A world made by hand—the words first send visions of people sitting around knitting and doing handcrafts and then, perhaps more accurately and in the sense that it is used in the title of Kunstler’s book, of having a hand in creating a new society. Agency! Without it the world may feel secure in some way, stable, but thoroughly out of reach. I want to have a say in how the little world I live in works. Today society is set up in a way that makes individual agency practically null, that makes change something that has to be fought for with nails and teeth instead of an ingrained, organic part of the system, something that happens naturally with the coming of each new generation in order to ensure that the world fits those living in it. If it was possible to make the world like this without something huge—be it revolution or collapse–I would stop dreaming about apocalypse. But for now individual agency in our communities feels like it is a thing of the past. Or perhaps, if all the PA lit has it right, of the future.
James Howard Kunstler’s 2008 book World Made by Hand depicts just such a world. Civilization and government have collapsed due to some global issues that arise due to squabbles over oil. Though no date is ever mentioned, the world depicted is so close to our own—minus all the cracks in the pavement and trees growing through floors—that it could be a picture of next week or next year.
In a small community in upstate New York called Union Grove a group of people have survived and have refocused their efforts on agriculture and animal husbandry. One group of people have taken over management of excavating the dump for useful items, any house not lived in has been stripped of useful materials, the local doctor experiments with the poppy in an attempt to manufacture sedatives, and fish are running the streams again in never-before-seen-by-civilized-eyes numbers due to the absence of new pollutants. Though the electricity comes on again for a few minutes from time to time, the only thing left on the radio are the ramblings of religious zealots.
Kunstler’s book follows the day to life of folks in Union Grove, looking at how the people who have survived war and collapse and sorrow and a nasty strain of “Mexican flu” deal with things like crime, justice, religion, sorrow, and love. The book is full of delightful little details: how a fish is gutted, how an outdoor shower works, what the people eat to get vitamin C. And when PA (that stands for “post-apocalypse” for the non-PA-lit geeks reading) literature is full of accurate little details like that it starts to feel a little bit like an instruction manual for survival as well as a bit of fun mental exercise.
The people of Union Grove have it pretty good, though the one thing they don’t have much of is community cohesion. When I imagine a world post-apocalypse, I imagine finally getting the chance to work things out from scratch: to build a world based on mutual respect and aid. But this almost never happens in PA lit. In PA lit people revert to a lot of raping and violence, and then they get on with the business of trying to recreate the world that has left them. But why? The situation in every single one of these books makes it more than obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the world that has passed, that has been a part of its passing. So why settle for mimicry when presented with the first real chance for meaningful agency, for radical chance and experimentation? Why are so many authors certain that people would revert to the worst parts of themselves? (I am constantly wondering why PA authors always make rape a huge part of any PA world. I think it’s important to ask ourselves why we can’t seem to imagine a world without it.) Why not try to build something that makes a little more sense? Sure, people are going to be traumatized and wallowing in fear and nostalgia in a PA situation. But this seems to be a line of thought largely unexplored in PA lit, the one exception being Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, which is probably the most beautiful and inspiring PA novel I have ever read.
Overall World Made by Hand was an enjoyable read. The writing is simple, but the story propels you quickly through the book’s 300 pages. At its close, the story takes a strangely woo-woo occult-ish turn which might have put me off if I didn’t believe that we are not necessarily meant to take it literally, but as a reflection on the supernatural’s place in the novel’s handmade world. As in The Year of the Flood, religion plays a large role in the story—this time in the form of a strange hive community who call themselves “New Faith”—though it is the role of religion rather than the inner workings of the sekt that take center stage. Though it wasn’t an instant favorite, and I look forward to reading the sequel The Witch of Hebron as well as Kunstler’s nonfiction.
Have any of you read this book or any of his others? What did you think? I’m particularly looking forward to checking out Home from Nowhere and The Geography of Nowhere, two of his nonfiction works on the problems of urbanity.
Left: The Frankfurt skyline. Sachsenhausen is a part of the banking capital. Photo (cc) flickr user Moe_
THIS is part 18 in a series about the year I spent au pairing in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. If you’d like to catch up on the rest of the series, check out the index here.
Frankfurt’s Sachsenhausen is a curious place. Though the moniker technically applies to an entire city section—residents, shopping, and everything in between—when you hear people talking about Frankfurt Sachsenhausen, they’re usually talking about the pub district, a concentrated city block of often touristy bars and clubs, a micro city with no permanent residents. It is a place full of trays of bright green shots and hair gel and fake tan, full of spilled apple wine and loud conversation and lost earrings. It is the kind of place you go knowing you’re going to be doing the walk of shame home later/aren’t going to remember most of the evening.
Among the people I know now, the mention of it elicits groans. But then, before Britta had returned to America and I had traded my job au pairing for one teaching English, it was also one of a large group of American and Brittish au pairs’ favorite haunts. To its credit, the Irish pub did give out free pints of Guinness on Tuesday nights whenever a U2 song came on the stereo.
Sachsenhausen was never really my sort of place, but it did have its merits. My favorite of those was a small bar without sign or name, a dark, crooked little anachronism jammed between two more modern architectural concoctions. Barely the width of three doors, it looked like the home of a wrinkled old city witch, the kind of building only visible to inhabitants of London Below. It was the kind of place that got around the law that pubs had to close between certain wee hours of the night by locking visitors in behind blackened windows. It was sordid, it was seedy, and I only ever went inside once. For better or for worse, I don’t remember much of that night. It was bound to have been a disappointment, and I’m sure it was. I’m glad that no memories of banal drunken conversation have replaced my musings of the more magical happenings that could be playing out between its black-bricked walls.
It’s other merit, though a far less romantic one, was Das Bett, a music venue on one of the pub-city’s outer edges. At the mid-sized music club that favored indie music, another American au pair friend, this one from New Orleans, and I watched skinny white boys in nerd glasses make music with a Nintendo Game Boy.
Frau Rauscher Brunnen. Photo (cc) flcikr user Chris Pirillo
I’ve heard rumor that Das Bett has moved house, but the “Frau Rauscher-Brunnen” (pictured right) remains, a statue that provides an excellent stage for people watching should you find yourself unwillingly pulled into what the Frankfurter Allgemein has so appropriately called “Ein Ort zum Fremdschämen” (translation: a place for feeling embarrassed for other people, note: English could really use a concise version of the word fremdschämen). Madame Rauscher does what you, someone who maybe doesn’t want to be drunk out of her mind or hassled by another bachelor party group, wish you could: she spits water randomly out onto the street. Unfortunately I’ve never seen her hit a moving target.
Today I turn 30. In celebration of three decades on the planet we (The Battenkill Ramblers) will be playing three shows in three countries. To be honest, this was actually a coincidence. But it does make a nice little trio of threes doesn’t it? If you are interested in attending any of the shows, there is more info on the flyers below, or on our website.
I approach 30 with my usual birthday attitude. That is: “holy shit, I’ve made it another year!” Rather than wallow in the thought that I am getting old, I prefer to celebrate the fact that I have yet to be taken down by a speeding bus, lung cancer, or any of the other unpleasantries that can bring a life to conclusion. “Old” is relative anyway.
By most people’s standards, including mine, I’ve managed to acheive quite a few lovely things with my first thirty years in this sack ‘o flesh. I own my own little house (or three, if you want to count each of our Wägen), the house that taught me how to do quite a few things with power tools that I never imagined I would be able to do. I’ve co-authored a book (though I’ve never really felt like it counted as having written a book, as its a guidebook sort of thing), I’ve put out a zine, I’ve been published by other people on paper, I’ve put out two CDs, and my income comes entirely from writing. I speak a second language fluently and live in an exciting and improbable place. Not to mention the I lovely daughter and Beard in my life. So I’d say that 30 is feeling pretty good.
Glasses up! Cheers all around! Now if only I would start liking the taste of alcohol again…
Sitting at the little red-tabled-clothed table in my Wagen, I face the door. The door is open. Outside on the terrace Baby Pickles gurgles in her little seat, watching the trees and sucking on the ear of a beige rabbit. Katey Sleeveless is playing, and the day is starting, much to my surprise, with a feeling of completeness. Everything is in its place.
I’m in my Wagen this morning because I want to hang some shelves. But the boards are too long, I need a jigsaw, and the rest of the world is asleep. When the world wakes up, I will ask it for a jigsaw, someone will lend me one, and the work will continue.
Every year or so I reinvent my living space. It’s force of, not habit, but a decided anal retentiveness and a vague personalized feng shui. Moving things around sweeps out all of the old air, the old habits, the bad air, and makes room for new energy and events. Now, with the move to Frankfurt nearing, I’m re-imagining my Wagen as our family kitchen. For the last year the Beard and I have had separate kitchens: me, in my Wagen and him in a small Wagen known as the Spiesserkuche. Kitchens cause tension, we both do things so differently, but we’re at the point where attempting to come together around the stove again makes sense. So I’m hanging shelves.
One sideboard is already gone (a loan returned to its owner), I’m looking for a stove that can run on bottle gas, and the refrigerator that we’ve stored outside under a bush for the last year is coming inside. I can already see Pickles’ future drawings hanging on it. The bed will disppear (the mattress moving into Pickles’ Wagen) and be replaced by a larger table and chairs. I thrill at the thought. I will lose complete control over what has always been my own space, and because of it, it will gain so much more life.
While I’m on the subject of genderized kids stuff, I wanted to share this awesome (and disturbing) video from Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. Anita regularly makes videos discussing feminism in relationship to pop culture, particularly movies and television. Anita’s next proposed project is a series of videos about women in video games. Can’t wait to see it. I like to watch these little tidbits while I’m nursing Baby Pickles to keep the brain rot away.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” It’s a question I am asked a hundred times a day when I leave home with Baby Pickles. At first I wondered why gender was so important to strangers, but then I realized that really, if you want to interact with a parent and baby there really are only a few not-super-personal questions open to you. It’s a perspective that makes the constant chorus of “boy or girl?” a little less irritating.
Still, babies’ gender is inordinately important to a lot of people, many of them parents. I’ve seen people at the flea market look at a jacket, ask “Is this for a boy or a girl?”, and then, when the item turns out to be “for a a boy” when they are shopping for a girl and vice versa, they say “Oh no, never mind,” and walk away. But, wait. Couldn’t they have decided if the little girl or boy in question (or that child’s parents) would have liked the jacket, just by looking at it? And jesus shit, baby boys can wear pink! Baby boys can wear dresses! Baby girls can wear blue! You know why? Because a baby’s gender is irrelevant. (And can’t we get past this whole rigidly gendered clothing thing anyway?) Unless you’re a doctor, or the person who has to figure out how to keep all her nether parts clean, then whether that little pickle is a boy or a girl, is in red green blue pink orange biege or purple just doesn’t fucking matter.
Left: “Mädchen Stinken,” or “Girls Stink.” Though I suspect this shirt was intended for boys, I think it’s absolutely hilarious on girl babies particularly. Because even though babies mostly smell like caramel and amazing, they poop their pants and get spit-up milk stuck in their cavernous neck creases. Girls stink, indeed. A fifty-cent flea market find, by the way. And while we’re on the subject, I’ve actually had someone tell me “You can’t put a baby in black!” To which I replied, “I like black. And I’m the one who has to look at her all day. She doesn’t care what she has on.” And when looking back on it, I still can’t figure out why they even cared.
If you are interested in topics of gender, particularly when it comes to children, then you probably have already heard this, but for the rest of you, guess what?! Apparently, it was in the 1940s that pink first became a “girl” color. Before that, it was considered a “boy” color. Fun facts that make the whole hullabulloo about gendered colors in children’s clothing seem even more insane. At the very beginning of their lives, babies can’t see much color anyway. They can pick out contrasts, like black on white, but little else. So what the fucking fuck? How did this happen? Why do so many people care so much?
Historian Jo B. Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America has this to say in an article on SmithsonianMag.com: “It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing. What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted.” And of course at the end of the day it mostly comes down to marketing. “The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” says Paoletti.
Right: The shirt reads, “I am the King,” another one that I’m pretty sure was intended for boys, and a flea market find and present from Frau Doktor. I think it’s cute on either sex. Lions and stripes! Awesome! And blue looks great on babies with blue eyes, regardless of what they’ve got in their pants.
Also important to remember, when trying not to get swept away by the flood of gender-specific baby marketing, is that not only should a babies’ gender not matter to you, but that it doesn’t even matter to them. “According to child development experts,” continues the article, “children are just becoming conscious of their gender between ages 3 and 4, and they do not realize it’s permanent until age 6 or 7.” So tell me again why we’re worrying about this? As far as I can tell, the only time when the gender of one adult should matter to another adult is when said adults are contemplating sleeping together. Which pretty much rules babies out of the equation.
Left: Baby Pickles loves wearing dresses when it’s warm. Mostly because dresses mean that there is a bunch of free fabric for her to grab onto and jam into her mouth.Though I have to admit, she almost looks weird to me in such obviously gendered clothing.Another fifty cent flea market find.
A few weeks ago I was on a bus in Mannheim, Germany. We were on the way to a concert, and Pickles was sitting on my lap. A woman with two children of her own struck up a conversation. When she asked, and I told her, that Pickles was a girl, she replied, “Well she doesn’t look like a girl.” Well shit. Must have been the blue cap. Or was it the red striped pants? Or, wait, the white top with the purple and yellow flowers on it, that must have been it. When she’s wearing a cap, people almost always think she’s a boy. And yet, adult girls wear caps all the time, so there really is no reason to view this little scrap of clothing as gender specific. And yet. And yet! *Rips out hair.*
I have become possessed. If you’ve been reading Click Clack Gorilla for a while, shit, even if you’ve been reading since my last post about a book, then you know I’m an avid reader. And for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, that avid love has geared into passionate obsession mode in the last few weeks. I want to be reading all the time, and when I’m not reading I want to be talking about books. Or reading articles talking about books. Or listening to podcasts talking about books (actually, just one podcast, Literary Disco, but I’d love to hear about more if you have any recommendations). It is a god damned miracle that I have never been a part of a book club. But I’ve never really liked having my next reading choice dictated by a group of people I have nothing in common with. Even though just such an exercise would be certain to broaden my reading experience in a pleasant fashion. Anyway.
All this is a round-a-bout way of telling you that in my search to discuss more literature with more people, I joined Goodreads. And if you are on Goodreads and also want to talk a little more about books or hear me talk a little more about books, then let’s be friends. Actually, I sometimes fantasy about facebook being exclusively about books and reading and writing and how much more awesome facebook would be if that was the case. So far, Goodreads doesn’t seem to be quite as handy, but still, it has potential. This is me. Let’s take our virtual companionship to the next level. Ha.
PS While we’re on the topic of social media, I have been meaning to ask: Are you the kind of crowd who would like it if there was a Click Clack Gorilla facebook page? You know, links to relevant articles (relevant as in related to the sort of things I write about here), more blah blah, a home for the shorter-than-a-blog thoughts I have? I sort of can’t imagine doing such a thing, but at the same time, I sort of can. But the question is, can you? Would you want to read such a thing? Would you visit such a place? Would it serve any purpose whatsoever?
Being an expat can be magical. Yup. And not in any sort of “it was the best of times” way. No, as an expat, you’ll find yourself performing conversational feats you never thought possible. Because the grass is, if not greener, at least a lot more interesting on the other side, you, as a diplomat from another side, will find yourself able to make descriptions of the most banal, commonplace daily activities interesting. Your friends at home will listen intently to stories that, when told in their home country, put them to sleep. But because you went grocery shopping/used the toilet/bought bread on foreign soil, your life is suddenly full of conversational masterpieces. You could base an entire hour-long conversation around the design of toilet bowls that both you and your conversational partner will find fascinating. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
In turn, the details of your everyday life back “home” will be just as interesting to your new, in this case, German companions. If there is one thing that is almost universally fascinating, it is the details of cultural difference. While this means you will find yourself having a lot of really interesting conversations, it also means that you’ll find yourself having the same conversations again and again. Even seven years into expatdom, I’m still having the same dozen conversations on a monthly basis. If you tend to meet a lot of new people as par for the course, you’ll be having them weekly.
It all starts with the story of why you moved. After a couple of months you’ll be an expert at telling it. And after a couple of years you’ll find your story shrinking. You’ve told it so many times, you can, and do, tell it in just a few sentences in order to prevent boring yourself to death. Mine these days goes something like this: “I was working a desk job in the States and hated it. So I got a job as an au pair in Frankfurt. Once that was over I just decided to stay. And seven years later here I am.” At this point I’ll point to the baby in my arms, as if to explain in one gesture why I’m still here. Short and sweet. Room for questions if people are interested, and room to move on if they, like I, are not interested in hearing more of those practiced lines.
Other topics that get covered often, and conversations I’ve had hundreds of times, at least, include “why Germany?”, how I learned the German language, and the high cost of an American university education. But recently—as the weather has been rollercoastering between summer and fall temperatures on a daily basis—there’s been a lot of talk about Fahrenheit, the measure of temperature in the United States, and Celsius, the measure of temperature just about everywhere else.
I’m only just getting used to the Celsius system. Because, until Baby Pickles arrived and several nurses scared us into worrying about the importance of a consistently temperatured environment for babies, we didn’t have a thermometer. So I hadn’t figured out that 25 degrees Celsius was incredibly pleasant, and 15 degrees Celsius was going towards one-hoodie weather. And while I’m try to get a grasp on the fact that 19 degrees Celsius is rather warm (as it is below freezing in Fahrenheit), people here are asking me to explain the Fahrenheit system. For a conversation I have on a regular basis, I’m surprisingly ignorant on the subject. Or was. Enter the internet.
So we all know that the Fahrenheit system is kind of ridiculous. Unlike its cousin Celsius, water doesn’t freeze at a neat zero or boil at an easy-to-remember 100 degrees. Like many other units of measurement used in the United States (inches, feet, gallons, etc), Fahrenheit temperatures seem to make no sense at all. Water freezes at a seemingly arbitrary 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. And Germans, whenever we start talking about temperature, usually poke fun at the Americans for using such a strange system, and then they want to know why. As if there might just be a logical explanation behind Fahrenheit that will put their queries to rest and clear the Americans on all charges of stupidity.
Well, guess what? It turns out that a German created the system. As the shape and sound of the word “Fahrenheit” might indicate, it was a German physicist named Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit who came up with it. I don’t entirely understand the reasoning, but his numbers are awkward simply because of the method he chose to define his units (something to do with brine preparations). And according to one source, part of that method, the method that determined the final scale, was deciding that zero would be the freezing point of salt water (which freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water, or even ocean water) and 100 the temperature of Fahrenheit’s own body, which turned out to be a bit hotter than the average Joe. Ha! I might say. Ha! Looks like the Germans are the ones with the wacky measurement system. But no, wait, that’s not right either. After All, it is the Americans who have decided to keep using it.
Why exactly has it taken me so long to read any Margaret Atwood books? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I realized that she’s written a shit ton of post-apocalypse, dystopian stuff. An educated guess would point to potential writer-reader soul mate-dom. But a feeling has kept me away for years, a feeling that I wouldn’t like her work, appearances be damned. With no hard evidence to support that feeling, and a sneaking suspicion that I might have just made it up, I decided to finally give her work a try. And so my last trip to the best English-language book store in the region (in the Frankfurt Hugendubel) ended with a copy of The Year of the Flood.
The Year of the Flood takes place in a not-too-distant future. You might even call it “practically now,” as the book’s world sounds very much like the present, give or take a few years, but with a different set of vocabulary to describe it—a trick that simply allows us to look at our now the way we would look at something foreign. That is, with new eyes. In this world, the middle and upper class intellectuals (mostly scientists and computer geeks from the sounds of it) live in gated communities, the ghettos (called pleebs) are full of shopping and violence and abandoned buildings, and an eco-Christian sect called the Gardeners are growing plants on rooves, stockpiling rations, and teaching their followers about foraging and self-defense. They sound quite a lot like a lot of the anarcho primitivists I know, but quoting the Bible instead of Emma Goldman or Derrick Jensen.
The Gardeners refer to the bible as the “Human Word of God,” and interpret it the way you might imagine a hardcore animal rights activist would. They preach vegetarianism and warn of the “Waterless Flood” to come. Their entire creed is based around respecting the earth, vegetarianism, and teaching their followers skills that will help them survive the coming “flood.” On their rooftop garden they grow their own food, and in the basements of damp abandoned buildings they make vinegar and grow mushrooms. In little hidden pantries called ararats, they are stowing away food to help them survive the crisis that they are sure is coming. They take in outcasts from society at large, and though this aspect is never divulged more deeply, they have spies within the corporations who give them information.
The book follows Ren and Toby, two characters whose lives have been intertwined through their experience with the Gardeners, and who have both survived the flood—which turns out to be a pandemic plague that takes down most of humanity—though separately. Between their alternating tales are sermons by Adam One, the founder of the Gardeners, as well as hymns from their worship services. (Songs which, by the way, have since been made into actual music.)
These jumps in perspective made the narrative jumpy, hard for me to lose myself in. Especially in the beginning, I found myself grumbling every time I reached another sermon chapter, though those chapters did convey information important to our understanding of the religion and, later, to the plot development. Having bought the book solely based on my love of post-apocalyptic fiction, I was also incredibly disappointed to find that The Year of the Flood is more about the time before the end of civilization than it is about how people go about surviving afterwards. No, despite a book-back-blurb that implies otherwise, this book doesn’t seem to be about the apocalypse at all. Though I ultimately found myself drawn into the story enough to finish it, it was a huge draw-back as a reader who had purchased the book with very different expectations.
Though Atwood has been praised for her insight into the female psyche, I found myself unable to really relate to either of the characters. They felt ephemeral to me, almost like ghosts, though without going back and re-reading I could not tell you if this was due to the writing or my reading. But when near the end of the book (sorry, I forgot to note the page and now can’t find it for a quote) one of the female narrators says something along the lines of “Maybe we were ghosts,” I started to wonder if this was intentional. Then again, the problem may have simply been that I found them uninteresting.
On the whole Year of the Flood was a pleasant read. It didn’t blow my mind, but I did enjoy reading it. I don’t think it is a book that I will necessarily read again and again, but it does offer a few interesting thoughts to the post-apo lit discussion—particularly in the form of the Gardeners.
Are you a Margaret Atwood fan? Did you love this book? Or has she written others you’d recommend? I’m trying to decide if/what of hers I should read next.
Above photo of Margaret Atwood (cc) flickr user mabel.sound