Horrified but not surprised – this week in American awfulness

As with many of my friends, both online and in meatspace, I was shocked, horrified, disgusted and more by the burbling up of white-supremecist and Nazi sewage in the past week. But one thing I did not feel was surprise. Why?

A couple of months into Barack Obama’s first term, I started reading the Rants & Raves section of Craigslist. CL, it turns out, besides being a good place to find a bargain, also holds a stethascope to the rumblings of America’s underbelly. There appeared the abomination called “Your Daily Negro,” with hideous photoshopped charicatures of the President and the First Lady, as well as Blacks in general and other minorities. After Donald Trump’s election, I’ve noted the shift from African-Americans to Jews.

In researching for my Holocaust novel, I sought pages of the “Volkischer Beobachter,” a Nazi newspaper during the 3rd Reich. I couldn’t find any. I did find some from “Der Stürmer,” another Nazi rag of the time, which led me to take a glance at the American “Daily stormer” website. I then understood where the CL garbage was coming from.

As an empath and a writer, I have a nearly compulsive need to understand people’s motivations. With this bunch, I can only believe that somewhere along the way their developing brains took a wrong turn. We as a society have few methods of guidance, especially in the absence of fathers, to show boys how to grow into strong compassionate effective men, and some have latched onto hatred to accomplish their idea of maturation.

There is also the rotting carcass of the American Civil War, for whose victims no shiva was sat, no South African style “truth and reconcilliation” came about. Some of the wounds inflicted by that war, and by the all-American way of dealing with them (“You lost. Suck it up, Buttercup.” “My people’s pain was worse than yours.”), have had no chance to heal. This includes the wounds of both “white” and African Americans.

Why have I acknowleged and even read material on these websites? I’m writing about a past regime, one whose beginnings echo disturbingly in today’s events. My father survived the Holocaust, and when it comes to racism, anti-semitism, hate, I intend never to be surprised again.

Unphotographed Moments

They’re piling up.

The guy in the lobby of the subway stop has a shoppimg cart seemingly full of plastic bags. He has used empty bottles to mark the four directions and waves a feather as he shuffles the circle and chants.


At the corner of Martin Way and Sleater-Kinney Road in northeast Olympia, I often saw a homeless man sitting on the corner. He had gorgeous salt-and-pepper Michael-Landon style hair. He talked to himself with gusto. This week I see him again. His head is shaved, and he is banging on his invisible drums.

Millersylvania State Park. The woman living in her car gives me a summary of how she got there. I listen, say very little. She says, I heard you’ve been overseas. I have not told her this, and I see that perhaps this is how she has become disabled — getting information across what are for most of us impermeable boundaries.

A white haired woman walks briskly along the path circling Capitol Lake belting out a very good version of the Eagles’ song “Desperado.”

A life story in 20 minutes

I’m in the middle of the street when from my left, perhaps five or six car-lengths away, comes the whoop of an ambulance siren.

For two or three seconds I’m transformed into one of the squirrels I scream at while driving “Make up your mind!” as they dash back and forth in front of my car. Hilarity for everyone watching.

At the traffic island, as I catch my breath, the old guy I passed a minute ago catches up with me. He uses two crutches and wears comfortable-looking Herman Munster shoes.  

“He scared you, huh?” he says.


“I don’t think they should be allowed to do that.”

“Naja. (Oh well)”

I slow my pace to walk with him, amd he begins to talk.

“I got diabetes — the sugar ate up the nerves in my feet.”

(Note to self: Buy salad greens)

He continues, “I have to walk every day. Don’t drive anymore. These are actually my house shoes. I have another pair, with laces. I buy two pairs a year.”

A moment’s silence, then I ask him, “How long have you lived in Berlin?”

A wheezy laugh. “From the beginning! I was born in Charlottenburg, only lived anywhere else for three years.

“I started school in ’43. I went a few months, and then one day my mother got a call — the school was gone. The British, you know. So I went to live with my grandmother, out in Hessen in the country.

“And you, where are you from?”

“USA,” I tell him. “Olympia, Washington.” We go through the fact that it’s not the capital of the country, that’s on the east coast, I’m on the west.

“Ah,” he says, “north of California. I went to Florida three times on vacation, and once to Canada. I liked Canada.  You ever been to Toronto? If you go you need to go up in the tower. You can see everything from up there. Used to be the tallest bulding in the world.

“I used to drive for the Reichsbahn — thousand miles a day on two hours of sleep. Those cars are longer than the accordian buses you see now.

“My son will be 59 this year! And I will be 80. Here’s where I live. Name’s Miele”

As I tell him what a pleasure it was to talk with him, I find myself near tears. 

It isn’t so much the content of his stories, though I find them fascinating. It is the connection, something I’ve had trouble making in Berlin. Likely it’s my introverted nature. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m passing quickly out of middle age, when women become invisible in any case. Perhaps it’s that Berliners in general are, as I have found, polite but not friendly.

In a lonely time, he is a bright spot. Herr Miele will be in my thoughts, with great gratitude.

Devil’s Mountain, the brick women, impermanence

Last Sunday, I climbed Devil’s Mountain (Teufelsberg).

Actually, “climbed” is a bit of an exaggeration.  The hill is only about 330 feet tall, with gentle hiking paths and paved roads leading to the top.  I couldn’t find out how wide it is,  but some numbers blew me away:  The hill is a human-made mountain of over 900 million cubic yards of bombing rubble from 140 thousand buildings.  At the bottom of all that debris is an under-construction Nazi military technical college, which proved too hard to blow up after the war.

At the top, to which admission is charged, are several geodesic-dome shaped “listening devices” which the US used to spy on East Germany.  I didn’t go up that far, though they looked intriguing.  My imagination was more captivated at what was under my feet.

A note about post-war recycling:  From the heaps of debris that were Berlin’s bombed-out apartment buildings, groups of so-called “rubble women” — for who was left in the city but them and children and soldiers of the occupying forces, who ordered the women to start the recycling process — climbed the mounds of detritus, salvaged intact bricks, and passed them bucket-brigade style to the street where others knocked off old mortar and stacked them, ready to rebuild.

Thus the 90 million cubic yards of rubble that make up Teufelsberg are what the women couldn’t salvage 73 years ago — broken items: bricks; cobbles; drainpipes; tiles from bathrooms, kitchens and subways;  bits of statuary and fountains and doorway guardians (nymphs, Greek or Roman gods and goddesses — perhaps Hera, the guardian of the hearth).

Now, as time, weather, and the desire for condos take their toll on the original re-built apartment blocks, workmen are renovating them.  In the process, I meet them carefully carrying buckets of bricks out of basements and emptying them into dumpsters.

I feel a humble gratitude to the brick women and the builders of Teufelsberg, over which I moved last week with a certain reverence, for reminding me that, in truth, nothing lasts forever.

How to Season a German Skillet

I bought a small shiny metal skillet, my 2 scrambled eggs having seemed lost in the big one here. When I asked the gentleman helping me about seasoning it — coating it with oil and putting it in the oven — he got a vague look and said I would need to talk with his colleague up front. She took my 20 Euros and told me to pay close attention to the instructions on a red piece of paper that I had so far ignored. Here is what it said:

IMPORTANT! Before first use, pay heed absolutely.

1) Put fat or oil in the pan
2) Add raw potato slices which have been generously salted on both sides
3) Cook the potato slices thoroughly on both sides, turning continuously
4) Discard the cooked potato slices
5) Wipe the pan out thoroughly with a paper towel. (Featured photo: fried salt)

“Now your pan is ready for use.”

But the instructions were far from finished:

“Never heat an iron pan without fat!
The diameter of the pan may be at most 3 cm larger than the burner!
An iron pan must be HEATED GRADUALLY on a ceramic stove top!
After every use, rub the pan out with a paper towel.  For more thickly encrusted food, use only hot water and a scrub brush to clean, dry well and coat with edible oil!
Never use scouring agents or chemical cleaners. Store the pan in a dry place.
Do not allow food to stand in the pan!
The more you use the pan, the darker the surface will get, which will only improve the quality of the food you cook!
Your food — prepared in an iron pan — cannot be improved in taste, color and goodness! Hotel cooks can confirm this.”

One of the great things about German culture is that one can be reasonably sure they’re not just jumping on the latest bandwagon, and this method of pan-seasoning has probably been perfected over hundreds of years. Which thoughts only added to my consternation when, after its first use, the pan had indeed darkened, but in a pattern quite reminiscent of a measles outbreak.

Just to be safe, I purchased a ceramic pan for half the price.

Birds in Berlin

The pigeons are here, of course, flapping down out of the roofs of S-Bahn stations, picking up crumbs of people’s breakfast croissants, and doing their absurd “Hey, baby! Hey, baby! Hey, baby” dances.

I’ve noticed that the crows sound different here. Where back home in Olympia they say, “Awk! Awk!,” here they call “Ah-yuk! Ah-yuk!” It makes perfect sense to me that crovids in Germany would speak more gutterally and use more syllables than those in the Pacific North West!

Each morning, before there’s even a hint of light on the horizon, a songbird — a thrush, perhaps? — begins to sing. Cascades of notes pour from his little throat, each ending in what sounds almost like it tiny bell ringing. He tosses out his tinkles and chortles like so many fistfuls of aural glitter. Every time I hear him, I feel profound gratitude, and I wish humans could declare their territory in a way as peaceable and gorgeous.

Kindness in the Laundromat

Dealing with the fallout of a broken washing machine, today I made my way to the closest “wasch salon.”  I bought time on washer Number 9 along with a heaping cup of soap powder.

Everything churning away, I bought a cup of coffee from a machine for €1.  The manager paused in his machine polishing to ask if one could drink that.  That was what I understood, though he kept talking for a minute or so in a mouth-full-of-mush native Berlin accent.

A moment later, I took my coat off and knocked the coffee cup onto the floor.

I asked him for a rag, intending to clean it up myself.

“Oh, ya gonna make me work today!” he said cheerfully.

I said how sorry I was not to be able to tell hime how it tasted, as it was all over the floor.

He cleaned it all up, chattering the whole time, while I looked silly and penitent (not hard).

Then he gave me my Euro back.

Catching my breath

   I’m in Berlin! It’s been raining frequently like at home in Olympia, but colder, and so much wind.  
   Slowly fading is the pre-travel insanity — the take-it or leave-it decisions, the simultaneous move-out and move-in with my new tenants, the chock-full storage space, the sale and donation of furniture. Other people do a liver cleanse, or a gut cleanse, or a general liquid fasting cleanse. I do periodic possession cleanses. I suppose it has to do with coming from refugee stock — nothing of mine came over on the Mayflower! So much of it is just “stuff” — easy to come by, easy to let go of.  
   My cat, Eddie, who ran away from his cat-sitter a week before I left, was considerate enough to return the night before my flight. Holding that purring little rascal never felt so good. And now I miss his infuriating little self.
   Then at the Seattle airport with my 70-pound rolling suitcase, my two carry-ons, my passport and my cat, Zadie, who was to accompany me, I realized I had left her paperwork behind in Olympia. The health certificate signed by the vet within ten days of departure, the rabies certificate, the email from the director of the rescue she came from stating when she had been microchipped, the whole stack of papers, stamped by the USDA, was neatly paper clipped together and sitting on the front seat of my car. So she is keeping Eddie company in the Land of Old Lady Cats until I figure something out.
   Being in Frankfurt first, and now in Berlin, is one long mindfulness experiment. I have to think out each impulse, action and interaction — how do I say this, obtain that, get somewhere and back? Everything I experience here is muffled by the scrim of language and the subtle but very real differences in culture (cold cuts for breakfast, anyone? Lunch is served only between 11:30 and 1:30. Stores and restaurants are closed on Sundays till early afternoon if they open at all). I think this is one reason I love travel — exhausting as the process of making my way in another country is, it helps up-end my everyday assumptions and habits and cleans off my nerve-endings as effectively as years of meditation.

Here we go

January 12, 2017

The other night listening to President Obama’s farewell address, I was struck by this poignant time of endings, and beginnings.  That first family, those four tall and graceful people, who seem to genuinely like each other, will be departing.  The incoming administration is a bit of a cypher.   It feels a like a step into the unknown.

On February 16th, I will fly to Frankfurt, on my way to three months in Berlin.  I’ve been fiddling with a historical novel (set in Nazi Berlin) for a couple of years now.  I thought I could do enough research on my October trip, but saw pretty quickly that a longer attempt is needed.  This trip feels like a step into the unknown.

Our family lived in Germany when I was ages nine to eleven.  It was a tough time — my German-born father had severe PTSD (forced-labor camp during the war), and we, his children, young and powerless, got the worst of it.  Our fear and isolation, his rage and personality changes, the German language and people’s stares all got mixed into one big “ick” for a long time.  On our last trip, my sister and I agreed that we no longer felt the need to protect ourselves from “Germany” and the feelings it brings up.   How will that be, I have to wonder, when I’m there without my sister?  It feels like a step into the unknown.

I’m leaving my little yellow house in good hands — my neighbors Dustin and Kelsey will be renting it with an option to buy.  They showed me a little map of their plan for the back yard last night before we signed the lease — many good and beautiful ideas that they are young and strong enough to make into reality.  Hard to admit it, but I overshot with this house — so much renovation needed and even though I did a lot to it, I gradually ran out of money and energy and enthusiasm.  Yet i certainly got used to having a “home base.”  Not having that feels like a step into the unknown.

Travel:  A ticket.  No keys.  A limited choice of shoes and clothes.  Two heavy suitcases.  A cat in a carrier.  Another cat left at a friend’s house.   A step into the unknown.

There is an insight-gathering tool that uses ancient Scandinavian symbols, the Runes.  One of them, Dagaz, looks like an angular infinity symbol.  It speaks of “radical trust” and “an empty-handed leap into the void.”  I think of this now, as our nation prepares for a new president, and as I start this journey.

One foot is suspended over the void.  Now the next step.

Here we go.