Monday, July 26, 2010

Coming Out - A review

Ever notice how so many of the wonderful adjectives in the English language having to do with bad style and ugly aesthetics are Germanic words? Words that sound German, even if they’re not? Words that function almost as onomatopoeia - like clunky, for example. Or klutzy. Nerd. Geek. OK, so German culture can boast of philosophers and composers capable of exquisite subtlety. In the world of popular culture, at least in the eyes of the English-speaking world, where others have chaos, the Germans manage a stodgy orderliness. India has the Taj Mahal. Germany has Bauhaus. Italy makes the Ferrari, Germany the VW bug.

Until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the German Democratic Republic took this German trait and made it almost into a religion. If soul killing were a sport, East Germany would have won year after year in the Olympics.

At Number 1 Karl-Liebknechtstrasse in the now united Berlin is a museum of DDR (German for GDR) artifacts. Just inside the door is a Trabant, usually called by its affectionate name, Trabi. The Trabi was the pride and joy of the East Germans. A total clunker of a car produced by the socialist state, it smoked and crapped out and people waited fifteen years to get one. The clunkiness was not just in the car, in other words; it was in the ability to manufacture and distribute enough to meet the demand. To many, the Trabi is a perfect symbol of all that was wrong with this mess of a country, now fast disappearing into history with few people shedding tears.

But with a few notable exceptions – the fact that it was a ruthless police state that polluted the environment with a vengeance, for example – the GDR was, to Westerners, more a product of the anti-communist imagination than a real place. It was easy to forget that like any nation state, it contained all manner of folk facing all manner of life’s challenges.

I came across a fascinating illustration of that last night in a movie titled, Coming Out. I don’t know how it escaped my radar. Possibly it escaped most people’s radar because it was a movie released in the GDR just as the wall was coming down. Who would possibly be paying attention?

Coming Out – note the clumsy title of this gay coming out movie – is about a twenty-eight year old high school teacher coming to terms with being gay. The plot is both trite and totally engrossing. The characters are real. The acting is superb. The movie is a treasure.

The quality of this film lies in the fact it is layered. On the most superficial level, it is a gay coming out story totally lacking in subtlety. It’s a message movie, hopelessly didactic, works through crude stereotypes with all the stops pulled out as if you could possibly miss the aggressive homophobic context of these people’s lives, and it’s predictable. A film script any amateur could throw together, in other words.

A quick run through the Netflix reviews and you will see how many people stopped here and missed the film’s import as a groundbreaker, an East German analogue to Brokeback Mountain. Never before had homosexuality been put so openly before the general public, and never before such a clear reminder that the same animus that put gays in concentration camps was alive and well in the DDR today.

Twenty years later, the film is remembered as part of “the change.” Matthias Freihof, now twenty years older, has since made a name for himself as an actor, singer and dancer in the new Germany. (So has his love interest in the film Dirk Kummer, who is now a film director.) Many will argue, though, that his most memorable role was his first one in Coming Out. See an interview with Freihof (also, unfortunately, without English subtitles) here.

One should not be expected to like a movie that fails to live up to one’s aesthetic standards. But one can reframe one’s references. The DDR, for all our McCarthy-on-down loathing of communism and for all our legitimate complaints of its failures on the human rights level, was a noble experiment. We can argue till the cows come home over why it flopped. It had as its goal the creation of the perfect society, and we are now, twenty years after the “Wende” (the “change,” i.e., the fall of the wall and reunification), free to look with greater generosity at its virtues and its accomplishments. To a large degree it was decay and corruption within that led to collapse. But to some degree it was simply the evolution of society that made the timing right. The DDR, at least in some ways, outgrew itself and public consciousness overpowered even the police and other instruments of control.

Two scenes illustrate the fact that the old system no longer has the clout it once had. The hero meets his lover while standing in a line for theater tickets. People have been in that line for two days. How they got that past the censors is a mystery. Similarly, there are muggings in the S-Bahn, and the place is identified as Marx-Engels Platz. In all my experience with the DDR, such implied criticism of the perfect state was simply unthinkable. Those two scenes are plot devices, of course. But even more, they signal changes in the social order. Where criticism is permitted, changes are afoot.

But more significant, possibly, are three scenes which do not serve as plot devices. They are the scenes which hit you hardest with their stodginess, stereotyping or lack of subtlety. But the way to make sense of them, I would argue, is to see them as tableaux, framed not by the plot but as individual separate pieces. The first of these is the gay bar where the hero first finds himself still pretending to have dropped in for no other reason than to buy cigarettes. The scene is almost totally unreal. Something from the Weimar Republic era, a set that belongs in Cabaret, where the music is Kurt Weill, the singer is Lotte Lenya, and homosexuality is reduced to smoke, prostitution and pure cynicism. The only “normal” non-costumed people are our hero and the old man who becomes the voice of the gay community. The picture works where words are inadequate in setting the innocent against the alien heterosexual world outside and the alienated world within. That scene (unfortunately without English subtitles) is available on YouTube: And a quick aside – some of you may spot Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the famous/notorious heroine of “I am My Own Wife” as the grand lady behind the bar.

The second tableau is the scene where the old man tells his story of love gained and lost, of his pink triangle years in Sachsenhausen concentration camp followed by what looked like a way to happiness. He joins the Communist Party and works to build a new society. A society, it turns out, which got rid of racism, fascism, class distinctions and sexism, but has left homophobia untouched. In the end, this new society has not worked for him.

The final tableau is the closing scene where the hero is confronted by the authorities. His school principle enters his classroom with a committee to judge his performance. It appears that after losing out in love he is about to lose his livelihood as well. This is his chance to repent, to straighten up.

Instead, he stares out the window until his silence becomes unbearable and the principle speaks up and insists he say something.

“Yes,” he says.

Nothing more. Just the apparent non sequitur “yes.”

If you are a viewer looking for a gay love story with a happy ending, this ending will almost certainly drive you around the bend.

But if you see this as a story of a citizen of the socialist republic that was the GDR brought to the point of destruction by the pressure to meet other people’s impossible expectations – his mother tells him his homosexuality is the source of all her unhappiness, the bullies routinely savage gays who fail to hide their sexuality, his school is about to fire him for his inability to be normal – you see the story of a survivor. Like the country he belongs to, he is still battling severe growing pains.

After all he has been through, you might worry about the outcome.

But only if you miss the film's last line.

“Yes,” he says. "Yes."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My own personal global warming lesson

Living here in the Bay Area, talking about the weather is almost as dumb as talking about putting air in your tires. It’s an OK way to start a conversation with a total stranger when you actually want zero content, but otherwise why would you waste your time?

I just got back from a month in Berlin. Much of my time there was spent talking about and trying to escape from the weather. Day after day after day of temperatures in the high 90s at a time when I was especially keen on getting out and about and doing things. Maybe that's why I need to get this off my chest, this feeling I’ve been chosen by the gods to take on the topic of global warming.

I had two problems in Berlin. One, because I was walking a lot more than usual, my feet failed me. The other was that it was simply too damned hot to do anything that required being outside. Like going from A to B, for example. One day, when I was in the mood to just wander, I got on a bus that was so hot I had to get off again. Ever done that? Made getting off the bus a higher priority than getting to your destination?

I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year, and experienced temperatures up to 55 degrees centigrade, or 125 Fahrenheit. I like to tell about the time I got into a swimming pool and had to get out again because I was feeling faint. Turns out the water felt cool only because the air temperature was more than ten degrees hotter. I was actually swimming in water over 100 degrees. I concluded that Saudi Arabia was not a place to live and celebrated the fact that I have always lived either with four seasons, as in New England, Japan or Germany, or in California, a place known for its lack of extremes in temperatures.

Struggling with the weather in Berlin was a new event, and I have come to take it personally. I can’t shake having to get off that bus in Berlin because they don’t have air conditioning. I lived through three winters there, where it seemed as if the sun went down mid-afternoon and didn’t rise again till mid-morning. And not only was it dark; it was bitter cold. All my life I have thought that Berlin was hell in the winter and paradise in the summer. This summer turned all that on end. Slipping and falling on ice is a familiar Berlin winter hazard, but this year there was a summer hazard as well. At one outdoor theater presentation, a member of the audience collapsed and stopped the show, and part of the response was to give everybody in the audience ice cubes to hold and to suck on. Another time I went into a Starbuck’s, ordered a frozen drink and thought I was having a stroke from the reaction – you know those headaches you can give yourself when cold goes into your skull like a knife?

I just read a CNN news article about 1000 Muscovites drowning while trying to get away from the heat, an article I was sharply drawn to because I had just been hit over the head with the same problem in another place you don’t normally associate with heat.

Heatstroke, sunburn, asphalt in the streets melting – all unusual problems for northern countries. I was house sitting for friends, and the normally routine job of watering the plants became a major effort. It was as if the plants were drying up before your eyes.

I started poking around for evidence that the world was beginning to take notice of this personal message to me from the gods, and I came across New York Times writer Andrew Revkin. Maybe you already know this guy. He’s been writing on one global warming issue after another. Check him out, if you’re interested.

One of the delights of Berlin in the summer is that it has these ginormously large sidewalks and all the restaurants simply move out onto them, and the extended hours of sunlight are a signal to have your morning croissants in the sunshine, your afternoon coffee in the sunshine, a couple glasses of wine in the early evening, and laze around till ten or so over dinner – in one of thousands and thousands of sidewalk restaurants. They are shaded in case the sun does get too hot.

But this summer we were very often choosing a table inside because even the shade outside was too uncomfortable. Worse, here I was in Germany and I was ordering water over beer!

I can’t believe the debates go on about whether there is global warming, and if so whether it is caused by human action. Revkin has documented some of these debates.

In Saudi Arabia I had a friend who may have been the only person in the country with winter gloves. He kept them in his car, so that when he got in and found the steering wheel too hot to handle, he at least had a means of driving to a cooler place. Nobody had leather seats, obviously. I thought of those gloves a number of times this summer. Can’t believe it seemed like a good idea in a city at the same latitude as the southern part of Hudson Bay.

I’m home in California now and I’m grooving on the cool. Back to that part of California about which people love to cite that quotation which Mark Twain actually never said, but should have: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

It could well be my run-in with summer in Berlin was not about global warming at all, but about being conditioned by a place which doesn’t follow the normal weather rules.

But I prefer to think this was the summer I got religion. Or at least one message from the gods on the topic of global warming.

So don’t ask me about the weather for a while, even as a topic starter. At least until I get out from under the idea I’m the ancient mariner with an albatross around my neck.

Stay cool.

Hip Hip... ¡Que viva...Hoo-ray !

Just a couple hours ago, at 4 a.m. in Buenos Aires, the Argentine Senate approved same-sex marriage. In Argentina, that means there’s still plenty of time left to dance in the streets before calling it a day. It had passed the House of Deputies previously, and when the Argentine Senate passed the bill with 33 to 27 and three abstentions, since President Kirchner has said she will sign it, it was a go.

Argentina is now the tenth nation to approve of marriage between same-sex partners, the first in Latin America, although Mexico, like the United States, has legalized it in its capital city, and same-sex union rights are recognized in Uruguay and Ecuador and to some degree in Brazil and Colombia, as well. But if you’re gay, and lucky enough to live at the top end of the Western Hemisphere, in Canada, or now, in this country, whose flag I once said was the only one I would consider wearing as an emblem, you have full civil rights and dignity as a gay citizen. There are no lines drawn against you.

May this civil right also come one day to foot-dragging nations like Paraguay and the United States.

¡Que viva Argentina!

Oh, and while we're que hip hipping...

¡Que vivan España y Los Países Bajos! - Spain and the Netherlands, both of whom reached the final battle of the World Cup, and caused many a gay liberation advocate to note in passing that, no matter who wins, it was going to be a country with full civil rights for gay people.

¡Que viva Alemania! - Germany, which has a capital city where I sat down to dinner the night before last out on the sidewalk at Stuttgarter Platz and noticed at the next table was Klaus Wowereit, the Regierender Bürgermeister (Lord Mayor), eating the same linguine al salmone as me. OK, I think that's what he was eating. I know it's what I was eating. And nobody was paying him the slightest bit of attention. Except me, who was wondering if the guy he was eating with was his husband. Could well have been.

Oh, and no nos olvidemos de Irlanda – let’s not forget Ireland - where the Seanad Éireann just passed new civil rights legislation making same-sex unions much more like full-fledged marriage. Seanad Éireann, that’s Irish for “Irish Senate” in the national language. Spoken, as Columnist Medb Ruane pointed out in The Irish Times recently, by fewer Irish citizens than there are gay Irish citizens. But who’s counting, when it comes to identity?

And civil rights.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Are you looking at my wee-wee?

News has just leaked out about the survey the Pentagon is doing, allegedly to see if the straight majority in the military will still kill the enemy in wartime if gays are allowed to serve openly. No kidding. $4,500,000 to ask people whether they think that we might lose a war because people are staring at their naughty parts.

The survey looks innocuous. If you read the whole thing slowly, it looks like just another survey. It’s not. (To get a pdf file of the whole 32 pages of the thing, click on this link.)

When you survey people about a prejudice they may have, and offer them the possibility of acting out on that prejudice as a valid response, you are endorsing that prejudice.

How many years now has this passed in the United States of America as a legitimate question - how would you feel showering next to a gay person? The question implies that if the answer is "uncomfortable," then we should remove the rights of that citizen to come and go freely, so that you will feel better.

How would you feel about sitting on a toilet a Negro had sat on?

Do you know anybody who has been circumcised?

Would you take your spouse to a social event at which Oriental people were present?

If you would, would your mother approve?

What are we going to do with the statistics we get showing a correlation between age or race and prejudice? We already know religious people are more prejudiced against gay people and younger people are less so. We already know that people who know gays are far more likely to articulate a view they should not suffer descrimination. We already know there are thousands of gay people in the military taking showers with thousands of nongay people in the military and that most gay people, like most straight people, like sex to be mutual, and there are pretty good regulations in place to take care of those who don't respect the rights of others. We already know that most modern countries do not give homophobia an honored place by passing laws like Don't Ask/Don't Tell, and do just fine. They don't need to ask each other about whether shower fears should determine civil rights, for chrissakes!

Damn this curse on America! Where does it come from!? What did we do in a previous life to be saddled with this infantile sexuality?

You're uncomfortable showering next to me because I'm 6 foot 6?

Well, I'm uncomfortable showering next to you because you're ugly.

What say we both get clean and go have lunch?

Memory Lanes

Decided today (July 9th) would be the day to make the trip down memory lane. I walked to Charlottenburg S-bahn station, bought a day ticket and took the S-7 for Ahrensfelde, got off at Alexander Platz, walked a mile to the U-2 for Ruhleben, took it one stop to Klosterstraße and walked to the Nikolaiviertel. I went inside the Nikolaikirche, paid five euros for an audio tour, was its only visitor (shame – it’s a lovely place, this, the oldest church in Berlin) and therefore got royal treatment from the five or six staff. Plus interviewed about how I liked the layout, whether I could read the signs all right, whether I was doing anything else cultural while in Berlin. I answered all the questions politely, wanting to break away, because I had miles and miles to go.

I then expected to walk back to the Klosterstraße U-bahn stop, get back on the Ruhleben-bound train for Stadtmitte, where I would transfer to the U-6 bound for Alt-Mariendorf. But I decided, since I was right across the street from the Red City Hall that I might as well walk forward and not back. I walked up to the Ku-damm, caught the M-4 streetcar at Spandauer Straße, and went one stop to Hackescher Markt, where I caught the S-bahn going west to Friedrichstraße, where I got on the U-6 for Alt-Mariendorf and got off at Kaiserin Victoria Straße. That subway stop happens to be only a half block from Frau Neumann’s apartment at Tempelhofer Damm 197, where Ed and Bonnie came to live when Bonnie flew over from Missouri so they could get married in 1964.

To my astonishment, the name Neumann was still on the door. I almost rang the bell, but then got a flash of a possible ugly encounter. Frau Neumann is by now almost a legend. She used to line up the chocolates on the coffee table and show us how, if Hitler had moved his tanks this way instead of that way, he might have taken Stalingrad. She also liked her cognac a tad too much. And her American ice cream. She drove poor Bonnie crazy with her kitchen rules.

The real crisis came when Bonnie found a coin under a couch cushion with Hitler’s face on it. My first thought was how disgusting that the place had not been aired out in eighteen years. Bonnie's saw her fears that Frau Neumann was actually Gestapo confirmed once and for all. It took all our skills to keep Bonnie from packing her suitcase then and there. That wasn’t really Frau Neumann’s fault. But it didn’t help that she had to mention in passing that it wasn’t worth anything anymore.

Since Frau Neumann never spoke of children of her own I decided it’s likely the place is now owned by a grandnephew or some such, and could just imagine his wife coming to the door and taking me for a ghost. Frau Neumann must have been in her late 60s or even 70s back in 1962, so I would not be surprised at a response like, “Oh, my God, that old witch! You have to knock on my door and bring her back to life? What did I ever do to you?”

This is scriptwriting in a dark sector of the brain on a very hot day. I might also have gotten, “You knew Great Aunt Hildegard! Oh, my God!!! Please come in and tell me everything you know.”

But I had made this plan to hit all the memory lanes, and I didn’t linger. I can only hope Ed and Bonnie will ring that doorbell one day and ask what ever happened to the Hitler coin.

I got back on the subway, went two stops back the way I had come, to Tempelhof, where I caught the S-Bahn ring clockwise to Schöneberg. “In Schöneberg, in Schöneberg ist Holzauktion” goes this song in the head from my youth.*   Most people remember it as the place where JFK gave his famous "Ik bin ein Berliner" speech, giving rise to the urban legend that he actually said he was a jelly donut. I then transfered to the S1 bound for Wannsee and got off at Feuerbachstraße.

[* note, September 1, 2015.  Reading this again, more than five years after posting it, I have to laugh.  What I've done is confused two songs of my youth - "Das war in Schöneberg, im Monat Mai..." and "Im Grunewald ist Holzauktion"]   Wonder how many more brain farts I might uncover if I set myself to searching.]

Here I had to get out my map. The S-Bahn was off limits when I lived here in the 60s, so we had to travel all over hell and back to get anywhere by bus and subway. Berlin’s transit system might well be the most efficient in the world, but it was designed to be used with all four systems in conjunction. Without the S-Bahn, you could get everywhere in West Berlin by U-Bahn and bus, but it sometimes took forever.

If you don’t know the background… When Berlin was divided, the S-Bahn (Stadtbahn – city train – think of Chicago’s L) remained under the control of the East. The network was far too complex to be divided up, so it continued to run even in the west as a DDR transit system and some people in the West used it. Most people, though, wanted no part of adding even a few pennies to the coffers of the DDR (tickets were supercheap, because they wanted riders and because the exchange rates were so good), so a pretty effective permanent boycott was in place for the decades before the wall came down. As a member of the American military, I could have gotten in trouble if I had been found using the S-Bahn.

The U(nderground)-Bahn was divided up. The East ran trains on tracks in the east, the West ran trains on tracks in the west, and in the couple instances where a single subway line crossed the border through the eastern zone, DDR passengers were not allowed on, and guards stood at all the train stations with their machine guns to make sure nobody tried jumping on a moving train. It used to be an eerie experience to travel from the southside of West Berlin to the northside, through downtown East Berlin, a kind of cheap thrill the first time you did it (or was for me at age 20), but depressing after that.

Just the other day I learned that employees of the S-Bahn who worked in the West, since they were actually employees of the East, if they got sick, had to be treated on the DDR health care system. Since they were not allowed to actually go to the DDR, the DDR built a hospital in the west, specifically for these people. One of dozens of stories of accommodation not generally known. Like the fact that all sorts of trade in food and other goods went on, despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, the division was complete, and you were jailed or shot for trying to flee the DDR. Potatoes could cross; you couldn't.

From Feuerbachstraße to Tante Frieda’s house at Sachsenwaldstraße 17 was a ten-minute walk. I let myself get lost to see what I remembered of the neighborhood. (Nothing, is the answer to that question.) Was there always an elementary school across the street? I am almost sure there wasn’t. I remember the names of the neighboring streets, but little else. But there was the apartment building. Still there. No longer full of flowers on every balcony, but the person living in her apartment had kept up the tradition. The balcony where she would wave at me with her handkerchief, eyes tearing up and sniffling each time I left for America. She always feared it would be the last time. About twenty times she feared it would be the last time before it actually was the last time, when she died at age 94 in 1988.

I used to go to Germany at Christmas to spend Christmas with her, and she remains the chief reason I think nobody can do Christmas like the Germans can. She had outlived all her friends and family and died alone at 94. I used to wonder where the money would come from for those trips. Now I wonder why I didn’t work nights and Sundays to pay for tickets every year instead of just most years.

I found my way back to the Feuerbachstraße S-Bahnhof and got back on, for just three more stops to Lichterfelde-West, the S-Bahn stop closest to the Andrews Barracks, where I was stationed from 1963 to 1965. Just three stops from Tante Frieda’s house. Couldn’t get over it. All those trips week after week, a good hour at least, with lots of transfers and lots of walking. And we were only three stops apart.

Well, not really. It was a hell of a walk down Baseler Straße to Finckensteinallee and up a block to Kadettenweg, to the entrance of the caserne. Friends took me here about twenty years ago, so I came to realize then then that the barracks was in a very upscale neighborhood in a very upscale suburb. Somehow it all registered as the boonies when I was here in the 60s. We might have been living on the moon, for all the connection we felt with the neighborhood. And it probably was as drab as it is in my memory. It is drab no more, though. It had spruced up when I saw it twenty years ago, and twenty more years have made it into something quite lovely. I think that I’d absolutely love to live here, an idea which I would have taken as proof of insanity if my twenty-five-year-old self could have read the future.

After all that walking, I was seriously concerned I was going to run into trouble. There was no way I could walk that thirty minutes back to Lichterfelde West. Not in that heat. Not with these tired feet. To my astonishment, there is a bus stop directly in front of the Caserne. There’s no reason why a bus stop in modern Berlin in front of a public institution employing hundreds of people should astonish anybody. It reveals how easy it is to think that your memories have a right to determine the present, and not much else. And that’s the last time I’ll refer to it as the Caserne. It is now the Bundesarchiv. No idea what they are archiving there, but unlike twenty-years ago, when it was sealed tight as Fort Knox, today the place is open and you can walk right in.

And I decided not to. I was suddenly taken with the feeling that I had done enough just to get to the gate. Even if they had let me in, many of the buildings, including the one I lived in, have been demolished and I would find it difficult to get my bearings. The main outline of the place is the same, and I decided to call it a day. If anybody is curious, you can google Andrews Barracks and read the history of the place from Prussian Military Academy (hence the name of the street Kadettenweg) to SS Barracks to American base for the spooks, among others, who used to spy on the Russians in the good old cloak and dagger days. Or at least start with the link here. Lots of former GIs have made much more of the place than I want to now.

I took a bus heading to Steglitz City Hall, but at one point I looked out the window and saw that we were at the S-Bahn Station Lichterfelde-Ost and got off the bus. There was a regular train coming that would have taken me into the Hauptbahnhof, where I could have caught the S-bahn home in fifteen minutes. Instead, I assumed (erroneously – why didn’t I ask?) my day ticket wasn’t good for regular trains, and dashed over to the platform where the S-Bahn was just leaving and there was a twenty-minute wait.

Completely by the way here, take a virtual tour sometime if you have a minute of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s Central Station. A stunning piece of futuristic architecture. . Scroll down to the bottom where you will see two “virtual” download possibilities, one regular, at 18 MB, one for the iPod at 12.

So I went back out, got on another bus, which turned out to be heading for Tempelhof – i.e., the opposite direction – so I got off that one and onto another, which happened to have a broken air-conditioning system, which meant the temperature inside had to be over 100 degrees. I couldn’t take it, got off an the next intersection, took another bus going I didn’t care where, figuring sooner or later I’d end up at an S-bahn or U-bahn station.

I ended up riding all the way to Steglitz City Hall, where I caught a subway home. I rode at least an hour longer than I needed to because I was in explore mode, and saw a good piece of the southside of West Berlin - Tempelhof, Lankwitz, Steglitz and Lichterfelde, at any rate. Not that I didn’t know this already, but it staggers the mind to get the scope of this city. And it’s daunting indeed to realize that after all this time, the goal I had in mind when I came here for this extended stay, was to do the same for East Berlin. I can’t imagine now how I’m ever going to get that in. Some year when the temperatures are not in the mid-90s, possibly.

I got home in time to take a shower and walk back to Charlottenburg Station and catch the S-bahn to Hackescher Markt, from where I walked to Monbijou Park to the theater where they were doing this “highly adapted” version of Molière’s Don Juan. Have said this before. Where the French do farce, the Germans do slapstick. It didn’t help we were seated on hard wooden benches with no backs¸ and that one member of the audience collapsed from the heat, stopping the show ten minutes before the end when I thought I had reached my limit of endurance and had to eat NOW or die. Also sit on something soft.

They called for a doctor in the house, put the guy’s feet up, hooked up a fan, passed around buckets of ice cubes throughout the audience, made lots of fun and laughter about it all and extended the damn play till 9 p.m. By the time we got out and found a place to sit on the grass by the Spree with the thousands of other people still celebrating that it’s summertime (a national holiday which runs from the end of May till the beginning of September)¸ got our shish kebab and wine and an inkling that we might not die just yet, my eyes were double x’s and I have no idea whether when people talked to me, I actually was able to respond.

I must have. I remember being delighted by Barbara’s friend Barbara and her partner Elizabeth, once I had some shish kebab in my belly. They left about 10:30. Barbara and I sat and talked for another half hour. I was home in bed by 1.

There. That was my day yesterday.

Today it's fix up a garden hose, and maybe a movie.

Or maybe an organ concert in the Dom.

Nope. I almost forgot. It's the new me. Germany plays Uruguay tonight, and I've got my priorities.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Another maybe not so small step

“Judge topples U.S. rejection of Gay Unions” reads The New York Times this morning.

There was a time when news like this would bring to the lips and tongue words like joy and thrill and to the feet the desire to dance. Today, the news that a federal court has struck a blow against the Defense of Marriage Act makes me smile, but the urge to jump up and down is no longer there. Probably because there have been so many fits and starts, so many occasions of one step forward, two steps backward, and a wait and see attitude now seems to be a more sensible response.

But for those who can, this should be celebrated with song and dance. This is a big victory. This is recognition at the federal level that this injustice cloaked in religion is based on irrational fear of difference, and not on anything you might want to base a social order on. America needs to put that right. And it will, in time.

As this plays out on the right coast, in Massachusetts, on the left coast, the crowds are standing outside the Federal Building in San Francisco, I understand, in anticipation that Judge Walker will announce his decision on the Proposition 8 challenge. Some people are not happy to get their news via Google. They want to be in the plaza in front of the courthouse in person. Good for them. This is a community event. It should be experienced communally.

I’m outside the United States for the time being. Different things register. I just finished the endless saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. Pure delightful escape (OK, maybe the first 1500 pages were, anyway). There’s a scene in which somebody – I believe it’s a policeman – is talking about a suspicious character and somebody remarks “I hope you’re not trying to say his being gay has anything to do with it – that’s illegal!” A very small line, totally outside the plot of the story, but one which registered with me.

It also registered with me that when I asked at the Holocaust Memorial where the gay memorial was, the woman dashed in and came back with a brochure. Right over there, she said, happy to be helpful, pointing across the street. Which is right across the street from the American Embassy, too, by the way. Americans working there look out on one side at the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and the French Embassy (with the British and Russian Embassies also a stone’s throw away) and on the other side at both the holocaust memorial and the gay memorial. Daily reminders of history, power and injustice, and the need to put things right.

These facts help one take the long view. Opponents of gay civil rights are going to continue to shout “judicial activism,” a term which has turned out to be absent of any real meaning other than that the American wheels of justice are not giving me what I want at the moment.

But we’re getting there. We’re getting there.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pigs and Things

I called my friend Luis yesterday to rub in the German victory over Argentina. And one of my favorite nieces answered the phone. All my nieces are favorite nieces, of course, but let’s not get distracted. She is known, affectionately, by her loving father, as “Piggy.”

I’m still thinking of her now, the morning after.

The reason is it’s Sunday, and there was no newspaper delivery, and in desperation, since I don’t know how to have my morning toast and tea without a newspaper, I decided to see what I might find left over from yesterday’s newspaper. I ended up in the Sports Section. In the special insert on the World Cup 2010. You may take a moment to wonder if the religious right is right and the signs are everywhere that world is in fact coming to a rapid close.

No, the reason I thought right away of Sol was there’s a big picture of Bastian Schweinsteiger on the ground and Lionel Messi leaping over him. The entire page is given over to speculations of the upcoming game – the day before the event.

Why would that make me think of her? Schweinsteiger. One of the big names on the now heroic German team. His name means “Pigclimber”. Could there possibly be a more unfortunate family name? Not only can pigs not fly, they can’t even climb a fence. How did this name ever come into being in the first place? And why would some family made it their own? Anyway, the point is what his teammates call him for short. “Schweini”. Which, of course, is German for “piggy.”

I’ve always admired Sol’s ability to take that name her father gave her in stride. In pride, even. It marks her as a real trooper.

One of the articles commented on the fact that Schweinsteiger was a mouthful for Argentines, who were turning it into “Eswejnstejger.” At least that’s the German spelling for the Argentine pronunciation of the German name. And that led me to consider what a treasure house of linguistic oddities there are associated with the two teams. To my American ears, because I am an absolute novice to the world of Fußball (nobody here can make sense of the word “soccer” – and that’s foos, rhymes with moose, by the way), I kept wondering what the hell Madonna was doing in the game. With the German r in the back of the throat, that’s what Maradona was sounding like as I walked past one TV screen in the street after another. And Messy? Do the Argentines really have a guy called Messy? Well, yes, although he spells it differently. Messi is from Palermo. I suppose that’s messy.

Also coming into the Outer Hebrides corner of my brain were the names Lion and Lamb. What was that all about? Well, once you stop and have a look, you realize the German trainer’s name is Löw, which is “lion” (with the final –e of Löwe left off for some reason) and the team’s captain is Lahm. I thought I had heard Lamm, which is lamb, which is kind of cute for a soccer team captain, don’t you think? Well, turns out it’s Lahm (long a), not Lamm (short a), which isn’t cute at all, since lahm, of course, means “lame.” Or sluggish or feeble. So if you think Pigclimber is a linguistic burden to the team, what about Lahm?

And for those who like playing in the particularly silly sandbox, there is the fact that the team is routinely referred to in Germany as the “National Elf.” Elf is the German word for Elf, i.e., same as English. It’s also the word for eleven, but why stop when you’re on a roll? If you can imagining a lion leading a lame captain and a pig who can climb to victory after victory, certainly you can handle the notion of a heroic National Leprechaun. Troll. Goblin. Whatever.

And, of course, I’m far too much of a lady to make any comments about the Argentine trainer, José Pekerman.

Also on the German team (although not in the Argentina match) is this Brazilian born Cacau, who gets his name, I suppose from the fact that he’s Afro-Brazilian. His real name is the deliciously Slavic sounding Claudimir. Middle name Jeronimo. And Klose, the guy with the German sounding last name whose first name is Miroslav and really is Slavic. At least born in Poland. Just like Łukasz, who changed his name to Lukas, Podolski when he became a German. What kind of German team is this, with all these Polish names? What happened to all those good German names, like Sami Khedira, Mesult Özil and Jérôme Boateng?

The sports analysis pages were unable to refrain from stereotyping. The lead article made reference to the fact this could become a revenge match from four years ago when the Argentines beat up a German, and there was all this stuff about name calling and the assertion that Latin Americans were “by nature disrespectful and unfair” – people who could become “fuchsteufelswild” when provoked. To go “fox devil wild” is the German way of saying to go apeshit. One German insisted, though, it was only when they were playing soccer that this became true. Otherwise, he found the Argentines “social, cordial, and ‘the nicest people'.”

And this led to efforts from all directions to calm everybody down. Not entirely successfully, said the sportswriter. To him, there was something almost inevitable about the fact that among Germans, the characteristics of the Latin Americans would follow a kind of moral leitmotif.

Man, speaking of stereotypes. Is there any other place on the planet where the word leitmotif would show up on the sports page?

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Guy at Bellevue

Germany has a new president.

For the past several days, two events have captured most people’s attention here to some degree - the World Cup in South Africa, particularly German’s victory over England and what that means next for the German team, and the presidential election.

I noted many Germans yawning over the election, and I have to assume it will be of even less interest to most people outside Germany. But I got to watch Cristina Kirchner get elected president while I was living in Argentina, and now I just happened to be in Germany for their latest presidential election. Not that I’d ever go there anyway, but it sure takes away any temptation to think there is anything sacred, or even particularly smart, about the way we do it.

In the German case, the difference lies mainly in the fact that, unlike in the U.S., where the president is both head of government and head of nation and state simultaneously, these roles in Germany are separated. The chancellor is head of government. The president is head of state. He or she - so far it has been ten men only - has an honorary role and functions more like the back-of-the-hand balcony-wavers in the world’s monarchies than a political figure, although he does usually come up from the political ranks and his election is profoundly political in importance. In fact, rather than celebrating his victory on Wednesday, most news sources are going on about what a blow the election process was to Angela Merkel’s prestige.

Merkel’s candidate won, but it took him three ballots to do so, and in the first two rounds it was evident that many from Merkel’s ruling coalition were voting for the other guy, Joachim Gauck.

As I said, there was some yawning. One news program the other night made the point that many Germans didn’t even know the election was going on. Man on the street interviews turned up the usual twits who came out with things like, “The president? Do we have a president?”

But that, I think is the media playing around. The people who read and write and think in this country were certainly paying attention. After all, there were a lot of things at stake. If Gauck had won, the Merkel government would have fallen, for starters.

Some background here.

The Christian Democratic Union, the longest ruling party, Angela Merkel’s party, is generally taken to be right of center. The CDU works hand in hand with the CSU, the Christian Social Union, so for all practical purposes, they function as one unit, known as “the Union,” or “The Blacks”. Together, they have about a third of the seats in Parliament (the Bundestag). Presently, they have joined forces with a third center-right party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), or “The Yellows”, which got about 15% of the seats in the 2009 election, but whose popularity has dropped dramatically recently to around 5%. You’ve got to love the idea (if not the reality) that the country is governed by blacks and yellows, even if the names stem from the colors of the flag and not from racial markers.

On the center left are the socialists, the SPD, aka “The Reds”, with about a quarter of the seats in the Bundestag. And the merged Alliance and Green Party, now known simply as “The Greens.” The Greens have about 10% of the seats and that means the two center-left parties balance out the center-right parties, each with about a third of the seats in the Bundestag.

But that’s not all. There is another party, known as “The Left” (Die Linke), made up mostly of what’s left of the communist power structure of East Germany. They too, very confusingly, are called “The Reds,” and that means this leftie combo is usually called the Red-Red-Green Coalition (Rot-rot-grüne Koalition), even though the true reds (as in commies) and the also-ran reds, the socialists, are not the best of friends.

There are also some fun parties like “The Violets” – whose goal is to make politics more spiritual, the Party of Bible-abiding Christians, the German Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of Germany (Marxist-Leninist-Hoxhaist), the Bavarian Separatist Party, and the Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany. But they don’t amount to a hill of beans, singly or collectively, and mostly, it’s just these colors of the German flag, plus Green.

Couple of side points here, just to break the didactic tone for a minute… Remember that cool Vietnamese-German guy, Philipp Rösler, that I wrote about in my blog of April 8? The guy from the FDP who was made Minister of Health? He’s not doing too well, I’m afraid. All those ambitious plans. Can’t tell you whether it’s his fault. I suspect it’s because the coalition is on the rocks, but he’s having a rough time these days. As I said, with ratings at 5%, they’re going down with Merkel, it would appear.

Another part of the FDP story, one which appeals to me personally, is that its leader, Guido Westerwelle, is a gay man. I can hear your envy from here, Log Cabin Republicans. A gay man in a conservative party as part of a ruling coalition. OK, never mind that it’s a coalition going down the tubes. And never mind that right of center in Germany is still left of center in the United States. It still indicates a freer political society than we’ve got. I just read in this morning’s paper, by the way, that Westerwelle and his partner have decided they have to postpone adopting a child for now because they need to live apart for practical reasons – to say nothing of having a career which requires long hours away from home.

OK, so back to the presidential election. The President is not elected by popular vote, but by a federal convention of electors set up for the sole purpose of electing the president to a seven-year term. The convention consists of all the members of parliament plus an equal number of anybodies selected by the state governments – politicians, celebrities, whoever. In Wednesday’s election, there were 1242 electors, and that meant the winner had to get 622 votes – 50% plus one. It took nine hours.

And therein lies the real story that Germans are interested in. Merkel’s guy, Christian Wulff, currently the governor of the state of Lower Saxony (think Hannover, if you don’t know Osnabrück) – the handsome dude with those sexy rectangular rimless glasses that grace the faces of most German businessmen – was supposed to win on the first round. If he had, Merkel’s government, now seen to be crumbling, as I said, would have gotten a necessary boost. But he didn’t. And he didn’t win on the second round, either. Only in the third round did he get 625 votes, three more than an absolute majority.

The scandal is that the black and yellow coalition has 644 seats. The SPD and the Greens have 462 seats, but their candidate, Joachim Gauck, got 499 votes on the first round and even 490 on the second and 494 on the third. Which means an awful lot of the ruling coalition members voted for the opposing party’s guy.

Merkel tried to put a good face on things. Ende gut, alles gut, as they say. All’s well that end’s well. Wulff will move his family into Schloss Bellevue, the president’s residence, and the conservatives will still call the shots. But there will be lots of grumbling and wondering who the disloyal bastards were who bailed ship.

The process raises so many questions. One is, if you’ve gone and separated the political job of chancellor from the job of representing the nation the way the monarchs of Britain, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Spain do, to mention just a few, why then would you allow his or her election to become a means of building up or tearing down a chancellor’s ruling coalition? When I think of German presidents, I think of people like Theodor Heuss, the first of ten, and of Richard von Weizsäcker, the sixth, known for his intellectual skills, his criticism of a political system where politicians think more of reelection than of running the country, and his work on reunification. Big men, who soar over the political scene to raise expectations of the nation and appeal to people’s loftier selves. What does this political spectacle have to do with that?

Another fascinating aspect of the German political scene is what is going on on the far left. Since the Greens and the Socialists could have been a solid counterweight to the Black and the Yellow (the ruling coalition CDU/CSU and FDP), if the Left (die Linke) had thrown their weight behind Gauck as well, he would have won. In the first and second rounds, many CDU/CSU voters went over to Gauck, remember. But, as in the United States, where the conservatives understand the power of loyalty and discipline and the left are splintered, the far left Linke just can’t seem to find it in their hearts to join the left of center parties, even to win an election.

In the U.S., political dysfunctionality is felt most clearly at the right end of the spectrum, where Republicans, and more specifically, the Tea Party libertarian wacko splinters on the right of the spectrum, seem most of the time to be for nothing and against everything. Here in Germany, it’s the far left that is better at making things not happen.

But the reasons for the dyfunctionality are totally different. Die Linke can’t support Gauck because too many of their members are still holding tight to their DDR communist ideals, and Gauck knows entirely too much about where the bodies are buried.

Many are astonished to note that Die Linke couldn’t work with the other parties on the left, the socialists and the Greens, to get Gauck elected. Why, they wonder, don’t they see that their dogged insistence on not supporting Gauck is what opened the door to Wulff? Why this inability to work with progressives to keep a conservative out of the job?

I think the answer is die Linke are not progressives. They are diehard holdovers from the DDR old guard. One of them, Diether Dehm, explained that choosing between the two candidates, Gauck and Wulff, was like choosing between Hitler and Stalin. That pretty much makes poor Diether leading candidate for Dumb Nuts of the Year Award. At least he quickly apologized as soon as he could get his foot out of his mouth.

Remind you of Nader supporters? All our opponents are indistinguishable from one another? In Nader’s case we got W instead of Gore and the whole world became a nastier place. This time the consequences are arguably less momentous, but look what they missed. Gauck is not only an East German, he worked in East Germany from the inside. His children escaped to the West, but he stayed. And when reunification came, he devoted his life to cleaning up the mess. Germany has an East German chancellor in Angela Merkel. A conservative. It could have had an East German in Gauck as president as well. What a gift to the nation that would have been symbolically, what a good twenty year anniversary gift after the challenge of putting these two diametrically opposed nations back together to have both offices filled by former citizens of the DDR.

But maybe it’s not an irony, but just further confirmation of how difficult that task is, that it didn’t happen because those who might have supported the best of the DDR were still clinging to the worst of it, running and hiding from exposure and responsibility.

OK, so much for the shady stuff. Let me focus now on what strikes me, as an American used to American politicians, as a ray of sunshine.

The most obvious good stuff is Germany’s more open, more democratic, more human acceptance of difference. At least in politics. Berlin has a gay mayor. So does Hamburg. The leader of one of the conservative ruling coalition parties is gay. The man who just got elected president is a divorced Roman Catholic who will live with his own two children and another one from his current (Protestant, by the way) wife’s first marriage in the presidential palace, and the Germans are talking about it as an inspirational family scene. OK, so she will be the first First Lady to have a tattoo.

His opponent in the election is a Lutheran minister who is separated from his wife and living with his girlfriend – and nobody worries for a minute that if he had been elected this minister living with his girlfriend would have brought her to live in the presidential palace as well. In fact, that would have been just fine with most people.

Even the relatively conservative… (and I feel the need to keep pointing out that what is considered conservative because it’s relatively right of center here, in the U.S. would be left of center.) Even the relatively conservative Christian Wulff appointed a Turkish-German woman, Aygül Özkan, this last April, to be minister for social affairs in Lower Saxony. And what did this Christian Democratic Party member lady then do? She made people take down the crucifixes in the classrooms, giving Christian conservatives all over the country reason to wonder if their breakfast beer will ever taste the same.

Then there is this refreshing lack of sleaze. Everybody, but everybody, was falling over themselves all the time to say nice things about everybody else involved.

I mean look at these two candidates. The worst you can say about Wulff is that he is boring. He smiles a lot. He has managed to amass a lot of power, but when people suggested he should seek the chancellor’s job he demurred. “I’m not enough of an Alpha male,” he said. No kidding. Actually said that. You might have a whack at him for divorcing his wife and marrying a much younger woman, but this is Germany, not the American Bible belt, and people are quick to take note of the fact that, a) his second wife is really a lovely woman and they make the hardest hearts melt when they have their picture taken with their little two-year-old boy; b) he and his ex-wife are apparently on very good terms and she says, publicly at least, very nice things about him; c) nobody thinks that’s anybody’s business, just as it’s nobody’s business that this divorcee is a Roman Catholic.

When you turn to the other guy, you really see something to sit up and take notice of. Joachim Gauck is an East German whose father, after surviving the war, was arrested, charged with being an enemy of the state, and shipped off to Siberia. Gauck grew up an ardent opponent of the communist system and, unable to get into journalism as a result of his political views, went into the church instead. And then dedicated himself to working from within to clean up the DDR. And it only gets better. Since reunification he has led the investigation into the abuses of the Stasi, the East German secret police.

Gauck is also a powerful speaker and can bring people to tears. Years of giving sermons, I suppose. His personal story moves people and his ability to put into words the emotions of so many Germans over the fall of the Wall and Reunification makes people want to hear more. Nobody doubts his sincerity, and even Merkel can’t hide her admiration for the man. Polls show a majority of Germans would like to see him become president.

But Gauck is old and Wulff is young. Gauck has the support of the socialists and the Greens, but they don’t have the votes and Wulff is the Golden Boy of the Ruling Class. The only thing Wulff supporters have been able to lay on Gauck is that he is a divider (because he would bring down the current power structure?) and that his focus on remembering the sins of the past is “not what Germany needs today – they need a young guy who makes people think of the future, not the past.”

Geschmacksache (question of taste), I say. I’m with the majority. I’d take Gauck any day. He’s clean as a whistle, honest as the day is long, has seen it all, paid his dues in life, and somehow still gets up and goes to work in the morning. (He also deserves more than a string of clichés for praise, but it’s time to wrap this up.) But the people don’t decide, their parliamentarians do, and that, boys and girls, is what representative democracy is all about.

Having described Gauck in pretty heroic terms, I also want to point out that Wulff too has some pretty amazing things going for him. He was stuck at age 16 with a mother suffering from multiple sclerosis after her husband, Wulff’s stepfather, ran off. Wulff took care of her himself the rest of her life, and raised his little sister, as well.

If this were fiction, nobody would buy this political battle between two heroic figures. But it isn’t fiction. It’s amazingly real. But then look what I’m working with. I come from the land of Tom DeLay and Ron Blagojevich.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so naïve as to think Germany does it all right and America does it all wrong. This is a highly selective cherry picking of the two political cultures. And I’ve left out tons of detail – how the left chose Gauck not simply as a good guy but because he would (and did) appeal to conservatives in lots of ways, (he supports troops in Afghanistan, in contrast to the socialist party line which is in strict opposition, for example) and they would vote against their own guy and bring the right down.

But still. How civilized it all was. Absolutely no name-calling. Genuine expressions of respect and even affection for people on the other side. An open democratic election ( the issue of direct elections of a president aside), for the world to admire.

One could do worse than spend a little time watching a well-functioning democracy at work.