Parallel Worlds (Part 1)

 

The following is the tip of an iceberg that I have been writing and gathering information on for ages it would seem. I’ve cut the story in three parts (Part 2 and Part 3 plus a note on masks). No one has time anymore to read, alas, which is one of the problems causing the issue explored below, but if you need some background, like my motivation for touching on this subject, maybe some credentials, a deeper look, you’ll find it after the main body. For those who send me clips that I “have to watch,” please consider how much time I’ve spent with pen in hand listening, reading, taking notes. Deconstructing. You can get through about 1000 words.

Here’s why I am writing it. The Covid Crisis has become highly political. It has destabilized people in our very comfortable societies, where having one’s nails done or going to the gym is considered essential for survival and liberty. As every expert on conspiracy theories will tell you, unsettled times tend to boost the spread of these strange tales. Today, it’s the Internet, notably mass-gathering platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are like Speaker’s Corner in London to the power of 100. I have been confronting them among strangers, and especially among friends since before the Covid crisis. And each time, it’s a journey down the rabbit hole.

Sadly, I have lost dear friends to this bilge, because CTs are an assault on intelligence and they literally block any discussion by their very nature: The conspiracy is always immense. It gobbles up any evidence proving it is nonsense. And those who become entranced by them tend to act like addicts (I’ll cover that in Part 3).

They are petty as well: Conspiracy theorists, for example, call mask wearers sheep for following rules, the way one might stop at a red light. Is that nice? Are the 163,000+ dead Americans sheep for dying? Herman Cain didn’t wear a mask. He’s dead. Oh yes, they say: Covid is a hoax, they died of something else… like the truthers who deny that planes didn’t take down the Twin Towers. I’ve argued with fundamentalist Christians…. They have the same attitude. They believe and promote patent lies, but the non-believer is the idiot.

And so I am beginning to feel like Bérenger at the end of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. There’s also something somber to these CT. The same people who are spreading doubt about climate change, are also spreading doubt about the veracity and impact of the illness. And they are the same people who want to see Trump re-elected. That’s just facts, available straight from the horse’s mouth, no mysterious dot-connecting necessary. Look it up. The Fox pundits, the Breitbart gnomes, etc… Chatty aside: Schools will have to start teaching kids how to navigate the web soon. Otherwise I fear for our democracy and freedom. Let’s go:

 

Conspiracy theories and fake news are good friends. They are often promoted by groups with an axe to grind, with an agenda (yes, they are projecting). What Trump has labelled fake news, for example, is merely his way of discrediting the hard work of journos. By repeating that stupid trope over and over again, he has created a nimbus of doubt around the mainstream news, and suddenly everyone is calling news they don’t want to hear fake. Ironically, by reporting all his nonsense, the MSM have, to a certain extent, started reporting fake news, namely the nonsense put out by the Trump admin. Of course, they are forced to do their job and report from the White House. But couldn’t they slot this rubbish behind the weather?

Anyway: There are such things as facts, with a bit of bias maybe, but anyone with a functioning brain can distill the info out of the editorializing, as long as it’s not just editorializing (here’s looking at you, Tucker). It’s called critical rationalism.  For years I read the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine, it didn’t affect my appreciation of its news value. Many conspiracy theories regarding masks, Hydroxychloroquine, sipping luke-warm water, “where are the bodies,” Covid as Hoax, “it’s just the flu,” “it was created in a lab,” the film “Plandemic”, etc., are not true, or are slightly true, making them in Harry Frankfurt’s definition: bullshit (cf. his treatise on the subject).

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

When I receive information, because a conspiracy believer or a well-meaning both-siderist figures we all have to read fake news, otherwise we are violating someone’s freedom of speech, I have the politeness to read it carefully. But before spreading it, it is actually the first reader who should check the sources, check out everything. That is what I do, and I don’t get paid for this job. You check who is promoting the information. And finally the famous question: “cui bono?

Years ago, a friend sent me a strident, Islamophobic harangue from Britain First politician, a neo-Fascist party. It led me to a peculiar Institute (where I found John Bolton on the board) that seemed to specialize in Islamphobic rants. One on Germany listed endless  crimes of migrants (heavy emphasis on the sexual, since that is a special department of the conspiracist). I started looking them up online and contacting people and found some that were 5 years old, others that were non-existent, some were poorly reported (a foreigner, no country of origin, had accosted a woman on the train, another woman had falsely reported being harassed, but it turned out to be a hoax, etc …). I’m not saying that NO CRIMES were committed. But this was pure propaganda… written by a fellow with apparently lots of qualifications.

That’s the work that needs to be done.

I’m not saying people are stupid for believing this stuff. It’s just that I happen to have a good nose for CT, having literally studied them and read hundreds of primary sources and secondary sources. It began in school with people throwing  around “Commie” as an insult, and I wanted to know what a commie was.  I investigated a political cult years ago, read all their literature and tracked the other organizations they ran, and where their information was landing. You can “hear” the conspiracy vocabulary emerging through the language. And it’s politically left and right, though these days , the right wing has made CT their main means of self-promotion and attack. Reasonable friends of mine have fallen for the stuff, reporters who should know better but who, trawling the internet, slowly caught the bug, are also buying the data.

CT is like a drug. It’s so attractive. Everything, at first, seems so well-planned. Ever see the film “Small Change?” It was the Truthers’ big moment. I wasted hours on that one. It unveiled, nay, it screamed out a GIANT conspiracy involving all sorts of actors…. but I had a friend who was an architect and who explained very simply how the towers fell and why building 7 fell. The information was corroborated by other architects and experts. So the CTs make you feel like you understand everything, and that the Lie is So Big, that it must be true. But that is exactly what the Conspiracy Theorist is banking on. Using a Big Lie to uncover a Big Lie. And being shown proof that the theory is wrong in 100 small points,  shouldn’t make you feel ashamed, just corrected.

Even if the information comes from a doctor: Listen and read carefully. I communicated with a psychologist, a known CT specialist briefly. His answer: Besides money and ideology, “(o)ne of those additional motivations is notoriety: most of the dissenting climate scientists had terribly mediocre careers (at best) until they became climate deniers. And then all of a sudden they appear on TV and testify in front of Congress and so on.” My own experience has shown that doctors and scientists are just as prone to peddling fake stuff and then screaming conspiracy, when the community does not react.

But let me ask: If you believe, say, Dr. X who says it’s all a hoax, why don’t you believe the other 35,000 doctors who say: “It’s very dangerous, infectious and hard to cure when acute, so let’s be really careful.” Is it because you like to hear a maverick? Is it because the doc appeals to your prejudices? Is it because it’s attractive to be contrarian? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves. So please, learn to navigate the web.
One “doctor says” video was the infamous Simone Gold promoting Hydroxychloroquine and the cure by a “doctor” who believes in witches and wizards impregnating women in their dreams, literally! It is all funded by an extreme right-wing group in the USA. Knowing this, why is the video still on people’s timelines?

Then there is another, a French geneticist, who sounds very reasonable, but suddenly, after blandly and sweetly going on about various banal matters, she makes an assumption that pierces the information. “While itz is reasonable to suggest that the corona-virus is a natural development, she prefers to think it was engineered…contradicting the bulk of geneticists. Wow. I spent 90 minutes listening to the good doctor, and noting the problems. The vaccination tests in South Africa are another area where she combines conspiracy with truth. ( https://www.conspiracywatch.info/alexandra-henrion-caude )


The most recent “doctor speaks” video I received was one from Sweden. The author says in the first sentence that the information is anecdotal. And seems to support the idea that “ripping the bandage off” is better than slowly pealing it off, as was done in most European countries. That is: no lockdown, etc… Great for the 5,500 people who died, right? What is not said: The Swedish health ministry also applied measures and throughout March to may, the cities were quite empty, and shops closed. The economy suffered, like elsewhere.  People kept distant from each other. And 5,500 Swedes died, because …. Well… That’s what some people would like answered. Because they were old? Sounds like a modern version of Aktion T4. The fact that Sweden seems to be enjoying respite from the infection for the moment has to do with summer vacations, cities less crowded, and the fact that 50% of Swedish households happen to be single, apparently (I have to check that info). It may be interesting to note, that in discussing a Vitamin D study in another post, the doc mentions that Muslim women have a deficiency because the are always covered up. That info needs checking. It sounds sort of strange. It takes time…

So yes, dear friend: Go Sweden, as you say… tell that to the families of the dead. And the death toll in the USA is still going up and up. And in Brazil, where an Evangelical runs the country … Please be careful of what you say. What is hurting our society is egocentrism and callousness. It’s time to get back to humane and human norms.

Masks: They are not equivalent to the yellow star. They are one way to protect ourselves and, if we happen to have Covid and not know it, our neighbors. I go shopping here, there are many old people shopping with me. I have a robust immune system, I hope. I might not notice being ill. I could spread it. I’ll be teaching in crowded classrooms, I have to be careful, for myself, my family and the families of the kids. We had cases of Covid, if it was a hoax, it wasn’t a funny one.

And by the way: Is anyone complaining about condoms? Are they a plot to enslave men’s penises and ruin their pleasure (at least one Trumpist thinks so? Is AIDS a dastardly plot concocted in labs to… I don’t know what, but none of the thousands who have taken part in the non-existent plot have ever said anything. Maybe they were all killed? In the basement of a pizza parlor in Philadelphia?

Finally: Are CT harmless? Just a little pseudo-intellectual horse-playing? Here’s where I beg to differ. Conspiracy theory (CT) is funny, at times just weird,. At best, it starts confusing the issue. At worst it is harmful. It can blow the odd mind. It led to massacres of Jewish communities during the Black Plague, for example, or the September Massacres during the French revolution, to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995 (the main perpetrator, Tim McVeigh was a member of the Patriot Movement and was obsessed with the idea of government overreach…. In psychological terms, a case of extreme reactance.

Ultimately, these were victims of conspiracy theories that dehumanize the “other.” Spreading them is very risky.

If the Trump and the GOP hadn’t been so obsessed with the elections and how it made this ridiculous con man look, they would have been able to control the pandemic. The result is thousands and thousands of deaths and lots of suffering, plus a supine economy, and no end in sight. That is NOT harmless and it might explain why the American right wingers are desperately d^trying to distract people with silly tropes about masks. .

In sum: CT are used to manipulate , to distract, to attract attention. My German friends, who are convinced this is all manipulation, insist that the recent anti-mask demo in Berlin was attended by 500,000 people. The police said 20,000 max. There are scientific ways to estimate those numbers. You measure the surface area

where the demo was held, and essentially you count two people per square meter. The police were right. A picture posted on the web was from an anti-racist demo a while back.

The solution: Be skeptical at all times. If anyone seems to have some secret knowledge about some Big Thing, ask how he/she was made privy to that data. Silly clips that say “You won’t believe this….” or “This is the biggest scandal….” … are usually just trying to attract attention. Information these days is easy to spread, and that makes it less than precious. Listen to the tonality…

Part 2 should be up soon.

In the Vortic: Two American Tales in One

In 2015, thanks to the Baselworld jungle drum, I landed an appointment with a man named R. T. Custer. It’s his name, by the way, and he insists on the initials – his parents’ choice?– because he’s from an advertising background, and dammitall, that name sticks. We met at the Ramada, as it was then called, where free-floating watch-folk who wish to avoid the prohibitive costs of the fair’s booths run around with attaché cases filed with products that may or may not achieve breakthrough on the market.

R. T. Custer: cycling upward in business.

Young, dynamic, crew cut, straight-laced, yet not, R. T. enthusiastically pitched me his products. They were a little different from all the power-watches I had seen at the fair. Vortic, an artificial name, had launched a collection of large timepieces assembled into clunky cases made up of two segments produced by direct laser metal sintering.  The dials were mostly original vintage dials and featured the names of the old American Greats, like Elgin, Waltham, Illinois and…. Hamilton.  What struck me most, however, was the story behind these timepieces:  The movements were original Americn movements and some of the salvageable dials were being taken from pocket watches that had been scrapped for their gold and silver cases. Why not recoup this junk, recondition the movements, restore the dials that could be restored, leaving sometimes the fissures and chipped enamel as patina, and sell them.

He bought a farm in Colorado, hired a few people, including a watchmaker, and set about developing his business. A new and more coherent case was designed, a new collection was launched with the name Vortic on the dial (the Journeyman series). When I interviewed him for the second time in 2016 (for Wristwatch Annual 2017), he was ambitiously dreaming of making his own movements. By this time, the cases had been vastly improved. They were in one piece and the crown, large and with the appearance of an industrial , had been moved to 12 o’clock.

The first Vortics were rough and rugged.

Evolution to a real watch with a strong identity.

For the past three years, Vortic watches have had a separate chapter in my Annual. They are eminently recognizable due to their size, the visibly “old” dials, the protruding crown, and the fact that most of them bear the name of an old American brand. Their appeal is obviously the nostalgia so many feel about those “good ole days.”

So much for the American tale of “crazy idea makes big,” a tale that any Hollywood producer could turn into a moderately successful flic. The second tale is not so fun… 

One day, RT received a gloomy letter. It came from lawyers representing Swatch, the Swiss-based giant, owner of such brands as Omega (yes!), Blancpain, Breguet, Harry Winston, Jaquet Droz, Longines, Tissot, etc, etc., etc. In their stable is Hamilton, and it wanted R. t. to cease and desist using the Hamilton name, which had appeared in an ad.  In other words, a multi-billion-dollar behemoth of the industry was attacking some guy in Colorado. R.T. fought back as he could, almost going bankrupt in the process. He finally happened upon a law firm with strong trademarking experience and the case went to trial at the now famous (thanks to Trump and Barr)  United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The story is well documented by Christopher Wood of BizWest in Colorado, so you can get the details here. The arguments essentially boil down to this:

Vortic using vintage Hamilton watch faces constituted copyright infringement, and that the company was producing inferior knock-offs by mixing old Hamilton parts with modern parts so it would fit within a wristwatch case.

Vortic holds that the watches using the Hamilton mark are clearly distinguishable from modern Hamilton-branded timepieces because it only repurposes Hamilton’s American-made models decades before Swatch bought the brand, not the ones more recently made in Switzerland.”

A verdict is still pending, and Hamilton has already stated it will appeal if it is not in their favor. Not very nice, but once the company decided to litigate, it had to see the “war” to the end, alas, and it has the money and the power to do so.  In his article, The Curious Case of Hamilton International Ltd. v Vortic LLC,”Allen Farmelo offers an in-depth and cogent examination of the issues involved and what the judge, Alison Nathan, will have to consider. Vortic claims it is “upcycling,” i.e., reusing/recycling older material, which can be seen as a “noble and fair pursuit, perhaps even one that honors and promotes those brands,” Farmelo writes. “Hamilton, on the other hand, sees Vortic’s use of Hamilton movements and dials as an infringement on their intellectual property. For Hamilton to prevail in these ongoing law suits, they will need to establish that Vortic’s re-purposing of the older Hamilton components constitutes trademark and/or counterfeit breaches as described in the relevant US Federal Laws on intellectual property—which, perhaps unsurprisingly, differ from those set out in the Swiss legal system.”

We’ll see.

But before we do, let me reproduce the post scriptum that Allen Formelo added to his reprinted article:

“I had pitched the story to many publications, and only International Watch was willing to go to print with it. The rejections I received came in the form of rather frank explanations that Swatch Group, which owns Hamilton, was too close to ad revenue sources. I didn’t see the problem, as long as one provides a balanced report that doesn’t take sides. For full disclosure, this story came to me through a conversation at Worn & Wound’s WindUp event in NYC with the folks at Vortic, but I quickly cut off conversations with them and instead began research and pitching.”

This one paragraph reveals one of the aspects of the business of writing about watches and business in general that can be terribly nerve-wracking. Any journalist being critical of the industry of certain brands or products, will get shut out. And since the industry is dominated by big groups, loss of access can become a real problem. So writing about watches is at times reminiscent of the story “How the Soviet Robinson Crusoe Was Written,” by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov.

Black and White Issue

Rubric: Racism is not just a knee on a neck…. It’s bigger than that, and it’s deeper.

In the wee hours of June 12, as every morning, I clicked on PBS Newshour and listened to the news while sorting through emails and preparing for the day ahead. The excellent Paul Solman (his “Making Sen$e” rubric is always instructive) had a report on racism and business. He featured an interview with the owner of a jewelry store in Charlotte, North Carolina. The corner of my eye picked up the names Citizen and Invicta, two watch brands, so, obviously (as the editor of Wristwatch Annual), the report had my undivided attention.

Epic Times was struggling with the lock-down, aggravated by recent looting. But the report went further. It was about surviving the kind of ingrained, latent racism that tends to be ignored or simply not noticed, because it is so quotidian, because it is not nearly as visible as the violent clips starring the police or cosplaying vigilantes.

Epic Times is a chic — and I am sure striving — jewelry store owned and operated by a Mr. James Mack. The watches and men’s jewelry he sells are not über-luxury, the margins are probably modest. Watching his presentation in the clip reveals a man with a friendly disposition, articulate and knowledgeable, clearly with the needed enthusiasm for his product. What caught my “ear” before even my eye, was this outrageous statement that James Mack hears occasionally:


“You should hire someone of Caucasian or Mexican descent to stand in the front.”

Not the right pigmentation for some.

James Mack is Black. And he’s not the only businessman of color to be experiencing that kind of throw-away racial attitude. I just wonder: Why? Where do we, as humans, get the idea that one skin pigmentation is less valuable, is less successful, is less appealing than another. What strange mental convolution will tell its owner “I’d like to see what’s in that shop, see if I can buy a Citizen for my nephew, but, gee, the man serving me is kinda dark-skinned…. I’ll go elsewhere.”

This is not a question of taste. It’s a question of rationality. We’ve all seen the clips (the many, many clips) of “personal” racism, the police killing or beating up Black citizens, vigilantes, even, yes, the signs held up by Tea Partiers “protesting” Obama for specious reasons (deficits? In the middle of a deep recession? Look it up, if you don’t believe me, I’m not posting such trash). Racism is not personal only, it’s systemic and must be considered as such before it can be addressed in any coherent fashion. If there’s any good to come of these past four years, it’s that this fact has come so clearly to light.

So I rest my case at this point. Those of us who are White cannot know what it’s like, even though it often stares right at us. What we can do is build up some compassion and, above all, sense. It doesn’t take much, just a little mental training and some listening. “Excellence being of these two kinds, intellectual and moral,” wrote Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics some time around 350BC (BC, already!), ” in intellectual excellence owes its birth and growth mainly to instruction, and so requires time and experience, while moral excellence is the result of habit or custom.” In other words, live, learn and apply regularly.

Here’s a gofundme page to help Mr Mack cover some very extraneous costs. I’d also encourage people these days to go help small businesses by doping your shopping there, even if their prices may be a bit higher. They are the backbone of local economies and usually don’t have the funding to bridge a large revenue abyss like the one left by the coronavirus crisis (and the lethally negligent response to it).

And in case the message hasn’t gotten through, yet, here’s a famous meme to close.



Back out …

A word from the front lines

Every day since the “confinement” began, we, the confined, have come out in one way or another to applaud and thank those who have been out and about, facing the coronavirus  mano a mano in hospitals, picking up the garbage, distributing the mail, delivering groceries, and watching over streets and borders. Mostly, these individuals are “in uniform.” That is, they have chosen to serve and protect and to set aside ego and self-preservation to help the collective.

In our cooperative, as in many other places around the world, the nightly applause became drumming, morphed into singing and then became a regular activity that still brings joy and, I would like to think, healing to our neighborhood and by extension society at large. We sing This Little Light of Mine with a line to the “nurses and doctors.”

The HUG…. the lifeline for many in Geneva.

All the while, though, one group of “uniformed workers” has been toiling, often in the shadows of an office or a rejiggered bedroom, or a kitchen. Teachers.

My brilliant other career
I’ve been a sub for the past six years. I teach German and English in the public schools here in Geneva and am  familiar with being cast into the fray without much training. (Some day, I’ll write about my brilliant career). This year I have had a class of eighteen teenagers about to leave their secondary school for either further education or apprenticeships + schooling. For the past two months we’ve been teaching online and learning how to do it. 

 

School…

 

The experience of teaching during lockdown is worth a separate posting, so please be patient as I write it up. Suffice to say this:  On May 11, teachers of primary schools and secondary schools in Switzerland are being sent out to start up the machine. Our classes were halved, with a Group A doing the mornings of week one except Wednesday, and Group B doing the afternoons, plus the Wednesday mornings. The week following, Group A does the afternoons, and Group B the mornings.The idea is to lessen the crowding in schools.. 

Air-traffic controllers to the rescue!

Our rules of engagement are strict. Foot traffic through the school has been redirected to keep people moving without crowding. Some places have been cordoned off, the photocopiers have been separated, so have the computers. Everything, from desks to IT material, has to be disinfected, though there appears to be a  shortage of disinfectant. How we are to maintain discipline has been theorized, but those of us who work with teenagers daily, know how difficult it can be. We know they will want to chat with each other, share stories, be together.  Emotions run high among the young. Many have built-in reactance, too, that is, they feel that authority is an infringement on their rights, while forgetting their obligations. When adults act this way, it’s mere immaturity. These teens haven’t seen each other for two months and are now supposed to sit quietly in a classroom, while teachers, mostly mask-less, have to maintain a distance of two meters. Walk any street of Geneva or supermarket aisle, and the first people to bump into you will be the young’uns. I don’t blame them, we were all like that at some time, still discovering three-dimensional space around us.

In short: We’re being asked to play piano with our hands tied behind our backs. Just pointing this out. Our goal is not to complain about a lack of haircuts or not being able to race through supermarkets buying stuff. Our goal is to find solutions.

It will definitely be a challenge.

But now the clapping has mostly died down, and The People are beginning to get bored of the lockdown, so it’s time for the reserves to go over the top. We want to ignore the virus for the moment, and hope all goes well. As if the virus cares. The economy must  move again, cost what it may.

A word about teachers in the media...

There is not too much about what teachers do or did in the news media locally at least. Programs like PBS’s Newshour will give space to this vital social and economic sector, one that assures continuity and  a steady supply of workers, managers, even entrepreneurs. Mostly, here in Geneva at least, the news about teachers has a negative touch.

In fact, early on in the confinement, I was sent a short sketch by two television comedians on the local Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) who run a comic show named 120 Minutes.  The point of their little routine was to show teachers in lockdown as being computer-illiterate, vacation-loving, self-absorbed and somewhat stupid lazybones. It was supposed to be funny, in the hyar-hyar sense, and it might have elicited a smile from me had it not been for the jarring comments that ran a few pages below on the pair’s Facebook page and were almost entirely devoted to viciously endorsing this low-brow cliché. It reminded me of the known fact that many, in the days of All In The Family, including Nixon, thought Archie Bunker, the epitome of the bigot, was an OK guy.

I wrote to the two fellows explaining to them why I was not terribly happy. And naturally got one of those snide responses that failed completely and purposely to acknowledge my point about the comments. It confirmed my belief that television is really not a tool of enlightenment, but rather of general dumbing-down, which is why I don’t have one in my home.

I also spoke to a journalist for what I assumed was a television station.  She was looking around for people who were experiencing something for the first time. On hearing that I was a teacher,  I immediately heard her neurons slowing down. She couldn’t wait to get rid of me on the phone, but was too polite to just hang up. My observations on online teaching of teenagers didn’t interest her in the least. She probably needed something more visceral to sell her report. I get it. But I could feel her drumming her  dendrites.

Ultimately, I wrote a letter to the Tribune de Genève, our local newspaper, which like so many in Switzerland is fairly conservative. It rarely portrays teachers as being anything other than boring, tedious bureaucrats with too much time on their hands. Already years ago, during a teachers’ strike, they never failed to publish vitriolic op-eds about teachers. At the time, I wrote to a few journos (without answers, of course) to ask if they wanted to really know what a teacher’s job was like. They wouldn’t make it for 30 minutes without blowing a gasket.

I ended the letter with a sentence that I heard echoed a few days ago by Diane Ravitch, historian, author, and founder and president of the Network for Public Education: 

 “One of the fundamental building blocks of democracy is having a free and universal public school system.”

We, teachers and subs, try to do that. Without masks and gloves or sufficient disinfectant. Without clapping.

Singing in the sun

The view from outside

When the announcement came through on March 13 that schools would be shut down for an indeterminate period, the kids were a little bit thrilled. At least the ones I teach were, and I hear others were too. Perhaps because it felt like a vacation, unexpected and welcome, since the end of the term had just come and gone, and a breather was needed to gear up for the last push to June. There was some fear, of course, the virus being quite a tough cookie. It felt a little like an adventure, a game with a hint of real risk.

But it was not a vacation. Certainly not for the first responders, the medical personnel, who faced a very difficult few weeks ahead, for those who have to “face” the public. And this, the world round – notably in some countries, where the “heads” of state are  more occupied with their image than with the safety of The People.

My classroom, ghostly empty.

Time freed:A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Though shalt relax and be nice to everyone and not think of work.” Sheltering-in-place, on the other hand, is like having been on a demented carousel one moment, and being yanked off and cast into a limbo. Entertainment by shopping: forbidden. A hot chocolate and cake at the local Konditorei: verboten. Getting together with friends at the kàvéhàz: tilos! For many it’s obviously difficult, especially for people who live alone, or are in a difficult partnership. Apparently, in Geneva at least, the number of divorce requests has soared. This virus is strange. You may avoid covid-fever, but for that you get cabin fever.

Without the metronome of work, play, sleep, weekend, rinse repeat, or what the French used to call métro, boulot, dodo, you quickly lose track of time. Clocks and watches can give you time, calendars tell you the day, but if one day is like the other, even the weekends, how are we supposed to keep them apart?.  It’s just a name change. Who cares if it’s called “Thursday,” “or Monday.”  Days mean specific activities. Monday is when work starts for most, Saturdays are for cleaning, Sundays, for some, is church, or doing the bookkeeping, or taking walks and having an ice cream. The Romans used to celebrate gods on each day, and that kept them in line. Chatty aside: Jupiter was great, the god of abundance. That’s Thursday in Latin cultures, by the way.

Time gets messed up with out a proper caliber underneath…

Living the confinementTake the following saying to heart: Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.  This is what I told the teenagers in my class, and my daughter, also a teenager, who now follows classes on her own desk at home.

Get a grip on time and date…

First injunction, therefore, is to rein in time, set up a rhythm, and stick to it. Your health depends on good sleep, some exercise, and attention to nutrition. Excellence is habit, to paraphrase Aristotle and it does apply to surviving confinements of all sorts. Stories of survival in prisons, the Gulag, or of Anne Frank, till her arrest, are stories of establishing routines, more than ever. Sure, we are not in prison, just at home. But there are similarities, and Artist LeRoy Washington, who served time,  laid  it out very articulately in this recent PBS interview.

Second injunction: If you have to do telework, make sure you have space and undisturbed time. As a long-time freelancer, I’ve learned to survive days and weeks in my office (which, for about four years consisted of a board in the kitchen of our former tiny apartment in Geneva. It takes planning. Personally, I often get up each morning around 4 a.m., sometimes at 5. An old habit from my days announcing an early show at radio WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Seeing dawn appear each day is a reminder of birth and rebirth. To feel the slow heartbeat of the night grow into day, to contemplate a quiet world at the darkest hour, is a deep pleasure. (But you can’t be afraid of yourself).

My office, with the world outside, and my creature items, ink, pens, paper, computer.

Third injunction: The web is a procrastination machine that can swallow you whole, a barrel full of gold nuggets drowned in tons of unadulterated information sewage, so get the stuff you need done using a clock, as if you were at the office. I often tell people who try to contact me while I’m at work that my boss is lurking. That boss is my inner boss. But that boss is nice: She tells me to go have a long lunch and switch off the computer and the phone. Do something else (I take power naps), take a walk if allowed, read a book, do some exercises (the web is full of teachers telling you how to keep fit in place), chat with the family or friends across the way.

Just remind yourself that this is not a vacation. It’s an alternative life moment, an experiment. It too shall pass, and when our daily grind gets going again, you’ll be ready. Changed, but ready. In this time warp, I suspect, many will have discovered, that the frantic and at times mindless consumerism and chasing Mammon’s dream has, perhaps, become less of a priority.

Rest and recuperation are vital.

The soul rejoices

So many people are sharing bits of their lives these days. People are learning about online meetings. It may be out of boredom, it may be out of loneliness, it may simply be because suddenly, as in wartime, we realize how important other humans have become. At our cooperative, for instance, the nightly clapping on the balconies engendered a nice routine, as it did in many parts of the world: Singing. We sing, with three guitars, a harp, the occasional clarinet. People from the neighboring building have joined in, we practice on the roof where there’s enough space to stay apart, we learn new songs, harmonize, and so forth.

Practice on the roof

Singing, especially with others, is one of the finest antidotes to feeling low. A psychiatrist I knew, who sang in a choir, used to say she’d be out of work if her patients simply sang once a week in a choir. It’s also a great fountain of youth. It makes our inner child rejoice and come alive again.

Next installment: a few observations about teaching online.

Stay safe.

Numbers Game

The trick to enhance positives and mitigate negatives

Just a few weeks ago, after days and days of strenuous deflection, gesticulation, self-victimization, media-aided campaigning and incoherent bilge about the pending coronavirus assault, Donald J. Trump suddenly talked of the number of deaths. It was a stunning reversal. Suddenly, after promising that we would soon dodge the virus (because of warmer weather… great gut science), he was delivering hard numbers:  100,000 – 200,000 deaths from Covid-19.

That’s about it, but not without intention.

Trump frowned theatrically for the camera, played a vigorous  air accordion and did a few air karate chops.  It was going to be tough. Well… we who keep an eye on the news outside Jerkwater, USA, knew that, but… The news media went into a tizzy, Twitter “lit up” as they love saying. But the big question is this: Where in earth did those numbers come from? Maths? Real stats? Fauci? His covfefe? And moreover: What do they mean.

Trump numbers could be this big, or that big, whatever feels right.

They are perhaps the only real indicator that the Trump re-election team is engaging in some form of crisis management, at least on the public relations front, since everything else, to date, has been a pretty well-formed catastrophe, nothing unexpected, by the way, from an administration and a political party determined to destroy everything left by the previous administration (the GOP never forgot FDR…).  

It’s about expectations management, which I have already written about before. Let us say, you know something good is about to happen, and you would like to enhance the pleasure/joy experienced when the thing comes to pass: You lower the expectation by casting a little doubt. We do it to ourselves. “Well, I’m not sure I did well at that test…” When the expectation is more than met, the joy is greater. If not, you still have an escape hatch. (See 4/ at the end for a really brief example).

The same happens with negatives, as in a crisis: The expected result must be announced as worse, so that when the expected figures turn out to be lower or the just less disastrous, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the crisis managers come out looking better, even if they were a major factor in the crisis unfolding in the first place.

Chances are, Trump’s 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus will not happen, thank goodness. The figure could be reached, of course, as the virus spreads in a second wave throughout the country. It might be reached in June. If we are all back at work in some form, we may not even know about it. The hospital crisis will have been mastered, the public focus will be elsewhere – Trump’s team certainly known how to shift attention from the man’s incoherent administration.  The statistics will be unclear.  But at some point, we’ll have stopped counting, maybe at 35,612, or 42,590, and by then it will be merely statistics, as Stalin would have said, and they can be massaged this way, or that, usually by the fallacious comparison to 1918. And we’ll breathe a sigh of relief.

There you have it. The point is not the figures, it’s how we got to this point.

Thanks for reading. This is not cast in stone. But if you are interested and have the time, below find a few examples I’ve collected of very public expectations management.

______________________________________

1/ The Muller Report: Ever wonder why the Trump administration kept talking about it loudly for months. Saying it was a hoax and a lie. And attracting attention to it? That is not what normal PR looks like, you don’t attract attention to what could be a disaster. As long as Muller was mulling, the Trump admin raised the expectations of some absolutely incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing, pee tape and all…. The report was released, bowdlerized for public consumption, Trump was not exonerated, but the evidence was simply not massive enough and incontrovertible. Muller himself said so. Shady activity does not have the power of a real crime (and white collar stuff is not really considered a crime by many).

2/ Deepwater Horizon Spill: The oil rig exploded killing eleven workers and then pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months. After many attempts at stopping the spill, an effective solution was announced (in early July 2007) for two months hence, so when an announcement was made that the flow had been slowed two weeks later, it sounded like a huge success. The  actual capping happened in September, but by that time no one was really talking about the worst marine oil spill in US history (nor of the families of the dead oil men).

3/ The two Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003). The armies of Saddam Hussein were described by much of the news media as almost unbeatable. Absolute apocalypse awaited. A friend of mine was in such a panic, he filled his car with food and slept with a radio next to his ear (in ’91), convinced that a nuclear war was about to break out. But in 1991, Iraq had come off an eight-year war of attrition with Iran, and dictators are rarely the best leaders (Trump, take note), since fear is not the best motivating tool. I told my friend to relax, it would be over soon… He got mad at me for being so unconcerned. I was concerned, but not about the military stuff.

Same with the Iraq invasion of 2003. The country was sick and tired of Saddam Hussein, and had been subjected to some very damaging sanctions. Where the media came up with  so much apocalyptic stuff was beyond comprehension. In fact, even the usually staid German media joined in. At which point the TV I had used for 2 months went back into the cellar (I used it for video films) and I cancelled my payments to the German television  stations stating explicitly that they had adapted to the low sensationalist standards of private TV companies, and I didn’t think it was worth paying for. I also ceased using CNN as a general reference. Their cheer-leading was embarrassing to watch (I was traveling a lot in those days and would catch their reports in hotel rooms).

4/ Ever play chess with someone spontaneously ? What do you say? “I haven’t played in twenty years.” If you win, it’s really great, if you lose, you have an excuse…. Expectations management in a nutshell…

The world outside my window (Part 2)

Settling in, finding the rhythm, absorbing the shock, observing. This is even shorter than the last installment.

Sometimes the weather fits the mood, sometimes vice versa

The week started with weather as appropriate as “pandemic genre” film music. The sun remained hidden behind racing clouds driven by a violent wind that jostled the high rises moored to this part of the city. The bise noire is a Geneva specialty, an icy northeasterner that rips across the lake between the Alps and the Jura ranges. Normally, it brings sunny, but Calvinistically cold, weather. The “noire” version is different, it blankets the sky with menacing clouds that never seem to rain themselves out. It’s a little unnerving, because it raises images of an apocalypse, which is the general mood right now, even though the sun has returned.

The silence that engulfed the city a few weeks ago has started restoring our acoustic keenness. We hear other sounds with more acuity. A car accelerating, the voice of children in the garden, the Vespas that recall chainsaws in the forest. And in the background, ghosting along the larger avenues, is the spooky wail of ambulance sirens. They were always there, but now their fourth interval sings dan-ger, dan-ger…

Monday morning blues, add sirens.

We are waiting. Doing stuff, working, sometimes playing, and hopefully learning all sorts of soft, hard and medium rare skills in this brave new world. The web is full of clever activities, because given time, people are fantastically creative. The memes and fun clips are entertaining. There’s an Italian fellow playing football with a cat. Boredom, I always told my daughter, is the first step towards creativity. No wonder the powers-that-be would like to get us back to work, pronto. It’d be difficult to maintain the old economic system with a society filled with artists. A selection:

But you don’t have to go viral to defeat the virus. Staying home, doing nothing and reading is clever as well. Or practicing an instrument, or painting, or cooking, or just thinking. Maybe we will even shift the paradigm a little more, not towards technocracy (I’ll have a word about that in the next installment), but towards humanocracy. That guaranteed income idea could be gathering steam…

The virus is a great equalizer in many ways. It seems to be stimulating the kind of compassion to wipe away all the artificial barriers that have allowed us to see the “other.” The virus is an equal opportunity killer. It has taken to the shades: the pastor who was convinced it was a hoax, the “resister” who saw it coming, the doctor who spotted it early on, the bus driver, and children, adolescents, young women and men, in addition to the older people, whose lungs are not made for that kind of assault.

It reminds me of something: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Matthew 22:29). It has real meaning now, even in the midst of our silo-ized society, as Hermann Hesse once pointed out in his Lektüren für Minuten (Vol. 2), because you/we are now reflected in the other, and the other in you and us, and that irrespective of ethnicity, skin color, religious beliefs, if any.

The others are now your mirror.

Then there are those outside

So we, that is me and my global neighbors, wait at home, hope for the best, and like the human beings we are, we get creative, or neurotic, or, in worst cases, a little psychotic. We wait and create and work and hang out, keeping our spittle to ourselves. Outside the window, a medical army struggles to get a grip on the infections and the other accidents and illnesses that still plague us all, the garbage pick-up continues, postal workers, police, bus, tram, trolley, train and truck drivers keep doing their bit amidst a spreading pandemic. Families or relationships that experience abuse are very vulnerable. So be careful. Listen attentively.

Our ears are our first line of defense and theirs as well. A little vigilance can save lives.


(The next installment will look at work an the things that keep us sane).

The world outside my window….

Part one of my little contribution to the Corona Days.

For years, the world seemed to have been turning faster and faster.  Like some Death Metal ballad on steroids.  Technology offering insane communication immediacy and destroying entire swathes of the economy, creating others all based on its own speed-mania,  eating up our time, scrolling away the past,  and hacking away at human relationships, which always need time for nurturing and maturing.

The quiet city

Now, finally, we have a common enemy that is ripping us out of the acceleration bubble. It is tiny, deadly, surreptitious and effective: coronavirus. A little bit of protein that lives and fights, sometimes to the death, an unpredictable killer, whose very unpredictability is its most frightening weapon.

And suddenly, human contact, already rattled by our dopamining gadgets and their applications, has to be literally physically broken by a neologism, the much-touted and imperative “social distancing.” We’re doing it, and it will have an impact. What impact?  No one knows.

This town

For the past week, my city, Geneva, Switzerland, has been in a kind of lockdown. Not full lockdown, yet. You can’t really tell the Swiss to stop altogether, and especially Genevans, who are masters of reactance. Yes, it’s a small city, filled to the brim with big and boisterous cars, usually, and it moves to the sound of motor scooters. People bustle about, trams grind through the streets, airplanes land right between suburban residential Meyrin and the city itself, liberally spreading kerosene fumes and noise over entire quarters. All of that has stopped. Monday is like Sunday in July during the “vacances horlogère,” or Christmas morning. Even the birds seem to stop tweeting after their wee-hour wake up calls.

For the past 10 days, a blissful silence has fallen upon us here, as it has upon many other people living in formerly noisy and polluted cities around the world. It’s quarantine time, sort of, named after the forty days ships suspected of having the plague on board would have to wait before docking in Venice in the 14th century. And it’s bang in the middle of the forty days of Lent (didn’t see that coming). There’s more than just serendipity here. There’s an irony, too.

Our society is generally hyperventilating in its frenetic attempt to work and consume itself and its habitat to death, all that, to  pay egregious rents, mortgages, college fees, insurance, vacations in foreign places thanks to cheap jet fares,  in addition to  food, clothes, and, of course, the latest tech product – otherwise, who are we? It’s a great question to ask oneself in the isolation of a lockdown.

So now a bug has shown up that attacks the lungs, our private hyperventilating technology, as it were. So it’s time to stop. The dying is tragic. On the other hand the planet is breathing again…

Taking it easy, Geneva’s mouette transportation

Time it is

The virus takes our breath away when it strikes, it lames, then kills, and that is a tragedy. Yet collectively, it has given us time to breathe again, as long as we know not to stare too hard and with bated breath at its lethal progress, or listen to the breath-stopping, jaw-dropping idiocies uttered by certain heads of state, whose self-absorption and willful ignorance have seriously prevented a timely and concerted response to coronavirus.

I browse through Twitter and Facebook and the web in general, and I find people filling time often with great creativity, writing memes and blog pieces, filming tik-tok clips, trying out online choirs, etc. For some it may seem difficult to stay home. The routine of work outside the home, school, the factory, the office, is what gives the music of our lives its distinctive beat. Several people I have spoken with these past weeks forget what day it is. They’re like prisoners of some of the darkest regimes who have to maintain some semblance of sanity by simply scratching the passing days on the walls. Or at least, that’s what I seem to remember from the literature.

We’ve heard about the dark side, too. Abuse. People on top of each other. Women and children stuck with an abusive partner or parent and without any escape. Neuroses and psychoses rising to the surface in closed spaces. I cannot help but think of those tiny apartments rented out for huge sums of money, the stress on people, the worries about one’s financial future.


Silent spring

For well-trained freelancers, staying at home is normal. Our advice can be heeded. I’ll get to it in the next installment. Right now, I’ve passed the 500-word limit I’ve set for myself, because, after all, we no longer have the stomach for much more, and that is something we all have to live with.

Christmas

Merry Christmas from Geneva
(where it was forbidden for two centuries…)

First and foremost: A Merry Christmas. To my friends and acquaintances and kind clients: The year has been so dense with work, especially these past four months, I was unable to write cards and letters using my growing collection of fountain pens. Perhaps to the joy of those on the receiving end, who have to deal with my handwriting…

Just a few notes. Christmas is officially on the 25th, but in ancient times,  days ended at sunset, not at midnight, so Christmas Eve  was actually the beginning of the 25th. Celebrating this way has been trending of late, apparently, though on a personal note, I never knew any different, thanks to my Bavarian Catholic mother, who always celebrated on the 24th after 5 p.m.

As for good wishes and cards and such…. There are twelve days of Christmas, so there’s still time… These days were important to Europeans (before there was a Europe) in the days of yore, before Christmas was chosen to preempt Pagan rituals… In German-speaking countries and regions, you will often hear talk of the “Raunächte,” rough nights (or Rauchnächte, the smoky nights, because evil spirits needed to be smoked out), which allegedly go back to Druidic times. There is some debate on exactly which days they fall on and how many there are, but here’s the deal: Essentially, the first is on the 21st, then 24/25th, and so forth. Sometimes the turn of the year is cut out, but that would assume a fixed calendar. Logical, too, would be a thirteenth, so as to comply with the lunar calendars of yore. The Rauhnächte are also known for making predictions for the coming year. “Listen” to your dreams, they say.

The “Rauhnächte” were seen as a time to do battle with demons… perhaps our inner demons?

If you don’t like political commentary, please accept best wishes and stop reading…

Just a word on saying Merry Christmas, which has been unbelievably politicized in the USA.

No one ever officially forbade saying Merry Christmas. The idea that it could be offensive may have been raised, and in a secular state, in which all religions must be free to practice, being a bit aware of the other’s beliefs and traditions is merely polite and rather than punishment. It also ensures peace among believers, since the battle of faiths have been among the bloodiest in the history of the human race. Besides, looking beyond one’s narrow bailiwick is always interesting, right?

So the bottom line is this: There is no war on Christmas. Other than the frenzied consumerism that accompanies this very high Christian holiday, and that leads people to elbow and honk their way through the first three weeks of December each year, irrespective of their fellow humans trying to get through life as well,  to then collapse from overeating and overconsuming. A generalization, I am sure.

The Culture Wars are merely confusing lines of non-thought.

The war on Christmas is also  the noisy and synthetic culture war triggered by gasbags who earn millions be dividing the USA into social and political silos, thereby creating captive audiences for themselves and their advertisers, of course. They spread ignorance and promote lazy thinking. It’s all about dollars and cents, of course, so it fits in perfectly with the predatory economic system, which praises the person who’s become rich, no matter the means. I’ve written about this in greater detain here.

Also worthy of note is this: Those who holler and scream about the “war on Christmas,” from Donald Trump to tend to be the spiritual descendants of none other than Jean Calvin, Geneva’s most famous immigrant, who rejected Christmas entirely as a man-made feast. And so did many of his followers and devotees in his lineage, like the Puritans, who did not like the rowdiness around Christmas, as well as the Presbyterians (like Trump). Worse yet, Christmas is considered a Catholic, hence Popish holiday, and is therefore dangerously international. If you want to read some great conspiracy nonsense,  read up on the 1928 elections in the USA.

 Finally, the Jesus armed with an AR-15, killing infidels, hating health care, and loving Capitalists, bigots, misogynists, racists and predatory billionaires is a far sight from the Prince of Peace generally touted in Christmas songs piped into supermarkets and other consumer venues. That is a good thing to keep in mind. Under 700 words. Merry Christmas, and don’t forget my tip jar.

The Collapse

The power of people

The sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 followed shortly thereafter by the entire Iron Curtain came as no real surprise to me, and I was not alone. This is not some idle boast with 20/20 hindsight. For a couple of years prior already, the pressure had been mounting on this monolithic razor blade cutting the world in two. It was overly ripe for the fall.

No comment needed

I had been to East Germany several times, birthplace of my now ex-wife, and home to her huge tribe of relatives (her grandmother had married a widower with three children and had then had three of her own with him, who all, amazingly, survived World War Two, if I remember correctly). I had had long conversations with people there, read the local papers, which pretended that everything was fine and all bad things came from the West. Every encounter with an East German involved a liturgy of complaints about the absence of goods … not money. Things. One of my wife’s cousins couldn’t find a replacement car door, for example, because the Five-Year plan that had been agreed to around then didn’t include passenger doors for the Trabants that year. Another cried after seeing all the East-German wares like those blue polka-dotted Bürgl earthenware cups and the famous “smoke” figures from the Vogtland region  being sold at a Christmas market in Frankfurt on the Main in the west. Those goods were not available drüben, over there, at home, in East Germany

Checkpoint Charlie: a neural point in the world

Fulfilling shopping was not the only problem. A friend had been in the NVA (the National People’s Army) and reported driving around drunken officers all day in decrepit equipment. And you could see the degraded barracks, the quiet rejection of Russia and things Russian ­— most people dislike occupiers, regardless, so don’t think this was just “Communism.” People who grew up learning Russian in school hardly speak a word anymore or refuse to. At any rate, all of what I saw contradicted the apocalyptic vision of ultra-powerful Eastern Hordes often referenced in western media with glee and with proof by grainy black and white photos.

Most revealing, perhaps, was a simple conversation, during which I and my interlocutor compared east and west, a very frequent and prolific topic. I casually referred to where I lived as “back in Germany” (bei uns in Deutschland). She interrupted me: “This is also Germany.” In that instant, I realized that Bismarck’s claim that Germany would need a civil war once a century to stay united was no longer applicable. This was a unified country with an impenetrable and cruelly ridiculous border running through it. Impenetrable, but not permanent.

One just had to hope that a war would not be necessary to break down that wall…

A bubble was growing in East Germany, that was for sure, a quiet, unspectacular one. A bigger one was beginning to bulge elsewhere, however, namely Hungary, and thanks to my first book contract with APA Guides, I was able to drive there often as a Mr. Nice Guy writing about travel and culture, essentially harmless stuff for the over-political Communists…

The Hungarians had been chomping at the bit for a while already. Crippling foreign debt and palpable weariness at the leaden straitjacket imposed by a stuffy, unimaginative squad of corrupt apparatchiks was creating a kind of mental rebellion. Judging from the many essentially freedom-fighting idols who appeared  as statues, or on the bills, it would appear to anyone with a bit of a sense of observation, that Hungarians like their freedom, and they don’t like to be told what to do, and if that is the case, they tend to become ornery and uncooperative. Let me mention Kossuth, Deàk, Ràkoczi, the many poets  (Petöfi, Ady, Jozsef…), who are naturally inclined to free thinking, and of course Dozsa György, who led a massive peasant revolt against a corrupt aristocracy and died horribly, in 1514, along with many of his followers. A friend of mine, a simple seamstress out east, could recite the national poet Sàndor Petöfi’s famous “Talpra, Magyar” (On your feet, Magyars) that roused the Hungarians against the Austrians on March 15, 1848. From her mouth, it always sounded suspiciously contemporaneous, and very passionate.

Another snapshot: In August ’88, in a crowded csàrda near Tiszafüred on the Great Puszta, I had jokingly called the waitress “elvtàrs,” which means comrade. She yelled back at me for all to hear:  “The only thing red with me is my dress,” which was indeed red.

The Tisza between Hungary and Ukraine

My contacts in the country were all turning west. I crossed the border five times in ’88 without ever being searched. Unlike my crossings into East Germany, which never took less than three hours. I even wrote to editors in the USA (the big magazines, hoping to get The Scoop) that Hungary was almost out of the East Bloc and the Iron Curtain was now a flimsy, rusting reminder of past failures. I explained why I thought it would happen…. “Dear Mr. Radkai, that is all too speculative” was the standard response. The US media simply loved its cloak-and-daggery East Bloc, with its run-down buildings, barbed wire as a metaphor, the sinister cement posts, so dramatic when displayed in grainy black and white on the broadsheets.

It was not all lucubration. There was some action as well. For example, in late June ’88, a massive demonstration was held in Budapest against the systematization (modernization) project initiated by Ceaușescu in neighboring Romania, which would have seriously affected the majority Hungarians in Transylvania (the USA still considered Ceaușescu  one of the better guys in Eastern Europe).  After much sending out, the Berkshire Eagle picked up my report on it, bless their soul. A year later, June 16, 1989, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum as a kind of opposition pool, the country re-buried the “hero” of the 1956 rebellion, Imre Nagy, along with Pal Maléter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi. An empty coffin was added to represent the thousands of Hungarians who had also perished fighting off the Soviet army. It was a huge demo.


But lots more was happening. In May, guards were removed from the border, an open invitation to use Hungary as an escape route. Also, on June 27, Gyula Horn was at the western border to ceremoniously cut open the Iron Curtain (I have a piece of it). In August and September, East German refugees started entering the country, allegedly to go on vacation: Hungary had always been known as “the country for encounters”…. my ex-wife’s family would come to the Balaton in summers to meet their East German relatives. These vacationers now spawned a refugee crisis that ultimately forced the Hungarian government to do the right thing and let them emigrate westward. The trickle became a flood.

A friend of mine, Ingrid Heller, kept a diary of her escape with her two teenagers:

Budapest, August 23

We went straight to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. We hoped to get some assistance there. But the embassy was closed. All I could see was the locked gates, the bell, and the guard house and Hungarian sentinel. Four youths came up from behind and stormed the bell. As if it were a life saver, I thought. A member of the embassy staff came out and handed us some flyers through the gate. They pointed the way to the Church of the Holy Family in Zugliget district.

We headed to the church. The embassy had set up a kind of emergency space in a garage in back of the church. They were taking the applications for passports. We had hidden passport in the pages of books to avoid being noticed by the East German customs officers.

Then the East German “tourists” started collecting like the birds on Hitchcock’s jungle Jim at the West German embassy in Prag. And soon the Czechs had to relent and let them go.  The East Germans at home, meanwhile, were not totally passive. I remember hearing that people wanting to move from Dresden in ’86 were giving the reason as “lack of access to western television,” though I suspect that was apocryphal. But it referred to the fact that western TV signals did not reach the great city on the Elbe, which became known as the “Valley of the Know-Nothings” (Tal der Ahnungslosen).  In September ’89, they began to demonstrate, culminating in a huge march in Leipzig. The SED government had no cogent response, and repression was not an option, most probably because the USSR under Gorbachev was no longer prepared to back violence. So, whether leaving the country or marching in the streets, people were “voting with their feet,” was a popular saying.

The Wall falls

But in October ’89, I still had to order a visa to enter East Germany. I was planning an one of those cultural-lifestyle articles for a magazine, this time on Frederic the Great, who had palaces in what was now West Berlin and Potsdam in the East. My visa for multiple crossings was for November 12. So I reserved a train ticket from Munich to Berlin for Nov. 10, giving myself a few days to do research and visit friends in West Berlin – yes, my young readers, there were days when you could work at a human pace, read books, dig deeply into your subjects, and have a real social life with flesh and blood people… I then went back to my daily routines, writing scripts for the Deutsche Welle, reporting, preparing more guide books, and, of course, listening intently to short-wave radio, as was my wont.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, I was packing and listening to the news in the evening. There came a really strange report from Dresden. Under pressure, Günther Schabowski, a party secretary, had just suggested that private citizens in East Germany could travel freely to West Germany. It was a somewhat confusing message, which directed people to get emigration visas as usual, and then stating, but permitting private travel abroad with short-term permissions (Die Genehmigungen warden kurzfristig erteilt). History has shown us how precarious the situation really was, even the NVA (the army) was mobilized later on, which could have produced an unbelievable bloodbath, but the East Germans heard it as permission to cross the border. And after some hesitation, they rushed it, notably in Berlin, while millions of West Germans sat riveted to their TV sets, glued to their radios and newspapers (the good ole days).

By the 10 p.m. news, it was clear that something apocalyptic was under way. East Germans were coming across the border without restrictions. And I stood in my living room listening, packing, mouth open, and  suddenly realized there were tears streaming down my face.

On November 10, I took the night train to Berlin. It slinked and slithered through East Germany, slowing down as it was supposed to, when passing stations on the way, but never stopping, giving us an almost eerie sight of dusky platforms crowded with East Germans wanting to just go, go, go. Because the second night was the real one. Until then, there was fear that the border would slam shut behind those taking tentative steps west. Or worse, the regime would suddenly crack down on the people who had exposed themselves in an explosion of euphoria.

Berlin in the morning. It was ice cold. But the sidewalks were bustling, the traffic dense notably with those strange East German cars, the Trabants and the Wartburgs, and the occasional Lada or Dacia (franchises of Fiat and Renault). I deposited by bags at the friends’ place where I was staying and soon joined the thousands of West Berliners and tourists gathered at the Wall. I found a spot not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Climbing onto it was forbidden. It was dangerous, because the other side was essentially a minefield. Many were trying to chip away at it, the so-called Mauerspechte, wall woodpeckers. That, too, was prohibited. In front of me, a Japanese fellow had showed up with a stonemason’s hammer, a huge chisel, gloves, and began whacking away. Bits of painted concrete flew in all directions, the wall shook. I picked up a few pieces. A mounty showed up, confiscated the man’s tool…

East Germans wandered through the city. You could hear them from their dialect. Many wanted bananas, even the KaDeWe had run out, that grandiose department store that was built just to thumb a consumerist nose at the goods-challenged East. I heard that an employee of the KaDeWe had gone into a cheap discounter’s to purchase more bananas … Lines in front of a sex shop… That, too, of course. The East was quite puritanical…

But was this real? It did not feel real at all. It felt more like some magical moment, and soon the Big Brothers would come and say: “OK, folks, party’s over.”…. That did not happen. The next day, a Sunday, I  headed to the Interior Ministry in East Berlin to get my visa. Two hours at Checkpoint Charlie. The Iron Curtain was open one-way only. I changed the statutory 25 deutschmarks for 25 ostmarks.

The ministry was in chaos. Journos running about, officials pale and wide-eyed, travelers wondering where to go, what to do …. I found the office I needed, got my visa and asked casually: Should I cross the city again, or can I circle the city and go to Potsdam directly…. I had reserved at the Cecilienhof, the famous hotel where Churchill, Truman and Stalin had met in July ’45… “Uh, no you have to go to Gleiwitz.” I didn’t look at my visa. Trudged back to the Checkpoint, bought some chocolate cake on the way for my friends in the west. Waited another two hours. By the time I got through, the cake was mostly eaten.

The rest of the story is available here on my blog (www.journos-blotter.com), and is quite strange, since I actually ended up in the eastern zone without a visa. In a nutshell: As it turned out, Gleiwitz was the autobahn crossing, and I had requested a train crossing because I was on foot. Secondly, my visa was not a multiple visa, as applied for, but a single crossing.

Let me just add this: When I reached Potsdam thanks to a kindly pensioner who picked me up on the breakdown lane of the autobahn —after changing another 25 deutschmarks into ostmarks — I asked a young woman for directions to the Cecilienhof. She told me, and then asked where I was from. “The USA,” I replied. She spontaneously hugged me and gave me a friendly kiss. It was quite a surprise. So I trudged, exhausted, towards my hotel. On the way I tried to get rid of all those eastern bills. I found an open book shop, and bought several classic novels, books of poetry, some philosophy. When that historically famous palace hotel appeared before me, a thought crossed my mind: The war is finally over, let the peace begin.

Epilog:

The Kohl government rushed to consolidate the openings and bridge the country’s division. The effort was boosted no doubt by the enormous good-will of people in Germany and abroad, the sheer sense of “Yes!” of optimism, of welcome for this new age of international understanding. The People had ultimately won. The bizarre Communist governments fell one after another, some in blood, like Romania, others just crumbled. In 1990, I covered the first elections in Hungary. The Communist Party was running. I spoke to their reps, and they smiled and said: “If we pass the 5% mark, we’ll be happy.” That would have meant at least representation in the parliament. They reached about 3% if I recall…

Yet, as the curtain fell, new walls went up in people’s minds. In Germany, the westerners got suspicious and snarky about the East Germans, especially the Saxons, whose dialect grated on their countrymen’s ears. The easterners created the “Besserwessi,” the western know-it-all ( a play on the word Besserwisser), a kind of carpetbagger, who came and seduced the womenfolk with charm and money (this strange hallucination is not confined to Germany, by the way, it’s something visceral that one finds in xenophobes and racists of all stamp). Then the westerners started speaking of the nebulae, the NEuen BUndesndern, the new Länder of unified Germany and their bizarre customs. There were also the “Wendehälse,” the European wrynecks, able to turn its head 180 degrees, like the now suddenly former Communist. A cousin of my wife’s, for instance, had been an army officer and had always expressed his anger at “that American” whom he was not allowed to meet, because he was a “holder of secrets.” Suddenly, he wanted to have a beer with me. Then came Ostalgia, nostalgia for the East (Ost). Today, some of those old problems still plague the eastern Länder,

Bit by bit, though, the country did grow back together again. It meant huge investments. There still are differences, and they are always dangerous, because they are visceral. Maybe the jokes were needed to create a bit of excitement and take away some of the raw emotion. But every now and then I will pick up the bit of Wall, or look at my six inches of barbed wire that cut the world in two. And inevitably a tear or two will form as I think of all those people who suffered and continue suffering from the hubris of small-minded men who still use the age-old divide-and-conquer method to maintain their power.