Good Night, And Good Luck

by Dan

I think I’ve now written down everything I had to say when I started this blog nearly three years ago. My gratitude to everyone who’s read along over the years, and especially to those who have chimed in with comments. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

See also: The First Post

Fall Of The Berlin Wall (Legoland Version)

by Dan

I enjoyed this stirring re-enactment of the events of November 10, 1989:

Notice how there’s a Hasselhoff-ian figure atop the mobile platform thing, and how lights start going on and off as he performs once the Wall falls. Nice touch. This atones for the minor historical inaccuracy my wife pointed out: that the Wall actually falls from the West into the East in this little drama.

Superbowl Hostage Crisis

by Dan

I have a problem with being a poor sport. This extend both to sports that I actually play and to spectator sports. The Superbowl this past Sunday was certainly no exception— in fact, it was pretty much the opposite of an exception. I watched it at my place with one friend who complained that I alternated between bouts of ‘passive aggressive’ (his formulation) gloom and insufferable smugness, and left during halftime. Before he left, I tried pointing out that my behavior couldn’t really be described as ‘passive aggressive’, since that would mean that it was somehow aimed at him, to get a rise or inflict suffering— and the truth is that I was far too grimly preoccupied by the game to give a damn about him. His response: ‘Well, I guess when it comes to passive aggression,  it’s all in the eye of the beholder’— which makes some sense, I have to admit.

This left me with one guest for the second half, which was probably one too many. Somehow, I’d always assumed that sports would mean less and less to me as I got older, but in fact, the exact opposite has happened— the weekend leading up to the Superbowl, I had two different dreams about the Patriots losing. This lucky soul who got to watch the game with me was a guy— a perfectly kind guy, really— whom I’d only met for five minutes the day before, but extended a invitation to join him once I ascertained that (a) despite being from New York, he wasn’t a partisan Giants fan and (b) he had no other plans and was planning to watch the game by himself at a bar otherwise.

Fast forward two-and-a-half hours and it’s 4am and I’m slumped on the sofa like I’ve been shot, reeling from a catastrophic last-minute loss, reeking of alcohol and bitterness. My guest is standing nervously by the door, trying to make bland, soothing conversational offerings. Gradually, it becomes apparent that the SBahn back to his place doesn’t leave for another 40 minutes. Swallowing hard, I’m able to resist my impulse to kick him out of my house (just out of raw, malign scapegoating— not like he’d done anything wrong) and halfway pull myself together to make acceptable conversation (we both lived in Prague, our wives are friends, our kids may end of at the same kindergarten) until he’s able to make his escape.

Incredibly, this is the second year I’ve wound up in this predicament. Last year, I watched the disheartening end of the 2010-11 Patriots season in a sports bar in Prague, where I noticed my neighbor sitting behind me and make a desperate attempt to sneak out without him after the terrible end. Once he foiled my escape and made it apparent that we would be taking the late night tram home together, I tried to shake him by announcing that I ‘actually really just feel like making the trip home on foot’ … at which point, he declared that he too felt like doing walking home. So, this was even worse: same grizzly requirement of prolonged small talk, but this was outdoors and in the cold in January at 3 or 4am.

Image: from the Onion, of course.

An Idiot’s Guide To Czech Christmas

by Dan

Have you agreed to spend Christmas in the Czech Republic next year? Worried about what to wear, or whether it’s in fact a Christian country? Here are answers to frequently asked questions about how the holidays are celebrated by these strange and mysterious people…

When Is Czech Christmas?
December 24th.

And that doesn’t mean that they really celebrate it on the 25th and just open presents on Christmas Eve, like some weirdo families in the U.S. It really means that the 25th is just another ordinary day, the night of the 23rd has special ‘Xmas eve’ status, etc.

Do Czechs believe in Santa Claus?
No. At least, not as the bringer of gifts. In the Czech Republic, presents are delivered by ‘Baby Jesus’ (Ježišek).

Santa is reserved for a lesser holiday called Mikulaš, when adults (read: drunk friends of one’s father) dress up as either Santa or the devil and caper about for the benefit of children.

So how does Baby Jesus make and deliver presents? Does he have a North Pole workshop and team of reindeer?
No. It remains unexplained how exactly the presents get into the house— somehow, they just materialize.

Does Baby Jesus even have a agreed-upon physical form that can be leveraged for Christmas marketing?
Visualizations of Ježišek have begun to pop up in order to combat the increasing infiltration of Santa into Czech culture (this is actually a phenomenon that Czechs perceive and mildly resent). Yet the cartoon representations that I find on the internet are so kitschy, I can’t bring myself to post them.

Is traffic bad during Czech Christmas?
Only if Vaclav freaking Havel decides to die right before the big day and clot up the entire city for his public funeral. Nice timing, hippie.

What about food? What do Czechs like to eat on Christmas?
Carp. Which is weird, given that the fish are generally marginalized in the country’s culinary habits during the rest of the year. This leads to the second-coolest phenomenon associated with the Czech holidays: carpmongers! In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there are guys standing on street corners with bathtubs filled with squirming carp.

What’s the first-coolest phenomenon associated with the Czech holidays?
Readily-available hot wine purchased from street vendors.

Do Czechs hate Christmas?
No, not at all!

What activities can I expect to encounter on Czech Christmas?
Basically, tons of eating and brain-deadening dosages of pohádky (searingly cheesy TV fairytales about princesses and horses and goblins and whatnot).

I’m in the Czech Republic and have friends coming to visit from abroad over the holidays. Are there any ready-made practical jokes I can play on them?
Wait until your friends have bought their tickets and then inform them that the entirety of December is spent celebrating something called ‘The Feast of St. Wenceslas’, during which there is no alcohol sold or consumed whatsoever. Then, pretend to ‘lighten their spirits’ by claiming that, despite this prohibition, the city is tons of fun during this month thanks to all the inspired Christmas pageantry.

Imagining A San Francisco Wall

by Dan

At the end of December, our initial six-month sublet here in Berlin ran out, so we packed up our stuff and went back to Czech for the holidays. Then, a few days into 2012, we drove back from Prague and — boing— straight into our new flat, located in a section of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood known as ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island).

Die Rote Insel is called an island because it’s a triangular region surrounded by train tracks on all three sides, so one must cross a bridge to gain access. The ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was historically a leftist stronghold and was allegedly the last part of Berlin to hold out against Hitler’s local political machine in the 30s.

One local attraction is this weirdo gasworks structure that looms over the neighborhood:

Another noteworthy thing is that we’re about half a mile from where David Bowie and Iggy Pop did their famous mid-70s sojourn:

Here’s the oh-so-bland-and-unassuming building where they lived:

What this all is getting to is a meditation on the weird east-versus-west dynamics that persist in Berlin as a result of the Wall. As part of the former West Berlin, Schöneberg is now considered to be a bit of a snooze— friends of ours who live in hipper areas would assume slightly restrained expressions when we would mention that we were moving there (sort of like if you were to mention that you are moving to the Inner Richmond). And, yet, back when Bowie lived here, it was pretty much as swinging as West Berlin got. You had Kreuzberg to one side, which was slummy and punk and Turkish, and then Schöneberg, which was the gay district. I had originally guessed that the neighborhood’s gay identity stemmed from its relatively close proximity to the Wall— as such, I imagined that it was a kind of untamed borderlands where anything went. But, I’ve since learned that gay affiliation stretches all the way back to the Weimar Republic-era… so, never mind about that.

So, that’s the weird contradiction of Schöneberg: a relatively risqué, eastern area of a larger, boring western area. Seemed edgy at the time… but is looked down upon by all the hipsters in the former East. On the one hand, this all seems unique to Berlin and its particular dynamics. And yet… it also reminds you of Noe Valley if you squint your eyes. In fact, it’s really easy to imagine a similar partition in San Francisco, given the exaggerated east-west divide and the cultural disdain with which people in the neighborhoods to the North and East view the western part of the city.

As a reminder, here’s how it worked in Berlin:

In my imaginary history, here’s how San Francisco was partitioned in 2005, dividing the MGDR (Matt Gonzalez Democratic Republic) from the secessionist RGN (Republic of Gavin Newsom) and tearing apart countless families and community institutions in the process:

As a virtual island in hostile territory, the RGN is naturally cut off from bridge access and can only be accessed by plane, helicopter or hydrofoil. The West gets the Golden Gate Park, just as West Berlin got the Tierpark… but the East gets the heavily-armed Presidio (i.e., Mauerpark).

And, in the analogy, Schöneberg is roughly outer Noe Valley, which sounds… about right!

Adventures In German Language

by Dan

JohnnyO once discussed his ‘Wheels On The Bus’ iphone app that allows the user (his daughter, in his case) to play back the song in a number of different languages. All is good until you get to the German version, where the singer is breathlessly rushing to keep up with the music— such is the syllabic elephantiasis of the language that ‘Wheels On The Bus’ doesn’t fit into the allotted space.

I think of this story every time I toggle between the English and German versions of Craigslist Berlin. Seriously, the German version has the exact same content and is a third wider:

Just imagine if they started a section for the services of Eisenbahnknotenpunkthinundherschieber (railroad switchmen). That could push the total page width beyond 1200 pixels.

I have yet to actually do any significant design work in German language. But Czech language never failed to foil me with its diacritics (the little hats and angles worn by various letters). First of all, many fonts don’t include the characters; also, you can’t tightly pack lines of text vertically, because the stupid special characters bump into the letters above them. And, to my dismay, I quickly learned that you can’t just kinda sorta maybe get away with leaving out the accent— it would be like substituting in an entirely different letter. I’m sure that German will present its own share of bedeviling lines-that-don’t-wrap-because-one-word-is-too-long and dual English/German language layouts where the two text blocks aren’t remotely the same length. Until my proposal for a glorious Simplified International English language takes hold and renders other languages obsolete, that is. Details to follow…

See also: Mysteries of Czech Language

Living Long Enough Produces Strange Outcomes

by Dan

Sadly, my uncle lost his wife to cancer a few years ago, after something like 45 years of marriage. Since then, he’s had the good fortune to meet a new woman who now seems to be a permanent and supportive fixture in his life. But, what’s weird is that this new girlfriend was also once my father’s girlfriend… roughly 60 years ago. Yes, my dad’s very first girlfriend, at overnight camp in the early 1950s. They took canoe rides together and stuff like this. (Note: this is my uncle on my mom’s side— not my dad’s brother). Is a person really the same person they are involved in experiences that are separated by this much time?

Sometimes, I get the feeling that there were only about 20,000 people in the US when my parents were growing up. It just seems that everybody who belongs to a certain segment— say, grew up liberal and educated with some at-least-tenuous connection the East Coast— knows everybody else. I don’t get it.

Rebranding Efforts At Work

by Dan

In the old days, the Earl would have gotten a floral script treatment at the very least. Nowadays, utilitarian Helvetica is all he can hope for.

Mangrove lobbying dollars at work. These are not your father’s mangroves, no sir. These are altogether more dynamic mangroves, living on the edge.

When I originally read this and thought it said ‘bowling’, I was even more excited.

I didn’t have a chance to stop and take my own photo of this in the airport. But there is marketing language for Camel Cigarettes on the window that says, “Inspiring creative thinking since 1913.” Move over, Montmarte!

See also: Recent Airport Sightings

Bit Part

by Dan

There’s nothing quite like the ringing sense of disorientation and excitement experienced the first time you’re boarding a flight with your own child in tow and you hear the ‘Now boarding families with small children announcement’ and realize that this entitlement now applies to you.

Yesterday, we returned home from our third transatlantic trip in Felix’s short life, arriving back in Berlin in a twisted heap. Our son managed to wait until a few moments after getting off the final plane to start vomiting copiously; then we arrived home to find that our car had been towed due to street work while we’d been gone. These all seem such stereotypical ‘thwarted Dad’ moments that I can hardly recognize myself as an actor in them. I feel like I ought to be practicing saying God damn it! in my best authoritarian-1950s-Dad voice, just to fit in.

It turns out that, when your car is towed in Berlin, they simply take it to the nearest parking space they can find and leave it there. Only, they won’t tell you where it is until you pay them some money. Ostensibly, if you were desperate, you could ride your bike around the neighborhood to locate it. In any case: no Gulag-like apparatus of the impound lot, etc. Très gentil!

Something About The Simpsons

by Dan

The recent post about Microserfs and the early days of the internet got me thinking about another back-in-the-day cultural turning-point: the dawning of the Simpsons. The Simpsons era, of course, predates the internet. The show has been going on for so long that the original Christmas pilot episode aired when Ronald Reagan (!) was still in office. It’s been going on for so long that an episode from the show’s second season revolved around the premise that Homer is the only person in Springfield who has cable TV (at the time, yes, this required some suspension of disbelief… but still). The show has been going on for so long that I watched the early episodes on a black-and-white TV in the basement of our technologically-challenged home (perhaps this requires an even bigger suspension of disbelief).

Today, there are 486 episodes of the show, spanning 22 seasons… and probably three quarters of these I have yet to see. But, for the first few seasons, it was difficult to overstate the significance of Sunday night, 8 o’clock— you could actually feel the cultural ground shifting under your feet. The thing is that TV and pop culture had landed in an all-time rut by the late 80s: there was just nothing subversive at all in mainstream entertainment that echoed the kind of cynical humor deployed by my circle of teenage friends. Even Letterman and Moonlighting (which were not all that incendiary to begin with) had become (respectively) routine and defunct by that point. And so C&C Music Factory had come to rule the planet. It had gotten so bad that, as a 15 year-old, I had actually stopped watching TV entirely, an unexpected reduction from the approximate six hours per day I had been taking in just a few years earlier.



Coming from this position of total disinterest, I can still remember the peculiar thrill of watching an early Simpsons and noticing that, among a lynchmob of townspeople assembled to attack Bart, there was inexplicably a debauched clown in the group (Krusty, of course). This was exactly the sort of random, irreverent non sequitur that had been so conspicuously absent in the existing paradigm where every joke on every show presented itself with a deadening whiff of familiarity: “have no fear, this joke derives an established tradition of humor and thereby resembles a joke you’ve seen on some other show before.” In this sense, the Simpsons really did feel like a weird harbinger of the internet and its democratizing effect: it was the first instance I could remember of the type of disaffected, Gen-X humor used by people around me bubbling up into mass entertainment and suddenly appearing onscreen. Nowadays, this phenomenon is routine: the ‘humor landscape’ is dominated by memes that start with one or two people, go viral, and eventually become ubiquitous. But, at the time, it felt like some cosmic fissure had must have appeared in order to allow something other than Archie Bunker-style joke sensibility to appear on TV.

I remember reading something about National Lampoon a while aback that claimed that the Lampoon ushered in a new era of American humor. Previously (the article postulated), humor had been based on the Jewish tradition of oy, what a fool am I!. The Lampoon, it went on to argue, moved American humor to a more acerbic, cutting kind of humor descended from English and especially Irish tradition: what a fool are you. I guess that, by the late 80s, this vein failed to reflect the emerging theme of Gen-X humor: what a fool everything is. Maybe the Simpsons signaled a shift to this new mode. Or maybe it just signaled a shift towards humor becoming more responsive to the sensibilities of the society at large.