Wednesday, April 29, 2009

writing all over town

So as you may recall I have three writing groups (I stopped going to the fourth, the first-Friday-night German-English very large group (25+) that meet and discuss already-written things).

The three I still go to are all ones where we write while we're together. And then do different amounts of reading out loud and talking. 

There's my every-second-and-fourth-Saturday-afternoon group, at Ostkreuz, which is almost exactly on the complete opposite side of Berlin from me and takes me about 45 minutes to get to if I hit everything right with one bus and two fast trains. There's my every-Friday-morning group at a place called The Coffeeshop which is an hour's walk or a 17-minute bus ride from me, and there's the every-fourth-Wednesday-night group which is a maybe 25- or 30-minute bus ride away.

So last week, unusually, all of them happened.

On Saturday, I went to Ostkreuz. There had been some online back-and-forths about who was coming. The previous time, I went and no-one else showed. The time before that, there were two of us. The few times before that, when I had been unable to go, there was also sometimes one person only. So we talked about it online, and then one person besides me committed for Saturday, two others said they might come, and it ended up being three of us: me, Jana, and Yana (both of those are pronounced the same). Jana is 20, pale-faced, jet-black hair, majoring in classics at the university, writes fan fiction and serial scifi and has chat rooms where she does timed writing with people on the weekends. Yana is between 40 and 50 I'm guessing, esoteric and does things like teaching creativity workshops, and she's been the one who's driven the group, proposed writing exercises, really kind of made us move forward - she's also the one who has been there alone a time or two.

This is the group that started up in November during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, 50,000 words in 30 days). And so we always had an MO that involved getting together and just writing our own things first - we still do that. I don't have an ongoing writing project right now so during that time I brainstorm, try to generate ideas, make lists, think up things that need to be worked on. And then we do writing exercises. And it turned out that Yana has been feeling kind of put-upon, she brings all the ideas and, she said, sometimes other people were just shooting them down. And I guess there was a meeting that I had missed where other people said no thanks to all the ideas she brought forward, and finally they did no writing exercise at all. And so she wondered why she was coming. And had been "forgetting" the meeting, she said, probably also for that reason. She said for her, writing together was the whole poing of getting together like this.

And Jana said the whole writing exercise thing, doing something suggested by someone else, was weird to her. So I asked her why she likes to come to the group - she said, to talk about writing, talk about what we're doing - but also she said she does want to do the writing exercises, they're just a stretch and unusual to her. (Nobody asked me why do I like to come to the group and I didn't volunteer, but for me I think it's also very much both - I did tell Yana that I have really appreciated the writing exercises she has brought, especially the narrative one where you start with a person and a routine and then you tell a story linked with "because": "because this happened, then that happened; because that happened, then the other happened, etcetera" - it's very cool and interesting and generates a lot of plot and took me in a whole other direction. // And I also very much like the conversations with the others about our writing.)

So then I asked Yana if she'd rather I proposed an exercise, and indeed she did prefer that, and I proposed one I'd found online for my Friday morning writing group where I have the function that Yana had been having here: write a story with dialogue where nobody ever says more than three words at a time. (Actually, I proposed three different exercises and we kind of meshed them and frankly, I am not right now remembering what the others were.) So we did that, and then I had to leave but they stayed to pursue some of those ideas more.

And then Wednesday night (which was the 5th Friday of April, not the 4th, but it was moved back this week) was completely different! I had told my every-Wednesday-night play-reading group, of which I am currently in charge, well in advance I wouldn't be there on that Wednesday night [I left them with copies of a play], and off I went to Begine, the women's cafe on Potsdamer Strasse, and got off the bus in a drizzle and there was Rita standing outside, with her kind of frizzy pink-on-top-of-white/gray hair, and we chatted a while. There was actually more of a threatening drizzle than a real drizzle, and it was also kind of clear air and some sun (does that make any sense?) and she said that inside the cafe it was dark and musty and smelled like smoke. So we hung around outside for a while, and then we saw Anna-Katharina, a kind of cool-looking put-together woman who was there last month for the first time, and finally Ellen, the 28-year-old youngster woman who runs the thing, showed on her bike, with what looked like some wild-and-crazy wraparound long-low loin cloth and I asked her about it and she said it was just a piece of cloth wrapped around by herself that way with a belt because she was bored with her clothes that morning. I do things with cloths, but that I had never thought of.

Anyway, we did finally eventually go inside because everyone thought it was too loud outside, and we sat by the window and had the lights turned up and the music turned down, and the last person who showed up was Petra, a smallish woman who I found somehow offputting in her looks, though her writing seemed to go in completely other directions than I might have expected. And we did our writing exercises, suggested by Ellen, and this is the part I wanted to say that was so very interesting, especially contrasted with the experience with Yana.

Ellen often has us do this thing where she brings a book, opens to a page, closes her eyes, and points to a word or a sentence and we use that as a starting point. This time we said no, we'll choose our own words, and the five words that the five of us chose were, if I remember, something like fingernails, embalming, bathtub, daughter, and [??? - can't remember the fifth]. And we said we'd write a story using these words, but three of the five of us ended up not using embalming after all, and Ellen said something about repression (we did all write darkish things where there was more than a strong hint of death). And that gave me an idea: I said, how about we choose five words and *don't* use those five words - we can think about them, the way you think about elephants when somebody says now don't think about elephants - in fact we should think about them, but just not use them. I thought this was actually a potentially pretty interesting exercise. And Ellen completely nixed it. And when I said sort of laughingly to Anna Katharina, who had just come back from the bathroom, that Ellen didn't like my idea, she said yeah, I suggested an exercise that she didn't like either (that must have been when *I* was in the bathroom).

So we went on to other things, and I started thinking aha, Ellen doesn't really want to push too deep or too hard here with these writing exercises, now does she? And more than that, Ellen *really* doesn't want somebody else to be in control of anything, now does she!? So it was an interesting realization, especially after Yana was feeling annoyed at the opposite thing, that she was put in charge of things and not let off (though as I think about it, what she was annoyed about was that while she was in charge, people were just rejecting her suggestions - and that made her not want to be in charge all by herself).

And then Friday morning, even though it was May Day, a complete holiday in this country, and even though my family was home and my mother-in-law was visiting and we were having a family party in the afternoon for Felix's birthday, I did have my Friday-morning group. I had written the previous Sunday to everybody (there are five of us total, though one hasn't come in several months) to see if people wanted to meet Friday. Only heard from one, Sharon, about Tuesday, and she did want to come. I was trying to figure out our family logistics and hadn't responded to her and Thursday she wrote to say well, are we? So I called the Coffeeshop to see if they were open the next day and they were, and I discussed it with my family, and I wrote back to her and the others and said yes, let's do it - and who besides Sharon is coming?

Nobody answered. (Friday morning then one person answered, M.-E., who has not come in several months, to say she couldn't.) Friday morning I went off. Caught a very empty bus by the skin of my teeth, went down to a very empty downtown, went over to the Coffeeshop and found it closed. I was lightly dressed for the warm weather that was supposed to appear a couple hours later and sat on a cold marble thing in the (again) threatening drizzle outside the Coffeeshop for about twenty minutes, and was planning to leave by 10:30 if nobody showed when Sharon showed, bless her heart, at 10:20. [Turned out the Coffeeshop was on holiday schedule and opening at 11, which they hadn't mentioned the day before when I called to see if they were going to be open. We left a note with somebody who had just come to open up, saying that the others should call on my cell phone if they turned up.]

And we went off to a different cafe, and actually had a very good meeting. We did a haiku exercise from a while ago, and the three-word-dialogue exercise again (Sharon hadn't done either of those before), and it was just the two of us, and I was very glad I had gone. (Later I went home and there was e-mail from Meg that she'd sent at 10. Anna never did say anything one way or another.)

We'll be in Berlin for three more months, and I'm starting to think about what I am going to take away from all of these writing groups. I'm so glad I've been doing this. I've really got to hunker down for my editorial deadlines and I'm not sure what that's going to do to the writing. My Friday morning group has talked about doing an all-day writing retreat on June 21st but I'm starting to think it might be me doing a bunch of preparation and nothing coming of it. So I have to think this through - try to avoid that fate but maybe we can have a really nice writing day anyway and I can figure out how not to spend lots of time and energy ahead of time?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Varied Day is a Good Day; a Good Day is a Varied Day

This was going to be titled "Advice from my father" but in fact it wasn't really advice. It's just something he told me about how he lives his own life that resonated with me very much and continues to. It is just this:

A while ago, he told me that every day, he tries to do all of these things:
- practice his 'cello
- get some exercise
- work on a current project (sometimes it's a translation, sometimes it's research on a biblical topic or a Greek or Hebrew word)
- do personal Bible study

(Daddy, I think I have the last two right).

The point is, there are very different pieces to the day and it matters to get them all in.

Yesterday, I had a wonderful hourlong walk with my two Weight Watcher buddies, then a very good Weight Watcher meeting (suffused in the rosy glow of my having weighed in at 1.3 kilos less than the previous week). I also worked in my office on the current editorial project (813 pages I have to get done in 7 weeks) for about maybe 4 or 5 hours total? (half an hour before Weight Watchers, two hours between Weight Watchers and Felix coming home from school, two more hours in the late afternoon)

I also ran some errands while walking home from Weight Watchers, and went into very different kinds of stores and saw and talked to different people there. I had a nice time at home with Felix in the middle of the day when he came home from school. In the evening we had a neighbor/friend/colleague of hubby's here for a couple of hours whom we like very much - it was nice to have him though I felt a little stressed for time.

Then we got the apartment a little ready for mother-in-law (coming tonight). Some online Scrabble, some chatting in front of the TV which was showing things about the Third Reich [my sudden thought: what other country has anything like this, a time period in the history which so completely dominates and overshadows every other time period ever - hubby pointed out maybe Civil War in the U.S. and that certainly goes in the direction but not, absolutely not, to this degree] - and off to bed.

One thing I really wanted to do yesterday but didn't was practice the guitar.

One thing I really ought to have done yesterday but didn't (didn't want to, but should have): look at bills due, pay them, pay my estimated taxes that were due April 15th . . .

Still, a varied day, and therefore a good day, and thank you, Daddy!

The Happiness Project

So I still don't know how to paste links into this blog, but maybe in a minute I'll type in one or two. I just wanted to say that I occasionally follow Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project (on the online Slate magazine, or in e-mails she sends me once a month).

Today she had a post about keeping connected with your past. Especially timely because Sheldon just visited, but I thought also a wonderful impetus anyway.

And also in that post there was a link to an older post, about keeping a one-sentence journal. Sounds like a wonderful idea! One sentence a day. Her point is: it is SO manageable. And over time it really adds up to something you can look back at.

[And wow: now I can suddenly paste in links after all! Watch out - I may be putting in enormous numbers of them from now on. I'll try to chill.]

Sunday, April 26, 2009

there is more rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven . . . (recycling division)

There is more rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven over one lamb that was lost and then found than over the ninety-nine who were never lost.

And I just took out the recycling - one bag of smelly horrible gross wet organic stuff, two bags of garbage garbage (here they call it "Restmüll" - i.e. the rest of the garbage - everything that doesn't fit the compost group or one of the recycling groups), one bag of plastics and packaging, and my lime green big over-the-shoulder bag my mother-in-law gave me years ago (hi, Irene, if you're reading this!) that here in Berlin has been perfect for our paper recycling (went nicely with my pale green and pale pink leaves-and-stems-patterned baby-doll vintage dress from Cactus Flower in Bloomington) - I trailed a path of papery things that fell out behind me as I went (yes, I picked them all up on my way home).

ANYway - I put all the other bags down and emptied the paper stuff first. And since the bin was pretty full I had to spread my stuff out and smush it down a little to fit. And in doing so I happened on some paper that was not a Kleenex box, not a shopping list (though it seemed to be next to some), not printer paper or any of the other stuff that is usually in there, but rather . . . two bills, one a hundred euros and one fifty euros.

Hooray! I took them out of the bank about two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, hurrying home from a writing group meeting that was less than satisfactory (I was the only person there) - I ran to the bank between getting off the S-Bahn train and hopping on the bus home and then I was putting my stuff away and getting on the bus and reading a book and talking to hubby on the phone and pulling out my bus pass (actually, that day, I think I was without the bus pass too because I had lost mine so it was a two-hour pass) all at once, and by the time I got home I couldn't find the hundred and fifty euros anywhere.

I should say that all winter I wore an over-the-shoulder little black wallet purse and now I've gone over to a fanny pack my little sister-in-law gave me decades ago (it didn't go around my waist then but it does now because I am littler!), and somehow I am constantly shifting things around. And yes, I read while walking and riding the bus, and use my bus pass as a bookmark sometimes, and somehow or other I had mislaid the bus pass. And maybe that day I was borrowing hubby's, not sure. I didn't mention the hundred and fifty mislaid euros because it would have only made him tremendously unhappy and I honestly couldn't see a good, productive purpose in mentioning it then (before he reads this Felix and I will have told him; he's on his way back from the airport, from Paris, as we write). Then he loaned me his own bus pass for a while (actually, we just shared it back and forth), and at one point I even mislaid his. That was fortunately short-lived.

Anyway, this month is almost over and in the new month we can all get our own new bus passes, but the hundred and fifty euros are safely back home with us (Felix thinks I should give them to him).

Felix's music night at school

with hubby and older son away, there was just me to go to Felix's music night at school last night. (No, two nights ago now, sorry.) It was a very nice little event (I wanted to invite sis-in-law and niece too but it was too last-minute at the end), just the 18 kids from Felix's class and in fact they were down to 16, with their friendly but reserved German hippie teacher, and they played four songs for us with instruments, sang several more without instruments, and then did several dances (including, Ruthy and Mommy, the Tennessee Wigwalk! the dance was different but it was our very own "won't you dance with me honey, tuck your toes in tight" from Ruthy's and my childhood square dance nights on the broken-up basketball/tennis court out across from our house in Kinshasa, with Uncle Jerry calling the dances).

Very few family members came (I think they all had the same issue as us, rather late notification) but there was potluck and social time afterwards; I brought a salad to share and looked at the pictures of the class trip, and then kind of sat/stood around realizing I knew not a soul. Felix's peppy, old, about-to-retire German teacher (not the hippie one who led the music night) came and sat next to me and we talked for a while, about her plans for retirement (she plays the violin and the piano and that was to be the main joyous content of her retirement but she's messed up her wrist so she has to be patient); and then I talked to the vaguely nerdy class parent representative, a precise man who turns out to be Turkish, but he came here thirty years ago to study and has lived here since, and occupies a different social space than the vast majority of Turks in Berlin who don't speak German that well and work in menial jobs or have their own shops and are very separate. Turns out his kid only came into this class in fifth grade, so a year before Felix, and they were as surprised as we were when we came to find out that it's a tremendously international class. In this very rich, quiet edge of Berlin, the kids are Turkish, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian, Iraqi, and Felix. And probably more I don't quite register. (Another surprise to me: his kid is the quite fat one who is very differently shaped from all the other kids and differently shaped from his own so very precise father - has ex-fat me ("have ex-fat I"?) turned into a sizeist? Do I just have a bias against fat kids? Do you see why I haven't been freely handing out my blog link in Berlin?)

And then at the very end I talked to a small quiet woman who had a funny and immediate response when I said, partly being polite and partly thinking about the chance to consolidate Felix's German, that we were unfortunately only here for a year. She said "why unfortunately?" and I was rather taken aback. She then went on to complain about what a chaotic place Berlin and what a mess and how everybody would rather live in the States. And then when I said no, Felix couldn't take home a huge bottle of orange soda because we have a soda-free household, she said appreciatively "oh, there are parents even stricter than us!" Made me feel a little weird (turns out their daughter was the one who wasn't allowed to go on the class trip).

But the kids' music event was fun and it was the occasion for Felix getting some new clothes and at least I have a teeny bit more connection with the other parents now.

not being old (conversation with Sheldon)

I think it's fair to say that Sheldon, hubby, and I are all pushing fifty. Sheldon and I talked about this and the fact that we don't feel old. (Hubby wasn't there so I don't know exactly his thoughts on this.) And why?

Sheldon has invented a life and career for himself which is not a job and doesn't have a salary and involves him reading and thinking and writing and watching and consulting (watching should probably have come first in that list) and he said he thinks from not having a job he doesn't feel old.

I said I don't feel old either - I don't have a job either but I said I think also from being female. I think about all the brand-new things I'm going to start when I finally turn sixty. This is a female thing to think, men I think expect to be deadish at sixty (men my age and younger; Daddy, Uncle John, if you're reading this, I know you're in a completely other place and have come out the other side - but men my age I've talked to over the years are not thinking about what exciting new things they're going to begin at sixty).

In my head though I was thinking: I'm also a mother. Hasn't that made me grown-up in all kinds of ways I never was before? (Sheldon noticed that I seemed to be more of a planner-ahead now than when he knew me before.) And of course it has. But here's the thought I thought to myself (the conversation out loud had gone somewhere else by then I think): 

can I hang onto and still believe in the fiction that I am twelve because the kind of mother I am is one who has sons? If I had daughter(s) would that be impossible? Would I be forced to face my age in a whole different way by the presence of a daughter - and why? Because she would be so obviously a young woman which I am not? Is it something else? Why do I think I can have an almost-grown-up son and still be twelve myself? 

These are the questions. No answers forthcoming just yet.

conversations with Sheldon

So this is my whole problem with blogging - I don't notice buildings, or remember much of what I read, or have much to say about cities - most of what I notice and think about in the world is people, and it's tricky to write things about human beings in a semi-public forum (there may be only ten of you reading this, on a generous day, but there are probably thirty of you I've sent the link to - and that's even with basically either not mentioning it to most people in Berlin to begin with or even saying no to some when they asked for the link - because I thought, then I won't be able to write about anyone/anything anymore!). (And hi, Anja, you're the exception - Susanne is another but she's told me she doesn't read blogs so she's not reading.)

Sheldon was here last week, he's changed his name since college but we still get to call him Sheldon, hubby and I met him in the fall of 1978 when I was 17 off the boat from Kinshasa, Sheldon was 18 off the boat from Toronto, and hubby was 19 off the boat from Teheran. I ask you.

Long story short, last time we saw Sheldon was 1985 in Hamburg I think we reconstructed, and now here he was, thanks to the magic of Facebook, refound and reconnected. He lives and works in Beijing where he watches Chinese movies and writes and thinks and consults about them. (Sorry, Sheldon, was that an OK summary?) And is hired by film festivals to say which they should get, which is why we got to see him on his way to Italy. 

And there it was, an old friendship with an old friend, and we talked about interesting things and how do I make (semi-)public the content of such conversations? But we talked about old times, and new times, and our own selves, who are different now from 1978, and 1982, and 1985, but still weirdly recognizable. And we walked through Berlin and I noticed that Sheldon notices architecture and it was very interesting to me to see that this is a whole realm of knowledge and noticing where I haven't been. He has things to compare it to. We got to show him the leafy part of Berlin where we live and he got to breathe which is much more difficult in Beijing (which, I know now, is pronounced Beidjing and not Beizhing) -and we talked about words and sillinesses. Other people probably have old friends - I don't have so many. I have wonderful new friends, and medium friends, but not so many old ones. (Dear old friends out there, you know who you are - thanks for being there!)

I feel like I'm not being particular and specific because in fact Sheldon is a real person and a real friend and not just fodder for my blog but I just want to say it was great to have conversations. (btw I've now turned off the music and sat down on the red couch with the laptop because it was distracting). And now I'll stop this post, and maybe some of the actual conversations will come back in other ones.

guitarsore fingers and blogging standing up

dear hearts, somehow I have almost this entire beautiful leafy day to mine own, where is everyone? hubby and older son are returning from happy Paris trip tonight, Sunday (they left Thursday) (they got to share their love of excellent expensive food and of old pictures and statues in big buildings [that's what they have in museums, right? I don't go inside very often])

So here I am with Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the laptop is on top of the little stereo system so I can dance while standing up and typing, and my fingers on my left hand are numb/sore/weird-feeling because I am working on guitar playing! Oh, it's wonderful! I begged/borrowed/stole a guitar, got myself four offered but ended up with one beautiful one, it's been weeks it's here and I could not, could not, somehow just could not figure out how to tune the blasted thing. I felt like a bit of a fool. Didn't know what to say to Sina, who lent it to me, when I saw her - yes, thank you, I was so excited about playing the guitar but I can't get past the very first thing.

Yes, I did get the concept theoretically but I was having such a hard time hearing whether the first string (I thought it was the first string because it was closest to me but apparently it's called the sixth string), when I held down the fifth fret, was indeed sounding like the second (no, fifth) string. Because there were other things happening, different twangs, that were interfering with my pure hearing of the actual notes.

Anyway, coincidentally, dear young Felix [whose today whereabouts I can explain very quickly - he and Peter, his inhouse friend here, have been roaming Berlin trying to trade cheap things for expensive things - enjoying the warmth, sunshine, birdsong, bus passes, and big city] had a week of pure music all the time at school this week (after two weeks of vacation and one week of class trip - did I already say all that?) - and they had guitars and keyboards and drumsets, and their teacher had an electronic thingy for tuning the guitar, so though it feels like a copout I went and got one day before yesterday, Felix tuned the guitar for me, I found an online web site with wonderful basic step-by-step directions, and now I am happily working my way through the chromatic scale, my first three chords, and all the songs you can play and sing using G, C, and D major! 

[oh and p.s. on the website it said: "tuning the guitar might be very hard at first, it will be easier later but for now it's best if you can get someone else to tune it for you" - I was very comforted to read that!]

(Did everybody but me know about this electronic tuner thingy? It lights up green when your string sounds right and goes red, left or right for flat or sharp, if not; there is also a line on the display that is supposed to stand straight up in the middle when the string is tuned. It guesses which string you're tuning by which note you're closest to. My father tunes his cello with a beautiful tuning fork (although it occurs to me that when I was there in March there was something electronic too where I pushed a button for him - Mommy or Daddy, if you're reading this- what happened to the tuning fork?) - but maybe that will come for me still.)

So amazingly, my fingers seem to have developed a little callusing already after two days of this (yesterday I found no time, so it was day-before-yesterday and today), and the beautiful, unexpected, unhoped-for bonus benefit is that my much-mourned loss of the upper reaches of my soprano voice seems to be somewhat helped by the guitar playing.

Friday, April 24, 2009

blog posts

Will I blog these blog posts? I sent Felix off to school, put Sheldon on a bus to the airport, and my real plan was for a nap and then blogging, but here I still am in the living room with the laptop on my lap, almost 11 a.m. After my nap I was going to blog so before my nap I will say what I might blog post nap!

Conversations with Sheldon
Lysistrata in Sabine's attic apartment
Does a mother of sons feel younger than a mother of daughters (p.s. to conversations with Sheldon)?
Happiness and contentment
Finished our marriage book (not unrelated to happiness and contentment)
Last Sunday with golden delightful not-quite-two Fanny, feeding the ducks
Writing groups - making them, nurturing them, e-mailing them . . .

Saturday, April 18, 2009

quiet Saturday afternoon + birdsong

So everybody in Berlin's in a good mood because the sun has been out for a couple of weeks now. Felix is in the living room playing poker with six kids total including himself, three of whom (three sisters) don't possibly know how so the rest of them (Felix and the twin boys who live across the way and are about a year younger than him) are teaching them.

Hubby is grocery shopping and Max is where? I don't know - earlier he was babysitting his not-quite-two-year-old niece. Everyone accounted for. I need to blog to my writing group, look at a novel I'm reviewing for someone else, possibly (belatedly) pay my 1st quarter estimated taxes . . . 

The people here at the institute are talking amongst themselves about how many people don't actually want to leave when the year is up, end of July. One of the older fellows, a history professor, is considering taking early retirement from her job in the States and just getting an apartment and staying in Berlin. (She's joined several chamber music groups and is liking it a lot.) Others are just scheming to at least stay on for a couple of weeks or a month . . . 

We've booked our plane tickets back, on August 2nd, so that's not happening with us. Though I do keep stopping to think - maybe somehow we could still stay a while? So Felix's German will truly consolidate? So I can enjoy this phase of my being here more, the phase in which I know people, do things, have connections, enjoy myself . . . ?

But nooooo. It isn't to be. 

Yesterday morning at my Friday morning writing group we wrote villanelles. Last week at play-reading group we wrote Endgame by Samuel Beckett (one act; four characters; there were only three of us so it was perfect). Hoping for a larger group next week - Shelly Kraicer, formerly known as Sheldon, is coming to visit on his way from Hong Kong to Udine (Italy?) - we haven't seen him in, he thought maybe, 24 years, which sounds about right. So he may come along to play-reading next Wednesday night.

And this afternoon, besides reading the poems for Monday night's poetry group (Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress and John Dunne's A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning), I'm sort of looking at a calendar I've made of our remaining 3 1/2 months here and trying to figure out how everything works. My Friday morning writing group wants to do a one-day retreat; I may do a couple of 10K races and we're signed up for a 5 x 5K relay with the rest of the institute June 12th; there's a choir weekend workshop mid-May but it conflicts with a 10K run - and I'd really like to do a guitar workshop too!

Did I mention I have mega-editorial deadlines and we have three or four family birthdays coming up and our older son is leaving soon for Bangalore . . . (and weight watchers is starting to be harder for me again)?

No, not stressed. Just lots going on and trying to keep it under control. It is a wonderful thing, trying to keep things under control.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

children gone for 48 hours

The children have been restored to us but on Sunday Felix went home with Max to Max's shared apartment in hip and trendy Prenzlauer Berg (his apartment mates were away), and they had such a good time they never came back till this late afternoon, Tuesday. They had fun, ice cream, soccer, and waffles. We had fun too but no ice cream, soccer, or waffles. As I mentioned earlier, a nice long walk last night. We also watched three episodes of The West Wing. (Felix is in the second week of his two-week Easter vacation. We didn't celebrate Easter particularly except that I went for a nice extra-long jog in the Grunewald; we did celebrate Passover though, 9 family members on Wednesday night and 12 neighbors on Thursday night and father-in-law here Tuesday through Friday and by the end of it we were exhausted, though we were very happy with the Passover celebrations.)

pedometer working again; thank you Kim!

Many many thanks to loyal reader Kim in Hamburg, who wrote me off-blog to tell me where to buy and do all sorts of things in this country. (I knew there were answers, but as Kim correctly suggested, it can also just be frustrating to not know what the answers are! It is infantilizing and exhausting just, sometimes, to not know. Last night husband and I were walking, a nice long walk through a lovely town on a mild April night, and something reminded him of our first night at a restaurant here last fall/summer, when the waitress couldn't quite believe we'd never paid with our EC card before. I realize that's not quite the same thing as not knowing what store to shop in but it's the same general idea - we are extremely competent adults in the country we've lived in for 22 years and the town we've lived in for 8, but suddenly here in this country we are constantly bumping up against our own ignorance.)

Anyway - thanks to Kim's suggestions, after Weight Watchers this morning I walked across the street to Bauhaus, which is kind of like an urban Home Depot, and asked the lady on the ground floor where to go for screwdrivers, and went upstairs like she told me and looked around a little myself, but finding nothing asked the man and showed him my pedometer, and he sold me a lovely little screwdriver exactly calculated to open the pedometer battery case, for 3 euros 50, and I came home, after a little panic found the new battery I'd brought with me from the States last fall, and now my pedometer is like new. So I went for a 120-minute walk with my friend Susanne around the absolutely lovely Schlachtensee this afternoon, and the pedometer recorded it all.

It was a glorious afternoon and there were Germans in all the possible states of undress, from fully clothed to not clothed at all, with everything in between. Susanne and I were actually there for a walk but she found it unbearably hot and close at some point so we took off our socks and shoes and rolled up our pants (OK, she did; I was wearing kind of floppy capris) and stood with our feet in the cool water for a while. 

what I like to do while jogging

I have this weird feeling I've written this before, but maybe just because I've thought about writing it?

What I like to do while jogging:

- mental arithmetic, preferably complicated (if possible, something to do with the minutes and the steps on my pedometer, and the time, and various distances posted around me)
- go through in my mind the family's and my own personal upcoming calendar and dates and discover conflicting dates (I don't actually like discovering conflicting dates but I like that I can do this at this time and potentially deal with conflicts before they arise)
- watch other people's beautiful, huge, tiny, yappy, black, white, old, and young dogs
- discover new sections of the rather enormous Grunewald (I'm avoiding city streets as much as possible and keeping to the woods for the sake of my knees - I'm so happy to be jogging again and don't want to have to stop again)
- plan events, parties, gifts, trips, and pieces of writing

When I'm walking I tend to read or talk on the phone if I possibly can; when I'm jogging I cannot do that and I really don't like to do the iPod thing (my family would say I don't know how but that is just because I haven't wanted to) while jogging, so therefore the only thing left to do is to think!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

things are sold in different stores here

a week ago today (so also on a Sunday) Max fell off his bike and scraped himself badly. After cleaning him up here with what we had and could scrounge from neighbors, husband wanted to go to a pharmacy to get bandages and tape - I found out online which ones nearby were open (an issue in this country - but they do have a system that there is always one open in every area on Sundays) - anyway, found out, we went there, the woman had prepared things based on our phone call ahead and talked to us through a tiny vertical slit in the door and handed us things that way (husband said to me: what if we'd wanted to buy something really large?) - it all worked out but my point here is that somewhere in the conversation, husband said to pharmacist, well, if I want some disinfectant, I can just get it a drugstore, right? She looked at him in disbelief and laughed quite unkindly (snorted maybe) - and said well, I can't imagine that or why they would have it there. (He didn't say "a drugstore", he gave the name of the local one, Schlecker - of course it isn't a drugstore because they don't sell drugs but it's the kind of store that would in the States!)

I, meanwhile, have not been able to use my pedometer for several weeks - and why? Not because there's anything wrong with it, but the battery ran out, and I even brought extra batteries with me but we don't have the right kind of tiny screwdriver and I don't know where to buy it. In the States, I would, again, go to a drugstore, wouldn't I? Or a hardware store! But there don't seem to be hardware stores here really, and again, the drugstores do not have screwdrivers! (A friend suggested that I could take the pedometer and the new battery to a watchmaker who would have the tools and could open my pedometer and change the battery for me. I suppose I could do that. So I have to carry the pedometer and the battery wherever I go in case I pass a watchmaker?)

What they do have at drugstores: shampoo, paper napkins, energy bars, tampons, candles, plastic flowers - and of course herbal tea for colds, tummy aches, sleeplessness, etcetera. I know, because I kept looking for those herbal teas at the grocery store, silly me, in with all the other kinds of tea they do have at the grocery store - and I thought it was odd, because I was so certain that I remembered that Germans love to have all kinds of herbal teas for their ailments. But nothing. Not at this grocery store, not at that grocery store - until finally one day I went in to Schlecker to look for tampons or paper napkins or umbrellas, and there were rows upon rows upon rows of herbal teas for ailments! (Also, there I stumbled upon liquid Ultra Slim Fast - sadly, not the bars that I liked to get in the States.)

And then, supposing a person should want to get a haircut, and a person should also want to deal with the unpleasant and unsightly and oh-so-unfeminine extra hairs growing all over her face. Well, in Bloomington, Tamara did it all in one shot at Boomerang. In all fairness, even in Berkeley I couldn't seem to get it all done in one place, but as a result I discovered a wonderful Iranian woman with a place on Adeline, below the Berkeley Bowl, who did the most fabulous waxing I've ever had - cleanest, quickest, most painless, most thorough. (Why, oh why, did I not go back to her when I was there in March?) Here in Berlin, though, no such luck. I've been once since I got here and it was in a big fancy high-ceilinged old prewar apartment, where the waxing lady had three or four assistants, all of them, like her, garbed in starchy white full-body aprons, and three or four separate rooms, all with high uncomfortable waxing tables to climb up onto. Am I giving the impression I didn't like it there? I didn't, I really didn't. It hurt, and they were unfriendly, and I came away with my face completely reddened, and they missed a lot of hairs. So I've been avoiding since then . . . 

It just feels like everything has been reshuffled and you have to guess, you really have to guess, where anything might be. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

part-time writers' manifesto

At our writing group on Friday Anna suggested our prompts and exercises, since I was completely wiped out from running the seder the night before (and Anna was a hero, since she was the person who stayed and helped clean up after the seder - but still she volunteered to be in charge of our writing on Friday morning).

And she suggested we write a manifesto, and we agreed on the part-time writers' manifesto. Here's my stab (unedited - I know it's raw and there's nonsense in it):

• We can be any age we want.

• We shall never look straight on at our writing time.

• It's all about the hours.

• It's all about the pens and the notebooks.

• We shall wear bright colors on alternate days.

• Every day is a playground of hours; the playground is there to be played in and the hours are there for spending.

• We are the part-time writers of the world so we must, every day, find something to do besides writing.

• Look away from the writing, always; never be caught at it.

• While procrastinating as a writer, learn to play an instrument and speak a language.

• While procrastinating as a writer, read good books, eat fabulous food, and be a mensch.

• Take every day, divide it in half down the middle with an angry fat black line, and write on one side, do something else on the other.

• Learn to recognize your fellow part-time writers - by the pen? the writer's bump? the funny clothes, the faraway look - what? how?

• Become two entirely different people - encourage, egg on, feed your schizophrenia. Watch your other self who lives on the other side of the angry uncrossable line: who is that person? what moves her? do you love her?

• Drive a little orange triangular car where  you have to push with your feet, a la Fred Flintstone.

• Fill up notebooks and throw them away.

• Never rrevise. Never reread. Always start over.

• Never be afraid. Be fearless in writing, fearless in destroying, fearless in never looking back.

• The writer is somebody else.

leaving the house is like writing a blog post?

It's just a theory. Both are sometimes hard for me. In different ways. Writing a blog post is a weird thing where for days I don't (can't? have difficulty?) (my mother just informed me on our video chat my last post was April 2nd, saved me the trouble of looking it up) post, and then once I start it suddenly seems not so hard to do and I can / could / would write five posts, seven posts, ten of them, or two or three super long ones.

But of course that's not very helpful, is it? Nor particularly easy on you, my long-suffering readers. Nor very clever as a way to keep people coming back (the ideal idea, I know that, is to write a little bit every day so you can have a thing you do every day: let me go see what languagemurph has written!) - and my real-life and also blogging friend and mentor elenabella has something she was able to do where she could write them and put them on an auto delay so they post themselves later! (But what I really want is to have posted them earlier - I wonder if blogspot can do THAT for me?!)

Leaving the house - difficult in a different way. But when I returned in late March from my trip to the States I realized that it is hard for me to leave the apartment here, quite a bit more difficult than it was to leave whatever place I was staying in the States. Why? Why?

Because we're so many floors up?
Because once I get outside it is so far to anywhere?
Because before I can go anywhere at all I usually have to put on so many clothes, and then make sure I have so many things (bus pass; money; cell phone; house keys; then, quite often: city map; notebook; something to read, all because I'm going to have to go so far to get anywhere and I never know what might happen; often also snacks of various kinds, also sometimes even my laptop though not usually)?

For whatever reason it takes me forEVER to get going. And as my family knows, I often come back again at least once for something I realize, by the time I get all the way down to the bottom of the stairs, I have forgotten. But one trick I'm trying to learn is to just get suited up for the going out - if I wait and try to do other things first then the suiting up gets postponed and postponed, so I just start putting on the things I need for leaving the house.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


tomorrow our prodigal eleven-year-old returns from his weeklong class trip. We are so looking forward to having him back and yet hubby and I have definitely been noticing a certain pleasure in the rhythm of life at home with zero kids (Max is off in his own apartment, doing his own things - we've seen him a few times this week but by no means every day, and never for all that long at a time).

It's also different, quite different, from going on a vacation without the kids. 

Anyway, we're looking forward to having Felix back but we did take a moment today to meditate on the ways in which the rhythms and relationships are really noticeably different when it is just us.

Play-reading group again

Last night was play-reading group at Sabine's, and I chose The Importance of Being Earnest because we needed something funny for April Fool's Day and just in general, right?

Anyway, it was great. There were 7 of us, and 9 parts but two very small indeed (the butler and the manservant, though I couldn't quite tell the functions of butler and manservant apart very well). Max and I were the only ones who hadn't ever read or seen the play performed - others had seen it, some of them, four or six times. Anna had even played Cecily (whose part I assigned her last night unknowing) already, in high school.

Because we're flipping from winter to spring, and because daylight saving time (which they call summer time here) has kicked in, Sabine's not-quite-attic apartment - at any rate, it's at the top of her very tall apartment building, right up under the eaves (I have no idea what eaves are but they seem to fit right there in that sentence!) - was flooded with afternoon light when we appeared at seven p.m., through her windows and streaming in onto and through her lovely balcony. (It had always been pitch black when we arrived before.) A lovely spread of things we'd brought to share (though Sabine really provides a lot and spoils us), fun reading, the poor smokers went out onto the balcony at the end because Sabine knows I have a hard time in a smoky room.

Sabine's six weeks post-knee-op and not quite supposed to be off her crutches yet but sometimes she can't quite stand it anymore. The spring air and light and beginning warmth are making everybody a little giddy. Max showed up in shorts and a T-shirt - even I had been getting looks and comments and all I did was wear sandals - next time we're going to read something in German. 

Reading, reading, getting caught out and reading some more

Sorry about the continued Janet Evanovich stream but I do have to just say - after I'd picked up that first one and read it in Claremont, I went looking for more in the Ontario (California) airport when I was on my way up to Oakland - and found lots, in all the bookstores. Several of them had one, two, and three in the series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly . . . !) and then the most recent and then apparently she's written a bunch that are outside the numbered series.

But I only bought One and Two because I thought . . . oh well.

And then after I read number One and was a little underwhelmed; but then read Two and had such a fun time reading it - then I thought, well, I'll try reading something else I bought at the airport - Confessions of a Shopaholic. Maybe it'll be a blast. And I went out with my red shopping cart in my right hand and the book in my left hand and my blue-rimmed glasses turning dark in the sun under my black cap to the grocery store and bumped into not one but two neighbors who asked, What are you Reading? And I was mightily embarrassed, because I had to confess I was reading such lowbrow stuff and I realized, I didn't even like it, in fact I couldn't actually stand to continue reading it after a few pages.

So then I decided to go back and get more Janet Evanovich for my quick-read fixes, and started looking around for the book group book, which had been supposed to be delivered to me here in Berlin by an Amazon subsidiary but hadn't arrived yet (Paradise Reclaimed, by Hallday Lexness) and the other one I ordered at the same time (Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, which I had gotten for Cynthia and Diane in the Bay Area and recommended for Claudia in Chicago but had not yet read myself!) - anyway, long story short (or anyway, not quite as long as it could go on) - I ended up ordering a bunch of books through the library service here, so I'm very excited to see what comes. Little Girls, another book by wonderful Elizabeth Bowen who wrote The House in Paris which I read on the plane on the way back to Berlin, came the very next day. The book group books aren't here yet and Evanovich may never come - but I've got plenty to read. I've also got my Les Murray Translations from the Natural World, wonderful amazing book of poetry recommended to me to give hubby at Christmas by Don Berger, our resident poet here - I pick it up and read a poem here and a poem there - and Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, which I haven't quite dared to start yeet.

And fabulously, there is always another New Yorker coming.