The walk to the train station is short, all the shorter when a bus happens along just as I turn the corner by the supermarket. I am already tired of the walk—there is nothing beautiful along the path and yet the dilapidation has yet to reach the point of romantic fantasy.
But within the corner of town where we live, there is beauty. If I am picky about where I point the camera, it would be easy to pretend that there are no blocky post-war housing blocks. This morning I set off under blue sky with my laptop on my back to spend a few hours at my favorite cafe (free wifi, vegan food with no soy, yummy local iced tea, fresh pressed orange juice…), only to find that the cafe wasn’t open for another half hour. So instead, this:
(Above: These little plaques have the names of Jewish folks who were taken off and killed during Hitler’s jerk-regime. You see them everywhere, and it is a really effective memorial. Maybe America should do this for the native Americans…)
And with a huge sigh of relief I can finally say it: spring! Spring spring spring!!!!!!
From now on we will be spending all day everyday outside.
From now on we won’t have to make kindling because we won’t have to light the wood stove.
From now on we will cook in the purple Wagen.
From now on we will eat outside.
All dresses all the time! Vitamin D! Sunglasses! In the moment of spring, our living space increases twenty fold. Welcome to mansion season.
But spring has snubbed me once already. On March 8th I said its name out loud, and after one glorious t-shirted afternoon of sunshine, it slipped back into the shadows without a trace. Does spring really mean it this time? Will it abandon me once more?
You want it in a nutshell, here it is. This book is fun to read. High cheese factor, shallow plastic characters, and hugely problematic depiction of women and anyone who isn’t white, but page turning.
But maybe you won’t think its cheesy. Maybe you like electricity so much that you’d be swept up in the calls to “Give my children the lightning,” by the images of a hero on his death bed croaking about how important “the lightning” is before biting it in a dramatic public scene. Ummm, “the lightning”? What a romantic way to think of electricity. Which brings me to the crux of this book: defending industrial civilization. But let me back up.
Lucifer’s Hammer is a big fucking comet, and it hits earth. Earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and floods destroy most of civilization. A lot of people die, food is scarce, people start eating people—you know, the familiar backdrop and props of post-apocalyptic fiction. We follow an almost George-Martinian number of characters as they flee from cities, looking for a safe place to bunker down, and most of them end up on Senator Jellison’s Ranch where a large group has organized in hopes of surviving the winter.
Meanwhile, a group that I thought of as Cannibals for Jesus believe that they have been called to complete God’s work and destroy the small pockets of civilization that have come through the crisis. They attack the ranch, and then go after a nearby nuclear power plant that is, miraculously, still running. And the people say, hark! What devils are these that would dare attack the sacred nuclear power plant! We shall band together, though it may mean the death of us all, to fight for the right to nuclear power! Not only do Niven and Pournelle make nuclear power detractors (and environmentalists) completely unsympathetic, devilish lunatics, he makes sure to mention that even the hippies on the local commune change their back-to-the-earth tune once faced with the realities of a truly off-grid existence. “Let me tell you, it doesn’t work,” says one ex-hippie character of the commune life. Wa-waaah.
“It’s too much, don’t you see that?” Owen demanded. “Atomic power makes people think you can solve problems with technology. Bigger and bigger. More quick fixes. You have the power so you use it and soon you need more and then you’re ripping ten billion tons a year of coal out of the earth. Pollution. Cities so big they rot in the center. Ghettos. Don’t you see? Atomic power makes it easy to live out of balance with nature. For a while. Until finally you can’t get back in balance. The Hammer gave us a chance to go back to living the way we were evolved to live, to be kind to the Earth.”
It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? I happen to agree. But I’d bet that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle don’t, as they have one of the madmen Cannibals for Jesus saying it to ring in their unholy war on technology. What the sympathetically portrayed characters say is, “Give us that electricity plant and twenty years and we’ll be in space again.” Because the most important thing to consider when fighting for survival is getting the space program started again. Religious zealotry and mania aside, I bet you can guess which side I thought the real lunatics were.
a feminist reading
And as for you, ladies, you’re just going to love living in the world of Lucifer’s Hammer. There’s a lot of rape, and then, get this (says a largely respected and sympathetic character):
The only good thing about Hammerfall, women’s lib was dead milliseconds after Hammerstrike.
Wow, I’M SO GLAD. That pesky women’s lib. Umm? Later a female character says: “It’s a man’s world now…So I guess I’ll just have to marry an important one.” This book is a total feminist fail. There are a number of female characters (though we only ever hear about the beautiful ones, and the women are always described in terms of beauty whereas the men are not), though what we see them doing most is having sex. A few of them manage some heroics, but we never get to see this world through their eyes.
The only female perspective Niven gives us is Maureen, a beautiful (duh) woman who is thrust into the role of prize princess in the new group. She battles with depression, particularly when she realizes that she is the trophy whose possession will determine the next ruler of the ranch once her father, the Senator, passes. She is unhappy about it, but her criticism is fleeting and in the end she picks a mate and dons the new throne without complaint. And did I mention the couple who didn’t get married before Hammerfall because the lady wanted to focus on her career? But who get married and start having babies as soon as the world ends? At the end of the story, it seems, marriage is a woman’s highest priority in this new, nuclear-powered world. How very civilized.
and as for the characters who aren’t white
The place Niven and Pournelle give black people (he doesn’t mention any other non-white races) is strange and baffling. Some professional thieves (all black) survive and rape and pillage and join the Cannibals for Jesus. There are a few sympathetic black characters, but racism is everywhere in the new world, as if everyone had been waiting for a disaster to allow them to really get down with their racist selves. Sheesh, Niven/Pournelle, just because you published this in 1977 doesn’t mean you get to be assholes. Minus twenty thousand points. Worse are the reviewers all over the internet who chalk this up to “1970s politics.” So Niven/Pournelle’s racism (NOTE: A commenter recently thought it was too much to call them racist, and maybe he’s right. I do not know where that particular line in the sand should be drawn, nor do I feel particularly qualified to be drawing it. I will say though, that Niven and Pournelle have written a white-centric book here, which makes me assume that they too see the world this way.) is ok to ignore because everybody was doing it in the 70s? Umm, right.
read it or burn it?
Despite Lucifer’s Hammer’s many failings, I enjoyed reading it. The post-civ scenario is one I haven’t read before, as is the look into a mind very different than my own. It is pop-y and cheesy and totally ridiculous over and over again, but I enjoyed spending time between the pages and the title would make a great name for a metal band. But a fun read does not a good book make, and if you were to use its pages to start your wood stove, I would totally understand.
Now there’s breaking news. (Cough.) Look, people who come from countries that aren’t wealthy, who maybe aren’t a shade of Swiss cheese, who might actually need to get into Germany to save their fucking lives often have a hard time getting visas. They sometimes get deported.
I am an American, and my skin is the color of Swiss cheese. I have married a German and have produced a Swiss-cheese-colored baby for the shrinking German population. (Jawohl!) I can prove that I have a job and insurance and stability and a place to live. But what about the people who cannot prove these things? What about the people for whom staying here is the difference between having a chance at a fairly normal life and being shot or bombed or oppressed or or or? I don’t know where the immigrations people draw the line (are they more surly if you can’t speak German or if you can’t prove you have insurance, a job, and a rental contract?), but there are lines being drawn. I doubt anyone is being given an armband and sent away solely because of the color of their skin, but I do know that the people being sent away are largely people whose skin more closely resembles hazelnuts than cheese.
According to this article, Germany deports 50,000 immigrants annually. And before they deport them, they put them in special little deportation jails. Ick.
Today, any foreigner residing in Germany without legal immigration status can be arrested and placed in detention pending deportation. This includes refugees who are refused asylum, civil war refugees whose right to remain has not been extended, and immigrants in the broadest sense, who either entered Germany without a valid visa or whose residence permit has expired.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the law has allowed the detention of such people, in order to procure passports or travel documents before deporting them. Those affected are in a desperate situation lacking any recourse. The reason for their arrest is not any criminal offence they have committed, but restrictive German laws that turn them into “illegal immigrants.” Moreover, deportation detention can drag on for up to 18 months. …
According to the Initiative, over 50,000 migrants and asylum-seekers are deported from Germany each year, most of them by plane. Each day, 130 to 140 are returned to the conditions from which they fled—civil war, political persecution, dire economic hardship and regimes that suppress ethnic minorities and women.
Deportees are frequently accompanied by the paramilitary German Border Police or private security agents, who are prepared to use force. Those who resist are beaten, restrained and injected with drugs. A number have already been killed, but the culprits and the authorities responsible have so far escaped prosecution. The dead and abused refugees and immigrants are consciously accepted as the price of a brutal deportation practice.
Since 1993, 99 people have taken their own lives or died trying to avoid deportation, 45 while in detention.
Knowledge is power. So what are we going to do about it? Why are borders so important? Why is keeping people out more important than keeping people alive? Dog eat dog, survival of the fittest? Nope, just an accident of birth. I was born here and you were born there, so you better stay the fuck on your side of the line in the sand. You were born into war and I was born into wealth? Well, I must deserve it. Or something. Say it with me now…ICK.
It is a scenario that comes up over and over again in the apocalyptic books that I like reading so much. And in a life-or-death situation, I can understand turning people away from your group. If the choice is starving together or surviving a lone asshole, I know my instinct would urge me to survive as an asshole. But guess what: Germany is not turning people away because if it doesn’t, all the Germans will starve to death. We are not living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Germany is turning people away because it makes sense within this government-controled, border-patroled world. Sad.
Meanwhile, back in the bubble of white privilege…I applied for what I think of as my “eternal German visa” a few weeks ago, or as the Americans call it, a Green Card. Once it is approved (the paperwork is floating around in Berlin somewhere as I type) I will be allowed to stay here forever—though to my disappointment I will have to return to renew every time I get a new passport, ie once every ten years. This is the award for three years of marriage.
I will be allowed to work any job, any time. (Bet you a dollar that I’m still not going to be allowed on the state health insurance plan though.) What a relief. Not that there was ever any serious question of it being denied, which is where my priviledge in this situation lies: All of my visas have been fairly easy to obtain. First there was a one-year au pairing visa. Then a three-year English teacher visa. Then I got married to a German, which gets you a pass for at least three years. Though after seven years in Germany I could have applied for the same visa independently of the Beard, getting married made everything a lot easier. Dual citizenship, however, is verboten. I guess I am as close to being German as I’m ever going to get.
For years I have been flirting with the idea of buying a large glass carboy at the flea market. Wine making! Wouldn’t that be a good skill to have? But like so many ideas, so many items once hastily scribbled on a to-do list, I hadn’t gotten around to it. And damn are those bottles expensive.
I happened upon this among a large pile of trash as I walked home from the train station, and I did a little mental cartwheel when I saw it. Getting it home while also carrying a baby and a backpack was difficult. I reminded myself of the desk I carried 2 km and the mattress I’d schlepped for blocks balanced on my head. This was easy! I am hulk! RAR! Many arm switches and short breaks later I’d gotten it home. Sweet sweet trash. Thanks for that one.
In other scavenging news
I’ve had my attention drawn to a new dumpster diving blog called Things I Find in the Garbage. Here is somebody walking and biking around Montreal, picking through trash, and documenting it with words and pictures. A body after my own heart. Enjoy!
Baby Pickles walks like a drunk. I suppose all toddlers do. One step forward, one step back, sway, sway, and then she’s on the ground. But unlike a drunk, she has a thick padded bottom to land on. She’s never landed on her face. I guess babies are like cats like that. Yet another reason to love on some cloth diapers.
This month I am totally pissed at FuzziBunz. I mean, come on. When diapers costs 20 bucks I want them to work. I want them to look brain-meltingly cute, to fit, and to keep pee in. I want to use them for all the other kids I ever have. At that price I’d like it if they would bring me a glass of wine and give me a massage, but at the very least they should be keeping the pee in, right?
My first shock came when the FuzziBunz arrived with a warning that I would probably have to replace the leg elastic after six months (replacement elastic included). Excuse me? I don’t want to replace any leg elastic. I am lazy, bought these diapers because they were supposed to be easy, and have mending in my basket from over four years ago that I still haven’t gotten to. And you’re telling me I will have to replace the leg elastic of 15 diapers every six months?!! Much to my relief, I haven’t had to replace any leg elastic. But snaps and buttons have broken. Thumbs down. The Happy Heinys that we have owned and used for the same length of time haven’t had a single broken snap.
There was a brief period between 10 and 12 months when the FuzziBunz fit perfectly. Previously they had been chronic leakers. The fit just didn’t sit snugly on Pickles’ pickle-shaped legs. I chalked it up to size and got used to having to throw stockings and pants in the wash with the diapers at every change. A lot of our all-in-one diapers didn’t fit well around the leg when Pickles was fresh out of the flesh factory.
Now the FuzziBunz don’t just leak at the leg. They leak right through the “waterproof” fabric. After 13 months of use, they’ve self destructed. After an hour or so liquid starts to seep through around the seams, then spreads to the entire bottom area. The bed has been soaked. We have been soaked. Curses have been uttered. A pox on both your houses, FuzziBunz! A pox!
Wherein I love on BabyKicks some more
If I had a collection of exclusively fucking amazing cloth diapers, maybe BabyKicks’ diapers wouldn’t have been so quick to win my heart. But amidst the FuzziBunz diaper apocalypse? Oh yeah. In comparison with diapers that are handmade of organic hemp/cotton blends and are really fucking cute and easy to use? Oh oh yeah. In exchange for a bit of writing, I get a new BabyKicks diaper every month. While that means that I don’t have any long-term experience with their products, so far, I’m all like: “BabyKicks? Fuck yeah.” Exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point.
Last month I received a BabyKicks Organic One Size Fitted Diaper. Oo la la. Though I was initially disappointed that I needed to use a cover with this one (a fact that somehow escaped me when ordering), I’m over it now. This diaper is awesome. Absorbency is everything in a cloth diaper, and this diaper is absorbent. The snaps are the reverse of what I’m used to, so that was awkward at first, but otherwise, this has become my new favorite night time diaper. The terry cloth-esque fabric looks comfy, the brightly colored snaps are cute, and the thing keeps the pee in. What more could I ask for? And I’m still crushing hard on the black Premium Pocket Diaper that I mentioned last month.
Meanwhile on the front
While I’m enjoying our new diapers, I am not enjoying changing Pickles. At all. When she was an infant, diaper changes meant incessant screaming, which eventually faded into pleasant singing time, which has now been replaced by squirming screaming war time. She doesn’t want me to take off her diaper. She doesn’t want me to put on her diaper. She’s rather scream and writhe and rub poop all over herself and the bed. Does the fun ever start?!
The key is to be fast. Which is hard with snaps and impossible with prefolds. Because I usually use prefolds (one cotton prefold plus onehemp/cotton blend prefold plus one hemp insert) at night these days, we have a battle every single night. The other key, if you can’t be fast, is to be distracting. My phone has become old hat. A bottle of milk is all I have left in my hand. When she gets tired of that I’m screwed. Which is why I am stocking up on diapers that don’t require snappis or snaps.
Did any of you cloth diaper users reading have the squirming problem? And if so, WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO? Or was diapering just even more annoying until potty training?
Despite all of humanity’s adaptability, it often comes down to one issue when you talk about the nuts and bolts of communal living. The bathroom. A lot of people just don’t want to share a bathroom. Not even with their life partner.
Personally, I don’t mind sharing bathrooms. It can be groddy, and there might be fights about who’s turn it is to clean or who keeps leaving their towel on the floor, but by and large, I like it. And I like it because I don’t like cleaning bathrooms. Hear me out. The more people there are on a bathroom cleaning schedule, the fewer times each month you have to be the one scrubbing the toilet. If you have a reliable group who all have a similar tolerance level for dirt, it is the best. (See exhibit B.) Of course, if you have a chaotic group with tolerance levels all over the map, frustration burn-out, and you happen to share your toilet with a cafe and music venue, well, yeah, it can get icky.
Our last community. Around 17 residents. Somewhere between 10 and 200 guests showing up for the cafe or concerts or lectures or whatever each week. A lot of event organizers who don’t bother cleaning the bathroom.
As that description might hint, the bathroom was pretty much always on the tipping point between tolerable and too-gross-to-use. Though it got to me on the rare occasion, I wasn’t too phased. I only went in there once a day, and for those few minutes I could always just hold my breath and close my eyes. Tooth brushing, face washing, showering, peeing, grooming—all of these things happened in other places, in other, comfortable, clean rooms. It would have ceased to be tolerable as soon as Pickles needed to start using it (I mean, I’ll put up with that, but making her put up with that? No thanks), and that is part of why we decided to move.
But the bathroom was a constant point of contention. Who doesn’t like a clean bathroom? But who is willing to play maid for lazy party and concert organizers? Someone was always complaining about the state of the bathroom, but the situation never changed for more than a week. The situation felt hopeless; it was like a battle against kipple. We could make cleaning schedules until we turned blue and concert organizers still wouldn’t bother. Maybe it would have worked if we had gotten a separate bathroom for residents, but, as the Germans say Hätte hätte Fahrrad Kette (aka what ifs are useless).
The biggest reason for our move (besides wanting a change and lessening my commute) was that our former community space wasn’t terribly kid-friendly. The bathroom was a mess, the parties were loud, people put their cigarettes out on the ground, and there was random junk and scrap metal laying around. It might not have bothered me, I might have been able to find beauty and magic in a pile of rusting metal, but neither the Beard or I wanted to raise Pickles among it. How would we even begin to teach her to clean her room if the rest of the “house” was a a chaotic mess? Enter community B.
I don’t talk much about our new place because the group is generally very resistant to any sort of publicity. But the bathroom! Oh my god. It is amazing, and I can’t resist a good gush. Even when things aren’t going well with the group, I look at the bathroom—clean, unspoiled, stocked with toilet paper—and I remember why we wanted to move here.
The cleaning schedule works here for a number of reasons. Though we have more people using the facilities than we did in Mainz, we do not share them with a venue (though the venue toilets here are also sparkling). We have a detailed cleaning schedule (with an even more detailed list of what exactly you are expected to clean). Each person is assigned one week. During that week you are expected to take out the trash; refill the toilet paper, gas, and cleaning products if they are running low; and generally make sure things are running smoothly. You do a mini wipe down on Wednesday, a big full-out clean on Sunday, check off your name, and symbolically hand the bathroom over to the next person on the list.
But even the best laid plans fall apart if nobody gives a shit. (Ho-ho! Now there is an awful pun waiting to happen. I didn’t plan it, I swear.) And that is where this group excels. Everybody gives a shit. Many of them also have children. Someone will say something if you miss your turn. And now, when it is my turn to clean I find myself almost enjoying it. After all, there isn’t that much to do when the bathroom looked good before you got there, and I only have to clean once every two months.
Blindness is catching. Imagine it. You are walking down the street, driving your car, drinking a coffee, and suddenly, you see nothing but white light. You are blind. You cannot see. You cannot find your way home, and you are contagious.
Before reading Jose Saramago’s 1999 novel Blindness, I had never imagined what it might be like. I had never considered that if humanity, in a world predicated by vision, were to be unanimously blinded, that things would fall apart in a shocking, tragic, sweeping arc of starvation and shit. Could we have evolved as a species without vision? Perhaps. (Though the world we would have built would be very different.) Could we survive in this world without vision? Not for long. Not once the canned goods ran out.
Simply from a post-apocalyptic world-building stand-point, Blindness is breathtaking (though horrifyingly rather than beautifully so). The electricity goes out without seeing hands to tend the machines. The water goes out without the electricity or the hands. Without the ability to use their gas and electric stoves, some become used to the taste of raw meat. People who cannot find their way to a bathroom use the streets. Hunger drives people onto the floors of stores, groping for an overlooked scrap. Dogs devour corpses and the roads are covered in shit. The ruin is not architectural, but human. And the qualities we like to think of as human quickly follow vision into the ether. Or do they? Were we ever so irreproachable as a species? Were we just a bunch of assholes all along? Raping, stealing, murdering, dirty, mean, wallowing in feces? Is it the epidemic of blindness that will first show us how to see? Is this not a novel about blindness, but about sight?
In the end, it seems that this is indeed what Saramago is getting at, and that Blindness is meant as a wake up call, as a portrait of the world as it is now, a nudge to truly accept the world as we see it around us and to act accordingly. “I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see,” concludes the novel’s only seeing character. “Open your eyes! Look at the filth and violence and squalor around you! Take responsibility for the knowledge!”–though the pleas of the novel are more subtle than these exclamatory cries, more eloquently woven into this parable of humanity.
the reading experience
Blindness had been on my post-apocalyptic to-read list for months, but a chance encounter at a local bookstore and the chance discovery of a book club—set to read Blindness that very week—put it on my fast track. I bought the book, and I spent three days in its nightmarish, reeking, broken world. I went with the first to contract the white blindness into the mental institution where the government sets up a quarantine, shuddered as the bathroom became an open sewer, hungered with them as the government failed to deliver appropriate rations, mourned when the frightened soldiers guarding them itched their triggers. It is only because of the presence of a single seeing woman that the group eventually thrives. Or what passes as thriving under the circumstances.
The dialogue, which I had heard ruined the book for a number of readers on many online reviews, is written in a flowing style without he saids or she saids. (“It cannot be, They’ve taken away our food, The Thieves, A disgrace, the blind against the blind, I never thought I’d live to see anything like this, Let’s go and complain…”) Though I can understand how this might trip a body up, how better to immerse the reader into the story, how better to make the reader as uncertain as the blind characters about who is talking? A stroke of genius on the part of Saramago. When an artist is able to make style support content on that level I just die. Good job, Jose.
But there was an aspect of Saramago’s story that bothered me as I read, more than the conditions in which the government left the quarantined to suffer, more than the state of the restrooms, more than the power plays and violence, and it was at the base of everything the book was saying. Blindness as metaphor. Blindness as floodgate for the worst of humanity. Sight as the thread that held civilization together. Sight as enlightenment. Sight as knowledge. How would a blind person feel reading this? How did I feel about the implication? Though the book is expertly crafted, using a real-life disability as a metaphor is deeply problematic.
I followed this feeling onto google, looking for blind reader’s reactions to Saramago’s tale and came across an essay written by Liat Ben-Moshe—an academic from the field of disabled studies. Though he initially was quite taken with the novel, he later became very critical of what its use of a disability as such a negatively weighted metaphor was conveying to readers, and particularly critical of how he had been teaching the text to students. The article gets to the heart of what nagged me from Saramago’s page so articulately, that he might as well tell you himself:
Saramago’s depiction of blindness is that of a sighted man who views blindness as a radical departure from his own corporeal being. Different experiences of living in the world are never explored. Blindness is conveniently used the way Saramago assumes most people conceive of it and yet remains invisible.
Blindness does not just represent a radical form of Otherness, but operates as a sign to refer to limitation, lack. Throughout the novel, blindness is shown to lead to disorientation, chaos, and lack of familiarity with space and time. …
A more critical read, however, yields a different analysis. In this view, society fails to function not because of people’s blindness, but because the government is not able to provide the ordinary services that citizens are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water, and electricity; the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication; and so on. However, in the novel, as in daily life, dependence is projected onto the people who are perceived as embodying it on a daily basis, that is, people with disabilities. …
It is not surprising perhaps, since Saramago seems to use blindness only to tell another story, one about the human condition in general. But again, why choose blindness? Saramago’s parable, like so many other literary and cinematic depictions, seems to equate blindness with lack of knowledge. The analogy between “seeing” and “understanding” is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. …
Blindness, like all disabilities, is also normatively viewed as a personal tragedy, something inflicted on the individual, a condition that a person suffers from. This narrative is closely related to a medical narrative claiming treatment and cure. Blindness should not be embraced and experienced as an identity, equal to any other, but should be pitied and/or treated.
Ben-Moshe goes on at length on the subject, and I highly recommend reading his article yourself. If you haven’t got the time for in-depth articles, I will sum it up for you in one sentence: Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor without a single hint of critical thought and with all the negatively loaded tropes common in non-disabled representations of the disabled. This work makes it clear that he is a talented writer capable of nuance and depth, and yet at the end of the novel, at the end of the day, we have a writer dealing in tropes, in a centuries-old, problematic metaphor. At the same time, Saramago’s use of blindness as the x-factor in this world is also a fascinating study, and I don’t wish he’d written a different book with a different disability. Authors are not bound to write only politically correct, “clean” texts, and I think the world is more interesting for the discussion that an issue like this in a text of this quality can create. The responsibility here lies with us as readers, in the way we engage with the text, what we choose to discuss and what we choose to ignore.
Have you read Saramago (Blindness or otherwise)? What did you think?
This post is reincarnated from this post. (Because breaking down how various German punk songs helped me learn the language doesn’t fly as well with the work audience.) NOTE: Sorry to anyone who read this earlier in the day. For some reason the YouTube embeds just disappeared.
Year Zero. Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It was the year of the au pair. The year of graffiti appreciation. The year of loneliness and mad cap plans and then finding and bikes and more, but very different, mad cap plans. It was the year of much trail-by-fire, DIY, bluff-your-way-through it language learning. I took classes. They helped. But what helped even more was music.
In my former life, German music was a field that belonged exclusively to Kraftwerk, Rammstein, Nena, Bach, Beethoven, and a whole lot of techno. I didn’t love any of it. (Confession: I listened to Kraftwerk for the first time one month ago.) But I knew there must be more, knew there must be punks singing in German, and I asked around until I ended up with three CDs in my hands: Die Kassierer, Hass, and Quetschenpaua. If you have ever heard of any of those bands you can say it with me: oh my.
It is an easy mistake to make, and how could I have known? Say “Deutsch Punk” to someone who knows what they are talking about and you won’t end up with German Punk Music, General. You will end up inside a genre so specific that most of the population has never heard of it. Die Kassierer and Hass belong to this genre. At its best it is dirty, underproduced four-chord punk music with a most excellent sense of humor (though Die Kassierer and Hass got too big to still qualify for “underproduced.” At its worst it is completely unlistenable garbled garbage. My personal Deutsch Punk heroes are a now-defunct band called Ultrapunk, but they were too disorganized and (probably) drunk to ever get around to getting themselves on youtube. Too bad. Their lyrics are pure gold. They would have been very helpful when I was translating songs to improve my German. Instead I was listening to this (I like the Kassierer’s version more, but it isn’t on youtube either):
But hell, either way you look at it, a love song that starts outside of a library wins at least a handful of points.
Then there was Hass. I never quite warmed up to their sound, though their anti-fascism is endearing.
It was Quetschenpaua that I ended up listening to the most. Folk punk with an accordion. Songs about anarchists and demos and penguins and pirates and revolution and Berlin. It was right up my alley. Particularly then, when I was still all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about just about everything.
I sang the lines about the penguin who lives in Berlin with my au pairing charges. I learned what Labello and Captain Igloo were (chapstick and a fishsticks brand, respectively). I heard the expression “Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand” (Beneath the pavement, the beach) for the first time. I got the chorus stuck in my head constantly.
If you’ve ever gotten a song stuck in your head, you know how pervasive, how invasive music can be. Which is ideal when it comes to memorizing vocabulary in a new language. You want those words reverberating inside your head, unable to escape, and complete with an easy-to-remember context. Music does that without you having to do anything more than press “play.”
And look. Science agrees!
“In the 1970s, extensive research was carried out into the powers of music in the learning process, by the Bulgarian physician Georgi Lozanov. He revealed that music puts listeners into a state of relaxed alertness, the ‘alpha state,’ the ideal state of consciousness for learning, and his tests were conclusive.
“More recently, in the March 2005 issue of the journal ‘Nature’ researchers at Dartmouth College in the US reported that they had pinpointed the region of the brain where ‘ earworms ‘ or catchy tunes reside, the auditory cortex. They found that the sounds and words that have actually been heard can be readily recalled from the auditory cortex where the brain can listen to them ‘virtually’ again and again. Music it seems is the ideal catalyst to the memorisation of words.” (source)
Another study has also pointed to the possibility that “the extra information provided in music can facilitate language learning.”
To this day I still remember the words of one of the pirate songs that my au pair charges liked to listen to. Robbi der Seeräuber segelt an der Wind. Robbi der Seeräuber tut nur das was ihm gefällt. Robbi der Seeräuber segelt an der Wind! Und wir segeln mit ihm weil wir auch Piraten sind! Cha-cha-cha!
Have you used music as a foreign language-learning crutch? What did you listen to?
‘Becca over at The Earthlings Handbook flattered Click Clack Gorilla with a Liebster Award a few weeks ago. Thanks ‘Becca. Awwrr.
A Liebster is an award that brings along with it a set of meme-y, chain email quiz-y instructions which I am going to ignore. Instead of answering 11 questions, telling you 11 little-known facts about my life, and naming 11 of my favorite blogs, I will share five excellent blogs that I read regularly. (Maybe that will make up for the fact that I still haven’t gotten my co-conspirators’ page in order.) All of the bloggers I mention, should they so desire, are welcome to follow the original meme (instructions here) or make up their own or ignore this all entirely. Consider this a virtual high five.
Previously Manic Mrs. Stone, this energetic “earth activist and wild mother” takes lovely pictures and blogs about her life with her family of four. We were pregnant at the same time, and I became addicted to the slices of her life after discovering her beautiful maternity photo series. She’s also the wise woman behind The Mama Earth Project and The Wheel of the Year e-Course.
Though I can’t imagine that blue milk is struggling for followers, it is currently one of my favorite daily reads so cannot go unnamed. The Australian author blogs about feminist parenting, and her posts—which vary between brief quotes and briefer links to in-depth analysis—are almost always thought-provoking and inspiring.
Though she posts very infrequently, I always enjoy the words Allegra Hawksmoor does deem worthy of her internet time. In some of those words: “I have a deep and enduring love of the Romantic Age, the decentralisation of power, and anything that makes the world more strange and interesting than popular belief would have you think it is.” Her recent post about fat shaming in activist communities is absolutely worth a read.
My descent into the joy of book blog reading madness began with this blog. In it, literary translator Katy Derbyshire writes about German books and authors and issues of translation and German book awards and the like. Unless you have a particular bent for German literature or translation, it probably isn’t for you. But it certainly is for me. Nom nom nom.