Not so fast-ing

The city I live in, Geneva, has many strange aspects. In some ways it’s a city like no other.  It is very small, but likes to see itself as very big. Somewhat like that image of a little Pussycat looking at self in the mirror and seeing a lion with a great mane. It is incredibly bourgeois, but loves to feel revolutionary. It calls itself the city of peace, and it is, if you consider a passive aggressive disposition as peaceful.

No surprise then, that it has its own share of special days that no one else in Switzerland celebrates (OK, the others have their own days off)… I’ve already written about the Escalade,  which celebrated Geneva’s defense against the Savoyards, who had attacked the city just before Christmas (Gregorian calendar) in 1602. Because protestants  refused Christmas (yes, the original “war against Christmas”folk were the same denomination worried to bits about  a non-existent war on Christmas in the USA).

Today, Thursday September 9, we have another day called the Jeûne Genevois, a day of fasting. What makes it strange is that it comes right after the-post vacation rush back to work and school. It always feels a bit like driving off in a speedboat and forgetting to untie it from the dock. Suddenly you are faced with a free day, plus the following Friday, because this holiday is scheduled for the second Thursday in September.

For school kids and teachers, the Friday is NOT a free day. So the four-day weekend, while tempting, will merely remain a painful longing. A temptation to overcome and  teach us to steel ourselves for greater temptations.

What’s the origin of this holiday? Basically, fasting is quite a common sport and tends to come from religion, as I have written before. It is mostly  done as a form of cleansing and atonement. In Europe, fasting was often ordained after major catastrophes, like plagues. (Chatty aside: This is rather amusing since today a small but vociferous section of the population complains bitterly about any measures taken to slow the spread of our current plague, the coronavirus, and is willing to invent and spread all sorts of extraordinary and often contradictory tidbits of fake information to support their claims. In the good old days, one could just blame the Jews and burn up their ghettos, including inhabitants… And not surprisingly, the covid-deniers have developed a strain of anti-Semitism, notably in France with the “Qui” question, Germany with a vegan cook turned demagogue and a far right wing reveling in denial, and in the USA with the Q lunacy …. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose).

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew (Aug 1572) is thought to have started the fasting tradition in Geneva.

Anyway… Switzerland did establish a confederate fasting day in 1794 during the French Revolution, and reaffirmed it in 1832, but it fell on a Sunday. Geneva decided to go its own way (passive aggressively) and just to be complicated made it the Thursday following the first Sunday in September.

But Wikipedia tells us that the Genevan fast goes back to the night of Saint Bartholomew and the terrible massacre of Protestant families that began in Paris in 1572. It’s not entirely true. there is evidence that the originator of this day off was in fact Jean Calvin himself. No doubt, however, the Protestants here we’re very upset at the horrifying news from Paris back in 1572.  and because it’s Geneva, this particular fasting involves nothing less than eating tarte au pruneaux…. a delicious plum tart.  Those plums are ripe at this point, and this might help understand why Protestants were always considered good in business.  If you can sell plum tarts for a day of fasting, you can sell refrigerators to the Inuit, and SUV’s to people living in a tiny city.

What remains of the fasting process: Plum tarts…

Few in Geneva know why this day is one of fasting. Even fewer care, I suspect. But the tart remains, after all, the motto of the city is Post tenebras lux. After the darkness, luxury… or is it light? Same thing, perhaps.

I rest my case.

Lockdown in the rear-view mirror

We’ve become used to economic crises, since they are endemic to our system. And some of us might remember the oil crises of the ‘70s (from which we learned very little) and the brown-outs and black-outs, and the rocketing fuel costs. But the past year delivered a crisis several generations of westerners simply haven’t experienced. Here’s a brief look back at the first months and my experience with remote teaching.

In Switzerland, the state of emergency triggering the lockdown was announced on Friday, March 13. It had been expected. A few weeks earlier, the first cases of covid-19 had appeared in Switzerland (in Ticino), so the Federal Council gradually prohibited  gatherings of more than 1,000 people, then 100, then less. That put paid to the big trade fairs, like the Salon de l’Auto in Geneva, Baselworld (watches and jewelry) and traditional events like the Fat Tuesday revelry in Basel. It was obvious that schools would have to shut down as well. Two weeks prior, in my school, we had discussed the skiing week and whether it would be possible. Some thought, yes. The thought fizzled. Hope still remained for the school outing at the end of the year… Then the axe fell.

As a substitute teacher now with long-term contract, I was in charge of a class of eighteen teenagers in their last year before entering the equivalent of high school. At first, they were thrilled not to have to go to school. Some were a little worried about their grades, which they hoped to improve in the third term that had just started. Some were already eying a professional path and were worried about it being in jeopardy. My co-main-teacher and I had a special duties towards them: Throughout the school year, we were asked to prepare them for the working life, showing them the many possibilities of achieving their dream or, if at all possible, finding that dream.

Leaving the schoolhouse on that Friday had a mystical feeling to it. There was no drama, no suggestive music, no worries. Just a deafening silence. The airport, which is about 500 yards from the school as the crow flies, had fallen silent, and the air had a whiff of spring unadulterated by the usual scent of burning kerosene.

The empty classroom, March 16, 2020.

The following Monday morning, my co-teacher and I got the class together on WhatsApp for a little chat about how we would proceed. Our orders were to use the Gmail platform, which features “classrooms,” a meeting app, email, etc… But my colleague, far younger than I and a scientist, knew about gaming. SHe had the brilliant idea of setting up a server on the Discord platform, which is not only quite easy to use, but was also familiar to many of our students. That afternoon, I went to school for the last time to gather the books the students had left behind not thinking that the lockdown would happen, and to pick up our class plant.

Last year I wrote about this moment, which some suggested was like a vacation. “A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Thou 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 limbo the next.”

Revving up

From the start, we felt it was important for the kids to see the positive aspects of the situation. I sent around a few paragraphs explaining how the work environment of the future was demanding more independence from employees anyway (a concept called Work 4.0 that I had had to write about for a company, you can read about it here). The lockdown, I pointed out, would be excellent training in self-motivation, in getting things done, communicating properly, staying “with the team,” as it were. This is what freelancers do every day, anyway (see box below).

This little pep-talk, which I repeated several times during the lockdown, had an effect on some. One boy later recalled how hard it was to work for ten minutes in silence, without the noise of the class in the background (these were very chatty kids). They were given enough work to do for half a day. They received the work in one-week batches and could do the work  whenever they pleased, though as a teacher of English and German, I often asked them to be strict about doing a bit every day. Several learned to communicate their questions or problems in a timely fashion and to actually space out  out their work so as to make it doable, rather than wait for the last minute. Some, of course, disappeared and even calls to the parents couldn’t get them to their desks.

For a generation that has grown up with computers and online, their actual skills in this area were often sorely lacking. They could get pics onto Instagram within seconds, but the computer as a tool was in many cases beyond their abilities. It was time to learn by doing, which is probably the best way.

Back and forth

One key to our online teaching was communication. My colleague and I decided to have regular meetings on the platform. Meet (the app) was not a favorite, mostly, we suspected, because they valued their privacy and were probably sitting in bed in their PJs most of the day. So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had a conference call at 11.30 a.m. to listen to their questions and problems. Otherwise, they were free to contact us, and we would respond fairly quickly. At all hours, I might add. I remember one evening helping a student with her French reading, a chapter of a book she did not quite understand. So we worked on it together for nearly an hour. Several did their homework after 10 p.m., which is too late.  One morning early – 4:15 a.m., I am an early riser – I found two students chatting away online and had to convince them to get to bed.

Around the second week, I was contacted by a journalist from the Swiss Radio and Television, who wanted to know what was special about the lockdown, what experience people were having that was brand new. As an incurable optimist, I figured she would be interested to know something about the experience of teachers. And so I described how we, the adults, their teachers, had suddenly entered the world where they spent a lot of time. It was a great moment to share their experience, and to give them a bit of guidance in the utility and dangers of the Internet. It bred a sense of familiarity, too, because we were no longer physically present and applying the usual disciplinary methods. They would bicker and joke around just as they did in class, and occasionally we had to remind them that we were still their teachers. It revealed how vulnerable they could become when not seeing who is communicating with them. A physical voice can be very different from the words on a page.

The airport fell silent as well, a blessing for our noses and ears, and lungs, probably, as well

It was probably not a very interesting observation, because the journo was audibly checking messages on the other end and waiting desperately for me to finish my three or four descriptive sentences. I don’t think she even got my name right. That’s perhaps one of the problems with news media, they do need the spectacular to attract attention, and the subtle gets kicked to the curb.

Epilogue

This regimen lasted nearly two months. The kids would struggle a bit with the IT, somehow get the work back to me for corrections. We did one or two classes online with Meet to get some oral work done. Few showed up for these confabs. It was a bit of a struggle, but, in time, a number of the kids started getting a groove. Some even benefited from the occasional one-on-one classes. The bickering (my class had a few high-level bickerers), while irritating, suggested that they were still engaged with each other, and always offered opportunities for learning social manners.

We returned to school in half-classes on May 11. There were to be no exams, the final grades would be those at the end of the second term. The feedback on the nearly two months of online schooling was mixed. Most students in my class were happy to be back in physical contact with their friends. Even seeing their old teach seemed agreeable. The familiarity continued in the classroom, but as an adult and a teacher you have to keep a certain distance. We are not pals, we are not family. Many felt, too, that testing for grades was stressful and somewhat spoiled the fun of learning.  We discussed this issue, and I had to agree with them, but the problem remained in how to evaluate the kids. The idea of no grading is good, but it does need some preparation. The emphasis is on self-responsibility. What do you do with students who are simply different, whose experience has turned them against any organized society?

Soon, we were back at exploring the curriculum, but without the prize and coercion of grades. This held for another month or so. Then, the promise of summer, the balmy air, the brilliant colors, the the glimmering of freedom till September pried their teenage souls from the classroom, the reading, the maths, the grammar, the constraints. It was time to let them go. My colleague and I organized a picknick after the official end of school. Eleven came.

Those I have seen since are doing well.

In the end, the students who already worked well in class, were also the ones who managed the online learning as well. A few did go AWOL. The parents might have helped, but they, too, were probably too taxed by the situation, though some failed to give their children the proper aural space to work in (in one case, I heard a dad speaking loudly into his phone, while his child was trying to read).

The pandemic is over a year old, now, and people are getting sick of it, while many are still getting sick from it.  But the virus doesn’t care whether or not you’re sick of its presence. This too shall pass, as they say, so me must deal with it. Young people are having a hard time with the lockdown. But hand-wringing, moaning or spouting ridiculous conspiracy theories is not particularly helpful. It behooves us adults to remain stable, supportive, encouraging. Remember the film La vita e bella? Roberto Benigni guides his young son through the trials and tribulations of a concentration camp as if it were a game? That may be where we should all be. In all crises, adults must remain adults, and that does not mean being a pill. It means maintaining your humor, your optimism, your reason. Moaning and groaning about the lockdown and cursing at things you cannot change is not adult. To quote Seneca: “Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”

The Box: (I wrote about this last year already : “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. Chatty aside: I hear so many people, even friends, complaining about being at home in front of the computer, not seeing anyone during the lockdown… I’d like to say: Now you know what it feels like, welcome to my world!).

Parallel Worlds (Part 3): The Followers and the Fighters

 

This is the last section on conspiracy theories (for the moment). It is written to bear witness to what I see as a genuine poison in discussions these days about matters political and social. More and more people dear to me are falling for these patently false narratives created to enhance the “owner.” And increasingly, they begin sounding like members of a cult, with a specific liturgy, tropes about “freedom,” constant self-victimization, and the arrogance to think that their narrative, unsupported and  made of whole cloth, is somehow of paramount importance for the world.

Why I take the time to write is a good question. It’s not to criticize my friends or acquaintances who decide to post this stuff. They are well-intentioned, often. Many seek self-improvement, self-knowledge, new-age solutions, but in our discussions, I sometimes notice a reluctance to be stringent in their thinking. They are suspicious of authority, they question shibboleths, they want to find alternatives, they don’t want to be conventional. This is all good, when exploring a topic dialectically. But when you set up syllogisms full of weak or fallacious premises, the entire construct collapses in a sorry heap. That is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather shoddy data.

One of the almost laughable contradictions of many conspiracy theories, particularly noticeable in  the ones swirling around Covid 19, is that they keep saying that “they” (government, journalists, etc.) are trying to create fear in order to “fill in the blank.” The conspiracy theory (hereafter CT), of course, is in and of itself based on the idea of spreading fear. In fact, fear is a major emotional pillar holding up conspiracy theory, even if the creator or “CEO” of the theorist pretends to be above it all. He/she must communicate the fear to the followers. “Whenever there’s an event, a global event or even a local event, that makes people feel that they have lost control over their lives or their future, that is when conspiracy theories emerge,” said psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, on 60 Minutes, Australia. He pointed out that CT, ironically,  offer some people comfort, a way to explain the randomness of life.

Fear and rationalism are not good friends

It’s sad to see your friends drift into this bizarre, ephemeral thought system. Because passed a certain point, no amount of rational or empirical argumentation can help. The CT acts like a psychotropic drug of sorts and conspiratorial group think begins to kick in and it all starts smelling like a cult, in which people are bound together by a certain core beliefs. As one friend wrote about another: “She understands what I am saying but just wants to believe. She wants to believe it.” Let that sink in. And she feels good with this strange and provably false world view.

This reinforces the drug/cult analogy. Addicts do not like to be told to stop. They often go into a rather immature form of reactance and will continue cutting their nose to spite their face. The cigarette smoker will say “I like to smoke after meals,” without realizing that the non-smoker does not because of one difference, namely, the addiction to nicotine, which informs our brain to like tobacco and will make it “taste good.” Furthermore, like the cult member, the conspiracy theory peddlers will sacrifice friends and family to the growing obsession with the theory itself. They will say and do anything — the most callous, disrespectful, absurd nonsense — to support their view. They will dig themselves ever deeper, send you more clips in the silo that the YouTube or Facebook algorithm offers them. The tone of the conversation will get condescending, and then aggressive. I have seen this happen repeatedly.

For some, this might appear quaint, almost funny – though irritating after a while, as a few spouses of conspiracy theorists confessed to me – but for others it’s like watching a person become slightly psychotic and it is worrisome. I’ve seen people spew unadulterated bilge in public and not even get corrected. On the contrary, when I do speak up, as I am wont to do,  the company shushes me, not the conspiracist. Facebook is a case in point. It’s public.

What drives people to embarrass themselves this way? (Because it is embarrassing to fall victim to transparent sophisms). It may be something banal: lots of time, no necessity to earn a living and boredom. Sometimes it’s merely reactance, that psychological switch that tells us to resist being told what to do. It could also be the thrill of being engaged in something apparently meaningful.  The conspiracist has made it to the barricades of humanity. So, the Follower is now part of the Epic Battle against a huge, invisible, ungraspable, lethal enemy, and plain logic and banal, provable facts are just too insipid to get the endorphins going.

The Internet, of course,  is a great incentive for believing in, and generating, conspiracy theories. The True Believers can gather together, raise their profile (the German language has the verb sich profilieren), and be seen amidst a community of backslappers. Flat Earthers, Truthers, Birthers, those who believe that Theodor Adorno wrote Beatles songs to destroy our society’s moral fiber (or something like that) … It has become one of the great tools for real research and communication, but it is being taken over by a rising sewer of nonsensical conjecture that a critical mass of people believe in for reasons only a psychologist can explain — whereby I put it down mostly to loneliness caused by that very Internet, which is increasingly atomizing society into little units of despair, where immediate human-to-human communication has become a rarity.

When your cat channels the CIA

The rabbit hole

What you soon discover, when dealing with these souls, is that arguing is pointless. You love your friend, because you knew him or her as a kind or funny person, quirky maybe (Ph., I’m talking about you), you offer alternative views, you point out the logical errors (essentially to alleviate the fear you hear in the conspiracist’s language), you ask for real evidence, you shed as much light as you can on the issue. In one case, after listening to 90 minutes worth of of utter bilge, I told a friend: “I know the solution, we should just commit suicide.” He stopped his rambling and asked: “Why???” And I answered, because all is lost, everything is occupied by an invisible enemy, they are obviously on the building opposite and listening to this conversation…” For two hours after that, we could converse normally.

In the end, however, you will lose the argument, since the goal posts get moved with every factual contradiction. The conspiracy grows and grows, like some horrid blob… Ultimately, you will have to follow a standard 12-step program. Number one:  You are powerless in the face of a CT junkie. Two, you cannot change another person. As the Fighter against the nonsense, you must, at some point, admit defeat, and that admission will be your personal victory, the moment you stop enabling the other. You can offer your view – and suffer the consequences – and that’s it. The alcoholic, like the CT-junkie, has to hit rock bottom. A number of conspiracy theorists who got Covid-19 and almost died or lost relatives have spoken of their experience in public. The illness brought them back to reality. But that is not something you wish on your friends, now, is it? As for the rest, they will continue filling their minds with these exciting but vaporous theories until some event drags them back to reality. And I am afraid that event will not be pleasant.

 

 

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+ (now over 1 million…) 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. Lonely, but incapable of joining the cult-like community that believes that there’s a “they” out there and “they” are out to get them. 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 virus. And they are the same people who want to see Trump re-elected. Those are just the facts, available straight from the horse’s mouth, no mysterious dot-connecting necessary. Look it up. The Fox pundits, the Breitbart gnomes, etc., all are maintaining a large base of conspiracy-addled people, mainly for financial gain …

(New info: a friend of mine I promise to keep anonymous dined with Glenn Beck, the man who uses Vicks under his eyes to “cry” about the desolate state of the USA.. He asked him about the conspiracy nonsense. Beck waved it off, saying he didn’t believe any of it himself. To the question “Why do it then?” Beck just pulled out his black Mastercard.

 

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, precisely the hallucinations 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 or out-and-out lies, like the stuff pumped out by Fox News and the other far-right channels. 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 assumes 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 CTs, 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, and are buying the data.

CT is like a drug. It’s so attractive. Everything, at first, seems so easy to folow. All the pieces are in place and everything works. As if real life were so simple. 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, which is non-existent. And being shown proof that the theory is wrong in 100 small points,  shouldn’t make you feel ashamed, just corrected. But this is where Brandolini’s Law kicks in:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.

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 or tells them to check their facts, because they have it bass ackwards..

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, a contrarian, someone who says different stuff? Is it a form of contrarianism? Or does the doc varnish  your prejudices, the niggling doubt, the grain of paranoia that is stored in our lizard brain for protection?  Or does it awaken the control freak in us, especially at a time when things on the planet seem totally discombobulated?

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 it 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. 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 they 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 selfishness 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. Some 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, as happened to a friend of mine who is bipolar. The pogroms against Jewish communities beginning in 38 AD, or in Norwich 1177, or during the Black Plague were all triggered by conspiracy theories. Same for the the September Massacres during the French Revolution, or 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. Need I add: the Holocaust,Stalin’s mass murder, Pol Pot, even Mao’s brutality: All fueled by conspiratorial thinking, the belief that a mysterious “they” were plotting “something.”

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

If 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 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.

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.

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.

Baselworld 2019: peaks and peeks


The trickle of brands leaving Baselworld a few years ago turned into a torrent in 2018, with Swatch Group packing up its castle and kaboodle and leaving a big space free on the ground floor of the main hall in 2019. For the media, it was not a bad deal, since the press center was installed right there in the heart of things.  And it left a lot more time to visit those who were at Basel…

The nuclear option, from Urwerk

Five days, about forty-five meetings, three interviews and many spontaneous conversations about all sorts of topics cannot by any stretch of the imagination be properly condensed into a single article, and these days, even scrolling seems to sap the energy of the online reader …

MeisterSinger, just the facts

 At any rate, all shapes and sizes were on display, and all price ranges, from Urwerk’s AMC with an  atomic  time-setting machine already seen at the SIHH and going for around $2,700,000, to the delicate regulator watches of the Münster-based company, MeisterSinger, whose prices begin at around $800.

A coup de coeur is a French term indicating something that takes your breath away.  And this Baselworld was quite rich in these, so here are a few that I picked up along the way, certainly not an exhaustive list… And there will be follow-ups for certain brands:

Nature morte, really

ArtyA’s hypnotic Butterfly Iridescent

Day one,  Wednesday, March 21. My first appointment was at 1:30pm at the Ateliers , site of many smaller brands (Czapek &Cie, MB&F, Urwerk, Louis Moinet…the usual  suspects).  Being quite early, I sauntered over to ArtyA, where Yvan Arpa was setting up along with his extremely talented artist wife Dominique, who contributes her creativity to many dials, notably of the Son of Earth series. Arpa is a small fellow, the way a 300-Watt bulb is small.  He’s exuberant, full of vim and vigor, and very direct, which always makes for terrific banter.  He started laying out the novelties and other pieces the company produces, rapid-firing  the details, a watch with a dial of spokes inspired from motorcycles (“…each one is hand assembled.”),  the Son of a Gun Extreme with the 6mm  rounds in the dial,  a brand new Megève with the dial carved like a snowflake. And then there was the Son of Earth Butterfly Iridescent, which was a genuine coup de coeur. It’s a simple three-hander (essentially dauphine hands), powered by the ArtyA  automatic Aion movement (made in collaboration with Concepto, 28,800 vph, côtes de Genève, 25 jewels). The beauty is the natural mauve iridescence of the single butterfly wing that almost covers the dial and catches the light every time the watch moves. The luminescence reveals the structure of the wing and gives the dial depth, as if you were looking into a magic fountain filled with mystically glowing water.

 

Time unexpected

Same day, later…. An annual pilgrimage to the small booth of Itay Noy, whose watches – all in limited editions – engage the beholder in a conversation, usually about something larger than just time. And so his timepieces become like small poems, chrono-haikus, or philosophical fragments, or simply good old friends you like to meet over and over again… I haven’t asked him yet for his own interpretations (in my Maximalism, for instance, I see solid straight roots/rationalism on the lower half of the dial, and turbulent, baroque thoughts on the upper half…), in part because discussing it would be like writing the first sentence of a story, which will create certain inevitability in interpretation. REORDER WHITE LOW-REZNoy’s  concept of “dynamic dials” brings liveliness to the wrist and opens many possibilities for the creative watch designer. But what could be a worthy successor to the Full Month, which tracks the day using thirty-one numbers painstakingly cut into the dial over a disk that turns the right number red?  The answer is simply Reorder. Also a sandwich dial, but this time it’s the hours that are cut haphazardly into the dial. Noy prefers not to explain the system he developed to display time in this fascinating manner (no, it’s not as strident as Franck Muller’s Crazy Hours). It’s not about omerta, but rather to keep the mystery alive, he told me. “If you know how the magician does his tricks, it’s no longer any fun to watch.”  The watch features the movement he worked on together with a little company called IsoProg.

Art and the machine

One brand that has shown remarkable resilience in spite of recession and fitful starts and stops is Hautlence. Their products – 1970s-styled, television-shaped timepieces with intricate engines inside – are not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the classical purist…. Let me put it this way, if it were music, a modern Eduard Hanslick would  have had a fit. But, but, but:  You can’t deny the effort and the technical hijinks that go into these odd pieces. Becoming a member of MELB Holding, run byHL SPHERE_Mushroom_White Background

HTL 501-1_Front_Black Background
The HL Sphere’s mechanics.

 Georges-Henri Meylan, kept Hautlence in the market … After five years, according to Nathalie Cobos, the company came up with what should by rights be a winner:  the HL Sphere. Its most striking feature is the hour display on the left of the dial, a kind of blue globe engraved with numerals that travels on three rotational axes to give the hour. To the right is a retrograde minute display with a special twist. Thanks to a set of braking gears, the minute hand travels back to the big double zero  at a moderate pace. It allows one to really watch the mechanism at work, from both sides, if necessary, especially considering the artistry of the four conical gears that drive the “hour bubble,” as it were.

Simple complexity

Hautlence’s group sister, H. Moser & Cie, has been making a name for itself these past years, though without ever changing its essence:  minimalism. In January at the SIHH (Ed. Note: the review is still being tweaked), it presented a watch with a tourbillon, and that’s it. That didn’t mean the owner couldn’t tell time. The watch had a minute repeater as well.  Very clever, but it was merely a prelude to the  Endeavour Concept Minute Repeater Tourbillon, which has two hands and is all the more practical for it.

Endeavour_Concept_Minute_Repeater_Tourbillon_1903-0200_Lifestyle
H.Moser & Cie, the simplest complicated watches.

The dial is more exciting thanks to the two repeater hammers have been placed on the dial side and stand out sharply on the black lacquer dial. Not surprisingly, Pierre Favre and the Manufacture Haute Complication is behind this double whammy, the same company that provided the engineering  for ArtyA’s combo double-axis tourbillon with three-gong minute repeater.  The H. Moser piece distinguishes itself by being of manageable size (ø43 mm x 14mm) and with its white gold case, it’s not too showy until one looks a little more closely…

Interlude

I could mention at least a dozen other watches that made the trip to Basel well worth every minute. Nomos, for example, has gone sportive, with new additions to its Neomatik line that will thrill swimmers who refuse to wear some pedestrian waterproof watch. This sleek timekeeper can take a 300-meter dive. Note, too, the unique bracelet of tightly assembled slats that look like the smooth scales of a supple aquatic creature. From the same region, Glashütte, comes the magnificently elegant gold Tutima Patria with power reserve and a green Flieger that is taking the brand into a new era of color… all material that will show up in Wristwatch Annual 2020.  Some 40 kilometers from Glashütte is Dresden, home to another maker of classically fine watches, Lang und Heyne (see the Moritz, below).

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The children are OK

 

Almost too perfectly, though, my last two meetings of the fair were with “watch-men” whose idea of design is very similar though the outcome is different.  The first man is Chris Long, founder and CEO of an unusual brand called Azimuth (which has been in Wristwatch Annual for as long as I can remember)….  A watch lover from his days as a student engineer, Long has never lost his youthful sense of humor and playfulness, and they pervade his brand’s output.

There is, for example, the Landship, a homage to the first tanks of World War One.  Or the King Casino, with a baccarat and roulette function. There are some simple regulators (Back in Time),  or more complex ones, like the Predator series, which feature a large fang-like minute hand with an opening at its base that reveals the hour on a disk, the whole thing skeletonized for lightness.  Others are inspired by sports cars (the Gran Turismo or the Twin Turbo) … When we met at the Swissôtel Le Plaza bar,  Long was wearing one of my favorites: The Mr. Roboto, now in brass, a face, with regulator hours, and small seconds for eyes, and a mouth housing retrograde minutes…. inside,  a movement modified in-house. More to come on this remarkable brand and its CEO.

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Serendipitously, my final appointment of the fair was with MB&F, a brand with a similar vibrancy as Azimuth, though on a different level altogether. Founder and CEO Max Büsser,  the creative impulse behind MB&F, not only makes watches and clocks that do more than tell time; they function equally well as works of kinetic art, and like art, at times they turn the world upside down. Büsser works with a growing roster of “friends,” experts and paragons in their own fields, so the engineering and finishing are always top notch, and each new “machine” is unique. But so far, the watches were always inspired from external objects or ideas. The latest in the Legacy Machine is far more personal, as a quote on the MB&F website suggests: “I wanted LM FlyingT to possess the epitome of femininity as reflected by the women in my life, particularly my mother. It had to combine supreme elegance with tremendous vitality.

What the watch tells.

 

“Flying T” refers to the flying tourbillon that is built up vertically in the center of the dial and topped with a single diamond.  The area around it comes either in diamonds, a snow-covered field,  or in plain black, a deep sea. And at 7 o’clock, a small watch face, stares at the wearer from a perfect angle. It means an intimate moment with time, excluding all others for the duration of a glance . The entire dial is under a vaulted sapphire crystal, which instantly suggests one of those globes, which, when shaken,  produces a snow storm. All that’s missing is a dancing ballerina atop the flying tourbillon. Instead of a dancer, though, the tourbillon is topped with a single diamond.

What the eye does not see

 

The Flying T can be read at a deeper symbolic level as well, perhaps channeled by the designer.  The little dial recalls the moon revolving around the earth. The smooth rounded crystal could symbolize the rounded belly of a pregnant woman, or even a breast, traditional symbols of life itself. And the transparent case back reveals a special rotor, a voluble sun, symbol of nourishment (as Büsser himself states), and also of masculine energy and that of the visible world that meets the mysterious lunar world of the feminine.  Of the many complex watches that have emerged from the MB&F forge, this one, in its apparent simplicity, is perhaps the most complex and the one with the most profound story. It tells us that there is a lot more in time than meets the eye. None of us will survive time, but there’s hop in the cycle of death and life, and the magic of procreation that runs through the feminine.  The one woman from Büsser’s life who did not see this gem was his mother, who died a year ago. It may be solace to know that we all inherit our mother’s heartbeat, so a bit of her always lives in us and our children.

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Sun, earth and moon meet in one watch: MB&F’s FlyingT.

An Adventure for the wrist

Watches can be a major investment. So naturally, many collectors, especially of more recent vintage (and notably in emerging watch markets) prefer to play it safe and buy a big-name timepiece.  These are more often than not excellent, solid, well-conceived watches … but they tend to overshadow some eyebrow-raising watxches with less PR power, ones that are rare, exciting, and will not break the bank, either.

duManège comes out with a new watch

Here’s the short version of this story: You can get a well-designed, technically classy watch run on one of those brawny, automatic ETA movements: 42mm carbon case, stainless steel bezel, classy black dial and an elegant rubber/fiber strap for under $1000…. But only until July 29 on kickstarter. Here’s the link (Adventure), and here’s the rest of this story.

A week before Baselworld 2014, a friend called me to ask if I could quickly skim over a press release announcing a new brand. I can no longer count the number of times I get these calls , but I’m happily not blasé yet, and my curiosity and inner do-gooder inevitably get the better of me. So I corrected a shabbily translated press release that did, however, describe quite a sexy timepiece called Exploration, I couldn’t help notice.  It also landed in the Masters & Mavericks section of  Wristwatch Annual 2015, described thus:

“…a 44.5 mm steel case made up of several components and black ceramic inserts, definitely sporty, but not on steroids. The coolness is in the details—the satin-brushed surfaces, contrasting polished beveling, open-worked hands, markers that shorten on the left to make way for the subdials. For complications, he chose a power reserve indicator—the two spring barrels of the customized Technotime automatic movement can drive the watch for up to 120 hours—and a retrograde date hand that takes up about one-third of the dial.”

Julien Fleury, entrepreneur, jeweler, marathon runner.

The “he” in the piece turned out to be Julien Fleury. When I met him a few weeks later in the ground-floor bar  at the Ramada (today XXX), I did a double take. Fleury looked like he’d just hatched from an egg, short slightly spiky hair, thin as a rail. He could have been a school kid.  But there was something compelling about the intensity of his stare and his very serious demeanor.  I was not surprised to discover that he regularly participates in cross-country marathons, a sport that requires focus and self-control.

He is not a watchmaker, he told me off the bat.  He started his career in the jewelry trade but had studied graphic design. This did explain the very clear visual impact of the watches.

Businesslike, he explained his concept: He basically designed the watches and has them made by local artisans and friends from his native La Chaux-de-Fonds. They had helped him made the Exploration, and would continue doing so, he said confidently.

La Chaux-de-Fonds, UNESCO-protected watch cradle

Having visited the upper reaches of Neuchâtel canton and the neighboring Franches-Montagnes (Free Mountains) a few times, I realized he was not kidding around. People have loyalties there, and Fleury’s family had, he told me as well, a pedigree reaching into the industry. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool chaudefonnier  with a special love for his native town. “Watches that say Swiss made are readily available,” he said, “but none say ‘made in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.” This odd city is indeed one of the cradles of watchmaking in Switzerland. After a fire destroyed the old town in 1794, a new town was designed along the best lines for natural lighting, a boon to the watchmaking industry. This particularly impressive combination of form and function earned La Chaux-de-Fonds and neighboring Le Locle a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

And so, Fleury aimed to render unto Caesar, as it were, and thus rightfully put that trundling, hyphenated name on his watch dials between 1 and 3 o’clock.  His second tribute to “La-Chaux” was the brand name, duManège. The “Manège” is the town’s old riding school built in 1855. It was later used as low-cost housing for poorer families and became an architectural ideal of community living.

The start of a dynasty
Once all the technical, financial and biographical issues have been taken care of at my first meeting with Julien Fleury,  there remained my key question for any new brand:  What are the plans for 2.0, 3.0, etc.. Because an idea in watchmaking is only as good as its subsequent generations. He assured me he had a concept, but he needed first to get his first crop into the market.

At any rate, I left the interview with an old quote from Le Cid  by the 17th-century French playwright Pierre Corneille: “Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années.” The young Rodrigue, who goes on to duel a gifted swordsman, who had an insulted his aged dad, say s “To the soul well-born, the worth need not wait for years…”

Three years later, armed with better funding, Fleury got back to me with the Heritage line where he could use his jeweler’s talents, or tap into local crafts for a grand-feu dial or other decorative arts. He was even offering customized miniature painting.  It was a clear sign that his brand was here to stay. I made space for his watches in Wristwatch Annual 2018, including one of my favorites whose dial is covered in stylized fir trees in champlevé enamel. This  special chaudefonnier  art-nouveau motif reflects the local trees in that cold and snowy region. They are also a legacy of the city’s famous son, Le Corbusier.

More surprises

A few weeks ago, Fleury wrote me with a new duManège product, a sleek, sober, technical watch again (the 42-millimeter case is made of carbon composite), with a definitively sportive feel and story. It is called Adventure, and is dedicated to those who, like Fleury himself, practice elite sports. This means: a three-hander, lightweight and robust, screw-in crown, water-resistant to 30 ATM, a big superluminova-drenched 6 and applique markers for the other hours that stand out sharply on a black dial with a dynamic ribbing pattern. The rubber strap also contributes to the active look, and comes with a coat of technical fibers and color stitching according to the model. Time here is driven by a robust automatic ETA  2824-2..

A watch for all reasons: duManège’s new Adventure is funding sports and athletes

The watch comes in six different models, each dedicated to a separate activity, which is identified by a color code appearing on the second hand and stitching on the strap. Ball is yellow and stands for football (soccer); Slide (blue) for tobogganing;  Fight (white) is for martial arts, while Military is khaki obviously;  Motor is red for motor sports, and, finally, Mountain is green.

Twenty percent of the sale of each watch will go to a designated sportsman to help him on his way to success. These include Swiss bobsleigh driver Yann Moulinier (from La Chaux-de-Fonds) , who’s making a bid for the Olympic Games (Slide); soccer player  Neftali Manzambi, training to make it to the national team (Ball);  Ludovic Soltermann, Prestige Class motorcycle driver (Motor); Zakaria Khelil, a kickboxing and Muay-Thai specialist (Fight).

Getting it
These watches will be available online for chf 1390 (for dollar price, check the daily exchange rates), but Fleury  has started a kickstarter campaign to get them produced by the end of the year. His deal: Buy one through the crowdfunder, and get a 40% discount….

 

 

 

The genius of Paul Gerber

 

You haven’t heard this one yet: Four top experts, a micro-engineer, an industrial designer, an artist with a specialty in metalwork, and an accountant walk into a bar. And the barman says: “So, Herr Gerber, what can I serve you today?”… Add a really smart kid, but that would be getting ahead of my skis…

A slightly flippant joke like that above may not be the most dignified way to introduce a giant of watchmaking, but the real cognoscenti will know that the punchline is pretty accurate. This was confirmed to me during a brief and – as usual, fun – visit with him and his wife Ruth during the Easter break. Let me backtrack for a minute.

 

In case you don’t know Gerber too well or at all: Bernese by birth, but living and working in Zurich for nearly half a century, he has had his platinum fingers in the mechanism of many a great watch or clock over that half-century plus. Amongst his global creations is, for instance, the cool-calm-collected MIH watch made for the Musée Internationale de l’Horlogerie in La Chauds-de-Fonds. Two of his pieces have been in the Guinness Book of Records. One time was for the smallest clock made of boxwood, another for one of the world’s most complicated watches. It was originally a fairly simple pocket watch made by Louis Elysée Piguet in the early 20th century, but a new owner, Swiss entrepreneur Willi Sturzenegger (the “Earl of Arran”) decided to soup it up… Gerber also makes watches under his own name: they are easy to read, and with small touches of genius, such as a dizzying triple rotor. It’s Gerber’s understated humor coming out, a necessity for his version of “innovation.”

At the end of August 2015, I had the great luck to spend a few intense days with Paul Gerber and his wife and comrade-in-arms Ruth.  The occasion was one of his watch seminars, during which me and two other gentlemen were coached by Gerber while we took apart an old Unitas, changed the mainplate, decorated it, and put the whole thing back together again in a special case. The details of this exciting process, and the depth of learning can be found here

Easy does it

At the time, I had already developed a deep respect for this dyed-in-the-wool watch-genius. Nothing in his surroundings or demeanor suggested the extent of his know-how and experience. He seemed more akin to some regular Joe, puttering around his little den-like workshop in the basement of his modest house on Zurich’s western edge. But the three-day workshop, besides deepening my knowledge of the art, was also full of wonderful discoveries, tiny clocks, machines, movements he’d rebuilt, gadgets and gismos, and lever arch folders stuffed with thousands of pages and images fastidiously documenting the work of a lifetime.

We met at various events since, and each time he extended a generous invitation to drop by. Casually.  And so, earlier this year (2018),  I was able to finally take up Paul and Ruth Gerber on their invitation.

The real-life workbench of the genius.

It was a sunny day. But no sooner had I arrived, than Gerber took me to his workbench in the den-like basement. The operational word is work: The space is covered with motley items he uses to operate on watches, screw drivers, tweezers, bits of gummy stuff used to pick up tiny screws, a quadruple oil dispenser. There was also a broken wine glass he uses to protect parts from dust while they wait to be assembled. Most industrial watch workshops have elegant cheese bells: “I’ve had this since I started,” he pointed out with a mischievous smile. Gleefully he showed me a device he’d built… just to sharpen screw drivers. “The others don’t work well.”

But the pièce de resistance was undoubtedly a tiny ring-shaped part of silvery metal, stainless steel I assumed, which he picked up with a pair of tweezers and held up to the light.  I had no idea what it was. He explained forthwith: It was the frame of the watchstrap moon phase he’s made for the MIH watch. The story behind it was typical Gerber: A customer had wanted a moon phase on his MIH watch and rather than clutter up the dial of the minimalist watch, he decided to sink a small, battery driven moon phase into the strap, an innovative idea, if I ever heard one.

Discoveries

We were supposed to go out for lunch on this, the first real day of spring in 2018. But I had brought a big jar of mustard and spontaneously suggested it would be a great day to grill cervelat and enjoy the garden… Gerber seemed relieved, and I was to, and Ruth immediately set about organizing the lunch, while Paul disappeared somewhere to grill the sausages.

(Chatty aside: Is there any Swiss family that doesn’t keep an emergency reserve of cervelat, that short, thick wiener-like sausage wrapped in natural skin (it caused a bit of a stir about eight years ago when it seemed Switzerland was running out of skin? I guess not.)

Over lunch, Gerber talked about his early days in the biz. The quartz crisis was raging at the time he was doing his apprenticeship. And so he began by opening a watch and jewelry shop. As he spoke, I had difficulty imagining this brilliant watchmaker discussing watch straps with walk-in customers, or confirmation gifts for thirteen-year-olds. And he confirmed my feeling: Being in his watchmaking den, with his fingers on the wheels, was more along his lines. He sold the shop.

Child’s play

A distant connection of sorts flash through my mind. Gerber’s enthusiasm with watchmaking reminds me of a sentence Max Büsser (see MB&F) has made into his company’s tagline: “A creative adult is a child who has survived.” Survived the constraints, strictness, rigidity,  Gradgrindish goal-setting of the so-called adult world.  This explains his desire to stay close to his work, at home, in his basement, rather than delve in the flimflam of communication and publicity. The marketing masters of our industry love to talk about passion, and urge their copywriters to do “emotion.”  But Gerber does not perceive and then act in the spirit of passion (conjuring Hume, here), he just lives it as a cellular impulse. His rationality then steps in and tells him how to implement it in the 3D world.

Tweezers, improved by Gerber.

I mention a young  unemployed watchmaker I know, who has restored some surprisingly valuable watches (an Omega Seamaster, among others), and the  conversation drifts towards old movements and replacement parts. You’d think it is extremely esoteric and a little dull, but it’s not. Not when Gerber talks about it. It’s more like Wilhelm Kempff talking about piano strings or felt hammers. And so I learn that watchmakers who’ve started cranking a heavenly topping tool often leave a treasure trove of bits and pieces, sometimes even entire movements, for the next generation. These end up in flea markets, or are picked up by other watchmakers to fiddle around with. And are then passed down or end up in a special timepiece that may or may not be sold. More likely than not, it will end up in the recycling container. Gerber has his own collection of composants trouvés, as it were.

The ticking 70s ! Gerber’s collection of Oris alarm clocks…

Hobbies

Luxury wake-up: an old Oris alarm clock with tourbillon…

I thought his big hobby was fly-by-wire planes…. But after lunch,  Gerber steers me to a display case in his living room containing  one of his own collections.  Standing  on a shelf like little soldiers, are a battalion of old Oris travel alarm clocks, the ones that folded up into a hard shell, a clever design. Just for the heck of it, he built a functioning tourbillon into one of them. At some point, virtuosity is the key that unlocks total creativity, sort of like Picasso drawing Gertrud Stein as graffiti on a bathroom wall.

He had more to show me, down in his Ali-Baba’s cave, The Basement. Bellies full, we browsed through pictures of his special car, a Fiat 600 Multipla from the late 50s, adoringly restored. Interesting: Many watchfolk I know have flashier vehicles, but this one has personality… He dug up some mechanical place-name holders that show the diner’s name when a lever was depressed. I asked him about the amazing Earl of Arran watch, and he dragged me – where I had sweated for three days two years earlier decorating that Unitas movement – was a large and beautiful box with a leather insert, for the latest iteration of the (see the article on Paul Gerber, P. 1).

Flashiness is in the extraordinarily special design of this icon of Fiat.

Back in the basement, he shows me the large gearwheels he finished for one brand we shall keep anonymous. He dismisses the actual model they were fitted into with a sly, deprecating smile. But those gearwheels …. beveled to perfection, inside and outside edges, including the corners, which are exceedingly tricky, the three wheels displaying forty (40!) surfaces for his rock-steady file to transform from mundane metal to watchmaker perfection.  And that, for several models…  He also pulls out a thick folder to show the details of the order. Everything is documented, beginning with sketches, down to the last screw. That’s the book-keeping part. It’s a key to maintaining continuity; it’s a gift to future generations.

I think full circle. When I first left Gerber’s cavern a few years back, I thought hard on what elevates some watchmakers to the highest rank.  It’s not just the achievement and portfolio.  The challenge is this: Watchmaking taps into all sorts of fields. In addition to engineering, material science, gem-setting, enameling, a top-notch watchmaker will know history, navigation, astronomy, theology, philosophy, esthetics.  They are Renaissance people, they are the great (sea) venturers, to borrow a term from R. Buckminster Fuller, who required “…great anticipatory vision, great ship designing capability, original scientific conceptioning, mathematical skill, (…), able to command all the people in their dry land realm in order to commandeer he adequate metalworking, weaving and other skills necessary to produce their large complex ships.”1

The era of  the master visionary and  maker may be dead and gone in many other industries, but to create a beautiful watch, like composing a beautiful string quartet, you need a Beethoven, a Haydn, a Brahms, not a committee of brainstormers dreaming up target groups. Gerber is up there with the giants.

 

Buckminster Fuller, R., Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, A Dutton, New York, 1963, p. 17

Thorny delight

A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.

One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…

From right to left, W. Farel (l.), Jean Calvin (m.), Theo. de Bèze (r.)… The reformers: “Don’t be happy, worry!”

Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.

All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

Image result for the Cardoon
Cardoons prior to preparation

The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.

Cardoon character
At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.

It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.

The easy way to get cardons… buy it at the supermarket for about CHF 14,95…

You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.

Taming the wild cardoon
From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.

A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.

Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.

To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.

 

 

 

Geneva by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angels in Geneva

This story is entirely true because I imagined it from beginning to end. Boris Vian (1920–1959) Preamble to L’écume des jours (Froth On The Days)

We all seek a measure of security in a connected, networked world, where corporate identity ensures global monoculturalism at all levels and offers the comfort of  familiar space. We can travel the planet without ever really seeing it, enjoy the exact same coffee in Singapore as in New York or Warsaw, buy the same clothes in shops that all look the same, hear the same shallow music with me-me-me lyrics, and even taste the same foods. Our hyper-technology tends to reinforce the uniformity around the globe, creating more safe space, removing all sting and thrill out of the adventure of life. Everything can be seen. And paradoxically, in the flood of images being traded across the globe every second of the day, it’s our imagination that suffers.Angels-05

Throughout their lives, puppeteers Tina and Michel Perret-Gentil chose to sally forth into the great unknown without fear of being disconnected. Their particular art of telling stories through their puppets engages the imagination far more than any movie or series of pictures on Instagram or Flickr. Their life and craft dispense metaphors that trigger chains of thoughts and eureka moments and genuinely slake our minds’ thirst for exploration of mystery and for more journeying.

Here’s the story of two very special people living a different life in Geneva.

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Tina —- life on a string.

When Tina was 19, she packed up her bags, took the seeds of her life’s experience from a childhood and youth in the stark, majestic mountains of the Canton of Grisons in eastern Switzerland, and went down into the lowlands to plant them and see what might grow. The year was 1967; in the western world, a new generation of humans was taking its first hesitant steps away from the social and political straitjacket of a more conservative past. Change was in the air, and it was to break into full-fledged rebellion a year later in Paris and other European capitals. Geneva was not yet the pressure-cooker-like, global maelstrom of finance, oil, real-estate speculation and tarnished money it is today, but the presence of the UN and other international organizations already gave it a distinct stamp, a whiff of distant shores, of exoticism that contrasted with the in the quintessential Calvinist petit bourgeoisie of the city. It was a mix lacking elsewhere in the Alpine Republic.

Tina, née Marianna Katharina Casanova, who had learned French and done some secretarial training, had no ambitious plans for life. She just wanted to work at the post office and get a feel for life in a biggish city. “My aunts and my mother had worked at the post office in Obersachsen (her native village), and as a child I would help them deliver telegrams or express mail for pocket money,” she recalls. “I did that for a few months in Geneva but I realized I did not want to be behind a counter all day, I wanted to get out and deliver the mail, and be with the people.” And so her first seedlings withered quickly under the fluorescent assault of reality.

As time passed, however, she came to realize that the post-office job in itself was just a symbol for the determination and self-confidence bequeathed to her from her mother and aunts well before Swiss women even got the right to vote. The Grisons, that large mountainous Canton in Eastern Switzerland with its stark peaks, eight months of snow, where people still speak a derivative of Latin, Rumantsch, boasted particularly traditional values. “They were different from other women,” she says of those powerful women in her life, “they wore more jewels, they wore trousers, they were the first women to ski up there, they all made music, and I got a diatonic accordion for my ninth birthday,” she points out, a touch wistfully. “I had a wonderful childhood up in the mountains, close to nature.”Angels-07

When I visited Tina the first time to write this article, she was still close to nature. Her home, surrounded by greenery, is unique in and for Geneva, a city plagued by an extreme dearth of lodgings and where rents are astronomical. Almost forty years ago, she and her husband Michel slipped quietly into the nomadic lifestyle of rolling homes “It was not a conscious decision, it just happened,” she says, “but I couldn’t live in a house anymore today. Those poor Romas whom the government was always trying to force into homes, they must have gone crazy.”

They had four trailers, long, dark wooden structures that her life-long companion Michel Perret-Gentil had carefully and skillfully revamped, adding windows, insulation, wood paneling, and the occasional decorative touch. One was for sleeping, one for the office and atelier, there was one for each of their two children, who are now grown up and have children of their own. Her son Jan lived in Uganda for a while, where his wife worked for an NGO. Daughter Anna is in Geneva. For guests or other meetings, Michel put up a large yurt, the tent-like structure of wooden slats covered with felt used mainly in Mongolia.

At the time of the first interview, these homes were located in a garden lot in the Cherpines area of the city, which until May of 2011 had been zoned for agriculture. The two functional homes were placed so the doors face each other. Between the two was a simple picnic table covered in wax cloth and shielded from the rain by a canvas. Often, on warm days and nights, they sit together or with any of their innumerable friends and chat, dream and discuss projects. They are as gentle with the environment as possible, always using biodegradable soaps. The waste from the toilet is compost.

Puppets from Rajasthan live and entertain in Geneva
Puppets from Rajasthan live and entertain in Geneva

In their five years’ residence at the Cherpines, they had planted a wild garden with roses, some vegetables and herbs, dug a small pond, and even planted a willow, using offshoots from a tree at their previous residence. “Everyday I look at the flowers in the garden, I feel they are inhabited each by their own spirit, and that gives me strength as well and confidence.” These two words return in our conversations over and over again. Strength, confidence.

During our interview, we sat in the kitchen, essentially a wide corridor with a gas stove and an old wood cooking stove used on colder days. The walls are covered in mementoes, pictures, notes, drawings, post-its, the eclectic ephemera of a life on the road and with children. A shelf carries a crowd of strange objects, statuettes and, incongruously, an old shoe. The sheer immediacy of the outdoor takes away any feeling of being inside. It’s spring, and a host of sparrows, blue tits and blackbirds are carrying on a lively conversation. The west wind that brought a light rain is also shaking drops off the trees onto the roof above us and making the nearby highway more audible than usual. The cats come in and out of the open door. The air is rich with spices, herbal teas and espresso and a hint of patchouli, an aromatic anchor in Tina and Michel’s lives.

We sit opposite each other. Her eyes are dark aquamarine, almost grey. They take in everything without hunger, as if they could hear. She speaks in clear, emphatic tone, her French has the slight singsong of her native Swiss German, and every move of her long thin arms shakes a parade of bangles. She modulates her voice down to whisper sometimes, or stretches out a syllable beyond its shelf life.

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A touch of theater is an occupational hazard: For nearly 38 years, Tina and Michel have been puppeteers, telling stories, singing, accompanying their little wooden actors with all manner of sounds and instruments. As such, they have become an integral part of the cultural scene in Geneva, appearing wherever there is some manifestation or celebration of the stage arts or children to entertain. They also launched a late spring festival called “Dust of the world” (Poussière du Monde), homage to nomadic culture featuring song recitals from the Maghreb or Colombia, or evenings of fairytales. It all takes place in a in the Parc Bernasconi in Geneva. The theater itself is in fact two magnificent concatenated Mongolian yurts, whose cloth walls are supported by slats intricately decorated with arabesques.

It is there, on a Sunday afternoon, that I picked up one of their shows. This one featured their kathputli puppets – a special type of string puppet originating in Rajasthan – enact vignettes from life and legend presented to the scratchy recordings of folk music taken from old 45s. The program opens with two puppet musicians playing… and very quickly you forget the intricate, perfectly timed pas-de-deux of the two puppeteers operating behind a simple anthracite backdrop. Among the more virtuosic scenes is an acrobatic horseman holding a torch on his galloping steed, a little scene featuring a woman who suddenly turns into a man, much to the disappointment of an eager suitor, and our horsemen joisting. It is a far cry from the flash-bang, often violent drama with which the entertainment industry usually tries to hypnotize spectators. But rows of children up front, some surely hardened Wii, Gameboy and TV users, are wide-eyed in fascination, so much so that they begin moving forward and at some point have to be guided back to their place.Angels-02

Puppeteering is a form of expression in metaphors. The tales always have some didactic or moral goal, or they are reflections of life itself and its sometimes absurd realities. Therein lies the fascination: Like court jesters, the puppeteers can reveal disguised truths for the audience. And after a while, the puppets themselves come alive, a little like Pinocchio, only less schoolmarmish: “The most extraordinary exchange occurs between them and us,” Michel once wrote. “We give them life, and in return they give us the possibility of living. Some are thirty years old. They don’t age. They wait discreetly, always ready for our hands to seize them. The wait is never very long, and when our hands take them it’s not just our hands doing the work, but our hearts are present as well.” By his own admission their creations avoid caricatures, sentimentality, irony and the spectacular, leaving “receptivity and imagination” in Michael’s words.

He is not just venting theory. The puppets are what sparked the couple’s unusual, nomadic lifestyle. They became “the means of transportation for a journey without a goal… Like the horizon, the goal is always escaping me,” he wrote.Angels-09

That journey began in the early 70s. After the post-office debacle, Tina learned to type and found work at a bank. It was then that she met Michel, a young man with curly hair, opaline-blue eyes, and the wild creative vein of an extramural philosopher. He liked his job washing windows. It gave him time to cultivate and expand his tangled web of thoughts while peering into opulent shops, thoughts that got him thrown out of the military within a week of passing muster. “He was filed as ‘socially not adapted’” Tina says with a broad laugh. “You should have seen his demeanor, plus he had a bunch of psychological reports. But we did have to pay a military tax after that.”

Inspired by friends who had visited India, they put money aside and, in 1971, bought a VW bus and drove to India by road. “It was a magnificent journey,” Tina recalls. There were adventures – such as people shaking their car at night – as they wended their way through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The beauty of discovering the world remains, tinged with the occasional thrill. “Afghanistan was simply marvelous, the people were hospitable, friendly,” she recalls. “Michel and I used to say that no one talked about the country because it was in peace, and look what happened, the Russians, oil, money.” They even stayed with smugglers near the Khyber Pass — “Guns, ammunition and Camel cigarettes! All over the place!” — who offered them an evening of music, dinner, and a night in silk sheets.Angels-05

They spent nearly a year in India and Nepal discovering a brand new culture. When it came time to return, however, war between India and Pakistan had broken out, so they abandoned their car and flew home with the help of wired funds.

Back in Switzerland, life continued, but their paradigm had shifted. One day they went to see a puppet play directed by a fellow named Michel Politti. It was a classic coup de foudre, love at first sight, when all the disparate parts of life seem to gell into a full-blown affirmation, a single, vibrant “yes!” They wanted to return to India anyway, so Angels-10through the Indian Tourist Board they found a center to learn how to make and activate the kathputli puppets of Rajasthan, one of the oldest forms of the art. They gave up their jobs and hit the road again, this time in a small, two-cylinder Ami 6 Citroen station wagon customized for camping. There followed six months of toil, learning to carve, sew and string up the kathputli, and create small, eye-twinkling, moving tales to entertain people.

Their return to Europe was not auspicious. The car’s engine froze up in Belgrade and they had to leave a large case filled with their freshly made puppets behind to take the train. Nevertheless, back in Geneva, at a little house rented from the city near the airport, they began rebuilding their stock. “We practiced a lot, and a woman saw us and asked if we would like play at the annual meeting of the Swiss puppeteers,” she recalls. “And would you believe it? Suddenly everyone wanted us. People would ask us how much money we wanted, we had no idea.”

The tours began. First to France, then Germany, later to Eastern Europe and England. Soon, they were able to live from puppeteering and decided to buy a big 1947 Saurer bus to save themselves the cost of hotels. Ironically, the vehicle had originally been used by the post office to transport people as well as mail. They travelled about 12,000 miles a year. When the children came (born in 1976 and 1980 respectively) the trips became shorter, or Michel’s mother had to step in as a baby-sitter. Their shows evolved and expanded as new puppets were created and new tales added. Michel had found his calling in the creation of a string of “circuses” with special puppets. In Pécs, Hungary, they won a prize for his “Cirque philosophique,” which combined music (Tina on accordion) and Latin texts. They performed at festivals and in schools, for Christmas and Easter.

Meanwhile, in 1982, the city of Geneva wanted their cheap little house back to turn it into lodgings for flight attendants. Tina and Michel decided to make a deal. Rather than accept alternative accommodation, they asked whether they could use some municipal land and put a second bus on it. The city let them use a plot in the Malagnou section. Soon, real-estate developers started ogling that plot, so they moved to a new place lent by friends, and then when the developers reappeared again, like locusts in neckties, these urban nomads moved again. And again… Each time they came to a new spot, they cleared the grounds, planted gardens, created a paradisiacal human biotope. As the children grew, they added the rolling homes, long, simple structures that had been abandoned by workers or other similar nomads.Angels-06

Like many gentler flowers, the Cherpines location was long coveted by predators as easy prey. On May 15, 2011, after an acrimonious campaign, the people of Geneva voted to have this  rural section of Geneva rezoned for building. It may have been necessary, since the city’s growth needed to be accommodated. Overnight, the price of land exploded and the speculators moved in with deals that were tough to refuse. They offered local property-ownerss staggering sums for their plots. Tina had always maintained a friendly relationship with her landlord. She also kept the plot impeccable, beautifying it with a garden. At the time of the referendum, he was recovering from an operation. Tina visited him as to wish him well and was greeted by a vicious “When are you moving out?” Money talking.

It was time to pack again.

In the six years since the Cherpines were delivered to speculators, not a building has been built. Why should it? You can sit on fairly cheap land while the rest of the city squeezes into small and often dumpy apartments, and the price of the land will just go up. No investments needed, except for some taxes and a few good lawn mowers.  The misery of some, make the happiness of others, an old French saying goes. While Genevans waited for more apartments, Tina and Michel had to move. They found a place in the Lignon area. It is not as idyllic, but wherever Tina and Michel “drop anchor,” their space always radiates care, beauty, calm.

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January 2017. Outside it’s cold. The damp comes off the river Rhone nearby, it’s like the Erlkönig’s voice. We sit in the warmth generated by the wood stove and talk about the next puppet show. The city is cutting back on funding for artistic pursuits, maybe the deficits will come down, but while economic woes can be corrected, cultural poverty is a downward spiral that eats at the foundations of human society. There is some anger in her voice at the way the world is becoming increasingly polarized. She notes the neighborhood, young people who have chosen to live in their campers to save money, not necessarily idealists. They go to work like everyone else. Then there are the punks, who, she notes, are developing self-sufficiency and engaging in different crafts.

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And there is the ever-lengthening past she speaks of as if it was the present. That is the gift of nomads, and it is their essential melancholy. They carry their entire lives in their baggage, in their minds, in their souls, in their homes, tents, on the backs of their camels and horses, or in their old vehicles. Those of us who have moved around a great deal know the value of human beings, of other people and peoples. Our consumer society demands that we fill cellars and attics and try to be reconcile ourselves with an unpredictable future. The nomad collects and keeps mostly weightless stuff around, thoughts, dreams, philosophies, ideas, and sanctifies human to human contact.

Michel sits beside her in the kitchen. His clear blue eyes are opened wide by overarched eyebrows; his look is a mixture of admiration, love, gratitude and amazement. He seems at peace. Those who knew the old Michel speak of his great intellect and ready conversation, his fast mind and love of life. Three years earlier, while packing the stage after a Christmas play, a massive heart attack struck him down. He recovered, essentially, but death’s had struck and its claws raked a part of his mind, taking his treasure of thoughts, his memories and many puppet adventures away forever. Today, he handles the puppets literally by heart, which was always his way. He is a man of the heart, friendly, resolute, creative and a touch mysterious, without being obscure.

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Dangerous angels in Geneva fire the imagination (with thanks to Hugh Schofield for kind permission)

Wherever Tina and Michel go, they are approached by acquaintances, friends, admirers. It’s more than just the attraction of the theater. It is the single-mindedness with which they lead their lives and their belief in the importance of the human creative impulse and the power of the individual. Michel came up with a clever, double-edged name for them, “des anges heureux,” (happy angels), which is almost a homonym for “dangeureux” (dangerous).

After our first interview, still in the Cherpines, she took me back to my car back. On the way, she showed me the lovingly tended garden. She is a long, lithe woman, with stunning poise. Her hair is always pulled back in two thin braids that reach almost to her knees. At 62, she moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, be that while walking through the market shopping, receiving gifts, or giving life to the puppets. And the rhythmic sound of a tabla, or djembe, a tombak or any other live percussion will set off a languorous swaying dance like that of a field of wheat caressed by a breeze. The beauty of her being radiates from an inextinguishable inner fire. At night a lighted candle always flickers near their home, “to signal that we are here, we are still burning,” she smiles. As I drove away in the luke-warm spring drizzle, I could see their home in the rear-view mirror and another quote of hers echoed in my ears:

“We are on wheels. When we go, we will leave no traces.”

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