week on August 6, then interrupted by a 5-day trip to Paris. Just Miriam and me, up and down the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seine. Oh, and the paths of Disneyland. But that's another sort of post.)

August 6th

When I lived in Japan for the summer of 1979, I learned to call this date "Hachi-gatsu Muika". Eighth month sixth day. I had found my way to Hiroshima for two months, by happenstance more than design. My tenth grade history teacher, the late Alice Schlossberg, had encouraged me to enter an essay contest about "Japan and the Japanese People Today". I was in her classes in Chinese & Japanese history and Asian religion. I credit Ms. Schlossberg with teaching me how to write, as in how to make distinct points, meaningfully connect them, and be cognizant you are doing so. (Her method was simple: In this essay test, you must make four points. If you make only three, your maximum score is 75%.)

The final stage of the essay contest involved an interview with Youth for Understanding, a student exchange program. I was named one of two winners in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area (a sabbatical year for my father had taken us to Bethesda, Maryland from Ohio). So, I was off to Japan at age 16, curious about what was to come.

Akebono-cho, Hiroshima. I joined my host family in their quarter of Hirioshima, a city full of pale concrete buildings and devoid of almost all traces of the buildings that had existed before August 6, 1945. The devastation of nuclear attack was just 34 years in the past in 1979, and the memory was clearly present, especially among adults. The events received mention now and then in conversation, just as the city had its markers of the tragedy: Heiwa Kōen (Peace Memorial Park); the A-bomb Dome (a building skeleton left standing); Peace Memorial Museum, also located in the park, which bears witness to the instantaneous loss of 70,000 lives and the lingering effects on 70,000 more; the Children's Peace Monument with its origami cranes; and the nearby rivers, where those suffering from the mighty heat and fire of the blast found some refuge. I remember people I met expressing gratitude for the water as if it somehow assuaged the anguish they felt in legacy.

On August 6, 1979 I accompanied my Japanese host father, a school principal, on his official duty to join the solemn parade in downtown Hiroshima. Other members of the family did not participate. I remember walking quietly past displays and other people, understanding little of the language and feeling regretful--and powerless--about representing the aggressor nation. Over and over, and not just on that day, the people of Hiroshima spoke of their commitment to peace and to the prevention of violence and destruction. I never had cause to doubt their sincerity. No other response seems possible in the face of what happened in Hiroshima.

Years later, the date of August 6th took on a second and infinitely more personal meaning. On August 6, 2004 my son, Simon, died at home of advanced neuroblastoma. He had endured cancer from the age of four and a half to the age of seven. His end came slowly and peacefully after the mix of dire struggle, tedium, and respite that make up a lengthy illness. For many months, at least the first year after his death, we found the need to do something to commemorate the 6th of any month. Often it was dinner out at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a family favorite in Salt Lake City's Trolley Square. Always it was a visit to the cemetery.

As the first anniversary of Simon's death neared in 2005, we sponsored an event with the Simon Craig Vodosek Memorial Fund. It was an open air concert at Utah's Hogle Zoo by a favorite singing group, Two of a Kind children's music. Jenny and David Heitler-Klevens, along with their twin sons Ari and Jason (about age 10 in 2005), performed their lively, creative songs ("I lead a double life--I am an amphibian"), reminding us of entertainment on car rides, with both Simon and Miriam in the back seat. At our request, they performed their moving rendition of Fred Small's Cranes over Hiroshima, a song that tells the story of Sadoko Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes she tried to make before she died at age of twelve of leukemia in 1955, a late-effect victim of the Hiroshima bomb. It was a lovely resonance with the sadness of Simon's death in a mostly light-hearted and invigorating evening.

Jason, Ari (or vice versa?), Jenny and David Heitler-Klevens
August 1, 2005 concert in memory of Simon (photo: Kay Beaton)

Kylie and Miriam with Jason (I'm guessing) and Jenny
selling CDs (Photo: Kay Beaton)
So, we've just passed the ninth anniversary of Simon's death. Add eight years (since the concert) to these children, and you get Miriam at almost fourteen, Kylie fifteen, and Ari and Jason at eighteen ready to enter Oberlin College (their parents' and my alma mater) in the fall.

And here's a very cool thing. Having noticed in an email update from Two of a Kind a few weeks back that the Heitler-Klevens family was headed for Europe, I popped them a message. They were in Paris when we were in Paris. Miriam and I met up with them for dinner just last week, on August 8. Ari and Jason, who still look so much alike that I need a yellow T-shirt and a white one to keep them straight, will have to let me know if I identified them correctly in these photos.

And so the years cycle.

Delightful addendum

Photos from this year's encounter, both taken on the plaza of the Centre Pompidou in front of the Calder sculpture. The photo credit in each case, I think, will be obvious.

Jason, David, Mary, Miriam, and Ari
August 8, 2013 Paris

Jason, Jenny, Mary, Miriam, and Ari
August 8, 2013 Paris

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding Goethe, Finding Götz

Setting: Burgfestspiele Jagdshausen (summer theater festival in the castle at Jadgshausen)
The Play: Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand)

Quote of the evening (for me):

Götz: Ach! Schreiben ist geschäftiger Müßiggang, es kommt mir sauer an. Indem ich schreibe, was ich getan, ärger ich mich über den Verlust der Zeit, in der ich etwas tun könnte.

Oh! Writing is busy idleness--it infuriates me. While I write about what I've done, I could have used the time to do something else.

As I sat in a sturdy scaffolding-style seating area erected in the castle courtyard for the summer festival, my eyes and ears darted to follow the words and actions of the characters in a complicated historical play. Suddenly, the main character, then imprisoned and being encouraged by his wife to get back to his autobiography, shot out these words of writerly frustration. To me, it was one of those moments when the playwright steps forward to speak his mind.

So, Goethe the prolific writer of poetry and plays and prose also struggled, perhaps? The comment by the character Götz seems particularly suited to writing autobiography or memoir: the challenge of living versus writing about the lived versus living and thinking all the while about writing about it.

Götz von Berlichingen [g-u(e)h-ts try British pronunciation of "shi(r)ts" with a "g" at the front; BEA(R)-li(h)-hching-en]. Götz von Berlichingen is a name you hear all the time around here in the region of Heilbronn. "Götz slept here" or "Götz was imprisoned in this tower" or "this was his castle". The historical Götz lived c. 1480-1562. He might have been born in the castle at Jagdhausen where we saw the play last night, or a nearby location. He died at Burg Hornberg high above the Neckar river in Neckarzimmern. I know Hornberg--now a picturesque ruin plus renovated hotel plus thriving vineyard--from a pleasant wedding anniversary get-away in 2011 and subsequent birthday celebrations in the restaurant. I've linked to the German wikipedia page because it has excellent pictures.

But Götz von Berlichingen (such an awkward name for the English-speaking mouth) and his lasting appeal have only slowly begun to reach me. The historical figure, a knight ready for service in myriad conflicts and also a man from a family of means, seems to have tread the line between respecting and defying authority. As a young man, he lost his right hand in battle. He wore an iron prosthesis, which became a kind of trademark. Often imprisoned and kept under extended house arrest at the end of his life, he nonetheless lived into his eighties.

Despite his ubiquity in the culture, during our first year in Heilbronn I had not become aware of the man or the play, which is covered as standard literature in school around grade 8-10. I first heard about it sitting in a semi-dark theater next to Miriam's English teacher on a school outing to see a play (A Christmas Carol presented in English by a German-based American drama group). She mentioned a barely intelligible name of a work based on complicated history. For clarity I asked if it was a play. Yes. And was there discussion of how the author(s) dealt with the writing, I asked (being a writer). Only with some difficulty did I realize we were talking about Goethe.

To be fair, Goethe had been for me up until then mostly a "lyricist" of some famous songs (Lieder), like Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and "Erlkönig" and dozens more. (I am aware that he cared little for the efforts of Schubert and others to corrupt his work by adding music.) It turns out he also wrote plays, fine examples of Sturm und Drang to teach in school and permeate a culture. Now, at last, I've seen the Götz play, too. Perhaps our outdoor theater evening will help Miriam just a little when the work comes up in school.

The final thing that everybody knows--and I mean everybody--is the famous "Götz-Zitat" [g-u(e)h-ts tsee-tat] or Götz quotation. Not the one I posted here, but an expression that Goethe uses to carve his character's defiance into the minds of generations and into the language itself. While facing attack in his castle in Act Three (of five) and being told to surrender, Götz, with all due respect, gives his reply: "er kann mich im Arsche lecken." (In "good" English: "he can kiss my ass.") Interestingly, the Projekt Gutenberg version of the text cost me some time in finding the exact quote: they have censored it out with a stage direction to slam the window shut! Last night's Götz gave the full line from an upper balcony, loud and clear.

In any case, should you want to make a rude comment in the German context, you may simply refer to this scene from the play. For example, you can say: "Götz-Zitat" (what Götz said…). Or you can invoke the "Schwäbischer Gruß" (the Swabian greeting), as in "She gave him the Swabian greeting."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Poetry experiment

Here's a follow-up on yesterday's semi-poem. I call myself a prose writer, but every now and then something with shorter lines or a poetic gesture emerges. For example, I took a walk to the bakery on Sunday morning and made this Facebook posting when I got back.

Frozen morning: crunching opaque ice membranes stretched over ruts in the path is fun like popping bubble wrap only entirely more musical.

Several friends clicked "like" and commented. Amy Sheon saw the haiku potential here, which I, too, had noticed during another walk late afternoon. A haiku's brief 17 syllables seemed a challenge; I had a lot more words. So, I looked for "that other" Japanese short syllabic poetry form that I vaguely recalled. I searched on "haiku and" with immediate results: Haiku and Tanka courtesy of the Virtual Museum of Japanese Arts presented by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

You can follow the link yourself to find a charming presentation about the forms, but here's the basic information. Haiku is three lines, syllable pattern 5-7-5 (a total of 17 syllables). Tanka has five lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5-7-7 (31 syllables). I have written one of each, essentially simultaneously, taking off from my original observation and wording. I have allowed myself a 4-syllable title, and I don't know if that's breaking form or not.

I imagine that writing syllabic poetry in Japanese feels quite different from English. The Japanese equivalent to an alphabet is a "syllabary." It's a system of syllables ordered by initial consonant, each ending in one of five vowels. The exception is final "n", which also counts as a syllable. For example, the word "haiku" counts as three syllables: ha-i-ku. "Tanka" is the same: ta-nn-ka. English pronounces both words in two syllables.

Soundwise, Japanese reminds me of Italian, with all those words ending in vowels (a fact that appears to make rhyme schemes in Italian ever so much simpler). I look at a lengthy one-syllable English word like "stretched" and imagine syllables in Japanese to be more obvious, more like breathing. I need my tapping fingers. (That's a 7-syllable sentence right there.)


Frozen morning

crunching opaque ice
membranes stretched in rutted path
is fun like popping
bursting sheets of bubble wrap
ethereal chimes in ice


Frozen morning

crunching opaque ice
rutted path of bubble wrap
joyful winter chimes

A previous winter moment prompted my other recent haiku. Now there are three of these poems. I believe I may be working my way toward a page of poetry on this blog.

Snow haiku, December 7, 2012

snow tumbling through air
downward halting plunging spread
outside my warm room

From another frozen morning during a horse-driven sleigh ride with Austrian relatives, January 2011. (c) Mary Craig