Tuesday, August 30, 2005

So. New Orleans got by with less of a scathing than I had feared (far, of course, from unscathed), but the Mississippi (and, to a lesser extent, Alabama) coasts got hammered, it seems. Spare a thought for the folks of "the coast" (as we used to call it in Hattiesburg).

I have to say that, bullshit aside, I would have evacutated. No car, no bus, no one to hitch with? No nothing? I. Would have. Walked. North.

Having said that, would it have killed the Man to roll around with buses and said "get in!" rather than just saying "find a way out!"? I think not. The Man should feel guilty.

In other news, Scott ("I know what I know", at right) prompts us for our worst first day of teaching. Here is (not) mine.

Today I had my first meeting with a group of three folks I'm taking over from a colleague who is out with the baby-having disease. I shudder at the realization that they will be mine for the indefinite future. Why? Well. I will recreate a "conversation" with the students which I exaggerate for effect:

ME: "My name is Greg."
THEM: blank stares, the sound of crickets chirping even though we are on the sixth floor.
ME: "Ummmm, I am Greg. [gesturing to self with hand] My name is Greg. Greg is my name."
THEM: blank stares, the sound of crickets chirping even though we are on the sixth floor.
ME: "OK. Ich heiße Greg. My name is Greg."
THEM: "Ohhhhhh!" [write, write, write]

These folks are, shall we say, beginners.

These folks are precisely the sort of folks I was thinking of when I said to myself and others, at one point, that I would rather tie on a pecker and go peck shit with the chickens than to teach a language.


Sunday, August 28, 2005

For those who care, here is your German election update:

The trends have continued and it now seems pretty clear that there is a real chance of an SPD-Green-Linke coalition government (should the three be willing to cooperate). Things may look different tomorrow because as I type this Oscar Lafontaine (of the Linke) is having a tv debate (sorta, more a moderated conversation) with Friedrich Merz (CDU finance smart guy). I am not watching, but Birgit is and said that she isn't sure that Lafontaine is coming off well.

An interesting facet of this campaign is that the CDU is showing more interest in the Linke than the SPD are. Basically, the Linke are running a campaign of (fairly shameless) populism. The CDU is concerned because they were counting on protest voters to turn to them. Their problem is that they think that the SPD "reform" program hasn't gone far enough (lots of voters think it has gone too far, and this is what the Linke are playing to).

There are only a few weeks left, but they will be exciting.

In other news, I see that New Orleans is facing The Big One folks have long feared. I hope they dodge this bullet, but it doesn't look good. I will go ahead and switch to the past tense here and say that I'm sorry for the poor folks who have lost their lives and those who have lost their livelihoods. I also want to say that I'm happy that I got to spend time in New Orleans before the hurricane. Its one of the few cities I've ever visited that gave off a truly organic vibe. By this I mean that the city was/is more than the sum of its parts. I miss it and am saddened by the thought that I may have lost it forever.

Obviously the city itself will survive, but if the hurricane hits it like they think it will, then something fundamental will have changed forever, I fear.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A couple of months ago I told the story of how my morning commute turned sour. I am actually building up quite a repertoire of train stories, so I reckon I should put more of them in the blog before I forget them.

Most are really anecdotes. For example, there is the one about the clearly-drunk fellow who stumbled around the carriage one afternoon and went up the stairs and out of sight (some of my trains are doubledeckers). A few seconds after his disappearance, I heard what could only have been his urine splattering on some surface not belonging to the bottom of a toilet. I lifted my eyes from my book, exchanged a world-weary glance with a fellow passenger, and moved to another carriage just as the smell hit me.

See? No real story there.

There's also the one about how I got on the wrong train because I was talking on my cell-phone instead of paying attention to the train (mine was to arrive 4 minutes later).

Similarly, I recently got on the wrong train because I was reading instead of paying attention.

Today, however, brought a proper story, which I shall now attempt to relate in a crowd-pleasing fashion.

I boarded the train in Dortmund at 4:09 pm today. This isn't a particularly unusual time for me, but for some reason I had a regular train rather than a doubledecker. This isn't usually an important detail other than the fact that the doubledeckers are quieter and have more comfortable seats. I sat, as is my wont, near the back of the train. This is usually a good strategy for avoiding the riffraff (by which I mean everybody else), who tend to prefer the middle or front. I took my seat in a half empty compartment which featured a lack of people wearing headphones (I hate other people's music more than I hate them). I sat across the aisle from an older fellow.

Just after we got rolling, several folks passed through the compartment on their way a'fore or aft. Most of them, being average people, left the sliding door open after they passed through. You may be surprised to learn that this rarely draws my attention (much less ire). But it TOTALLY pushed Grandpa's buttons. He loudly grumbled about the lack of home-training on display and made a show of closing the door. I grunted my polite agreement, more out of general courtesy for a fellow misanthrope than anything else. I shoudn't have done that, though.

Grandpa saw this as a chance to tell me his story. Suddenly I was living in a John Mellencamp song. Or a Kenny Rogers song. Had Grandpa had a flask he would have taken a swig, wiped it with his tubercular hanky, and insisted I join him. He did not, however. He DID have a story, though. Or rather, lots of stories. None of which contained any wisdom (as they always do in songs).

Grandpa pointed out that our carriage was likely 45 years old, and so not equipped with automatic doors. In fact, he noted, the old carriages are difficult to maintain. They are also, of course, expensive to replace. They will soon be replaced, he's been told, due to next year's World Cup. Yeah. You can't get all that many folks in one of these old babies. What? 100, tops? But in the doubledeckers! Man! You could get 200 in them for sure. Yes sir. Of course (of course) it was all much worse just after The War. Back then the trains were smaller and always full. He once rode from Essen to Stuttgart (a long way) with a guy who climbed up and lay in the luggage net because he didn't want to stand the whole way! And that, of course, is NOTHING compared to what it was like DURING The War. At night, lest they be bombed or strafed, they had to keep the blinds down and instead of -- imagine! -- flourescent lights they had one little black light bulb per carriage. And to further thwart the Allies, the engineer(s?) would abruptly stop the train (to the extent that is possible), and the pursuing plane would fly, briefly, on in search of the train. Eventually the pilot might figure out the score and swing around for another run, but by that time the nearly-invisible train would be rolling again. And tunnels! They would sit in tunnels for hours sometimes.

[I would add, at this point, a train trip he seems to have gone on as a captured soldier after the war. It was REALLY hard to follow this bit of the story, though, and he never paused so that I could ask any questions. A shame, because this seemed like an interesting bit.]

{I WILL add that during the whole trip he harrangued anyone who left the door open, provoking a nasty look from one fella. Grandpa said "Don't you look at me like that you Caveman! Shut the goddamned door!" Funny stuff!}

After the war (when not riding overcrowded trains) he relocated to a sleepy village in Westphalia because his beloved Essen had been bombed to hell. He worked a farm for a while, but although he had plenty to eat it was too boring. He worked 10 years as a coal miner (somewhere: did he say?). Then he went back to Essen and got his commercial driver's license. He then drove down to Spain and picked up shipments of Spanish foodstuffs (fruit and the like) and brought it back up to market in Germany. He did that for 30 (?) years. The interesting part here is how he went into great detail about how he and his partner frequently stole things over the years. A case of oranges here, a Christmas turkey there. Mind you, this was the 60s and 70s (hardly the crisis years after The War). Brazen, he was. And then he retired. And then his friend called to tell him that the company seemed on the verge of bankruptcy and what should he do? Grandpa said "Sell the truck, dude! You've got all the paperwork!" So his friend did. And then his friend wanted a car. His friend asked him to help him pick it out. He picked out a silver _____ with lots of power. He (Grandpa) made a joke about needing to put a license plate underneath so that the cops could read it as he flew over their heads (I don't get it). Years later he saw this guy again and asked about the car. He had a new one now, but he still had the plates underneath (hahahah!)!

And then, as we pulled into Oberbarmen (and reached minute 45 of his non-stop story) he abruptly got up, said he'd see me around, complained to the conductor about people not closing the doors, and got off the train.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Six months ago, Amelia Hill turned off her telly - for good.

Well whoop de doo!

I watched quite a bit of tv as a kid, but I was also big on playing (outside and inside) and, eventually, reading. I reckon I was a fairly run-of-the-mill working/middle class American boy growing up in the 70s and 80s in terms of total time watched. Still, as I think back I recall that we had one television from my early childhood until the mid 80s (the same one), no vcr until the mid 80s, and no cable until the mid 80s. Never a big screen (indeed, never much more than a medium screen), never satellite. Heck, I've only seen a little HBO in my time.

College pulled me further from the mainstream. Carlton brought a tv into the dorm, so we had one. I suspect we watched it a good bit, but I also know that I was often out running around or (perish the thought) doing schoolwork. This was the situation from the end of summer in 1990 to the start of summer, 1991 (and again from the fall of 91 to the start of summer, 92). In the summer of 91 I worked, so that would have limited me, and I had a girlfriend. On balance, then, I probably didn't watch all that much tv.

In the summer of 92 I moved into a house with Scott and a few other folks. There was a tv in the house, but I can't remember if we had cable at all. I know that for at least part of the time we only had NBC and something else. Then, in the late summer of 93 I left for an exchange program in Germany. I had access to a tv in the dorm common room, but may have only watched it once or twice. So, count that time until February of 94 as essentially tvless.

In the spring of 94 I moved back in with Scott (different house). We again had tv, but I don't think we had cable. In the fall of 94 I was in an apartment by myself. No tv. Some time right before Christmas, I think, I got tired of having no tv and went and charged one and a vcr. So I had tv and cable and a vcr. Until the summer of 95, when I was abroad again. Then, from the fall of 95 to the summer of 96 I was in a lil house with a tv and cable and a vcr. Then, in the fall of 96 I moved to Germany. During the first year I lived in a dorm room and had a tv and cable. Then I moved in with Birgit in late 97 and we had a tv but only two channels.

In the fall of 1998 I returned to the US. For the first several months in my apartment I had one channel (PBS) and a vcr. Then I discovered that I had free cable. That was fine for a few months and then they cut it. In the summer of 1999 I stayed with my folks (cable, tv, and vcr), and in the summer of 2000 I was in Germany with Birgit (tv, two channels). Fall of 2000 brought a different apartment plus cable (to go with my vcr and tv). Then, in the summer of 2001, my agents moved me into a different house (that rocked) while I again visited Birgit.

In the new house, from the fall of 2001 to the summer of 2002, we had cable, THREE tvs, TWO vcrs, and (near the end of my time) a dvd player. Pretty sweet. This period was the peak of my tv life, I think.

Fall of 2002 saw me in Mexico. We had nothing but regular Mexican stations, and so language barriers hindered me. I did watch soccer and the news and, sometimes, other things. We also had a vcr and rented lots of movies.

Fall of 2004 brought me back to Germany. Tv. We had cable for a few months but then the cable company figured out that we shouldn't. So. Now we have two channels. I watch the news, soccer, and a crime drama called "Tatort", if I watch at all.

[In all of the above cases, by "tv" read small for me (around the size of a decent laptop screen) and medium for my parents. When I lived with Sarah and Karen we also had medium. If you go to the trouble of finding gaps in the time above, just assume I was at my parents' house.]

I guess what I'm saying is that I have never found tv to be a big part of my life. Certain shows have interested me a great deal (Cubs baseball, Trek, ER, XFiles, soccer, and a few others), but otherwise its just a thing. Is it really that big a deal for other folks? I'm serious. I don't come from a tv family (although my mom hits it pretty hard lately), haven't had tv roomates (well, maybe half have been), and know several singles and pairs who have no tv at all. Surely I'm not in another world.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

I just got off the telephone with my mother . . .

(I could start a really high percentage of my posts that way, by the way)

and learned something interesting. First, she asked if I had been keeping up with the Sheehan/Dubyah situation. I said that I had a little bit of a notion of what was going on. She asked if I had heard about the fellow who fired his shotgun (?) into the air so as to signal that he was displeased by Sheehan. I said that I had heard something about that. She asked if I had heard about the other fellow who gave the Sheehanians the right to camp on his land. I said that I had heard something about that, too.

She asked if I realized that both gentlemen were kin of me.

I said that I had not realized that.

Here's what I did know: My father's first cousin Don lives near Waco and has land. Dubyah lives near Waco.

Turns out that cousin Don is married to a woman named Shirley (I knew that). Turns out that Don and Shirley live rather near Dubyah (I did not know that, although I visited them 18 years ago).

Turns out that both the gun fellow and the land fellow are Shirley's first (or second, or something) cousins. I did not know that.

So there you go.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Just so that we are all clear on who it is we are dealing with:

For the past nineteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds your correspondent has been listening to "the Fountain of Lamneth" by Rush.

And part of him liked it.

(Before that it was "Sabrosa" by the Beastie Boys and after it will be/is "Can You See Me?" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, in case you are building a file).

I would tell you about my vacation in and around Campiglia Marittima, Italy, but it was too cool for words. Google the town if you want to find things out about it (but only if you are cool).

I will, however, tell you that it dawned on me that this was my first ever real extended vacation. I have had weekends now and then, of course, but this was a genuine vacation. By this I mean that I set out to do nothing more than go somewhere and luxuriate in having vacated, whereas all my previous (and frequent) journeys to various and sundry parts of North America and Europe have been in connection with visits to friends and/or family or some form of study, research, or quasi-professional outing. Sure, as a child I did this, but this is the first time as a non child. It was a interesting experience.

I will also ad that a sideline experience in our vacation was two nights in the home town of both Pliny the Elder AND Pliny the Less Old. Also from that town, more recently, came Giusseppi Volta, for whom the country of Upper Volta is named (Lower Volta was named for his father, oddly enough) and who was the inventor of Voltron.

But seriously. Germany is on the cusp of an election, as the regular reader of this blog knows. Infrequent or first-time readers may also have stumbled upon this information via news outlets. I will now update you on the situation as I see it.

[My fellow US citizens might be interested to learn that there are missing white girls, from time to time, in Germany, but sadly no shark attacks.]

Our story began when the governing party, the SPD (nominal socialists with hints of Blairite New Labour and Clintonite New Democrat) got smeared in the election of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (where I reside). This was bad for them for three reasons. One: NRW is the biggest state in Germany. Two: NRW is the historic heartland of the SPD. Three: The victory gave the opposition CDU (nominal conservatives with hints of Tory and Republican) the whip hand in the upper house of the federal parliament (the Bundesrat, made up of state governors). Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor (SPD) called a snap election in response.

Snap elections often happen in other parliamentary systems but there was some question as to whether Germany's constitution allows for it (at least in this circumstance). In the end, Schröder got his wish.

Why did he do it? Opinion is divided. It might be that he is just tired of the gig and wanted to go down fighting sooner rather than later (scheduled elections were for next year). The conventional wisdom is that he knew that he would be hard pressed to get much governing done in the new reality so he wanted a sort of referendum on his leadership. It follows from this that if he loses, he doesn't lose much, but if he wins he has a mandate of sorts.

My take (and I'm not alone, but I am in the minority) is that he figured, as above, that he had little to lose and much to gain AND that he reckoned on winning. Basically, by calling these elections he forced his opponents to dance to his tune. They would have preferred to have more time to sort things out, basically, and he looked decisive and like a risk taker. This boosted his personal popularity and wrong footed his opponents.

Lets look at them, then. The CDU was forced, by Schröder's decision, to move quicker than they would have liked to pick a lead candidate AND to work out what it is they stand for. They have been cruising since the end of Kohl, in 1998, as the nattering nabobs of negativity party. They have struggled to come up with plans to take to the voters, as Schröder must have known they would, and this has hurt them. As to the lead-candidate issue: they ended up having to settle for their general secretary and parliamentary leader, Angela Merkel. She is problematic for lots of reasons, not least of which is that there were other folks angling for the gig who are now expected to pull oars for her.

Short version of Merkel's problem: She is a protestant - the CDU is heavily catholic. She is a woman - the CDU has a strong "traditional values" strain (including sexism). She is from East Germany - the CDU is a very West German party. And it doesn't help that she's not particularly charismatic and has never been identified with anything approaching a political philosophy or even a pet issue.

But it gets worse for Merkel and the CDU. Edmund Stoiber was the party's candidate last time and wanted to be again, is the governor of Bavaria, put the "smu" in "smug", and is very charismatic. Lately he has been noted for having, in large and small ways, insulted the entire former East Germany and, less directly, all parts of Germany to the extent that they are not Bavaria. Other CDU politicians (technically Stoiber is CSU, the Bavarian "sister party" of the CDU) have made similar comments. This has not helped the campaign.

Another interesting twist to the whole thing is that Oscar Lafontaine (a charismatic former SPD leader) and Gregor Gysi (a charismatic leader of the PDS, which is the "reformed" East German communist party) joined forces to create a new left-wing party.

You would think that this would hurt the SPD (and their allies, the Greens) more than it would the CDU (and their allies, the neo-liberal FDP) and you would, sort of, be right. The SPD is not going to do well, and this Links Partei is one reason (although things are looking up). But the Greens are actually doing OK. A coalition again seems possible. No. It turns out that lots of protest voters who are less than pleased with the SPD-Green government are thinking of voting for the Links Partei instead of the CDU-FDP. The CDU share in polls is dropping like a rock (especially in the East) and the FDP face the real possibility of not even getting back into the parliament.

And if you still don't believe that Schröder has reasons for optimism, cue George W. Bush. Bush helped Schröder win re-election in 2002 by rattling the sword at Iraq. Germans thought he was nuts, and Schröder articulated and rode on that (the CDU would support Bush, as everyone here knows). So Dubyah has conveniently announced that he would "not rule out" using ultraviolence on Iran. Not popular here. Schröder is on the case.

I, for one, would not be surprised if the SPD-Greens (and perhaps the Linkspartei) scrape out a coalition victory in September. Its pretty doggoned interesting.

(Having said all that: The SPD is only good compared to some alternatives. Their policies have not been to my liking, by and large, since 1998. They deserve to lose, but I'd rather they didn't. I think I would vote for the Linkspartei or, perhaps, the MLPD [Marxistische-Leninistische Partei Deutschland] or, perhaps, the Greens.)

Oh, and Japan (the other supereconomy) will have a major election around the same time. The circumstances are shockingly similar but, since I know dick-all about Japanese politics, I will refrain from saying more about it.

Oh, and I had a nice vacation.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Have ya ever noticed that Birgit doesn't seem to understand the purpose of those bits of the dish drainer which were CLEARLY designed for the easy and orderly arrangement of dishes in need of drainage? Ever noticed that? WHAT is THAT all about?

Am I right?

Where my non-Birgits at?

Nevertheless, we had a wonderful vacation. Thanks for asking.