Because it’s been so long since I web-logged anything personal, and because this was such a memorable year, here’s a little pictorial of 2012 from Jennifer and me.
This painting by Francis Picabia was one of my favorites from a recent visit to the Chicago Art Institute. The Queen of Sheba tracings over the Mediterranean landscape look like the cover of a Poets of Rhythm album, or a lost soul-jazz LP.
The painting’s caption says Mondrian (who went on to paint those modern square-and-lines compositions) was inspired by the flat topography of his native Holland. Which all of us here can relate to. To conclude the trio, here’s an image Jenn shot only seven kilometers from that farm, almost a hundred years later.
Late October looking for somewhere to throw disc in Volkspark Rehberge, where I’d heard there was a course but couldn’t find anything. Eventually I found two practice holes about 100m apart from each other. It made a good course in itself if you didn’t mind throwing back and forth. At one point I ventured toward the corner of the park and launched the disc from a mound in which some kind of plaque was planted, a trio of old men on a nearby bench staring as if to say “was zum Teufel macht er da?” Our subsequent walk up the ridge followed a path to a beautiful fountain — a monument to the founders of Volkspark Rehberge.
Beyond that there was a slope that — had it been part of a course — would have surely been considered among the most beautiful fairways in European disc golf. Sadly, there was no pin in sight.
But with a green like that, who needs an actual basket?
After hijacking my own blog with some civic discussions and brief peeks into how money controls even the smallest governmental bodies here in America, I wanted to get back to my roots and look at a few photographs Jennifer took on a recent trip to Boston and Providence.
Statue in downtown Boston. In the first one it looks like the lady is crying out in pain at the bird pooping in her eye socket, or maybe even tilting her head back in an orgiastic gasp of pleasure. The next one looks like Statue’s been caught reveling in the streams of bird shit and has gotten all defensive about the intrusion of privacy. But after a moment I realized it’s probably two different statues, because how could a statue lower its head, change its expression and maybe even switch its gender?
Bikers in Boston Common. Yesterday I saw a biker on 43rd in Kansas City near Brainblow Blvd. almost get run off the road by an aggressive lane-switching car. Shit like that makes me want to start a biker vigilante campaign — follow people like that driver home and, I don’t know, talk to them about safe driving + sharing the road. It’s a slow process but I think the more bikers you see on the road the more drivers will learn to live with it and even think about taking part themselves. In the meantime, honk if you’re an asshole.
A nice image from our hurricane party at the Hollenbecks’ in Providence, Rhode Island, the night Irene blew through town in its weakened but still blustery state. Providence was spared damage beyond a lot of downed limbs and power lines, but our power went out at 9 that morning and for a while sitting in bed listening to the gusts of wind looking out the window at the bending trees and swinging power lines there was a brief sense of oh man here it comes. The night before I sat at the computer and listened to this song and earlier that day Brian and his friends in the Fox Point Rounders finished their bluegrass set in a flurry with a rousing rendition of “Goodnight Irene” while people scattered from the farmer’s market to avoid the sudden downpour. We drank a lot of dark ‘n’ stormies over the weekend, which is dark rum and Gosling’s ginger beer garnished with lime. And we lit a lot of candles. As a wise hurricane survivor once said: You never know how many candles you have until a hurricane hits and you start looking in closets and drawers and find out you have a lot candles.
The rest of the photos Jenn took in Boston and Providence are here. Stop back next week for more fresh material here on the modern day lucubrations.
Once people find out you’re from Kansas, they always want to know if you’ve ever seen a tornado. Thankfully, I never have. But after the May 22 tornado that tore through Joplin, I’ve definitely seen the damage it can do.
After photographing the damage in the days following the tornado, Jennifer put together this slide show depicting the damage the storm did to her hometown. I typed up a few of my own first and second-hand impressions of the aftermath below.
In the six weeks since the tornado, the debris is getting cleared and the city is doing some rezoning before the rebuilding begins in earnest. There are already leaves growing on the twisted remains of the trees, which looks unusual but is nonetheless a small reminder that life goes on.
Thank you to everyone who has dedicated their time, labor and resources to helping the people in Joplin. I know they greatly appreciate it.
* * *
On 1-44, the giant brown sign to George Washington Carver is turned upside-down. Coming up the crest of the hill you see a giant American flag lowered to half-mast, a torn strand of its fabric blowing as if in slow motion.
* * *
Aaron and Pam were at a movie when the announcement sounded to leave the theater and take shelter. They were driving by the high school when the telephone polls and trees around them started falling, which I imagine looking like the approach of The Nothing from the “Neverending Story” or the Smoke Monster from “Lost.” As the storm began to devour the landscape in front of them, Doll threw the car into reverse, weaving around debris and crashed cars until they got out and ran for shelter.
* * *
It doesn’t matter how much you’ve seen on TV or in photos — nothing can prepare you for your first visit to the disaster area. After only a couple of blocks you feel like you’ve entered an impossibly vast and detailed disaster film set. The trees that are left are macabre sculptures, mattress linings and car parts impaled on their bark-stripped upper branches. Where you used to be able to see only a few blocks you can now see several miles. Dan and I drove through in his truck at dusk, just before curfew. Most everyone had gone home, wherever that might be now, but one man stood in the middle of his lot staring off to the south. Dan offered me a beer from the back seat and said why don’t you grab one for me, too. I don’t think anyone is going to mind.
* * *
At night a wall of police cars and armored vehicles blocks off entry to the disaster area. We began to refer to the once perfectly normal patch of neighborhoods as the “demilitarized zone,” or — in the fashion of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” just “The Zone.” To get downtown from the south, you have to drive all the way around the zone on either side. Not that you would want to go through the disaster area at night anyway. Too dark, too spooky, too tragic, too soon.
* * *
Aaron and Casey nailed a 40-foot American flag to the front of what remained of the house — a crafty way to discourage looting and be patriotic at the same time. A man walking by with his wife stopped and pulled out his phone. “What are you doing?” the woman asked her husband. “Just taking a picture of some real Americans,” he said.
* * *
The week before the storm I called Cool Guitars on 26th to see if they still had that Regal guitar in stock, a resonator guitar that used to belong to the owner. They said they had several Regals in stock, so I set aside a good chunk of my first paycheck toward purchasing one. After the storm we drove by and saw their sign but no trace of the store itself. I have no idea what happened to all those guitars.
* * *
A sampling of messages painted on houses:
“Down but not out”
“You loot, we shoot”
“It’s not a parade!”
“Stay classy, Joplin”
“Put down your camera, lend a hand”
* * *
Driving down Main Street wondering where Main Street went.
* * *
In a video I’ve seen reposted several times, a group of amateur storm chasers drive parallel to the storm’s path from miles away, marveling at the “monster tornado” moving over the city. I’ve got it all on film, one guy keeps repeating; the camera’s impartial recording a proxy for what he can’t believe he’s seeing with his own eyes. The fascination takes a dark turn when they drive back into town on South Main only to find everything around it destroyed. “This is ridiculous,” one of them says, sounding scared. One thing to watch a funnel dancing from a distance, another to look a tornado in the face.
* * *
Joplin High School is destroyed, but the sign on the corner of the lot has been turned into an inspirational shrine. An “H” and an “E” have been added to either side of the only remaining letters in the city’s name, the “OP.” The “HOPE high school” sign is presided over by life-sized wooden sculptures of eagles — a tribute to the school’s community and mascot.
* * *
Jenn’s family salvaged everything they could from her Grandma’s house by the end of the first week, but the grandkids decided to go out Saturday morning to try and find her wooden statue of the laughing Buddha. Don’t worry, Dan said, it’s one of the first things I grabbed. But even with Buddha saved and cleaned, we still craved a totem of recovery, of salvage-tion. After seeing the decapitated Papasan statue on a shelf, we dug through the debris to try and find his head. Miraculously, Jessica found it after only a few minutes. It’s in good shape except for the missing beard. But that can be glued back on again.
Don’t try to build in the space you suppose
Is future, Lydia, and don’t promise yourself
Tomorrow. Quit hoping and be who you are
Today. You alone are your life.
Don’t plot your destiny, for you are not future.
Between the cup you empty and the same cup
Refilled, who knows whether your fortune
Won’t interpose the abyss?
Poem by Ricardo Reis (Fernando Pessoa) from the collection “A Little Larger Than The Universe,” which I read in one sitting in a garden that I can’t recall the name of and can no longer find on the map. All I remember is a pond, some trees and a lot of large geese walking by my bench. I took the picture at the Carmo Convent ruins in Lisbon, which was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755 and only partially rebuilt, creating an unusually intact complex of ruins. I’m not sure who Lydia is but I felt like Mr. Reis was speaking to me. I was facing another round of goodbyes and didn’t see any point in pretending there would always be another hang with friends whenever I liked; a wedding or reunion that would magically take place once everyone got caught up or settled in. Wait around too long and you’ll wind up as withered as the Peruvian mummy in the Carmo Convent museum. She’s a beaut, all right, but no one I’d trade places with.
A priceless image Jennifer snapped at a lookout point in Lisbon — the anger in the spraypainted statement is only slightly undermined by the awkward grammar. I had a little debate prepared about the truthiness of that statement, but I already met my daily political quota in the last post. So, I put it out to you: Does tourist = terrorist?
Though it has likely been observed and pointed out thousands of times already, it nonetheless bears repeating: the former allied spy station on top of the Teufelsberg looks like a giant cock-and-balls.
The remains of the station sit atop an 80-meter-high rubble hill in Berlin’s Grunewald forest, beneath which is buried the foundation of a Nazi officers school designed by Albert Speer. At the risk of mixing bodily metaphors, it’s hard not to wonder if the outpost’s phallic shape was designed as something of a middle finger to the Soviet forces on the other side of the city.
Sneaking into the Teufelsberg and climbing the radar towers has become something of a rite of passage for young Berliners, and a few years ago Jenny and I roamed around the premises until she got spooked by the howling sounds of the wind billowing through the torn fabric. On our visit last month we didn’t feel like trespassing, opting instead to just bask in the ballsy brilliance of this most peculiar cold-war monument.
No one seems to know what the future holds for the site, after attempts to develop it into a luxury hotel and a transcendental meditation center have long since been scrapped. Meanwhile the allure of the place only grows — an elegantly decaying fortress on the hill that is easily one of the most unusual erections in Europe.
Monday mornings I teach lessons at an office park in Erfurt that always seems to be covered in fog or frost. To get there you have to ride all the way to Europaplatz, the end station on tram lines #1 and #3. Going to work at an office complex in a foggy valley at the end of a small East German city probably sounds depressing, but I enjoy it. The free coffee helps. And also knowing that even though I start at 8:00 on Monday morning, my work week there lasts only a few hours.
Across from the building I work in is a field, and on the other end of that field is a McDonalds. The McDonalds is just off a highway exit and seems fairly inaccessible by foot unless you go crashing directly through the field — a misty, frosted terrain full of burger wrappers and what look like tumbleweeds. I was pretty hungry one day and thought about making the trek, but the idea of stumbling into the foggy wilderness to get to the golden arches seemed too obvious and poignant a symbol for a lost American boy trying to get home. In those conditions the giant “M” might as well have stood for “Mirage.” So, I turned around, caught the tram back into town, and ate at the McDonalds in the central train station instead.
On the way there I saw this juxtaposition of buildings — a boxy modern structure behind a timbered house. Not a bad summing up of the architectural coexistence of the middle ages and the DDR.
And to close, a more classic shot — the Cathedral Square at a moment of extreme fog and sun, birds flying over the monument and a line of people at the Thüringer Rostbratwurst stand.
Jenn put together a nice set of Leipzig photos from Saturday. Here are three more I shot last month…
Charging to the top of the Brocken / Where what once was broken / Can be forgotten
This fragment is my contribution to the wealth of literature about Germany’s most mysterious mountaintop, the Brocken. Most mentions include depictions of the witches’ revelry on Walpurgisnacht, such as in Goethe’s “Faust,” but I didn’t see any witches myself. Just a bunch of tourists stumbling through the freezing fog.
Jenn and I decided to visit the peak on my 30th birthday, ascending via narrow-gauge steam railway, a 19 km ride from Wernigerode that took almost two hours. Most of the journey offered clear views of the surroundings, but when we got to the top we found we couldn’t see anything. The red-and-white television tower — home of a Soviet spy station in the cold war times — was almost completely hidden from view, which was amusing considering you can usually see the thing from dozens of miles away.
Instead of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, I reflected on Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus,” which I finished reading last month. The book contains very little overt occultism, instead raising some disturbing questions about the artistic process. Must one really sell one’s soul to complete a work of true genius? Such is the case for Mann’s composer character Adrian, whose speech at the end is so tragic and ridiculous it makes the preceding 500 pages well worth it.
Me? I’d rather be a minor poet, slugging Hasseroder Pils from the platform of the rickety old train, speeding toward a dinner of farmer’s potatoes and bacon in a cosy restaurant near the town’s famous rathaus.
Thanks everyone for the kind birthday wishes (especially Private Cho calling from the Korean Border!) and I will be in touch with more e-mails and posts soon. In the meantime, you can see more pictures of the journey here.
Though Berlin natives and resident ex-pats often write it off as a schmaltzy tourist attraction that hasn’t held up over the years, The East Side Gallery is still a lively, colorful representation of the city’s divided history. Last week Jennifer put together a slideshow of some of the paintings, which were created by artists from all over the world. As she said on her website:
The photographs displayed in the slideshow are not a complete representation of each section of the gallery, but instead a selection of a few personal favorites, chosen because of a particular composition or color pattern. The former presence of the wall, mentally and socially, becomes less and less apparent over time…
It’s neat to look at this over 20 years after the wall came down, especially in light of the revolutions currently taking place in the Arab world. It’s as if the same peaceful populist spirit that brought the iron curtain down has shifted to the Mideast, and I’ve noticed that people here share the excitement and are paying close attention, as are so many others around the world.
Hope this brightens your Monday, and more later in the week.
Berlin is a land of many visual wonders, perhaps none quite as simultaneously functional and artistic as this sculptural garbage can in the middle of Lausitzer Platz. We found this guy in the park where several dozen kids were playing on the swings and jungle gym. None of them went anywhere close to it, though, which probably explains why he looks so bored and lonely, snow dusting his nose and gaping mouth reeking faintly of yesterday’s stale wine and cigarettes.
“The Flaming Teabags,” (or for you Germans, die Flammende Teebeutel) sounds like the name of a band. And perhaps it is. Or has been. Or could be. It’s also a parlour trick perfected by Till, which James documented one winter night at our flat. Note to viewers — and I mean this — do not try this yourself. Till has a touch that I’ve found myself unable to replicate, much to the detriment of the kitchen table.
I first got inspired to shoot short, observational video clips after watching my old neighbor Blue McNiel’s “A 43rd and Warwick Story.” In 3 minutes and 2 seconds, virtually nothing happens aside from the lights changing and some cars driving by while the camera watches from her front porch. I had pretty much the same view at the time, and I remember the sounds of the lights clicking and the green- and red-outlined shadows they would cast through my curtains onto my ground-floor bedroom. The document has taken on a historical importance now that the lights have been replaced by stop signs and I have moved away.
I started shooting similar observational clips out of windows, on front porches, at parks and art exhibits. My montage could be called “A 2010 Story” or “A Kansas City Story” although this timeframe and location has to be expanded to account for a wee bit of Mississippi and Europe. It’s a just over 2-minute trip across flooded and frozen landscapes, Christmas carols, full moons and orange balloons.
Nothing that’s going to break down any doors, but you might enjoy it all the same.
Here in Germany, they call New Year’s Eve “Silvester,” named after Sylvester I, who was Pope from 31 January 314 to 31 December 335. Each December 31 they celebrate the old Roman’s legacy — and the new year — by blowing up everything in sight (see my post from two weeks ago).
Below is yet another fireworks video, this time depicting a Silvester street scene on Oranienstraße, near Oranienplatz. We narrowly dodged a few rockets fired from the Kreuzberg Sportwettenbruecke, and thankfully managed to steer clear of the Mercedes that caught on fire over on Koepenickerstraße.
At midnight, under the relative shelter of the awning at the Santa Maria Mexican Diner, we sipped our beers and watched the city spark itself into a jubilant chaos. Rockets, flare guns, and sparklers, shot off by people on the streets and leaning out of upper-story windows. Quite noisy and fantastic. The only thing more impressive was the mess it left the next day.
I don’t upload a lot of things to YouTube, but it seems like when I do it’s always something about fireworks. Like this pyramid-of-snakes burning ritual in the parking lot at Herbert’s Mart strip mall, located squarely in the middle of Wayne County, Mississippi. While working in the fireworks stand there, Brian and I befriended a local high school graduate named Tom. Due to his athletic and amorous pursuits in and Waynesboro — most specifically that very strip mall parking lot in which we sat and drank beer — Tom had been dubbed “The King of Herbert’s Mart” by his peers. A widely recruited placekicker who was injured early in his senior season, Tom spent most of his time drinking beer, getting in fights, cruising the strip and fixing cars at WalMart. He was a welcoming and friendly guy, and told some amazing stories about life in Wayne County, which he called “The Land of Dreams.” I’ll share more about him another time. For now, some footage of the aforementioned smoldering snakepile, with commentary by the King of Herbet’s Mart himself…
For some reason yesterday I decided to carry a snowball with me onto the U-Bahn on my one-stop ride from Bülowstraße to Gleisdreieck. There were security agents in the neighboring car, and though at least one of them noticed that I was packing cold (so to speak), she probably saw I was wearing dress pants and with a lady and decided I didn’t pose any serious threat. After we got off I threw the snowball at the tail end of the U-Bahn as it sped down the tracks, but I missed.
The inspiration, I suspect, was watching San Diego’s Philip Rivers torch the Kansas City Chiefs the week before. He has a really fluid, unusual release, more like a freestyle swim stroke than the traditional QB chop. If you could throw a snowball like Philip Rivers throws touchdowns I bet you could do a lot of damage in a snowball fight.
Speaking of snowball fights, there is an unusually large one looming on the New Years horizon here in Kreuzberg. Each year the districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln face off in an epic snow-down in Görlitzer Park, just a few blocks from where we are staying. You can see a great video of it below.
The coming battle may help explain why I’ve seen so many youths walking around lobbing snowballs at unarmed and unsuspecting motorists and cyclists. They are just training for the big showdown.
Adding to the martial ambience, an early-arriving pallet of New Years feuerwerk must have fallen into the wrong hands, because the Turkish kids around Adalbertstrasse have been blowing these things up at all hours of the night. The piled-up snow and apartment buildings muffle and reflect the sound so that it sounds more like heavy artillery than the bang of a firecracker. Once in a while our heater chimes in with a clicking noise that sounds almost like the rattle of distant machine gun fire.
In short, anyone who thinks Berlin is still a demilitarized city probably either isn’t paying attention or does not live in and around SO-36.
But amid the darkness and violence of the German winter there is also light.
Last week at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Jenn and I were walking around the courtyard when a man asked for a light. He didn’t look like the type who usually asks for such things, and sure enough he carried my lighter over to the staircase where his son was waiting. Together they had erected a pyramid of snowballs on the concrete bannister of the steps. The man removed the top snowball, lit a tea light, and put the lid back on. The snowball lantern gave off a nice glow, and we all stood around it and stared at it for a while. The light probably only accounts for half a percent of the ambient light you see in this photo.
But, a little bit of Schneeballkerzenlicht goes a long way.
For a few minutes last Sunday, it appeared as if Tempelhof Airport had been reopened for flights. The silhouette of a jet plane soared through the sky, acrobatically weaving between and flocks of birds and Drachenflieger*.
Tempelhof Airfield is the decommissioned city airport and site of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. These days Tempelhof is more Seurat painting than former airstrip, having been turned into a massive park grounds following years of civic discussion and city planning. While studying in Berlin in 2008, my brother James wrote his final paper about the future of the airport, which officially closed in Halloween of that year.
Meanwhile, the plane had arched one last time around the structure itself before crashing softly into the grass, just meters away from the couple operating it by remote control.
Still, a glorious flight.
*the German word for kite, literally translating to “dragon-fliers.”
(music plucked from some strumming in my flat on Saturday night after seeing Jenn off to her flight to London at Schoenfeld)