Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stolpersteine

The world reels again today from news of great cruelty perpetrated by human beings on other human beings: mass killing of children in their school in Peshawar, Pakistan. We hear of such an event and must accept that it is true, even if we can't imagine the heartless brutality and can only dimly picture the devastation of families and the wider community.

Perhaps there is some larger context at work because today was the day my husband, Markus, and I became caretakers of two Stolpersteine in Heilbronn. The Stolpersteine are in memory of Karl and Rita Kahn, who lived at Wollhausstraße 40.

A Stolperstein is a brass plaque, about 10 x 10 cm, embedded in the sidewalk at the address of a victim of Nazi extermination. Name, date of birth, deportation, date and place of death are engraved into the metal surface. The verb stolpern means to trip, and pedestrians are meant to "trip" over the plaques, like uneven cobblestones, and take note.

The terse, non-euphemistic wording on the plaques can be a shock. "Murdered in Auschwitz" is the text on these two plaques. The sidewalk in front of my in-law's building in Stuttgart has a Stolperstein for a young man, Helle Hirsch, guillotined by the Nazis in 1937 for his role in the resistance. The plaque says "Decapitated."

Artist Gunter Demning began the Stolperstein project in the 1990's, and it has grown since then. Spend some time on the website to get an idea. Heilbronn joined the project in 2009. Yesterday, the Heilbronner Stimme printed a notice that the plaques in Heilbronn need caretakers. Markus responded, and we promptly received our assignment.

This morning we went to find the Stolpersteine and see what immediate care they needed. 

Karl Kahn and Rita Kahn, Stolpersteine at Wollhausstraße 40

We spent ten minutes rubbing metal polish across the surface with a soft rag. The "stones" cleaned up to be too shiny to photograph well with a smartphone. In reality, they look more textured with tarnish, and it's quite easy to read the text. We'll work on another photo.


At stolpersteine-heilbronn.de, you can read (in German) about the plaques in Heilbronn. A pdf gives biographical information about the Kahns. Here is a translation of that text. We hope to learn what became of the Kahn's son, Hans.

Wollhausstr. 40
Compiled by Dr. Gerhard Schneider (Freundeskreis Synagoge Heilbronn e.V.)
English translation by Mary Craig (Stolpersteinpatin, Flein).

Karl Kahn was born on December 26, 1890 in Hollerbach.* After completing state examinations to become certified as a teacher and a teacher of religion, Kahn worked in various locations in Württemberg before he came to Heilbronn in 1924. On March 28, 1929 he married Rita Meyer, born on April 23, 1906 in Bibra, Thuringia.

After 1933, as attendance of public school for Jewish children became increasingly difficult and ultimately forbidden, a private Jewish school was set up in Heilbronn—in the rooms of the Adlerkeller brewery restaurant in Klarastraße. Karl Kahn served as director of the school and its only teacher at times. His own son, Hans, born on February 11, 1930 also attended the school, which had the character of a Mittelschule (a standard, non-college prep school).

In 1939 Karl Kahn assumed the role of cantor at the synagogue after Cantor Isy Krämer and his wife emigrated. Kahn remained active within the steadily decreasing Jewish community, particularly in helping to arrange emigrations. “To save the small Jewish community, he gave his own life and the life of his wife” (wrote Hermine Rosenthal in a letter to Hans Franke).

Karl Kahn and his wife seem to have stayed in Germany to provide as much support as possible to members of their faith community. In 1939 they sent their then 9-year-old son to England on a Kindertransport, an effort to spare Jewish children from Germany the anticipated deportations. In the fall of 1941, the Kahns were forced to move to Stuttgart. From there they were deported by Sammeltransport (collective transport) to Theresienstadt on September 22, 1942. They were both murdered on October 6, 1944 in Auschwitz.

*In Rheinland-Pfalz, 175 km northeast of Heilbronn.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thread

Last week I repaired a king size comforter cover, one we've had over a decade. I guess we've used this one the most. Along the top edge, where we clutch it around our necks at night, the fabric has thinned, now soft and flimsy compared with the rest of the thing. It was torn along the top seam. Re-seaming it a half inch down would extend the comforter's life, at least for a while.

I dragged out my sewing supplies, setting up my heavy Viking/Husquarna of unknown age on the kitchen table. I bought my current machine, used, for about $200 dollars to replace the one that was dropped when we moved in '95. I always go for metal working parts--that's why I buy the old machines. I have a lot of sewing experience, but it takes a while to get things set up these days. I have to find the power converter so I can plug the machine into my German wall.

Turned inside out and pressed flat, the edge of the comforter cover was ready. I found a familiar spool of off-white Dual Duty poly-cotton thread, the American brand I've known all my life. The spool was close to empty; part of the plastic showed above the wrap of thread. I threaded it in anyway. The machine whirred and pulled, whirred and pulled across the long seam. Six inches from the end, the thread's tail leapt off the spool and wormed through the mechanism of the machine. I watched it, wondering how long it could keep going, wondering if it would last.

The thread ran out one inch before the end of the seam. Odd. I've had this experience before with yarn. My knitting is generally a "make it up as I go" approach, and I mix yarns and colors. More than once, I've reached the very end of a complicated little kid cardigan or multicolored vest and truly had less than a yard of the main color left. There's a good deal of suspense and tension in working that way, but it's a little crazy!

The moment had arrived. The entire length of off-white thread was gone, all 250 yards, I imagine, although the label has long since fallen away. I finished the seam with a bright white thread, which is also nearing its end, as you can see in the photo.

Even the largest spools run out.

How long does a large spool of thread in basic black or white last in a life? Conscripted into countless and varied projects, yard by yard it winds away. It's the kind of commodity that feels as though it would last forever, like a 20-kilo bag of rice. Surprised, we eventually reach the last grains. Rice goes on the shopping list again.

Maybe I can't take credit for all the sewing that used up these spools. I may have filched them from my mother's box. I also have Granny's supply of buttons and threads, dating back into the '40s. Nonetheless, whatever it measures, congratulations to me for the years I've lived and the seams I've sewn. They are adding up.

Wednesday morning, 8:00 am (flash post)

Raspberry sorbet streaks across a moody sky. A slash in the gray glows aquamarine. Beyond the village, day asserts itself after a long December night. Tightly packed buildings block my view, so I walk away from the rising light into the western fields where openness and distance give me sight. I stride down the straight paved path, along fields combed and troughed for next year's potatoes, past soil now grassy with next year's grain. Behind me the sky is molten orange. Ahead of me, clouds wear my faded memory of children's liquid pain reliever, shaken and frothy in a tiny cup: cherry brightening to pink bubblegum then warming to Motrin orange. The clouds furthest from the sun are indeed the reddest. Long waves of warm light arrive first; cool blues and greens balance the palette of day only after the sun moves overhead. Now the cloud that blushed so pink is merely whiter than the grayer ones. As I loop back, the sky over the village is skim milk spilled on Prussian blue, grape Tylenol tracing the shadows.



Further reading:
What Determines Sky's Colors at Sunrise And Sunset?--Science Daily

If you're in the mood for sunset/sunrise photos:
Sunset to sunrise, slide show 7

Sunday, November 30, 2014

How I spent November

I did again! For the second year in a row, I have jumped onto the NaNoWriMo train, and I have typed in my 1,700-ish words per day to reach a goal of 50,000. It's a fun and organized way to keep a deadline, and entering a daily word count into the NaNoWriMo website is a tidy motivator.

Last year I used the month-long process to draft memoir material. That is what I'm used to writing. This year I took a small leap foot-first off the high dive and pushed myself into fiction. I cheated, of course, by giving myself a first-person "actual self" narrator in addition to a third person narrator telling the fictional story. I call it a blend of fiction and memoir. Today, I call it "done" because I have reached a certain goal in word count and I have assembled what feels like most of the parts. I'll be working with my writing groups to get input and move the piece forward. I'm posting an excerpt below. It's first-drafty and skeletal. Response and input from readers are most appreciated!

Screenshot of today's NaNoWriMo status of my novel-writing. I won!

Here's an excerpt. The protagonist, Janice, takes a course in the history of 20th century western art course as a sophomore at the University of Oregon. She selects a painting by Karl Hofer that hangs in the Portland Art Museum as the subject of a two-paper assignment. In this excerpt, her attraction to her professor blends with her study of the painting, which shows a couple lying in bed. It's interesting what happens in your writing when you let it be fiction.

Chapter 4 (or thereabouts)
 Janice made three trips to Portland in all to study and write about Hofer’s painting. The museum’s curatorial team helped her locate valuable literature to incorporate in her analysis. An interview with the registrar offered the most substantive information about the painting’s provenance, although some of the history remained a mystery. 
The first paper was due just before the fall break, so Professor Gault had time to read the papers rather than the students having time to ruin their vacations writing them. Janice was sure his choice was designed to improve the student experience. Some professors believed in giving students a real break. Gault was a man who had eyes and ears open for his students. She found him available, responsive, and easy to be around. In fact, she craved contact with him and searched for excuses to stop by office hours again. 
Once, she studied the posted materials about study abroad opportunities outside his office. She waited there for 45 minutes, hoping just to catch sight of him. 
“Hello, Janice,” said a voice behind her. She pivoted and found Professor Gault standing in the hallway, close enough to smell his cologne. She pivoted so fast she nearly knocked into him. He stepped back quickly and reached out a hand to steady her. 
“Professor Gault! I didn’t hear anyone coming,” Janice said. 
“Are you thinking about a semester abroad?” he asked. 
Janice was sure she had mentioned the idea before, during one of her conversations with him about the Hofer painting, but she guessed he hadn’t remembered. Perhaps he was less attentive than she’d thought. “I’m applying for a semester in Germany, through the exchange with Baden-Wuerttemberg.” 
“I see,” he shifted an armful of books above his hip, patting his pocket for his keys. 
“I was going to ask you after the break, but since we’re talking about it, would you maybe do a recommendation for me?” 
Requests for letters of recommendation stacked themselves invisibly in front of Professor Gault’s eyes. He could barely see over the pile. “Sure. Yeah. Just bring all the pages and envelopes and postage required so I can get it done." 
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. OK, then, see you.” 
Later that afternoon, Janice sat herself down under a tree on the bump of a hill outside the Humanities parking structure. The grass was damp. Yellow and brown leaves played around in the wind over the grass. October was yielding to early signs of winter. She sat on top of her backpack to keep herself off the wet grass and nestled into her jacket, putting up her hood to stay warm. 
At 5:40, the door of the humanities building closest to the parking structure swung open and shut with a metallic bang. Gault strode toward the structure, glancing at a wristwatch. Janice sat in the near dark, no longer able to read. She hunched behind her knees and saw Gault enter the structure by a side door. Three minutes later, a brown Audi sedan pulled out of the garage. She looked inside to see if it was Gault. Then a red Subaru Forrester. That was Gault. She didn’t notice the license, just the schoolhouse red color. For weeks, she startled every time she saw a red Subaru. She would make herself as available as she could, especially if she sighted the car randomly in town. Maybe he would think he had happened upon her. Maybe seeing her off campus would make him notice her in a different way. Maybe he would think it was his own idea, picking her out of a crowd. 
As Janice wrote the first paper, the description of her chosen artwork, she tried to avoid phrasing about the couple in the bed that would seem too suggestive. The hidden location of the man’s penis, at the exact middle of the canvas, went beyond anything she was willing to commit to paper. But she thought of it. She pictured it. Was it an intentional bit of indirection on the part of the painter, to highlight exactly that which is covered from view? The same was true for the back side of the woman and her shapely hip line. Janice couldn’t see her buttocks, but she could imagine their suppleness and rounding. The unseen spot between the man and the woman was filled with moonlight, and that’s what she talked about in her paper, hinting only at the implication of the distance between their bodies: was it suggestive of intimate contact or the opposite of that, suggestive of uncrossable distance? 
She wrote about the colors and how she felt them—relaxing, pulsing, dull, serene, harmonious. The painting did not frighten her, but she wondered if it should make her uneasy. Often she felt she could curl up next to both of them and be as calmly asleep as the woman. More often than she admitted, she projected herself into the painting, lying there next to an undressed Professor Gault. Is that what it would feel like? she wondered. Janice’s brushes with boys in high school had been so superficial. In college she looked around finding no one who captured her interest or who seemed interested in her. Professor Gault—and the painting—became receptors of her held-in fantasies of male companionship. She had eyes on every side of her head when she walked around campus, looking for Gault. She undressed him in her mind. She thought of him when she lay in bed. She touched herself in ways she had never tried before and brought herself to orgasm, quietly to keep Jen from hearing through the wall. She felt like her imagined picture of a cat in heat. If only he would notice and make an approach. 
She left her paper in a box in the office. The secretary said Professor Gault was not expected on campus that day. Janice had hoped she could hand it to him in person.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A peculiar library

I returned last week to a library I had used once or twice in the early-mid 1990s as a resident of Karlsruhe: the Badische Landesbibliothek. It's the state library of Baden, the western half of Baden-Württemberg (I posted in May about another trip to Karlsruhe). I am researching a German painter, Karl Hofer, who was born and raised in Karlsruhe. My internet search on his name yielded 38 titles in the library's holdings. (I'm working on a novel for NaNoWriMo this month: 25,146 words as of today, headed for 50,000 by November 30th. The painter is involved.)

I asked the young woman at the information desk about the logistics of locating books. She said books newer than 1990 would be physically present. Older books are in off-site storage and must be requested by 4:00pm on the previous day for a user to collect the following day. Still others are in rare-book archives only accessible with a library card.

A few titles on my list were published after 1990, and she invited me to go into the stacks to have a look, no library card required. Remembering that this library had a peculiar cataloguing system, I asked, "Aren't the books here shelved in an unusual way--by acquisition date or something?" She confirmed. Just follow the schematic on each floor to locate the shelf that corresponds with the book's call number in the online catalogue. (Hint: do not expect obvious logic in the layout.)

Shelf A: An out of focus photo gives an idea of the vertigo you can feel
Development of Achievement Motivation * The Modern Short Story
Teaching in Japan * Evil in Modern Thought * America's God 
The Blood and the Shroud * Holy Rollers
Behavioral and Mental Health Drugs * I.V. Drugs 
Nurse's Drug Handbook 2003

Oh, dear. I remember now. In the 1990s, mildly culture-shocked and moderately depressed, I explored this library. Perhaps I wanted a book on textile art. Or something on language. Accustomed to the convenience and inspiration of browsing by topic in systems like Dewey decimal, I was dismayed to find random strings of titles on every shelf I passed. A book on bicycle repair sat right next to my textile book, and suddenly I had a wave of guilt about not taking better care of my bike. A book on teaching English next to a book about the Reagan presidency. The books and their languages were as mixed as individuals on a bus. One by one, as acquired, and seemingly with no other thought than perhaps about the height of the books, they got their numbers and their slots on the shelves.

Exhibit B: (mostly) English books (titles run down the spine from the top)

It's like the Sorted Books project by Nina Katchadourian, only so much less appealing. If you've never seen her book spine texts, take a look.

Exhibit C: German books (the title marches up the spine)
This shelf shows books published in German. Even the travel guide "New York" is a German publication, as evidenced by the type running up the spine from the bottom to the top. Amusingly, right next to it is "Das heimatlose ich" (The I without a home).

Why do German titles tend to run in this direction? To me it makes no sense: the "Anglo" way keeps the title right side up when the book is flat on a table, cover side up. There is even an ISO norm that specifies the "Anglo" way (ISO 6357). Yet publishers here seem to prefer the other, for design reasons or maybe old habit. I attempt to understand this notion, looking at these shelves. Perhaps there's a preference for grounding the titles along the sharp line of the shelf instead of letting them hang like so many awkward icicles from above.

Exhibit D: For a German library, there are a lot of English titles


Moderne Medizin - Chance und Bedrohung * Kopfüber am Himmel * Living Silence
The Death Penalty * Oxygen - The Molecule that made the world
Sicily Before History * Culture & Pedagogy
From Gutenberg to the Global Information Structure * Becoming Mona Lisa
Transitions in American Education * Castles in Medieval Society * By the Sword

An incredibly strange way to experience books. Hang on to your sense of reality.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

La Bohème--bringing death to life

Original La bohème poster, 1896
(courtesy of wikipedia)
If you've ever seen Puccini's opera La Bohème (1896), you know it's a compact story with lively characters and music. Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, share a miserable garret in Paris. They live on nothing, burning manuscripts to stay warm. Shaunard arrives with cash, along with Colline, and the four friends head to a café. Rodolfo is the last to leave and finds Mimì at the door, asking him to relight her candle. It's love at first sight and a catchy aria for each ("Que gelida manina" for the tenor and "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" for the soprano). Together, they go to join his friends.

In Act II, the stage is filled with Christmas cheer. Marcello's former girlfriend, Musetta, arrives with a wealthy older suitor. Her brassy manner (aria "Quando m'en vo") and fight-picking with Marcello contrasts with the talk of kisses like honey between the new lovebirds. By act's end, Musetta returns to Marcello.

Act III finds Mimì looking for Rodolfo at a seedy tavern, where he's joined Marcello and Musetta after running away from Mimì. She is ill, a fact touched on lightly in the first two acts. Like most 19th century opera heroines, Mimì suffers from consumption. Claiming she is unfaithful, Rodolfo has subverted his fear of her illness into a jealous rage. The two speak outside the tavern and agree to part "senza rancor" (without bitterness).

Act IV, back in the garret, Rodolfo and Marcello are singles again. Shaunard and Colline come in with a meal. They are interrupted by Musetta, who has brought a terribly weakened Mimì. The others go off on errands to leave Mimì and Rodolfo alone. They reminisce about their first meeting, delighting the audience as melodies from Act I are reprised. The others return, each selling prized belongings for resources to care for Mimì. Only Rodolfo doesn't grasp what's happening. While he looks away, Mimì breathes her last. The audience is the first to know. Then friends standing nearby. Last of all, Rodolfo sees as a devastating funeral chord lashes up from the orchestra. His anguished cry of her name ends the opera.

In my opera-going experience, the final moments of La Bohème outweigh anything else. It's a death scene, choreographed as a chain of realization among the participants, audience included. In 1987, I saw La Bohème at the Volksoper in Vienna. The director was Hari Kupfer, an East German known for edginess and realism. The last moments of his Bohème remain with me still. I remember Mimì in a simple, pale-colored mid-calf dress. She's been seated downstage left on a straight-back chair, nothing more comfortable. The others busy themselves anxiously to help her, while Rodolfo looks away. Mimì's left arm drops from her lap and hangs beside the chair (the audience knows). A little time passes as the others help Rodolfo see. He speaks: "What are you saying?" His comprehension comes as the terrible chord blasts. At the same moment, the piece of stage on which Mimì sits is yanked sideways off the stage. Her body falls from the chair as the corner goes black. Rodolfo cries out her name. I sat in my balcony seat, feeling as though I'd been punched, and wept. (That was the moment I became a fan of Hari Kupfer, whom I got to experience in person a year later when he directed Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth.)

Markus, Miriam, and I saw La Bohème last Sunday in Stuttgart (October 26th matinee). Miriam is never eager, but she agreed to come along. Bohème is a good opera for the less initiated. It's short, the music flows pleasingly, the story's easy to follow, and nobody can escape the power of the last scene. The Stuttgart production, directed by Andrea Moses with music direction by Simon Hewett, takes La Bohème into the digital age. The artists work with video, and a bank of motley monitors shows images upstage left, sometimes live and sometimes not. Rodolfo and Mimì sing their arias to each other karaoke-style, while Rodolfo adjusts a mixer board. It works. See the photo gallery for a good idea of the show.

How did this production handle the final scene? The location shifted to an art gallery, stark white, with Marcello and Rodolfo mounting an exhibit. A large white screen in the middle of the stage had the words La Vie Bohème in reverse to welcome a public entering from deep upstage. There was a sofa and the ever-present video camera. All Rodolfo had to cover Mimì with as she lay on the sofa was a large sheet of plastic. As the two of them began to reminisce, they took turns filming each other, with the image beamed onto the large screen center stage. A still photo captured Mimì, smiling a warm smile. (Yes, I thought, that's what it's like, trying to capture the essence of a loved one. Moving.) As the scene develops, additional people fill in the back of the stage. Smartly dressed, they are art lovers at a gallery. Mimì's head drops back, eyes closed and lifeless. Instantly a close-up of her face appears on the big screen, this time black and white. While Rodolfo is coming to his senses, the gallery visitors begin to applaud for the artwork, a completely inappropriate gesture and one they stop immediately. Red dots appear on objects in the exhibition (Colline's coat, the image of Mimì), marking what's been sold. Rodolfo realizes finally, the chord bursts, the art-lovers seem thrilled, the opera ends.

I asked Markus if he felt implicated, as I had, by the art-goers. Here we were, seated in an audience, watching art about a person dying. He said, no, he'd felt a bit annoyed by them but that we were doing something else--watching staged art, whereas they were staged as watching a "real" scene. Complicated, eh? In my case, I felt nailed to the wall in my voyeurism and far too dismayed to be able to clap during the first minutes of the ovation myself. The video element added to the pathos of this production, and I applaud all involved for bringing it to life.

Where did my self-consciousness about watching the death scene come from? I believe that's an intended effect of this interpretation. But it was also the day before Objects of My Attention came out. I have written a death scene myself. I have questions about intimacy. What does an audience want? What am I willing to share? Does it betray or trivialize? I believe my choice to share intimate personal stories ultimately comes from the same impulse that sends me to the opera to be moved. All artifice aside, sharing the stories is how we make them real.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Published!

Photo: Markus Vodosek
Today is the day: I am a published author!  Objects of My Attention has been published in the 83rd issue of Quarterly West.

My essay was selected earlier this year as winner of the 2014 Writers at Work Fellowship in literary nonfiction. I'm joined on the "page" of Quarterly West by fiction winner Mil Norman-Risch and poetry winner Molly Spencer. Other contributions of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, new media/visual art, and reviews appear in Issue 83, selected by the editorial staff through their submission process.

Quarterly West (associated with the University of Utah Department of English) has gone completely online. When you visit the QW site, you will find my piece in a hip digital layout. The piece itself is conventionally formatted, but the site around it is visually complex (especially in the version that appears on mobile devices). If that's a bit too much for you, especially in contrast to my subject, you might want to print it out to read (your browser should print without the background).

I am grateful to Robin Hemley for selecting my piece as this year's fellowship winner and to Writers at Work for the time-consuming task of running a competition each year. I'm grateful to Quarterly West for publishing the winning texts. So many people engaged with me as I developed this piece. Nicole Walker, Christopher Merrill, Melanie Rae Thon, Matt Kirkpatrick offered sage teacherly guidance. Many have read and commented: Writers in Stuttgart (especially Cindy, Amy, and Jadi), workshop-mates and classmates, the Craigs (David, Julie, Ann, and Norm), Jim Martin, Anne Adams, audiences at readings in Bad Wimpfen, Oberlin, Alta, and Salt Lake City, and Markus, who lived through these times with me. Steve Woodward (Graywolf) and Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Tin House) offered spot-on editing advice to make the piece sharper and lither. Miriam, my daughter, expects more of my writing than anyone, and she will continue to drive me until there is a book you can hold in your hands. Simon, whose beauty and struggle have given life to my writing, will always have my loving attention.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

I finally put the flowers in the compost

A tall vase of chrysanthemums--bright green button mums among fringier-petaled gold, yellow, burgundy, and lavender mums--stood in my living room since the day before my parents left in September. Chrysanthemums remind my family of the October day when Markus and I got married (October 31, 1992). We decorated church, reception, and wedding cake with many colored mums. For a glance back, see the November 3, 2002 entry on Simon's Place. Be sure to click on the wedding photo to open a photo gallery that shows the mum-inspired color scheme in my wedding dress. In 2002, we celebrated ten years. This year we are approaching 22.

I remember the last day of my parents' trip, a Thursday, as a busy one. In the morning, I drove with my mother into Heilbronn, where she purchased a waffle iron as a gift for Miriam's birthday. Along the way, we saw a gorgeous outdoor flower display, and she bought the mums as a gift for us. I arranged them in a vase, remembering the dozens of chrysanthemums I bought back in 1992 to study for color while designing my dress. I even carried them into department stores and held their petals next to bolts of colorful raw silk.

After lunch at our place in Flein, we piled in the car to meet up with Markus' parents in Stuttgart. Then we drove south to the University of Hohenheim for a tour around the Botanical Garden. It was a rainy tour, but we held our umbrellas and kept walking until we reached the end of the garden with Simon's tree. Markus' parents had sponsored the tree in Simon's memory soon after his death. Ten years later, the zelkova serrata (Japanese elm) has suffered some setbacks and lost branches to extreme winter cold. Nonetheless, we found it and looked under the foliage long enough to uncover the sign. It's a spunky little tree. Here's a map of the garden and some photos of our visit.

Botanical Garden in Hohenheim. The purple pin (bottom left) indicates the approximate location of Simon's tree.
To find Simon's tree, you walk south from the Schloß (red pin above). Eventually you pass the lavender labyrinth and continue to an open meadow descending a hillside. At the bottom is a gathering of trees. Simon's is the small one in the middle (below) with touches of orange color.

Simon's tree viewed from the meadow.
Simon's tree
The botanical marker
Four who slogged through the wet meadow to the tree:
Ann Craig, Irmgard Vodosek, Mary Craig
(and Markus Vodosek behind the camera)
Miriam with all four grandparents
Our busy day ended with dinner out at Bella Vista, a restaurant on the top level of a luxury high rise. The view was indeed incredible, even under cloudy skies. A fitting last day for my parents' 12-day trip. The next morning I took them to the airport. Their flight was on September 12th.

And so my brain ticked through things as I snipped the flower stalks today to fit them into the kitchen compost. Just how long had those chrysanthemums lasted? I back-dated from my parents' departure date. The day before, when my mom bought the flowers, was September 11th.

September 11th. How odd. I don't remember thinking this year about the anniversary of 9/11. Not the day of. It was the kind of busy day when I don't listen to the radio, don't glance at a paper, where surely even in Germany the date would have been mentioned. But for me the day passed by.

I guess those flowers lasted about three weeks. I guess one day you notice you haven't thought about an anniversary you'd thought would never lose its power. I guess you can get that busy with your own life.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Deadheading 2 (flash post)

While snipping faded aster blooms, I peered under the foliage. There, in the corner of the planter, lay a shell. A snail, I thought, has crawled its way up here to chew my pretty flowers. Away with you! I grabbed the shell and tossed it toward the outer reaches of the lawn. It bounced once and fell still. The cat glanced alertly at the motion, then lazily looked elsewhere. I continued nipping browned flower heads, hoping tiny round buds still hiding in the leaves will mature and keep my terrace bright with color.

Asters, 2014
The snail shell nudged at my guilty conscience. I had thrown it pretty hard, a punishment for its intrusion. Snails with shells are actually a rare sight in my garden. Usually we see the orange-brown, thick-bodied slugs that ooze along the grass and perilously cross streets and sidewalks. Now and then I find one in the basement, desiccated to a narrow strip of blackish brown.

Wait! Could that be the same snail? The one that inspired my iambic pentameter two weeks back? The planter, after all, is about a meter away from the spot where I saw a snail in the rain. Curious and remorseful, I walked across the yard to the place I imagined the snail had landed. Soon enough, I found it among the wild strawberries and grass. Brown-beige shell, similar to the one I described in my poetry lines. An eerily pale body, the color of puss, exactly as I recalled it. Smudged in dark dirt from the planter. The muscly body made a slight motion, but no head with antennae peered out. Perhaps the creature will survive its sudden flight and rough landing. Perhaps I want to be less careless with the characters that share my garden and offer lyric inspiration.

Snail in the grass.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ten lines of iambic pentameter or Shakespeare in the morning

In June I heard a writing prompt from poet Ellen Bass: start the day with ten lines of iambic pentameter. You know, the meter of Shakespeare's sonnets (fourteen-line poems following a rhyme scheme and ending with a rhyming couplet) and most of the lines in his plays (blank verse generally without rhyme).
da-Da da-Da da-Da da-Da da-Da
da-Da da-Da da-Da da-Da da-Da
English doesn't always divide neatly into pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables, however. A famous example might be
To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUESTion
WHEther 'tis NOBler IN the MIND to SUFfer
The SLINGS and ARrows OF outRAGeous FORTune
Or to TAKE ARMS aGAINST a SEA of TROUBles,
And BY opPOSing END them? To DIE, to SLEEP—

The first four lines of Hamlet's soliloquy end with unaccented syllables that exceed the official iamb pattern (short long). Only in line five, on the word "sleep," does metric clarity briefly emerge. I see a trochee (long short) in "WHEther," reversing the stress pattern, and an anapest (short short long) in "Or to TAKE ARMS," giving the passage additional variance that is common to the form. Wikipedia has helpful entries on metrical feet and prosody. I'm somewhere near the beginning of my understanding.

Looking at Shakespeare's sonnets, I'm sometimes unsure where the five stressed beats fall. The same thing happens when I write in iambic pentameter, a task that may be more difficult in modern English than in Shakespeare's time. For example, he makes use of a spoken difference between "rhym'd" and "rhymed" and of truncated words like "wher'er" to tailor the text.

Here are some sonnets that caught my eye today. The final example (CXXIX) was my favorite back in high school English class.

                         XCVIII.
From you I have been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dress'd in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
     Yet seem'd it winter still, and you, away,
     As with your shadow I with these did play:
                           XCIX.
The forward violet thus did I chide;--
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells,
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stolen of both.
And to his fobbery had annexe'd thy breath;
But for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
     More flowers I noted, yet I none could see,
     But sweet of colour it had stolen from thee.

                          CXVI.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error, and upon me prov'd,
     I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

                         CXXIX.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner, but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof,--and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream;
     All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. 

And what's a prose writer like me to do with this prompt to write in iambic pentameter? In July I shared one "10-lines" exercise that became a pumpkin sonnet. Any good exercise gets writing and observing and thinking motors to move--a lot like practicing an instrument or looking at paintings. Perhaps "10-lines" is an hour of yoga. Summer vacation turned out to be a low writing time for me--with my focus more on family time, travel and visitors. I got some translation work done and read a bit, but my writing gears cranked minimally.  Yesterday, taking a break from the lesson plan I need to write, I pulled the exercise out again, scooted my chair over to the window, put my journal in my lap, and forged lines. Nothing came easily, but I urged myself line-by-line to come up with ten lines. It worked. I wrote eleven lines. Technically I was writing from memory, but looking out the window at the deck helped me recreate a brief sighting from the day before. The rhyming "happened," and I didn't like it better when I pushed for more rhymes, so I left the text the way it emerged. As ever, I marvel at the possibility in words. Poetry demands awareness on about a million levels. I'm thrilled when I can get a few levels going.

A stately swirl of beige with mauve and brown
adorns a shining carriage, light and round
as a ping-pong ball that’s poised an inch above
the rain-filled rills, appearing not to move
out there across the soggy wooden plank.
Sunlessly pale a narrow tail lies still.
What sign, then, of motion, purpose, life?
Slug-snail, are you crossing such a vast
expanse to reach my garden, munch my plants?
Two rubbery antenna pairs turn right
turn left, turn right, point straight: the creature’s pace.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

10,000 page visits! (flash post)

To all my readers, I want to say thanks for visiting and reading my blog! You've come over often enough to push the all-time pageview count to 10,026 this evening. It's rewarding for me to pull thoughts and experience together into a post using words and photos. And it's particularly rewarding to know that people in a number of countries are reading.

To give you an idea of the readership, here's a screenshot of my blog statistics page. This table shows the top ten countries in pageviews since I started the blog in the fall of 2010. The figures for the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, and Canada correspond to places where I know I have regular readers. The others on this top ten list may or may not represent actual readers (they could be web-crawling robots, for example). I know I have readers in Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Singapore and other countries beyond this list. As always, I'd love to hear from readers who have found me from other countries, too. Drop me a comment on the blog or send an email to chapterthis@umich.edu.



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Coming up on 10,000 visits (flash post)

Since I began the blog Chapter This, the blogspot tracking feature (a google service) has measured more than 9,800 page visits. That means if you come and read the latest entry and then look at a slide show or visit older posts, each one of those is counted as a page visit. In the last month, traffic was 1,100 page visits, which includes the post Anniversary approaching, the most popular post to date. At this rate, 10,000 visits is not too far away. For me and my four-year-old blog, that's a solid number.

What do I know about the readers of Chapter This? I have four email subscribers (see the left side bar to sign up--this is a painless way to receive an email that includes all texts and images of new posts). Another bunch of people seem to head to my blog when I announce a new post on facebook. Otherwise, I know only that most readers are in the USA, followed by Germany. After that, Russia in the lead. Are you a reader in Russia? I'm curious to know. I think my Russian readership is actually robots and search engines that slip under the google radar. Perhaps the same is true for other countries (Ukraine, Poland, China, Turkey?), or perhaps I have reached readers I don't know about.

In any case, if you are a real peson reading my words and enjoying my photos, I'm glad you are there! I will continue to observe, sense and feel the world around me, and I will write my impressions here. I love hearing from readers. I understand the comment feature is not terribly user-friendly. To avoid spam, I moderate the comments and post them as soon as I see them. You can also reach me via email at <chapterthis.umich.edu>.

Come on 10,000! Have you missed some posts? Use the left side bar to find the full history, the most popular posts, and labels that take you to varous topics (e.g., "poetry" and "grief"). I update Slide Shows, Language and Such, and Currently Reading sporadically--see the left side bar for the newest dates.

Thank you for reading!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Trailing the Berlin Wall

On Tuesday, August 12th, I visited the Berliner Mauer Gedenkstätte, a memorial to the Berlin Wall that runs about 6 blocks (1.4 km) along Bernauer Strasse in the strip once occupied by the fortified barrier between East and West Berlin. I was in Berlin again, along with Markus and Miriam, visiting my sister-in-law and her husband. Berlin: so much culture to see, so many places to shop, so many movies playing in English! It's hard to pick what to do with your three days in the city.

We'd planned a bike trip on Sunday, taking a train out to Chorin, where we rented bikes and pedaled up and down the country hills. Organic farms line the roads (Demeter). There's a cloister ruin (active as a concert site, but roofless) and lots of lakes. We had a lovely ride and capped it with an hour bathing in a lake tucked beyond a no-car road. We always feel lucky to travel with Christina and Peter, who have decades of exploration to share.

For those who know Berlin and the former East Germany, you will know that the city and its environs bear the legacy of Germany's division. When you're out in the country, as we were, you know you're in the former East. In this case, scantily populated areas are a clue, as are brightly renovated buildings, like the train station in Chorin. But the main clue is the knowledge that West Berlin was a small island that bordered East Berlin and was surrounded on all sides by the German Democratic Republic (DDR). If you leave Berlin by land or water today, you are soon in the former East by default.

Nearly 25 years since reunification, you don't necessarily notice where you are at any given time, east-west-wise. That is, buildings and space have become quite blended. I feel anachronistic when I wonder if I'm currently in the old East or the old West. The good news is it no longer matters. Throughout the city, the Berlin Wall is marked by a double line of square pavers. The line is visible at the foot of the Bernauer Straße U-Bahn station, famously made obselete by the sudden border closing in 1961. This station marks the northeast end of the memorial.


You can also see the path of the wall in the photo of me, standing just on the former West side of the line marking the wall. Alexanderplatz and its TV tower, a pride of  East Germany, was visible to someone looking over the 3.6-meter wall from West Berlin.

Bernauer Straße, northwest end of the Berlin Wall Memorial

The Berlin Wall Memorial fills the space that once was the Todesstreifen (death strip) with grassy lawns and exhibition elements in rust-brown metal. (We chose the same material for the monument to our son--see slide show 4). Adjacent buildings display large-scale graphics. Here, a famous photograph of a fleeing East German police officer, who jumped the barbed wire laid around the non-Russian sectors when the border was closed on August 13, 1961.

Iconic photo of escaping police officer.

You can listen throughout the memorial to recordings of historical speeches by functionaries and eye-witness stories. The former wall is marked by vertical rods, placed somewhat at random and providing a see-through delineation. Here the rods meet a large cube shape. And here is where the particular story of Bernauer Straße becomes clear. 

Memorial to the former apartment buildings on Bernauer Straße.

Berlin was divided up after World War II into four zones: Russian, French, British, and American, just as all of Germany had been divided this way. The divisions must have been bureaucratically drawn and made no real sense. Before the erection of the wall, people's lives involved passing through the four sectors. Suddenly, passage was forbidden. The border ran down Bernauer Straße such that buildings were in East Germany and the sidewalk to the street was in the West. At first people fled, some by jumping out windows into fireman's parachutes in the West below. The authorities began to brick in the West-side windows. Residents were resettled. Ultimately, the buildings were demolished and replaced by wall. Imagine suddenly not being allowed to go out your front door, or anywhere on that side, anymore. Recessed metal lines mark the former layout of the homes located on (and sometimes bisected by) the border.

The former Bernauer Straße 7.

Once the buildings stopped serving as an escape route, the land beneath them was dug to create escape tunnels. These are marked in the memorial with a zebra-stripe line. In the above photo, you can see a boy running along one of the tunnel lines.

Escape tunnel.

Along the memorial, daily life occurs in normal rhythms out on Bernauer Straße.

Ambulance passing.

At the midway point, there is a monument reconstructing the actual wall and the no man's land with all its fortifications. Full scale. On the old West side, you can mount a four-storey viewing tower to see down into the site. Also in the middle of the memorial is the outline of the Church of Reconciliation, a church that stood for decades in the no man's land, beyond the wall, locked away from its parishioners in the West. It was demolished in the 1980s. A new Chapel of Reconciliation, an eco-award-winning building of adobe, now stands on the site. Both of these elements escaped my photographic activities, but you can follow links to see them.

The far end of the memorial is the site of the Documentation Center, where you can view films and visit a gift shop. Walking toward it, you reach another sobering aspect of the wall and the destruction it caused. This end is a cemetery, and significant portions were flattened to make way for the wall. The following photos show the grassy expanse with children playing and people relaxing on the lawn, a stone element inside the current cemetery, and a monument marking the graves that were destroyed.

The former cemetery end of the memorial.

The memorial borders the cemetery here.

Monument to destroyed graves.

On previous visits to Berlin, these rusted rods have caught my attention as I passed by on the street car. At last we've spent a slow day absorbing the space, the beauty, and the somber, perplexing history.

The old wall. The new memorial. Reminder.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dragonfly visitation


Last fall, I admired this butterfly in a garden in the front of the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden Baden. Markus and I had gone with my parents, who were visiting, to see a retrospective of paintings by Emil Nolde. The exhibit included gardens inspired by paintings in the exhibition. That's a nice concept, in case you're in the museum business and can put the idea to use.


As I sat, a creature came flying through the air. It was an enormous, vibrantly green dragonfly. Hello! I said, as I always do. They are such graceful and playful characters, zipping this way and that, their long bodies stretching back from busy wings. The photo above looks like sidewalk and grass until you see the intersecting lines of a dragonfly in head-on flight. I took exactly two photos at considerable distance with an iPad, and here they are.


This evening, I saw a line of motion in the yard with a cat running in lively pursuit. A dragonfly! I'd never seen one in our backyard in Flein before. Yesterday on a hike we saw shimmery blue damselflies above water lilies on a woodland lake. Back when we lived in Salt Lake City, dusk would bring a swarm of the black and white striped dragonflies I call zebraflies. They clustered over our front lawn as if they were holding a convention (we think it was because we never treated our lawn with chemicals and because of the desert flowers in the curb strip, but secretly I always hoped they came because Simon sent them). The dragonfly I saw this evening was large, like the green one in Baden Baden. It flew in circles around the sculpture in our backyard. That gets my attention, because the sculpture is a companion to the one on Simons's grave in Salt Lake City (see slide show 4). 


The cat in the photo above (from a while ago) is Sam. He's the nearly identical brother to our other cat, Simon. Yes, we have a cat named Simon. And a deceased son named Simon. But it's more normal than it sounds. The cats came with their names (and probably caught our attention that way). Simon-the-Boy knew Simon-the-Cat. There has never been any danger of mixing them up.

Simon-the-Cat looked five years younger than his current eleven as he followed the dragonfly this afternoon. Then suddenly he was aloft, his long body stretching four or five feet off the ground. The dragonfly slipped away from his reaching claw, flew higher, and disappeared over the trees.

The tenth anniversary of Simon's death has given impulse for deep reflection. The Anniversary approaching post with all its links remains available for reading any time, but I'm removing the link to the video with the slide show of Simon's life. If you missed your chance to view it, drop me a note, and I'll figure something out. chapterthis@umich.edu