An L.A. Story

One tidbit from my US trip that I forgot to bring up before: while in SF, I took a quick side trip I took to L.A. to visit former co-blogger Krafty plus some other folks down there.

A mutual friend of ours in L.A.— let’s just call him ‘Job’ for this purpose of this post— is a writer and generally funny guy. For a long time, Job was dating a comedian. Comedian girlfriend, at one point, has a standup gig seven nights a week at a local comedy club (imagine: ‘oh, sorry, once again, we can’t meet because my girlfriend is performing for the 751st consecutive night.’) Then, comedian girlfriend dumps Job and quickly gets not one but two sitcoms picked up by broadcast networks. Yes, it turns out that ex-girlfriend is in fact Whitney Cummings, co-creator and co-producer of of 2 Broke Girls and star, co-producer, and co-creator of Whitney.

But it gets worse: Whitney is essentially a cynical comedy about relationships (‘All relationships end… in sweatpants‘ according to the show’s tagline). It stands to reason a large chunk of the comic material here was pulled from Whitney’s relationship with our friend Job. In fact, the guy in the show— Whitney’s male foil— kind of has the same aura about him as Job. So, imagine: you’re dumped by your girlfriend and suddenly the foibles of your relationship are cannon fodder for a TV sitcom with some stranger playing the part of you. And the city you live in is plastered with billboards for the sitcom like the one above, smirking down at you from dozens of major intersections. And it’s not like this is some obscure show either— it’s Thursday freaking prime time on NBC. I don’t want to overstate the case, but it does seem to be verging on worst-case-scenario territory.

My dad is also friends with Martha Stewart’s estranged former husband, Andy, whose enduring legacy is that fact that he bestowed the highly-marketable last name of Stewart upon Martha (nee Kostyra). But at least Martha never ventured into cynical romantic comedy territory.

Children and Alcohol: Together At Last

[Note: this post was originally written for another Mission-oriented blog, hence the direct references to San Francisco audience]

Raising a child is a breeze in Berlin thanks to the wide availability of kid-friendly beer gardens. (Note: a ‘child’ is a small human who has not yet achieved adult stature— I was a little unclear on this concept myself until I left the Mission.) Take, for example, Prater Garten on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg: the space looks like about eight Zeitgeists stitched together, only without the whole ‘mistaking rudeness for authenticity’ issue that’s been haunting Zeitgeist for years.

Then, in the back, is a fully-equipped playground where you can semi-neglect your daughter or son while you enjoy sophisticated adult beverages nearby. Kids, in my observation, seem to eat this place up: first, they get to enjoy running around in the kid-sanctioned area… but then there’s also the illicit thrill of venturing out into the ‘dark side’, where grownups are presented in various states of alcohol-amplified enthusiasm.

Finally… you know you’re in a land of lessened litigation-culture when there’s a disused diving tower in the back of your local beer garden:

My friend tells the story of being at a kid birthday party at Prater when one of the children suddenly materialized on top of the diving stand. That’ll sober you up in a hurry.

How My First Weekend Back In Europe Was Spent On A Houseboat in South San Francisco

Hey, another travel misadventure! You would think I’d already had enough this year.

This time, my own smart-alecky tendencies were largely to blame. Explanation: my friend Will works as an engineer for United Airlines, so he is able to give me so-called ‘companion passes’ that allow me to fly standby for a fraction of the normal ticket price. The ‘companion pass’ racket is a real roll of the dice— sometimes you wind up in business class; other times, you wind up not getting on the flight altogether. However, in my previous seven companion pass forays, I’d only missed one flight (and with minimal consequences), so the overall risk factor seemed pretty small.

So, I arrive at the airport on Thursday at noon, ready to try my companion-pass luck— and wind up being the only person who doesn’t make it on the plane. It’s a really lonely feeling to watch an entire crowded boarding area worth of passengers gradually make their way onboard, only to be left at the end with a vacant room behind you and a bunch of shrugging flight attendants facing you. You spend the entire boarding routine in a heightened state of Zen powerlessness, futility commanding the last straggling passengers not to show up at the gate so you can get their ticket,  then gradually slouching into a soggy-beanbag-shaped crescent of defeat as they appear one by one in the closing seconds. One thing you learn from this experience is that the kind of people who show up at the gate to board an aircraft at the very last second really ARE the most disorganized goofballs that you’ll ever see in your life. It’s hard to stomach the fact that this specimen of abstracted doofus has supplanted you on the airplane until you remember that they actually bought a ticket and you didn’t.

Missing the one flight seemed benign enough… but then the next flight to Frankfurt was cancelled, and that’s where my troubles really began. Soon, it became apparent that I’d run into a virtual wall of oversold flights, and wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon. After having spent most of my stay in the Mission at this point, I wisely switched gears at this point and spent the next few days with my airline friend Will, who lives just 15 minutes from the airport. His place is The Libertine, a sailboat docked off the South San Francisco Marina:

His girlfriend Colleen, a flight attendant, lives in an adjacent houseboat that she calls The Sanctuary— but Will refers to as The Wild Thing— that was my home for the next three nights:

Thus began a strange three-day regimen: two trips per day to the airport that I decided to treat as though I was a devout Muslim and the airport was the local mosque— i.e. don’t question it, just do it. Stand in line, check in, robotically go through security, read Keith Richards’ Life while everyone bustlingly loads onto the plane, then stoically accept the news that the plane is full, text Will, walk out to the pickup area, jump into the van and get driven back to the marina for another few hours of rancho relaxo… then back the airport for another attempt… then off to the city for nighttime antics.

With the notable exception of these futile, ritualistic airport trips, the rest of my stay was spent in a hazy condition resembling a mixture of Gilligan’s Island and quaaludes. I made a feeble attempt to help Will with fixing up his boat, but then soon retired to a lot of this:

Here’s a typical dinner on the boat, before heading out into the city:

Finally, after a fifth failed attempt to get on a flight, my impatience and desire to see my wife and son became insurmountable, and so I jumped online in the airport… and managed to find a flight from SFO to Dusseldorf the next day for $500. Thank Allah God for 9/11! How weird it was to enter the airport this time as a fully-entitled patron, full of all the normal assurances of boarding the plane, no longer playing the heady razor’s-edge game of airplane roulette. A mere 30 hours later, I was back in Prague, reunited with my wife and child. And then, 24 hours later, back in Berlin again.

See also: How My First Night In SF Was Spent At The Frankfurt Hotel Airport Bar

Three Dorketeers

Halfway through my San Francisco trip, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Johnny O of Burrito Justice and TK of 40goingon28 for a few drinks, where we formed a dorky Three Blogeteers-type roundtable of sorts. Also, KevMo from Uptown Almanac made a cameo appearance in the beginning of the evening. It was a lot of fun— Johnny I’d met before, but TK and Kevin were fresh acquaintances, and all are great guys to have a beer with.

The anatomy of a blind ‘blog date’ is a strange one. OH MY GOD, DOES MY HAIR LOOK GOOD? First, there’s the weird phenomenon of matching an unfamiliar face to a hyper-familiar writing voice, and the unsettling suspicion that the person in front of you could in fact be an obsessed stalker who’s read all of another person’s blog and is pretending to be the blogger and you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference. Then— more pressingly— there’s the weird disjoint of having a conversation with somebody who knows all of this anecdotal nonsense that you blog about your life (‘Oh, so, you’re familiar with my attempt to match up European countries to U.S. states?’) but is unfamiliar with some of the most basic aspects of your autobiography (where you grew up, how old your child is, etc). The closest thing I can compare it to is during the days when I was taking drawing classes and would sometimes bump into the models from the class on the street— there would be an awkward sense of ‘Here we are, having a conversation, and yet I know what you look like naked and you don’t know what I look like naked.’ In the case of the blind blog date, it’s a two way street— each person has glimpsed into the other’s boudoir— but there’s the same essential feeling that the normal order of steps by which you get to know a person has somehow been flipped around. Now, it’s not like this was actually penetratingly weird— it was basically just a beery good time during a trip filled with such— but the underlying social dynamic at work is peculiar enough that I feel obligated to try to describe it a bit.

I should add that our host for the evening was the ever-enjoyable Homestead Bar. In retrospect, this was a much better choice of location than the first time I met up with Johnny O in April of 2010. In that instance, I suggested that he meet me at Hard French, the outdoor El Rio party, since I was planning on going there anyway— this resulted in the near-slapstick scenario of two straight blog guys who don’t know what the other looks like trying to pick each other out of a huge crowd of cruising gay men. Will I ever win?

New Year’s Resolution Update

Back in the dawn of 2011, I set a goal of finally learning to drive stick as my new year’s resolution, since it’s the last tangible barrier standing between me and the mental image I have of what a fully-functioning adult looks and acts like. In retrospect, I could have made thing easier on myself by setting a resolution of… oh, I dunno… moving to Berlin and getting in a car wreck on the way as a suitably challenging goal and I’d conveniently be off the hook right now. But since I’m stuck with trying to learn stick, I figured I might as well take a bite out of it during my San Francisco trip, since I’m running out of 2011 and all.

So, today was the big lesson. We started in the parking lot of the Stonestown Shopping Center— which required me to take MUNI for the first time in 500 years to get there— and then wound up cruising around The So-Called Great Highway and whatnot. Now, when you’re 38 years old and writing in your blog about learning stick shift, there’s really nothing to feel good about, so don’t get the wrong idea— but I can truthfully say that I only stalled a few brief times and genuinely felt that I got the gist of it. It was basically like driving and operating a sewing loom at the same time. Which is of course something I have extensive experience with. I just closed my eyes and pretended I was looming.

I have to mention that my teacher, Derrick of Apex Driving School, was literally the best teacher I think I’ve ever had in any context. This guy was born to drive, teach and be superhumanly patient all at the same time. If there are any readers who need to learn to drive stick, I can’t recommend this guy enough.

So: progress made; humiliating sensations of futility waning somewhat. There are many future lessons that await me when I get back to Berlin before I can confidently chauffeur my son around on the Autobahn. But I feel like there’s hope of closing the books on this one before 2011 ends.

The Fake-Friendly Thing

I’m going to keep this short, because surely it’s boring to read anything where some expat guy is complaining about US culture… but I really have to comment on how mind-bending the standards of customer service are in this country if you’re not accustomed to a steady diet of fake friendliness.

Did it used to seem normal to me when a store clerk would thank me simply for entering his or her store without actually buying anything? More pressingly, what did I say when someone would chirp “How’s everything working out for you?” whenever I emerged from a dressing room with rejected pair of pants in hand? This seems like an unresolvable double-bind now: if you say, “Good,” then it seems to create a false expectation that you’re going buy the pants (which I almost never do). But if you say, “Well… badly,” then that seems weird. And surely the clerk doesn’t want a blow-by-blow of your expectations heading into the dressing room versus the shattering reality of how the pants didn’t fit well or weren’t what you wanted or whatever.

In the case in question, I wound up saying, “Oh, well, they didn’t really fit”.

Thanks for trying!”

I give up.

Berkeley Field Trip: Merzbau

It happens that, right at the time I’m visiting San Francisco, the Berkeley Art Museum is hosting the first major exhibition in fifty years on the work of mockduck favorite Kurt Schwitters— master collagist, all-around loon.

Belying his tendency to dress like a banker, Schwitters was one of the great eccentrics of the early modernist period, running a one-man design movement he called Merz (named after the tail end of a sign reading Kommerz visible through his apartment window) throughout a life spent on the run, in exile from Nazi Germany. Schwitters’ main legacy is his apeshit use of collage, gluing together random found objects that somehow form an intensely introspective, personal viewing experience:

I went to the exhibition with old friend Alastair Johnston (shown here playing Thelonious Monk in Monk costume). We peered through the collages and noted old tram tickets, chocolate and tobacco wrappers (suggestive of a less-than-healty diet) and elements of what seemed to be a dissected croquet set. I was fascinated to discover that the smallest collages seemed to carry the most power: the impact of the larger ones seemed to dissipate slightly as one’s eye tracked around them; the smaller ones, meanwhile, had this boggling degree of carefully-wrought detail that seemed to squirm under one’s gaze.

As much as I enjoyed the collages, the 500 pound gorilla of the show was lurking in the basement, where the curators had sought to rebuild Schwitters’ infamous Merzbau. The Merzbau was a fantastic installation that Schwitters began piecing together in the apartment house owed by his father (although the two were closely connected, the Dadaists allegedly refused to extend membership to Schwitters on account of his bourgeoise lineage)— collage applied to interior design:

The Merzbau eventually overran the confines of Schwitters’ flat and — as legend has it — prompted him to get the upstairs neighbors evicted so he could knock out the ceiling and continue building his masterpiece. Naturally, the entire artifice got left behind when he fled Germany for Norway in 1937. (Alastair pointed out to me that probably many of the freestanding small sculptural pieces shown in the main exhibition space were just pieces that Schwitters couldn’t bear to leave behind and snapped off the Merzbau and stuffed in his suitcase or something). Later in his life, Schwitters started a second Merzbau in Norway (burnt down) and then a Merzbarn in England (unfinished at the time of his death).

The exhibition curators have attempted to recreate the Merzbau from archival photographs and the descriptions of Schwitters’ surviving son. There was a distracting clicking on and off of lights (attempting to show you what it looked like in day vs. night), but otherwise, the recreation seemed as faithful to the original as one can possibly hope for. There were maddening details, like a stairway that seemed to round a corner and abruptly end— no one could tell what the artists’ intention was here (plus a student intern guard barked at you if you attempted to crane your neck around the corner to find out).

If Merzbaus aren’t really your thing, and you’re more into sound poetry, you can check out Schwitters’ bizarre foray into nonsense recitation, the Ursonate:


After the exhibition, I did one my favorite stock Bay Area activities, the old Hike Up The Berkeley Fire Trail. This was a standby of mine when I would occasionally wake up on a Sunday overwhelmed with a feeling of tiredness towards the Mission. In triumphant vacation form this time, I managed to find a bench with a spectacular view at the very top of the hill range and promptly fall asleeep on it.

I’ve never really found a friend who shares my toleration of Berkeley, but I could happily see just throwing every other aspect of my personality overboard and settling into a classic, cliche-riddled existence as Stereotypical Healthy Old Guy In Berkeley. Golden retriever, front yard, jogging— the works. It’s not like I actively see my life heading in this direction; more like I’d strongly consider diverting it from whatever that direction is if this was the reward. It would be difficult to shut off the critical faculties of one’s brain to swallow all the Berkeley malarky that you’d have to listen to all the time… but if you could master that one trick, you’d be all set in other regards.