Superbowl Hostage Crisis

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.

Solarium and Vodka

• This is my first winter in Berlin… and, man, it gets dark early here. We’re already down to 4:30pm daylight curfew and there’s still a month to go to the solstice. I’m about ready to curl up in the solarium with a few bottles of vodka for the next few months.

• I caught a cold in Prague that metastasized in the world’s most annoying, hacking cough over the last week. Yesterday, while I was at my work space, I was actually slinking out of the office on multiple occasions into the bathroom just to go have a good round of coughing. It had gotten to the point where I was embarrassed to cough any more in the presence of people who were trying to get work done. This is a necessary nod to integrity on my part, because I hate it when I’m trying to concentrate and some wretched person keeps coughing… so I have to try to be at least somewhat consistent. Then, this morning, I burst into a nosebleed while on the U-Bahn, from all the honking over the past few days. What a pain in the ass. What is it about a nosebleed that inspires such contempt? I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a vague presumption that you’re likely a cocaine abuser or something. It feels especially damning in a situation like German mass transit where there are lots of people and everyone’s sort of reasonably well put together. If it happened on the BART, you could at least be confident that there would be at least seven more disturbing, unhygienic people in the immediate vicinity.

• The wife and I have found a nice new sublet for the next year as we weigh our long-term options (Berlin vs. Prague). We have to leave our present, glorious sublet next month, when the master tenants return from their year abroad. The new place is in a peculiar neighborhood called ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island)— the ‘island’ part comes from the fact that the area is surrounded by a triangle of train tracks, so one must cross a bridge to get in; the ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was traditionally a lefty stronghold and was the last area to hold out against Hitler’s political machine in the 1930s.

Before taking our Red Island place, we went and looked at one place that seemed spacious and well-priced but turned out to be located at the exact epicenter for monumental Soviet-style architecture, Frankfurter Tor:

No thanks! If I hadn’t just got done living in Prague for five years, this might seem culturally intriguing, but as things stand…. I think I’ve had enough.

In contrast to the massive authoritarianism of Frankfurter Tor, I prefer the cutesy neighborliness of  ‘Little Hamburger Street’:

(Top: Plague mask by Andreas Krautwald)

Where Amazing! Means Ordinary

Next week, I’m making my standard pilgrimage back to San Francisco. Only this time, I’m scrambling for accommodation, having apparently overstayed my welcome at the usual crash pad (long story, but it doesn’t include any episodes of vomiting or trafficking exotic animals this time). As a result, I’ve been thrown to the ravenous clutches of, which has been a fairly scandalizing experience:

• First off, the prices people are asking for their dorky studios seem like the crazed ravings of madmen to me. Now: I have been gone awhile, so it’s quite possible that I’m being a naive country field mouse about this. Nevertheless, some of these posts do make me yearn for a jeep full of vigilante Taliban to cruise around the Mission and punish demonstrations of heedless greediness that offend Allah’s sight. The above listing for the $300 sofa, for example, includes this gem:

The couch is a two-piece, so one tall and one short person can sleep. Blankets provided.

Well, then. What about if I try to stack three short people on— does that cost extra?

(Could this— and other posts like it— be a hoax? If so, the author is a comic genius)

• My main grievance is not the price but the fact that people can’t be bothered to update the goddamn calendars that are supposed to indicate when the sublet is and isn’t available.

This means that you’re constantly making bookings that you have to wait a day to find out have been refused. The whole vibe of snooty time-wasting makes the experience feel like a virtual counterpart to the 10 minutes spent waiting at the Beauty Bar for some too-cool-for-school mofo bartender to deign to serve you. And basically makes me start to wish I’d picked someplace to go for my vacation. Let’s just move on…

• If I’ve learned anything useful from this experience, it’s that the word ‘Amazing’ apparently means Absolutely and totally nondescript with nothing whatsoever to recommend it when it’s followed by the word ‘Apartment’ in the English language. As in ‘Amazing Studio at 16th and Mission!’.

In fairness, I have to say that the most insanely histrionic claim I’ve come across during this search was not on but rather in a listing for the San Francisco Guest House:

I mean… OK, so…. exaggerations are par for the course. But would it surprise you if the person who wrote this simply burst into flames on the spot?

So, anyway: see you soon, SF. Me and my short companion await our stay on your magic, separable couch.

I Am Looking For Freedom

I’m so up on being in Berlin right now that it’s annoying even to have to hear myself thinking about it. Yesterday when I started biking home from my workspace, the trip began with me standing on a sidewalk waiting to hop into an adjacent bike lane that was so packed with bicycling Berliners that it took me a full minute to actually get a chance to merge the flow of traffic. What heaven.

The one thing that’s really bugging me is being behind the Great German Internet Wall. If you don’t know about this: youtube blocks just about any video content that any large corporate entity has a copyright claim to, due to an ongoing dispute over royalties with something called GEMA (details here). As a result, the youtube experience here contains an awful lot of this:

Wanna watch the most enjoyable clip on all of youtube, Sts’ Rolling Stones parody? Not in Germany you won’t. Or, say, the Matthew Wilder Solid Gold clip I did the short running blog to a few weeks back? Same story. You have to wonder if Germans as a group are going to turn into the national equivalent of that kid you went to grade school with whose progressive parents didn’t allow him or her to watch TV and so didn’t understand basic pop-culture tropes and was forced to try to fake it in order to get by.

Grim as all this is, it’s given me an idea for an alternate revenue stream in case this whole graphic design thing falls apart. My plan is to use my connections to get to Prague– that land of freedom and civil liberties to the east– where these youtube clips are still legal. Then I will set up a video camera in front of a computer monitor, record various videos with shaky camera work, and finally transfer them to VHS tapes that I will smuggle back into Germany and sell from under a bridge someplace in Kruezberg. Banned videos from the internet! I will surely be able sell each one for literally dozens of Deutsche Marks.

Let The Facile Comparisons Begin!

So far, during our first week in Berlin, my wife and I have agreed to a system whereby I’m allowed one comment per day along the lines of ‘Berlin awesome! / Prague sucks!’ so that I don’t drive her crazy by continually beating the same conversational drum throughout the day (plus, you know, denigrating her native culture and that stuff).

I find that I get the most mileage out of my one daily comment if I present it as a pseudo-amnesiac episode. Example: on Saturday afternoon, we went to a bike store to get help fixing our kiddo bike seat onto my wife’s bike. On the way back, I decided to use my allotted comment this way:

Me: ‘Boy, that sucks that we didn’t get to the bike store before noon and so it was already closed when we arrived.’

Wife: (confused)

Me: ‘Oh, wait– we’re in Berlin, I forgot… the store was open! That’s Prague where every bike store in the city is closed by noon.’

I have to admit that this construction gets pretty contrived after a while, but I don’t think I’ve totally worn it out. Yet.

Other comments-of-the-day have revolved around fairly banal (yet strangely evocative) differences in day-to-day life. The fact that people will stop for ice cream and sit down with it on the curb and idle away a few minutes enjoying themselves there instead of sullenly bustling away as fast as possible. The fact that the bank machines actually dispense notes that you can break without getting the Czech Iron Curtain Face (Czech ATMs for some reason dispense the equivalent of $120 bills, which you’re subjected to eight kinds of contempt simultaneously if you try to use anywhere). You get the picture– lots of small things of the Pulp Fiction ‘Burger Royale’ caliber. Then there’s also the UNBELIEVABLE RELIEF at being able to bike everywhere again. (You can bicycle in Prague, but will quickly drop it if you value life and living to any degree). I almost feel it breaks the entire social contract if you’re living in a city and can’t bike…

But most of all, there’s a startling sensation of dilation for me coming from a place as culturally-compressed as Prague. Everything in Prague is still done in a way that is just Czech, Czech, Czech… often, nobody seems to know why it’s done this way… maybe the thinking behind it hasn’t been revisited in three centuries… but it just is a certain way and there’s no negotiating with it. Berlin has the kind of elasticity preferred by rootless cosmopolitan Jewish homosexuals like myself– the city seems to mutate and adjust to meet the shifting demands of its inhabitants, be it a demand for ethnic food or stores that stay open past fucking noon on a Saturday.

(Photo: on same Saturday, we all biked together to Mauer Park, as I hoped that something interesting would happen that would justify my constant ‘Blah blah, Berlin is so cool’ claims. We arrived at the place where I’ve heard about the karaoke being done and came upon this impromptu mime act. Whew!)


So, how did the big move to Berlin go? Well, not so great…

The plan was to rent a giant van, pack all our stuff inside on Friday night while our kid was sleeping. Then, Saturday, leave him in Prague to celebrate his birthday with a babysitter while we drove the van to Berlin (this was horribly guilt-inducing and heart-rending, about abandoning him on his birthday I mean… but at least he’s too young to care about birthdays and likes his babysitter.) The idea was to have everything unloaded and carried up three flights of stairs in Prenzlauer Berg by 5pm, allowing us to get back to Prague at about 9 to relieve the babysitter.

As it happened, we got within 12 miles of Berlin– right by the old Schönfeld airport– when some guy in a pickup truck in front of us started wavering uncertainly. He pulled off the road finally ahead of us, so my wife– who was driving– let down her guard for a moment and started to say something to me. Just then, the idiot pulled back onto the road without indicating and decided to try to do a u-turn (illegal of course– we’re on the highway!) in front of us. I yelled, my wife slammed on the brakes and we collided at about 30mph, smashing the passenger side of the van and puncturing the oil filter. Suddenly, the scenario shifted from fiddle-dee-dee, we’re moving to a new city! to we must now stand on the side of the highway and summon the German police.

The spätzel-eating cretin who’d pulled into our path didn’t have a ‘handy’, so it was up to us to make the necessary calls. I had of course imagined that there would be a point in our moving-to-Berlin adventure where my lack of German would be a serious problem… but hadn’t imagined that the moment would occur before we even technically arrived (at this point, I should mention that, mockingly, the Berlin city limits sign was about 100 yards ahead of us). I managed to reach a police dispatcher who spoke the glorious international language that is English and, after a Germanic long-but-not-as-long-as-you’d-wait-in-the-U.S. interval, two cops pulled up. I’d love to be able to write that the encounter with the German police was either like a Sprockets skit or a Gestapo porn scene, but in fact it was neither. There was a point that involved me describing what had transpired in hand signals only, but otherwise there was nothing funny about this situation whatsoever. Luckily, my wife speaks a decent lick of German, so she was able to make the relevant points such as ‘wait, you realize that the other driver has to be lying when he tells you he wasn’t pulling a u-turn, given that the dent is on the side of his car, right?’

Meanwhile, during the half hour we waited for the cops, the following things were learned by phone: (1) the rental company in Prague will send a tow-truck driver out from Prague who will arrive in four hours; (2) the flim-flam insurance agreement my wife signed leaves us liable for the towing costs, but (3) somewhat amazingly, you can get a tow-truck to come from Prague to Berlin at the drop of a hat and haul you and your vehicle back to Prague for about $600, which seems pretty cheap to me, all things considered. (4) Our babysitter has agreed to spend the night with our kid– this news is met with overwhelming relief. But that relief is entirely cancelled out by the horrifying realization that (5) we’re looking at having all our stuff towed all the way back to Prague when we’d almost made it to Berlin, like some obnoxious video game where your frog is run over by a truck and you have to start over again at the beginning of the highway. This prompts me to call my friend in Berlin who (6) is just rolling out of bed at 3pm and agrees to run out and get another rental truck, meet us at the scene of the accident, help transfer everything from the smashed van, complete the move, and drive us back to the scene of the accident in time to meet the Czech tower at 9pm. Day saved! Otherwise, we would have been looking at… what, exactly? Arriving back in Prague with a smashed van full of stuff and no home to put it (sublettors were coming the next day to move into our place), plus a babysitter who’s already gassed and tired of us from having spent an entire Saturday taking care of our kid. Yikes.

Wife and I blearily watched Strapping Tow Truck Guy do his thing and raise our van onto his truck, then we got into the cab of his truck and immediately slept the entire way home, arriving in Prague at about 3am. Amazingly, at this point, we still weren’t out of the woods entirely: two nights later, we were staying at a friend’s place in Prague and planning to make the final move the next morning when we discovered that our child car seat was broken and couldn’t be fastened correctly. After three of the most exasperating hours of my life spent trying to fix it, we eventually consigned ourselves to making a mad dash out the next morning for a new seat. During the final drive in our car on Tuesday, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the asphalt suddenly rise up and devour the car whole– I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervously prepped for disaster.

Anyway, um………. it’s great to be here! I just wish getting here hadn’t been so fraught. Just to warn you, the two stock overused joke remarks that people have been making about this incident are ‘It’s a sign you weren’t supposed to leave Prague!’ (Czech people make this one) or some variant of ‘Good thing you got all the bad luck out of the way first thing!’ (Germans and Americans). So, if you make a comment along either of those lines, it probably won’t be as original as you think.

[ … ]

This space is where my delighted comments on seeing Konono no. 1 last night would have gone… if I hadn’t instead gotten so sick that I had to go home and sleep for 13 hours. I had a ticket and everything. Curses.

While missing the show last night, the only interesting thing I managed to think about was this: What if ‘being sick’ and ‘being well’ as states of being were exactly reversed, so that people spent most of their time feeling sick but then mysteriously ‘got well’ for a few days at a time? How would ‘being well’ then be perceived– would people eagerly capitalize on it, or instead treat it as some malign state to be avoided and waited out as harmlessly as possible?

Cognitive Dissonance

Two things I’m finding confusing right now:

1. Taste dissonance: grapes and raisins. Given that grapes and raisins are practically the same thing, you would expect their tastes to be complementary. So why is the experience of eating one and then the other in rapid succession so unappetizing? Try it for yourself– it’s surprisingly bad.

2. Not-so-fundamental nature of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. The Fundamental Attribution Error is super cool-sounding. But the phenomenon it describes isn’t really all that fundamental: basically, if you step in poop, I’m likely to assume that it happened because you’re the kind of person who steps in poop, whereas if I do it, I’m likely to assume that its because the poop was poorly placed. This reflects an interesting bias, but it’s not like the phenomenon crops up all that often.

To me, it seems to me that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ would better describe the phenomenon where somebody mistakes a symptom of a situation for its cause. For example: lots of people are having accidents, and there are lots of ambulances on the streets– therefore, the ambulances must be causing the accidents. This comes up more often than the step-in-poop phenomenon described above, if you ask me.

I wonder if people who work in various fields of social science are secretly miffed that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ got scooped up and used before they had a chance to claim it for whatever mistake-tendency they happen to be researching.

(Image: Josef Muller-Brockmann poster designed for public service campaign against noise pollution. Actually has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance, but works nicely together so long as you don’t speak German).

Technology thumbs up/thumbs down

Thumbs up: On the plus side, I managed to figure out the adding-a-side-bar-to-the-blog thing that I was alluding to in last post. See? There it is, to the right. That thing with the blog roll in it. That wasn’t there yesterday, and wasn’t built into the blog template we just switched to. I haven’t done any coding in so long that I felt like the bear at the circus who drives the little car around while I was modifying the PHP of the site… but, lo, I have prevailed. I think.

Thumbs down: We woke up for the third time this summer to no running water. Not good. The City of Prague’s response to this? Speeding a little municipal water truck over to the corner:

What is this… Burning Man? Given that Burning Man just ended last weekend, it almost seems like some sort of goofy tribute. I half-expected to see a stiltedly-translated banner proclaiming “Today, we salute the bourgeoise malaise that inspires our cousins from the land of Wilson, Lincoln and Washington to ritualistically head to the desert for reasons that remain mysterious to foreign observers.”

Jazz 78s, part two and unrelated ranting

• Looks like I spoke too soon about my back. After victoriously crowing about it feeling entirely better on Monday, I screwed it up again on Tuesday playing basketball. Not good times. Bad times.

• To follow up on an old post: my buddy Tol is blowing through Prague this week and reports having heard that Zoltan Rex is out of jail now. Might just be a false rumor, but three years in a Hungarian prison seems about right as appropriate punishment for faking your own death.

• By sheer coincidence, my father’s cousin and mother’s cousin were both visiting Prague last weekend, giving me a chance for some quality time with the ol’ cousins-once-removed.

This got me pondering my own weirdo family tree a bit: my father’s side of the family is Jewish, but my own distinct branch bears little evidence of this because my father’s mother was a social climber who found it inconvenient to be Jewish in the Manhattan of the 1940s and essentially smothered all consciousness of it in our family. What’s interesting is that members of the family who don’t descend from this dubious grandmother seem discernibly Jewish, whereas my father and I don’t (even though my father is no more or less Jewish racially than they are). It’s strange how the awareness of being something (or lack of awareness) can seemingly alter one’s very physiognomy. They should do one of those experiments where they take two identical twins and raise one with an awareness of being Jewish and the other without and see what happens (whoops, I just used ‘experiment’ and ‘Jewish’ in the same sentence– let’s just move on…)

• It’s become clear that the train ride from Budapest to Prague is Central Europe’s 9 hour version of the 14 Mission bus line in SF. If you take it at night from Prague to Budapest, they stuff you into old commie-era trains that have seats like slippery church pews, so you spend the entire night groggily sliding around as the old train SCREETCHES around curves, whinnying like a terrified horse in a lightning storm. In the daytime, meanwhile, the air conditioning inevitably breaks down, amidst other sundry horrors: when I last rode it, I personally witnessed an organized purse snatching; when one of the cousins-once-removed took it last week, the guy sitting next to her had an epileptic seizure in the middle of the air-conditionless heat. To my undying amazement, my cousin suddenly remembered her training from 5th grade home room and stuck a pencil in her hand into the guy’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue.

• Imagine if there was a rare condition that caused your head hair to take on the wiry roughness of body hair and your body hair to take on the fluffy lustrousness of head hair. That would be disgusting.

OK, here’s another round of those vintage jazz 78s I was talking about. I love the Harold Owens Hawaii one in particular…