Sunday, April 22, 2018

Go, Went, Gone - a book review

Jenny Erpenbeck

flâneur is somebody who strolls through life with no particular drive, no particular goal other than amusement. A boulevardier, a “gentleman of leisure” who lives off the wealth of the land and works hard at remaining detached. That image is contested by others who maintain a flâneur is a keen observer of the lives of those who cross his path, with talents not unlike those of a careful research scientist, but the term can also be used to characterize those we sometimes describe as “all hat and no cattle,” those who sit around and discuss a problem to death and never lift a finger to find a solution.

“Moral flaneur” is New Yorker staff writer James Wood’s way of describing himself when, in Italy on vacation, he becomes aware of the large number of Africans trying to cross the border into France and Germany. He remembers Edward VIII’s response when learning about massive unemployment in his country: “Something must be done.” Wood raises this issue in a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel, Go, Went, Gone, which I’ll get to in a minute.

I include myself among the thousands of Americans looking for a way to join the “Resistance” to the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle health care, environmental protections, voting rights, all the while working with Congress to assure the rich get richer. Mostly I just sit and cluck at the state of things, the failure of democracy, the lack of will on the part of my countrymen to “do something.” Color me a moral flaneur.

At the heart of the political analogue in Europe, the populism and nationalism in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere is the question of what to do with the Africans and Middle Easterners pouring into Europe in search of relief from war and social chaos. In Germany, resistance to immigration has engendered a new right-wing party, the “Alternative for Germany” Party, whose members now comprise 12.6 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel, normally a remarkably efficient stay calm, let's wait-and-see kind of boss lady, was nearly toppled from her position as world leader because of her policy of allowing in a million refugees and immigrants, hoping in vain that her fellow Europeans would take some of the responsibility for that task off her shoulders. Instead they circled the wagons. Merkel saw no way out but to follow suit eventually and narrow the flow of migrants, despite earlier insistence that Europe had not only a moral duty but a legal one as well to take in refugees fleeing for their lives.

The political “solution” was to make a sharp distinction between “asylum seeker (refugee)” and “immigrant applicant” – to make space for the former – Syrians, mainly – and turn back illegal immigrants simply seeking relief from economic hardship in their homelands. Here the Germans were able to hide behind the bureaucratic solution – the Dublin Regulation (also known as “Dublin III” and before that “Dublin II”) – which determined that responsibility for these migrants would fall to the first country they landed in. The problem is that put an excessive and unfair burden on Italy and Greece. Things went from bad to worse to cruelly absurd when the numbers meant that opportunities for work in Italy and Greece are now minimal while ironically, Germany, France, Holland and other economically better off destination countries actually need workers. Germany has the same problem with illegals as the United States and blames them for the fact that they are being drawn in by what in legal terms might be called an “attractive nuisance,” the tort law that states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children. Workers wanted, in this case.

Twisting the knife in the back of migrants who manage to make it all the way to Germany is the law preventing them from working while they wait to be processed, knowing all the while, that most will be deported. From the German perspective, why should they give them jobs when they are not going to give them permanent resident permits. Probably. It's the uncertainty that creates the injustice.

Jenny Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s most noted authors, took up this subject in her 2015 book, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen, (“Going, Went, Gone”). It is a fictionalized tale of a retired philology professor (here we’d say “language and literature”), who has lived the past five years alone since his wife died, and comes up with a project learning more about the refugees he sees protesting around Berlin, and how they came to be there in the first place.

He uses his status as professor emeritus to fake a research project when he discovers that a former nursing home near his house has been converted into a dormitory for migrants in limbo. The migrants, he finds, are surprisingly forthcoming with their stories, and as the novel progresses, Richard, his name is, gets increasingly involved in their lives. Their lives are lived with little hope of being admitted as legal immigrants. These are not Syrian refugees; they are men whom the state believes need to be deported precisely to make room for more “worthy” immigrants. What Erpenbeck eloquently conveys is that to know these men is to understand how cruel one is in suggesting they are any less worthy. And this makes the novel, like it or not, politically sensitive. Erpenbeck was suggested for the German Book Prize in 2015 but was passed by, allegedly because the prize givers did not want to be caught taking a political stand.

This brings us to the question of perspective. If you are a modern-day German politician, no matter of what stripe, you don’t want to be caught dead arguing for “open borders.” Not only would that be political suicide; it doesn’t work on a common sense level, either. One simply cannot move millions of people from the African continent into the cities and country towns of Europe. The only good long-term solution is to improve the conditions in the countries of origin so there will be no need for its citizens to flee – and you can see how much easier that is said than done. If you are a person with a heart, and you hear that a young man has made his way across North Africa to Libya, climbed in a boat with his mother and father and pushed out to sea only to have the boat capsize and his mother and father drown before his eyes, but by some superhuman stroke of luck has made it to Berlin, are you really going to say, “It’s not my fault that you have no home to go back to; you can’t stay here. We need to make room for the Syrians.”?

I started the book in German and read about a quarter of the way through, without a whole lot of enthusiasm, on the recommendation of a good friend who urged me to take it on. I had trouble with the style, with what I took to be the cluelessness of the protagonist as a character. Rather than give up on it, I got the book in the English translation and picked up from there. That enabled me to read at a faster speed and whether it was that, or the fact that the book finally picks up at about that point, I can’t be sure, but it was smooth sailing from then on.

I think the sluggishness at the beginning is due to Jenny Erpenbeck’s effort to keep the book from turning into a romantic story, a political pitch for bleeding hearts. She manages, in the end, to get you to climb into Richard, the professor’s shoes, and grow as he grows in understanding. And to begin to feel how he feels as he gradually develops the skill to experience what his research subjects are experiencing. Erpenbeck does this with her sparse writing style. There is no dialogue; there is only the story being related from a variety of perspectives in a variety of voices simultaneously. Pulling this off is no mean feat. Overlapping stories, overlapping perspectives, layers upon layers of meaning. Richard is himself a “displaced person,” as is the author, an outsider to modern Germany as an Easterner whose East German pension is less than his Western colleagues’ pensions, who went to sleep in a socialist cradle-to-grave welfare state and woke up in another country where he suddenly has to put aside money to pay his taxes and his rent has quadrupled.

Since the book came out in 2015 it has had more than enough time to elicit reviews worth noting.  One that speaks for me is this one from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

Obwohl diese Geschichten sehr bewegend sind, appelliert „Gehen, ging, gegangen“ nicht vordergründig an das Mitleid des Lesers. Vielmehr bringt dieser Roman sehr reflektiert und durchaus unterhaltsam die Literatur als Medium des Verstehens zur Geltung, indem sich das Fremde und das Eigene als zwei Seiten eines Zusammenhangs erweisen. Oder wie der Anwalt die alten Römer zu zitieren pflegt: „Wenn das Haus deines Nachbarn brennt, geht es auch dich an.“

Although these tales are very moving, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen calls not so much for the reader’s sympathy. Rather, this novel, in a very thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining way, reveals the power of literature to make one see what is strange and what is familiar as two parts of a single whole. Or as the lawyer who likes to cite the ancient Romans puts it, “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, it concerns you too.”

The review in Der Spiegel I take strong exception to. It’s common to label as “orientalism” anything Europeans have to say about the exotic other from a far-off land, very often with justification. But what is one to make of this?:

Das neue Buch der vielfach ausgezeichneten Erfolgsschriftstellerin ("Heimsuchung") zeigt, wie schlecht es um die politische Literatur in Deutschland bestellt ist. Statt die Geschichten der Geflüchteten in den Vordergrund zu stellen, wird "Gehen, ging, gegangen" von einem Wohlstandsbürger dominiert, der sich weltoffen und aufgeklärt fühlt und die eigene, von Ressentiments durchsetzte Ignoranz nicht bemerkt. Erpenbecks Roman ist ein klassischer Pressetitel, auf Feuilletons und Preisjurys zugeschrieben; anders gesagt: auf Leser zugeschrieben, die sich in Richard wiederfinden werden.

The new book by the much lauded and successful writer (Heimsuchung) shows us what bad shape political literature is in in Germany. Instead of putting the stories of the refugees in the foreground, Go, Went, Gone is dominated by a citizen secure in his middle class status who sees himself as sophisticated and enlightened and overlooks his own resentment-laden ignorance. Erpenbeck’s novel is made for the media, for book reviews and those who grant book prizes. In other words, it’s written for readers who will put themselves into Richard’s shoes.

That’s not only nasty, it’s wrong-headed. I remember when Cry, Freedom came out in 1987 and I first became familiar with the cinematic trope “White Savior,” where what is touted as a story about black Africans (or American Indians or any oppressed minority) turns out to be about some white man who comes to their rescue. That may be an appropriate criticism for Cry, Freedom, but there is a logical fallacy in the suggestion that one cannot write about a white man’s personal growth when dealing with cruelty and injustice. I keep remembering that wonderful response by Alice Walker to criticism for not portraying black men as heros in The Color Purple: “You tell your story and I’ll tell mine.” In this case, though, the charge that the stories of the refugees was not placed in the foreground doesn’t hold water. To my knowledge, a more sympathetic portrayal of the plight of economic refugees in Germany has not been told. The fact that they get to speak in their own voices is the very essence of what makes this book a quality read.

James Wood, whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph above, came back to the novel a second time, this time to call it "(o)ne of the best novels published this year [2017] (and) also one of the most scandalously neglected, at least in this country." He's talking Nobel Prize. And he confirms my view that Going, Went, Gone, "is an effort of inquiry, not a political statement or a liberal appropriation."

Elsewhere, in lectures and other writings, Erpenbeck speaks of wondering about how much of her socialist paradise dreams she had as a youth she should hang onto in this brave new world in which she finds herself. How, similarly, does a refugee handle the yearning for home combined with the terror of memory and the need to learn the language and the ways of a new home, all the while uncertain whether this home will take them in?

Having taken up one of Germany's central social problems and written a politically oriented novel, Erpenbeck has to contend with the question of whether she has suggested a solution. Two quick answers come to mind. One, it’s not the job of a writer to find political solutions, even when writing on political topics. A writer has the same job as any other artist, to entertain and to provoke thought. But OK, no. She only kicks the can further down the road.

And that, in turn, inspires two more quick responses. Maybe that’s the tragedy: there is no solution (other than the long-term solution I mentioned above of getting the countries of origin on their feet again). And maybe she has inspired her readers to look at their fellow beings with greater sympathy. Cash, food, a smile, a place to stay for a time. At the very minimum a recognition of the truth that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Which I’ve always considered the essence of the bullshit that is what many in our culture call religion. That it allows one to live with the illusion that God answers your prayers but not everybody else’s.

That’s why I urge us all to get involved in some form of democratic socialism, especially now that the Evangelicals of America have decided Christianity means America first and the rest of you can go drown in the Mediterranean Gulf of Mexico. And ditto for the leading German parties, the Christian (sic) Democratic Party and the Christian (sic) Social Union.

photo credit: A search for the origin of Jenny E's picture leads to a home improvement ad. Can't find another link. Sorry about that. Don't mean to break any copyright laws.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

More on Seven Brides

I was struck by a delightful little coincidence this morning. In my last blog entry I started off with the memory of having gone to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Radio City Music Hall in New York at the age of fourteen. And ended after a string of youthful memories with the fact that I shared a birthplace with the radical abolitionist, John Brown, who raided Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859, for which act he was soon captured and hanged. The coincidence is the fact that in 1929 the Pulitzer Prize went to the writer Stephen Vincent Benét for his poem John Brown’s Body, the very same writer whose story, “The Sobbin’ Women” about the myth of the Roman rape of the Sabine women, became the basis for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

I dug up this bit of trivia because I was struck with the charge by at least one modern-day feminist (supported by many of her commenters) to the fact that this Broadway musical purports to be about song and dance and love and marriage but is in fact about rape and the Stockholm syndrome. One of the commenters even writes: "I’ve never seen “Seven Brides…” and don’t plan to!"

The six younger brothers, if you remember the plot, go into town, grab up the single girls, and steal off back to their mountain cabin with prospective brides.  A politically correct sensibility comes into play here. Millie, the wife of the oldest brother Adam, had been duped into marrying her backwoodsman husband before learning he was looking for someone to cook and clean for him and his six brothers.  She comes around to accepting her lot for herself, but when the boys follow their brother's example and show up with six “brides,” Millie insists the girls be well cared for until they can be returned to their families in the springtime, when the road, which has been cut off by an avalanche, can be cleared. Stockholm syndrome – because the girls have time over the isolation in the winter months to fall in love with their captors.

The past, they say, is a distant land, with different values, attitudes and belief systems, and nothing illustrates this better than the contrast between the view in 1954 of a “jolly good romp” and the view in 2018 of a “crime scene” to describe the very same phenomenon.

Everybody familiar with theater is familiar with the need for a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Plays, even the good ones, are easily subjected to exaggeration, to coincidence, to unlikely plot twists and too readily resolved dilemmas. Corners have to be cut to accommodate the need to squeeze what would take months or years in real time into a two or three hour period to be represented on stage. In opera, characters fall in love instantly, love turns to hatred and back in seconds, and people are suddenly willing to die for somebody they only met fifteen minutes ago. Emotions are not so much real as expressed by proxy. They become real when sung about, rather than experienced through interaction.

I have mentioned many times before what I call the moment my life went from black-and-white into technicolor, when I was twenty and for the first time I got to experience on a daily basis what life can be in a world-class city. I saw my first opera in Munich, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges.  A perfect combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. Sublime because there was something magical about sitting in a theatre with a whole bunch of strangers and being transported by an orchestra of talented people playing for singers and dancers, also capable of lifting you out of your ordinary circumstances to a place where imagination runs free.  Once you get used to the idea of princesses coming out of oranges and dying of thirst, the rest is a piece of cake. [Here, by the way, is a video of San Francisco’s Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the march from The Love for Three Oranges.]

I love all kinds of musical performance, piano, violin, cello concerts, chamber music, symphony orchestra performances, operettas and operas. And the American answer to the operetta, the Broadway musical. I remember my reaction the first time I heard somebody tell me he hated opera. “The voices sound too unnatural, too strained,” he told me. “Not strained,” I answered back. “Trained!” Cultivated. Disciplined. How could he possibly not see the work that goes into training an operatic voice? OK, so I'm not so crazy about hard rock and I find a lot of rap too aggressive.

Every musical genre has its followers as well as those who remain unmoved. Some people don’t like jazz, others turn their noses up at baroque. Even more do so at countertenor voices. And many people find the American musical too hokey for words. I love blue grass, country, gospel, blues. Love Dolly Parton and honky tonk. Love Japanese enka.  Love folk guitar.  The Mighty Wurlitzer. And the music of the oud and the zither and the sitar.  Hell, I even love bagpipes. So I really have trouble understanding how it is that people take exception to American musicals. But obviously, the thought of people suddenly bursting into song when you least expect it is too big a stretch for some people.

OK, so it's absurd for Freddy Eynsford-Hill to ring Liza Doolittle's doorbell in My Fair Lady and then launch into a first tenor paean to the street on which she lives. For me that absurdity is just part of the nature of theater. If you want real life, you can wash, dry and fold your laundry, follow the latest shenanigans of a crooked politician, watch cars go by on a freeway. Me, I’ll take every moment I can snatch away from real life to watch people do things that I myself can’t do, particularly things that require talent way beyond the ordinary. Dmitri Hvorostovsky when he sings, Gene Kelly when he dances. Yo Yo Ma and his cello.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek. The way over-the-top choreography of the finale of Chorus Line, and the many hyper-athletic performances like the barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Seven Brides is not usually listed among the top musicals. It doesn’t pop into your head as readily as Oklahoma, or South Pacific, or The King and I. West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s a long long list. Cabaret. Rent. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Guys and Dolls. Showboat. Man of La Mancha. Camelot. And they extend right up to today with such winners as Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera. And most recently The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.

But it still holds its own for a musical from sixty-four years back in time. It was the highpoint in the careers of several of the principals, but others had talent that obviously couldn’t be contained. Marc Platt, who played Brother Daniel, went on to dance for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and to become director of the ballet company at Radio City Music Hall, among his many other accomplishments.  Jacques d’Amboise, who played Brother Ephraim, was principal dancer for the New York City Ballet with dances created for him by George Balanchine and is the winner of several prestigious awards, the Kennedy Center Honors Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, National Medal of the Arts, among them. Russ Tamblyn went on to an unforgettable performance as gang leader of the Jets in West Side Story. And Howard Keel and Jane Powell are in their own way legendary.

The musical nearly died out in the late fifties, and Seven Brides is associated in many people’s minds with its decline. I’ve been trying to figure out why and am not completely satisfied with the standard explanations,  the rise of television, the vertical nature of the film industry, etc.  But I don’t really care. I loved The Book of Mormon and will get to Hamilton one day when I win the lottery. And their success suggests the day of the musical is not done.

And thanks to all those people out there transferring film to digital and getting things out on YouTube, and others fixing up old stuff, as well as the staying power of theater, including movie theaters showing classics, the rumors of the death of the musical are clearly premature. As for that other issue, the problem of reading and watching material from that foreign land that is the past, with its racism, sexism, homophobia and hokey humor, I think we should recognize that one can still appreciate a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace without worrying about the medieval religious self-loathing behind such expressions as “a wretch like me.” 

And just as we shouldn’t cry “Nazi” every time a right winger calls for something that exposes a fascist mentality, and trivialize the horror of Auschwitz by overusing the word holocaust, we shouldn’t trivialize the real victims of Stockholm Syndrome by self-righteously dismissing a tale of the Old West in which some backwoods yokel talks about goin’ into town an’ gettin’ me a good woman!

You can hate Japan for their defense of hunting whales, hate the U.S. for their support of Donald Trump. And you can hate the past for their misogyny and racism. And still marvel at Japan’s exquisite knowledge of beauty, the U.S.’s capacity for embracing diversity, and the past’s rich storehouse of people who could sing and dance.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Remembering Seven Brides

From Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Everybody’s down on Face Book these days. With good reason, I think. They’ve got some heavy splainin’ to do. But while they work at fixing things so we can get out from under ethically challenged organizations such as Cambridge Analytica, I hope people don’t go to the other extreme and overlook the pleasure Face Book has brought into our lives by providing a means to reconnect with people from the past. To say nothing of a place to store those Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance scenes, political satire and the latest of 799 photos of my dogs.

Even as the woeful state of my short-term memory continues to remind me that things will never be the same, and as the trees continue to fall in what was once a rich forest of friends and familiars, I try to follow what I think is good advice – to live in the present. Easier said than done, once you reach an age when there is far more of your life behind you than ahead. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve got rich memories, and why, I ask myself, should I not enjoy going back in time and lining them up like toy soldiers and playing with them for a while, now and again.

I’ve largely tuned out on the news that my country now wants to put a man in charge of National Security who has advocated a preemptive strike on North Korea and that that news is now in second place to the news that our president is wrapped up in a scandal with a porn star he was diddling at the time his wife was giving birth to their latest offspring.  I’m reading more. Listening to music more. And also using the internet to reconstruct missing pieces of my past. Here’s a sample:

A couple days ago, an old high school friend posted on Face Book a link to the YouTube video of the Barn Raising dance, that wonderful dancing scene from the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I just sat here and kvelled over with delight, remembering the time I went with my mother to Radio City Music Hall – I think it was in 1954 when the movie first came out – and left the following comment:

It was 1954. My mother took me to New York City and got us tickets to Radio City Music Hall. I was 14 years old. The movie was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It's a memory that keeps on giving. Have seen this dance a million times. Even at 14 I knew I was watching a spectacular performance of talent and not everyday stuff. What I took away from it, though, was what a magnificent place New York City was!

My sister responded:

I never realized you got to do this-what a great experience!

And that set me to thinking there was something wrong with this picture.

All throughout my time growing up, my parents would pack us into the car for the long drive to Nova Scotia every summer. My father only got two weeks’ vacation and his emotional home was the place where his mother had grown up, at the end of an 8-mile dirt road in rural Guysborough County in the eastern part of the province. For me, and in time my sister, this place was paradise. Cousin Betty was there, and she showed us how to milk cows and turn the cream separator. We played with lambs and goats and jumped, to the great consternation of my great aunt Carrie, off the barn beams into the hay. To my father, who lived for hunting and fishing, it was a chance to do those things with his beloved uncles, Cliff and Clarence and his favorite uncle, Harold. To my mother, who spent all her time with the women folk snapping beans and peeling potatoes, it was a horse of a different color. She would have loved to spend that time in New York City, which at the time was a three-hour trip (today it's only two) by train or car away from our hometown, Nowhere, U.S.A., where we lived most of the year. Spending it in Nowhere, Nova Scotia instead was her lot as a dutiful wife. She had no say. She signed my report cards “Mrs. John S. McCornick,” and when I asked her once why she didn’t sign her own name instead of Mrs. My Father, she said, “That’s just the way it is.”

So how could I possibly have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the age of 14 in New York City. Was it a dream? Try as I may, I couldn’t dislodge the memory of that trip to Radio City. I remember the chorus line, and I remember the movie. No doubt whatsoever it’s a real memory.

So where was my little sister, age 9 at the time? Was she there too? Did we all four go?  Did we stay in a hotel?  I have a very vague memory of a trip to New York with the whole family, where we stayed with friends of my parents on Staten Island – or maybe it was Long Island someplace. Could it have been this visit?

Doris Day at Horn and Hardart's
The other memory that anchors this trip to reality was the memory of Horn and Hardart’s, that wonderful cafeteria where you could put a quarter in a slot and take out a piece of pie or a hot dog or a whole range of other things you could see through the window. A marvel of technology for a 14-year old in 1954.

The wheels kept spinning. Could we have gone by train? Until 1958, when I went off to college, there was a branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad that went all the way up to Winsted. We might actually have taken the train in.

My grandmother lived across from the depot in Torrington in 1945, the next town down the line, the town where I was born. In the early days before trains went out of style, she’d take the train up and we’d pick her up at the Winsted Depot and traveling back with her was a grand adventure for a small child. I am able to recall the year 1945 because I was with her when the factory whistles started blowing on May 8, when the war came to an end.

Torrington train depot in 1907 and as I remember it in the 1940s.
It was demolished, as a safety hazard, on January 4, 2011, after
113 years despite efforts to have it declared a historical site.
“Come on,” she said to me, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the stairs. “We’ve got to find your father.” He worked for what was then the American Brass Company, and that was directly across Water Street. We had no luck. The crowd was too large and it was pouring out of the gates. We kept looking for him all the way down to Main Street where people were dancing in the street, I remember. Pretty heady for a five-year old. Not even. VE Day was a week before my fifth birthday. My sister at the time was just nineteen days old. And my memory of that time is clear as a bell.

The depot was a few hundred feet to the east of my grandmother's apartment building. A few hundred feet to the south, across Water St., was  the American Brass Mill, where my father worked before he was transferred to Waterbury and the company was absorbed by Anaconda Copper Works in 1960. 

The place where the Torrington train depot used to stand
as it looks today.
Here’s what that place looks like today. You can see that a single track is still there, probably because they continued to use the line for freight for some years and then found it not worth the trouble to rip out anymore.

The depot was replaced by the building you see there with the white façade and at first I suspected that the building Großmutter lived in in the 1940s wasn't there, either. It’s far more likely it was torn down years ago and replaced by the building you see on the left that contains Alfredo’s Deli.

But then, thanks to Google maps, which allows me to swivel a photo around, I see that there is an old building still in existence behind Alfredo's that must surely have been there in my youth. That must be the building where my grandmother lived on the second floor.

I still have a memory of being taught to draw two points, a comma and a hyphen (Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich) and then draw a circle around it and call it the face of the moon (Fertig ist das Mondgesicht) in those days with
Großmutter. Back when I got to play the role of the little prince, first born of my generation on both sides of the family (except for cousin Pauli, who died at 7), but especially adored by a grandmother who had lost her first husband in the First World War and been forced to hand her daughter, my mother, over to her sister to raise so she wouldn't go hungry in a country that had just lost a war. Großmutter then worked as a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, jumped ship in New York and found her way to Torrington and her daughter she had not seen in four years. She then stayed until she was discovered to be a German alien living in the U.S. without papers, was arrested and brought to Washington to stand trial as a spy - a story for another day. Now, she at least had her daughter and her dignity back (my father managed to convince the judge his mother-in-law was no Mata Hari) and her daughter's little boy and girl to devote herself to.

I'm conscious, suddenly, that I'm back now in time not to my college years or my early adult years in San Francisco, but all the way back to the age of five, and the memories are flooding in strong and clear.  And thanks to the internet, I have located the building and can see the windows of the apartment I was in when I learned that World War II had come to an end - at least in Europe.

I can scroll forward, ahead to my first days of school, to the time I visited my cousin Pauli, who was dying in the hospital of leukemia, to the time I was myself in the hospital having my tonsils out and realizing afterwards that my mother had lied to me, that I would still get a sore throat sometimes even though the tonsils were gone. Or back to the time I was playing slap-jack with my Aunt Doris as my mother left the house with my father to give birth to my sister.

Back to the time when all my aunts and uncles were alive, all my three sets of grandparents - my mother's sister and husband who adopted her took on the title and role of grandmother and grandfather as well as Großvater, Großmutter's second husband, who died at some point around 1947 or 8, leaving me with a connection to his brother Otto and his Lebensgefährtin (life partner) in Berlin, my Tante Frieda, who came to be a major figure in my life in later years. She would become a reason for me to go back to Berlin some 20 times over the years until she died at the age of 94, outliving all other members of her family and all her friends.

All these people are gone now. All loom large in my memory and anchor me to specific locations that I recognize today as my roots. I've had an interesting exchange with two close friends this week, also, about growing up as an outsider because of being gay. When I want to, I can shift my various identities at will. I was gay in a straight world, a child of immigrants who could get an invitation to the Country Club because I had a WASPish name, a bookish kid in an anti-intellectual high school social environment, a poor kid at an upper middle class college filled with preppies and skiers, where I didn't have the money to join a fraternity or run with the skiing set, cursed, I believed for many years, to be an "other" - a perennial outsider.

But my memories force me to see the other side of that coin. How rooted I am, how comfortable I am admitting that within this California persona I have fitted into, hand-in-glove, for many many decades now, there are also New England roots which, despite very little watering over the years, are still strong.  I am both German-American and the child of Scottish and Irish immigrants who were headed for Ontario but when shipwrecked off the Eastern shore of Nova Scotia, decided to stay.  Protestant Nova Scotia which once warred with their neighbors, the Scots Catholic heirs to Mary Queen of Scots. And when the Gaelic-speaking priests from St. Francis Xavier University came to visit me daily that month I was in the hospital in Antigonish at age 16, because my family, now back in "Connect - tikut", as they pronounced it, weren't able to get there, I was deeply grateful to them. I had little to do but listen to bagpipe music on the radio and dream of going to college at St. FX.

If you dig in the right places, you will discover that Torrington is the home of the largest Elks Lodge in New England. I love absurdist trivia like that. And did you know that Torrington, Connecticut is one of 536 micropolitan areas in the United States, a designation that signifies a place with a growing population far removed (by as much as 100 miles) from larger metropolitan areas? And that Torrington was named the number one micropolitan place in the country to live in by Bizjournals in 2008? All this information is easily accessed if you only type in Torrington, CT on the Wikipedia website. The wonders of the modern world where information now rules supreme and you can actually drown in it, if you are not selective. What, you don't read Bizjournals?

Torrington, Connecticut is where I was born. It is also the home town of John Brown, whose body lies a-moulderin' in the grave.

lead photo - the scene is from the Barn Raising Dance - Check it out on YouTube here.  I've marveled at this choreography and talent a million and forty times, forty in this last week alone.

Punkt Punkt Komma Strich

Torrington train depot

other photos are grabbed from Google maps