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What If We ARE Alone?

November 29th, 2010 No comments

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a philosophical musing for my blog, and as I’d like to post one to Revolution Earth I might as well do so now. Having recently finished Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and watched the first episode of the Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole” (entitled “Is There A Creator?”), I’m in the right frame of mind.

Whether we like it or not, there’s just no way to know for certain whether or not God exists. For every argument suggesting the existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe, there’s a perfectly good counter-argument. One could try to reason that if there were no creator, nothing would exist because something can’t come from nothing. But we can’t be sure that simple logic applies to the whole of reality, or even that there can’t be a chain of causality that stretches back infinitely.

Even if we’ve had personal experiences in which we’ve felt that we absolutely know that there’s more to the universe than particles and forces (and I’ve had such experiences), we can never be sure these aren’t a result of some peculiarity of the brain, some evolutionary response to the anxiety that arose once the human mind became capable of contemplating its own death.

What may be the strongest evidence in favor of creation is the fact that our world seems perfectly well-suited for life, such that the slightest change in conditions would have made the evolution of intelligent beings impossible. On the local level, we know that if the earth were just a bit closer or farther away from the sun, its axis tilted just a little more or less, its rotation just slightly slower or faster, we wouldn’t be here. The counter-argument to this is very strong, but it suggests a rather depressing possibility—that we may be alone in the universe.

If the conditions for life to evolve into complex and sentient forms must be so perfect that the chances of it happening are less than one in a billion, that still leaves a slight chance that on at least one world life has developed, and that we happen to live on that world. Naturally, the only place from which a species could evolve to the point of being capable of asking “are we alone?” would be such a planet. It’s by no means a miracle that we exist on a world in which our existence is possible.

If God exists, that would imply that we are almost certainly not alone. It seems absurd that an omnipotent creator would create such a vast universe solely for the sake of one tiny speck of dust which after billions of years would produce beings capable of worshipping it.

Personally, I believe that conditions on earth are not so special that there aren’t millions or perhaps billions of other worlds capable of supporting life in the universe, but because we have yet to find any we must acknowledge the possibility that ours is the only one. The chances of the DNA molecule coming together purely by a chance combination of particles are infinitesimal, let alone that it would happen on a planet situated perfectly enough to allow it to replicate itself for billions of years, but we know it happened at least once. We just don’t know if it’s ever happened elsewhere or if it will ever happen again.

But a far more compelling case for a creator can be made when we look at the universe as a whole. There are a number of cosmological constants, such as the speed of light and the strength of the nuclear forces, that if altered only slightly would result in a universe not only incapable of producing life, but stars and planets as well. It turns out that the values for all of these constants must be identical or nearly identical to what they are in our universe in order to have a universe in which any form of life could exist.

If we assume that there is only one universe, we might then justifiably presume that something which knew exactly which values to assign to these constants designed it and set it into motion. But if we accept the possibility that ours may be only one of an infinite number of universes, we’re left with the same problem as before. We must accept the inevitability of at least one universe in which life as we know it could arise, and it would be no coincidence that we happen to be living in that universe.

Now, I’m not saying that God doesn’t exist. I’d never presume to make such a bold declaration considering how little we know about the universe and the relationship our conscious minds have to it. Nor would I presume to say that we are the only intelligent species in the only universe capable of producing intelligence. In fact that I think that’s extremely unlikely and that there are probably countless intelligent species on countless worlds in countless universes (perhaps even an infinite amount), but considering just how perfect everything had to be in order for us to be here, I think that we can’t ignore the possibility.

And I think that it’s of the utmost importance that we don’t ignore it. It would be enough of a shame if the human race were to snuff itself out after only a few hundred measly trips around the sun since arriving at the understanding that we even are circling the sun, but just imagine what a cosmic tragedy it would be if we are the only existing beings who have ever even come to such an understanding not only in this universe but in the totality of all of existence!

What if the fundamental nature of reality is such that new universes are constantly springing into existence, each with its own different cosmological constants and laws of physics—being springing from non-being out of the sheer necessity of being? What if this has been going on for an eternity with nothing to be consciously aware of it until now—this precise space and time among an infinite number of space-times?

Then it’s almost as though we owe it to the universe and the greater metaverse of universes from which it sprang to stick around for as long as we possibly can. Consciousness is a necessary condition for appreciation, and if we are the only conscious beings who are capable of appreciating the mind-blowingly awe-inspiring phenomenon that is reality, we ought to be doing everything we can to make sure we’re around to appreciate it for as long as we possibly can.

If the human race manages to survive its current stage of technological adolescence and achieve long-term sustainability, we could conceivably pave the way for millions or even billions of future generations who will not only be able to appreciate the universe as we’ve only begun to since the birth of modern science, but whose own capabilities of scientific inquiry and exploration will allow them to appreciate it even more deeply than we can.

I highly doubt that we really are the only beings capable of appreciating the universe, and I believe that given the size and scope of it there must be at least a handful of species who have reached the point we’re approaching, but if we die out that’s still one less species to appreciate it. Each species would undoubtedly appreciate the cosmos in its own unique way, and what a shame if the human way isn’t among them? All that we’ve accomplished in our entire history will have been for naught. Existence will go on unappreciated by human minds, and it will be slightly emptier because of it.

I only wish that more people would entertain such ideas. If enough of us appreciated just how miraculous and unlikely a phenomenon we are, we would be far more likely to do everything in our power to preserve ourselves.

Grünkohlwanderung II

November 28th, 2010 No comments

Yesterday was the second time I’ve gone on a Grünkohlwanderung, a popular activity in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) involving walking through the woods and stopping frequently for shots of liquor, ending with a dinner of Grünkohl at a restaurant. The first time I went nearly two years ago, I went into it feeling very low and came out feeling even lower thanks to the torture of sitting across from the extremely beautiful Inge and her boyfriend Matthias at dinner. This time I went in with a good mood, determined not to be crushed by desire as I had last time. Although Inge and Matthias were there I was quite successful with that, which makes the whole experience hardly worth writing about in spite of the fact that I had a much better time.

A group of about sixteen people were meeting up “unter dem Schwanz” in Hannover, an expression which means under the statue of King Ernst-August but literally means “under the tail” referring to the horse (apparently this king was kind of an asshole and that expression arose as a sleight towards him). Oliver and Lena weren’t there yet when I got there so I had to go up and say hello on my own.

Inge was there along with the girl I referred to in my first Grünkohl entry as “the cute one” and she greeted me warmly when I approached. I asked them in German how many people were coming and when we’d be leaving, but Inge approached me and asked me in English what my name was because she’d forgotten. I told her, then couldn’t resist saying, “You are Inge if I remember correctly, and your boyfriend is Matthias.” They were very surprised that I remembered that but didn’t seem weirded-out by it. I just said I’m very good with names, which is true. I didn’t say that I’d written extensively about them in my online journal.

I had a brief chat with “the cute one” whose name I now learned was Marianna, but her English isn’t very good so even though I said she could speak German because I understood it well enough, our chat didn’t last long. I wasn’t sure if she was single and I wasn’t sure last time, but I found out later that she’s not. It’s just that her boyfriend and her aren’t very affectionate (at least not around others) so it’s not obvious that they’re together.

Oliver and Lena arrived with his dog Buutsch, we boarded the train and got off somewhere near the town of Haste. As soon as we began the walk it was clear that this was a completely different trail than last time—perhaps even different woods. The weather could not have been more perfect, with sunny skies for the first time in two weeks and a little bit of snow on the ground and in the trees, making the woods about as beautiful as woods can possibly be.

I chatted with Oliver mostly during the first leg of the walk, but after stopping for the first round of shots I started chatting with more people, in either English or German depending on their English skills. The woman who organized the event had a bunch of activities planned for every stop, the first one being a three-legged race (optional participation so I opted out) and later on less physical stuff like riddles and mind-teasers. The people who participated in the race and the people who answered the riddles first were rewarded with a mystery shot from a bag of test-tubes filled with all different kinds of alcohol so you dug your hand in and didn’t know what you were getting. I got a couple of the brain-teasers even though they were in German, so I was quite proud of myself.

As we were walking we frequently had to move aside for others to get through, but almost everyone seemed friendly and they probably all knew what we were doing. When I’m out in the woods or a park I always hate passing by large crowds of Germans and I wonder why they feel the need to get together in big groups like that. I always think “why do you need twenty people to go for a walk in the woods?” It felt weird to actually be a part of one for a change.

I had some good conversations with some of the other people there, most of whom were between age 30 and 50. The one guy I actually ended up talking to most was Marianna’s boyfriend Torsten who speaks very good English and had some interesting things to say about Japan, where he recently spent some time. If there had been any attractive single women there the entire experience would have been different but luckily there weren’t. And in spite of Inge’s beautiful presence I was able to feel quite content with the fact that she wasn’t mine. She hardly seems my type anyway personality-wise (although it was hard to get a sense of that from overhearing her talking to Lena in German).

Bla bla blah. A ridiculous number of shots were drank (I must have had at least twenty), much fun was had, and after about three or four hours we reached the restaurant to sit down for our delicious Grünkohl meal. As luck would have it, I once again ended up sitting directly across from Inge and Matthias but it was far less difficult this time, and even when the meal was over and I let myself once again indulge in a study of her uniquely beautiful facial features, I actually felt that I had reached the ever-present goal of “appreciation without desire”. To just be content that the beauty exists and not to feel the need to possess it.

And that’s really all there is to say about it. I was drunk enough to be singing out loud on the walk back to the train platform, and sat next to Torsten on the ride back where he gave me some useful tid-bits about Japan, like the fact that tipping is not only unheard of but that they actually get angry with you if you try to leave them a tip. Very good to know because my inclination is always to tip and tip big.

Back at the Hannover main station we all said our goodbyes and parted ways. I shook Matthias’s hand goodbye and got a little half-hug from Inge which was nice. The same for Marianna, who once again said “bis nächstes mal” (until next time) which I repeated in English and she said “ich hoffe so” (I hope so). Her and Torsten may not be big on PDAs but they’re both incredibly nice people and I hope they get married and bring lots of friendly children into the world.

After getting home I listened to some music for an hour and went to bed, then woke up this morning feeling incredibly low for a completely inexplicable reason. I don’t even have a hangover (which is a bit of a minor miracle considering all of the different kinds of alcohol I’d mixed together yesterday)—I’m just a little cloudy-headed. But for some reason I really feel down. Maybe it’s from the reminder of what it’s like to have a lot of friends who do fun stuff together and the fact that I kind of miss it. But on the other hand I really enjoy solitude and I’m glad to back in my comfort-zone again. So who knows?

Anyway, I wish this story had more of a point but that’s all there is. Until next time.

Potential Positives of War in Korea

November 27th, 2010 No comments

Trouble is hardly ever not brewing on the Korean peninsula, but things have been heating up recently. As the crazed über-narcissistic dictator Kim Jong Il hands the reins of power over to his young and presumably equally narcissistic son Kim Jong Un, North Korea seems to be itching for war with their South Korean enemies. Between the testing of nuclear missiles and this past week’s artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine this escalating into full-scale war.

If that happens, I’ll do something I’ve never done before in my lifetime and advocate for the U.S. military to get involved in the conflict. The South Koreans are our allies and it would be wrong of us to stand idly by as the Kims of North Korea attempt to kill millions of them and subjugate the rest. Those living under the North Korean regime have been handed one of the unluckiest lots in life imaginable, and it would be a moral error to let that regime expand and doom another population to the same fate. It would be just as wrong as letting Adolf Hitler conquer Europe.

I say this as someone who vehemently opposed the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan before it started. I didn’t think conventional military tactics were the right approach to stopping terrorism. A nation-state didn’t attack us on 9/11. A small group of people who hate us did, and dropping bombs on their fellow Muslims and killing innocent civilians seemed like the most counter-productive response possible. That would only lead to more terrorism, and more hatred of the U.S. internationally.

Now, if war breaks out in the Korean peninsula it will be an entirely different matter. North Korea is an actual nation-state with an actual military made up of actual soldiers. An act of aggression on their part against South Korea would absolutely call for military intervention. We’d be fighting a country as opposed to an ideology.

The potential benefits of such a scenario are actually enormous. If the U.S. is suddenly confronted with a real war against a real enemy, it would have a clarifying effect on the wars of the last decade. The very juxtaposition of these two types of wars would highlight their differences in a way that we’ve never seen before in our history, and even without having to reflect on it too hard both liberals and conservatives alike would be able to understand why one kind is justified and the other is not.

A war against a Hitler-like aggressor with an actual military would bring the country together like it hasn’t been since WWII, and our political parties might just put aside their bickering for a brief historical moment to deal with a real threat to world peace (though I admit that’s a pretty big might, seeing as how the Republicans have shown us that they’re not above playing politics with matters of international security).

It would also give us a good reason to completely pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, as we couldn’t possibly fight three wars on three fronts at the same time. This would then lead to a restoration of the image of America abroad, as the rest of the world will see us actually doing what we’ve only been pretending to do for the last few decades: defending freedom.

A war fought for noble purposes as opposed to one fought for corporate profits would go a long way to restoring the world’s faith in America, and Americans’ faith in themselves.

All that said, I do not believe such a restoration would be worth the loss of so many Korean lives and the lives of American soldiers, so I sincerely hope that North Korea is just flexing its muscles and that the ultimate result of the death of Kim Jong Il will be peace rather than war.

Be Thankful the Rich Are So Rich

November 25th, 2010 No comments

I keep waiting for someone other than a left-wing blogger or commentator (perhaps some kind of Democratic politician, perhaps some kind of president of some kind of united body of states) to throw the wrench into the argument that the unemployment crisis in this country is a result of the wealthiest Americans and corporations not having enough money.

According to the New York Times, corporations earned a record $1.66 trillion in profits in the third quarter of 2010.

Well that’s good news. I guess now they can finally start using all those obscene profits to create jobs, no?

No?

The corporations of America are not only doing just fine—they’re better than ever. And yet the titans of industry are still making the absurd claim that Obama is anti-business, and if he would just cozy up to the Wall Street fat-cats a little more, just crawl a little deeper into their proverbial assholes, the rest of America will start to see some real job creation.

Today is Thanksgiving, and I’d suggest that when the super-wealthy people who work for Wall Street banks, private health insurance companies, the oil and coal industries, and any business that makes up the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are gathered around the dinner table, they say how thankful they are that we don’t have a real Democratic president who actually wants to reform anything.

I’ll just be thankful that these rich people have so much stinking money that they can afford to keep buying politicians and media hacks to continue to rattle off the absurd talking-point that Obama is a radical anti-business leftist who just hates hates HATES it when corporations make a profit.

Assuming anyone actually reads this before sitting across from their conservative family members this Thanksgiving dinner, when you hear them parrot that propaganda about how the rich need more tax cuts so they can create jobs, point out to them that corporations are making record-breaking profits, the rich are better off than they ever were before, and they’re still laying off workers to save even more money.

But maybe once they’ve saved up so much money that they can buy every politician in the country three times over, they’ll use some of what’s left over to create jobs for Americans. No?

A Conservative Manifesto

November 21st, 2010 No comments

praying_hand_american_flag

We demand smaller government (except for the defense department).

The government needs to balance the budget (as long as it doesn’t involve raising taxes).

The government better not mess with the free market (so it should let giant corporations merge and monopolize every industry).

The government needs to look out for the interests of the middle class (by letting the richest people take as large a share of the nation’s wealth as possible).

The government has to drastically cut spending (but continue to pay billions for military equipment designed to fight the Soviet Union).

The government’s primary responsibility is to eliminate the threat of Islamic terrorism (which it can do by invading Muslim countries, killing loads of civilians, and imprisoning and torturing their friends and neighbors).

The government needs to stay the hell away from religion (unless it’s to impose Biblical law on all citizens).

The government better not step between us and our doctors (unless it’s to deny us the choice to have an abortion).

The government needs to stay out of our private lives (except when they’re telling us who we can and can not marry).

The government needs to stay out of our private lives (except when it comes to tapping our phones or groping us at the airport).

The government needs to stay out of our private lives (except when they’re telling us which chemicals we’re forbidden to put in our bodies).

The government needs to do everything it can to create jobs (except hire people directly).

The government needs to do everything it can to create jobs (by cutting tax-rates for giant corporations that don’t pay any taxes anyway).

The government needs to do everything it can to create jobs (as long as it doesn’t force companies to create those jobs in America instead of overseas).

We demand smaller government (by which we mean eliminating oversight of Wall Street so that they can continue to get rich by putting the entire economy in jeopardy).

We demand smaller government (by which we mean letting corporations maximize profits by deceiving and screwing over consumers at every opportunity).

We demand smaller government (by which we mean letting the coal and oil industries cut whatever corners in terms of worker and environmental safety that they see fit).

Our biggest concern is for the well-being of our grandchildren (but it’s not even worth considering whether scientists are right about climate change).

We firmly believe in living by Christian values (except for loving thy neighbor and caring for the less fortunate).

We believe in abiding by the constitution (except for the parts about equal rights and the separation of church and state).

Our ideology is superior to all other political ideologies (because it’s based on our gut feeling that it is).

Der Dämon ist Verstummt

November 20th, 2010 No comments

Twelve years ago yesterday was November 19, 1998—which I still consider to be the most significant day of my post-childhood life. That was the day I met Aimee. We hit it off really well, and had I played my cards right it’s likely that she would have become my first official girlfriend. Back then my wall was still under construction so had things gone well it might never have been finished. But my life took a different path, as I stupidly revealed my over-sensitivity to her too soon and scared her off, thus initiating years of unrequited love and isolation. That incident started me down the road I’ve remained on to this day.

From the moment I woke up yesterday, I felt extremely low. That doesn’t happen every November 19th—in fact last year it went by with my hardly noticing—but the recent re-emergence of human emotion in my life, brought on by an effort to actually go out and try to meet women, had me in as melancholy a mood as it gets.

My lessons were cancelled so I had the day off, and I passed the time by engaging in the most intensive apartment-cleaning endeavor I’ve done since moving here. When the three-hour process was over I felt slightly better for having removed most of the grime from my flat, but there was still a massive clog of grime in my soul.

After last week’s epic battle with the demon inside me that keeps me isolated and alone, I’d resolved to go out and try again. It had been a terrible struggle to stand next to the most beautiful girl at the concert and not be able to work up the nerve to say anything to her until the very end, but after proving to myself I could do it I knew I had to keep at it. I’d broken the most significant barrier—actually going up and talking to a woman I find attractive—but unless I keep on wrestling the demon he’s only going to regain his strength and seal me back up inside my wall.

I’d had it in my head all week to check out a nearby goth club called the Dark Star, as the goth scene is where Corey has been having his success with approaching and flirting with women. He became a regular there and in just a few months was the guy that everybody wanted to meet. I figured if I could find a place like that and keep showing my face, I might eventually find it as easy to meet people as he does, even in spite of the language barrier.

All day long I knew I’d have to follow through with my plan and go to the club or I’d never forgive myself, but my desire to leave the comfort-zone of my apartment could not have been any lower. I came very close to deciding not to do it, as I figured I had a good enough reason. It was November 19th after all and the only two emotions I’d been feeling all day were depression and anger. That’s not the state of mind you want to be in when you go out, especially if your goal is to flirt with women.

But I ultimately decided I’d compromise. I wouldn’t make myself go up to anyone but I’d just go scope out the scene. I’d go to the Dark Star and have one beer, and if my mood remained the same I’d just leave and come back home to dance with the demon, by which I mean sitting in the dark listening to depressing music and brooding over the last twelve lonely years.

I started off the Friday night as usual, watching some downloaded entertainment while having a few beers. After working up enough of a buzz it would be much easier to make myself go out. The alcohol converted all of the remaining depression to anger, which is useful for its motivating effects. “All right you fucking world, I’ll go out if it’ll get you to shut your fucking mouth.”

Here I must digress from the main narrative because there’s another significant thing to report. Before going out I decided to check my e-mail one last time, just in case there might be something there to change my mood. It turned out that there was.

Several weeks ago I received a job alert from TEFL.com, informing me that a company called Interac which hires Assistant Language Teachers for schools in Japan was currently looking for candidates. This was nothing special. I get job alerts rather frequently, though not so often from Japan. I went to Interac’s website and decided I could see myself in the role of Assistant Language Teacher, so I went through the arduous application process, not optimistic at all that anything would come of it. Of the four language schools I’ve applied to in Japan, only one of them even answered my application and they didn’t have any openings anyway.

But Interac did respond about a week ago, and I had a preliminary phone interview with one of their recruiters operating out of an office in Oxford, England. She didn’t seem too impressed with me and since jobs in Japan are now so hard to come by I figured nothing would come of it. But there was an e-mail from her last night informing me that I’d passed their initial screening process and was now invited to a face-to-face interview, either in Barcelona on December 11th or in Oxford at my earliest convenience. I guess I’ll be going to Oxford soon.

Interac hires people to begin in either March or August, and I said I’d prefer August which would give me plenty of time to prepare and save some money (as well as go see Roger Waters in May). I’d be extremely pissed if I go all the way to England and they don’t hire me, but I’m sure I’ll win some points just for going. It will show them from the start that I’m serious about wanting to do this.

So suddenly there’s a possible exit-door from Germany in my near future. It feels like the pressure is lifted a little. Now when I go out and flirt it will be for the sole purpose of practicing my flirtation skills—not to find a girlfriend. In fact if I get hired in Japan and then find a girlfriend, it would be a fucking disaster. The god of irony would laugh his ass off.

But at least now as I leave my apartment and head out into the world I’m feeling slightly more optimistic. It doesn’t really matter what happens tonight. Besides, nothing probably will happen. I’ll just go to this club and have a beer and come back home.

It’s only a five minute walk, but as I approach the place I think that something’s not right. What happened to the Dark Star? It’s not there. No cheesy Star Wars font or pictures of Darth Vader on the window. There is a club there and there is something clearly going on because there are people everywhere, but it’s definitely not a goth club. Everyone standing outside looks middle-aged and normal.

I walk around the building to see if maybe the Dark Star is on the other side of the block, but it seems that if there ever was a goth club here it’s either gone or relocated. They should update the website.

But I figure I might as well go in, goth scene or not. I’d go through with my grab-a-beer-and-leave plan, as this place is still conveniently located five minutes from my apartment. It’s called the Capitol and it seems like a combination of dance club and concert venue. There are two rooms downstairs and another upstairs, one of the rooms downstairs with a big stage on which a couple of musicians are now performing.

It costs €15 to get in because there’s a show going on, and while it’s a steep price to pay to just have one beer and leave I still pay it because my mind is made up. At least the music is good. There’s a bassist and a guy with a guitar and harmonica, and from their accents they appear to be Irish although they keep switching between English and what sounds like perfect German as they speak to the crowd. I suppose their style of music could be described as “folk rock”. A far cry from Coppelius, anyway.

So I’m standing there with my beer, scanning the room for attractive women and not finding any. The crowd is mostly middle-aged people and they’re all in groups, so I figure I probably won’t speak to anyone tonight.

Just as I have this thought, a guy walks up to me and says hello in an American accent. I don’t recognize him at first, but because I can count the number of Americans I’ve met in Hannover on one hand it’s not too hard to deduce who it is. It’s the guy I met after St. Patrick’s Day in Kassel a year and a half ago who rode with Oliver, Aiden and me back to Hannover and with whom I chatted as we took the tram back into the city. That was a long-ass time ago and he’s since shaved off his beard, but because I’d written it down for my journal and included his name in the entry, I actually remembered it. “You’re Lucas, right?” I ask.

Indeed it was. Pat on the back for remembering that. Seriously.

So I chat with Lucas for a moment. It turns out that he’d also gone back to America for a quick visit recently, so we bonded over the strangeness of returning as a visitor to our home country. He says he’s been in Hannover for eight years now and I ask him if he thinks he’ll ever leave. He says that he might but he’s got a girlfriend here so he’s not planning on leaving any time soon. (The god of irony perks up his ears)

Lucas’s friends walk up to him and they start talking. I focus my attention on the band, and before I know it they’re all going up to get closer to the stage. Lucas clinks his glass of beer with mine and I give him a nod goodbye, content to remain where I am and not have to force awkward conversation for the rest of my time there.

I’m just enjoying the music, glad that I came out of my flat and now content that I actually had engaged in some form of socialization. Now I can go home relatively satisfied.

But a moment later I turn my head to the right and who should be standing there but an attractive girl—the first I’ve seen all night. Not only that, but she’s standing there alone.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I think. Again? This is fucking crazy.

So now I gear up to do battle with the demon, but right from the start I know this is going to be much easier, as this girl actually looks at me when I look at her. Not only that but as I maintain eye-contact for an extra two seconds, she does as well. And not only that but she smiles at me.

Okay, this is definitely happening. We’re good to go. The demon wasn’t prepared for this. As soon as the song ends I lean towards her and tap her on the shoulder. “Do you know the name of this band?” I ask.

Holy fucking goddamn Jesus Christ that was easy! I can’t believe I spent three fucking hours trying to work up the nerve to do that last time.

She turns to me and says in English that she doesn’t know. I say they’re pretty good and she agrees. “I’m Kyle,” I say. “I’m from America.” How simple is that?

“I’m Julia,” she tells me. I ask her where she’s from. Turns out she’s from Mainz and she’s just in Hannover visiting her sister and her parents who are sitting at the table right in front of us. That removes the last remaining bit of pressure. She doesn’t live in Hannover so she’s not a potential girlfriend. This is just going to be chatting for the sake of chatting.

Luckily I’ve been to Mainz because it’s right next to Frankfurt and I told her I was an exchange student there. I ask her if she’s been to America and she says she’s been to New York and San Francisco but she really wished she’d gone to Los Angeles. I told her she didn’t miss anything.

From there the conversation moves in the natural direction. We tell each other what we do for a living and what our hobbies are. I make funny comments which she laughs at. She says she speaks French and Spanish but that English is hardest for her, and I offer to speak German (using a deliberately terrible accent) but she says it’s okay. Her English is quite good anyway.

All of this is coming so naturally to me that I can hardly believe myself. Am I the same person who was at the Coppelius show last week? Could I have come so fucking far this fucking fast? Or was I always like this and just needed to break that one barrier before I could actually become myself?

As the music continues we stand next to each other and dance. I’m not inhibiting myself nearly as much as last week, not embarrassed to enjoy myself in front of her. Every now and then I turn back to her with a fresh new comment and we exchange a few words before turning our focus back to the stage. She doesn’t seem put off by me at all. In fact she almost seems into me, not that it matters.

When I finish my beer I have to go to the bathroom. I ask her if she wants something to drink, water perhaps, but she politely declines. I take care of business, buying an unexpected second beer and returning to the concert hall.

I’m unable to stand directly next to her when I get back, but I stand a little bit behind her and within seconds she turns around and smiles at me. It’s not long before the people in her former position walk away and we are once again standing next to each other.

The first band finishes and now we have fifteen minutes to chat. As the lights are now slightly brighter I get a better look at her face, which is not quite as extraordinary as Zora’s—the girl from last week—but still very cute. I’m enjoying my close proximity to it.

As I chat with Julia I start to feel much better about the Zora situation. I’d regretted leaving so soon that night but now I realize that there wasn’t anything wrong with that. Julia clearly enjoyed talking to me, and Zora seemed to be downright afraid of it. Even if I had misinterpreted Zora’s signals and mistaken shyness for lack of interest, any conversation I might have had with her would have been doomed to awkwardness. With Julia, everything was flowing naturally and we were both very comfortable. There was really no shame in giving up on Zora due to the uncomfortable vibe I got from her.

Somehow I manage to chat with Julia throughout the entire 15-minute break. I don’t remember everything that was said of course, but at one point the DJ plays “I Don’t Like Mondays” and I mention that the first time I heard that song was at Live 8 when Bob Geldof performed it. I give her an extremely abridged version of my Pink Floyd story hoping she might reveal herself to be a fellow fan, but unfortunately she doesn’t seem to be (or fortunately if you consider that I have no intention of forming any long-term infatuation with this girl).

We run out of steam when the next band starts and she goes to sit at the table with her family. The next band isn’t as good as the first one and I’m resolved to leave once I finish my beer. At one point her father brings her a CD, presumably from the first band, and I go up and ask her if I could have a look which she gladly obliges. The demon has remained conspicuously silent this whole time, but I can’t resist giving him an extra slap in the face.

And when I finish my beer I go up to her one last time to say goodbye. “It was nice meeting you…Julia?” as though I didn’t remember her name. “Kyle?” she asks. She remembered mine. Suck on that, demon.

We shake hands and I go my merry way, my mood on the way home a complete reversal from what it was when I’d left. I’m in a state of pure joy. I feel even better than last week after the Zora incident. That had just been a first step. This was like I’d just leap-frogged steps two through ten.

There were still about ten minutes of November 19th left when I got back, and I spent them celebrating my incredible victory. How appropriate that I should have this new beginning on this exact date. Perhaps I’m about to finally change paths. Perhaps the wall is ready to come down. Perhaps the demon is ready to die.

Washington’s F***ed Up Priorities

November 17th, 2010 No comments

Richard Eskow makes a powerful point in a piece for the Huffington Post, leaving me wondering why the hell every other progressive in the country isn’t shouting it from the rooftops until it finally starts to penetrate the Washington bubble:

Only 6% of Americans think Congress should concentrate on reducing the deficit or changing the tax code, according to the latest CBS News poll. Nearly ten times as many people, 56%, want it to focus on creating jobs and fixing the economy. Guess which set of policies is the center of attention in Washington right now?

That’s right—the big battle going on in Washington right now is about extending the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Specifically, just how much are the Democrats going to cave-in to Republican demands to make the tax-cuts permanent. Will we extend them for everyone making under $250,000 a year or will we push that limit up to $1 million? Will we extend them for two years? Ten years? Just how much money are we going to give to the rich?

Meanwhile, some estimate that the real unemployment rate is about 17.1%. Nearly one out of every five Americans doesn’t have a job, and the debate in Washington right now essentially boils down to how many Rembrandts or Picassos rich people can afford to hang in their foyers.

But once we get that issue cleared up, we’ll start focusing on jobs, right? Nope—we’re going to be talking about the deficit commission’s proposals to slash Social Security, Medicare, Veteran’s benefits, and nearly every other program that benefits ordinary Americans, in order to reduce the deficit, something only 4% of Americans say should be Congress’s top priority.

Now is not the time to fret over the deficit, and the vast majority of Americans understand that. But Washington seems to think that the last election was all about the deficit, which they brilliantly plan to reduce by…giving tax-cuts to the rich? Something’s not right here.

In fact, something is deeply, profoundly f***ed up.

People, why are we not out in the streets already? Washington’s top priorities are slashing entitlement programs for the middle class and giving tax cuts to the super-rich. They literally want to take your money and give it to the rich. They might as well just send people to physically come to your house, take whatever money or valuable items you might have, and deliver them straight to the people living in the mansions across town.

How long are we going to let 6% of the country dictate our priorities? How long is Washington going to ignore the plight of average people in order to please the powerful? How long is the media going to let them get away with it?

Answer: as long as we continue to do nothing about it.

Coppelius and the Demon

November 14th, 2010 No comments

I don’t really believe in anything supernatural, but I find it helpful to think of my biggest personal problem as a demon living inside of me. I often refer to it as a “pussy-demon” because I feel it most strongly when I’m around women I find attractive—all of my confidence drains away and I’m reduced to a scared little pussy who can’t even summon the balls to talk to them.

But I suppose it would more accurately be called an “isolation-demon”, as it goes beyond the issue of my inability to approach the opposite sex. It completely saps my will to so much as leave my apartment and go out into the real world. I spend most of my time alone, in the company of no one but myself, either feeding my intellect or indulging in some form of entertainment. To invoke another metaphor, my former history has provided me with an abundance of bricks with which I’ve built a wall around myself, and the demon keeps me inside.

The thing about being inside the wall is that it’s quite comfortable. My emotional state is not dependent on anyone else and I rarely experience strong emotions at all. Whereas I used to go from extremely low lows to absurdly high highs, my emotional spectrum has narrowed significantly over the last two years of living completely on my own. Life inside the wall is pleasant and enjoyable, disturbed only by the occasional confrontations with the meaninglessness of my life and my uselessness to the rest of the human race.

My friend Corey has been in a similar situation for most of his life, having the same difficulties as I’ve had, but recently he’s been frequenting a club near his home and flirting with women there to what I can only describe as an astonishing degree of success. He’s been writing me detailed accounts of his nights at the club, even writing out the dialog as best he remembers it, and I’ve been deeply impressed by how far from his wall he’s managed to emerge and how much easier-by-the-day it seems to be getting for him to talk to women.materia_mulheres_lacrimosa

Several weeks ago he recommended that I check out a goth metal band called Lacrimosa, specifically an album called Echos that he thought I might like. He’s been trying to get me into the metal genre for years but for some reason it just never took. I don’t dislike the music but I’m almost never in the mood to listen to it. Echos, however, was much different—a seamless blend of orchestral and heavy rock music, one of the most unique and impressive sounds I’ve ever heard. I fell in love with the album and have since been listening to more Lacrimosa as well as a couple of other goth metal bands.

The final bit of back-story for the tale I’m about to tell has to do with one of my English students from E.ON, a guy named Holger. I only started teaching him recently but we’ve been getting along well due to a number of shared interests including politics and astro-physics (he lent me a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which I’m currently reading, and we’ve watched some of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in class). One of his hobbies is photography, and he’s also really into the metal scene. He frequently goes to metal concerts where he gets in for free to take photos of the bands and write reviews of the shows for a website. This past week, as I was telling him about Lacrimosa, he told me about a show he was going to on Saturday night that he said I should come to. There were two German metal bands playing, one called Unzucht and another called Coppelius. The latter plays what’s called “heavy wood” which is essentially heavy metal with wooden instruments, in their case the flute and cello. It certainly sounded like it would be worth checking out.

But that meant I’d have to battle my isolation demon and crawl out of my nice comfy wall on a Saturday night, just when it’s at its comfiest. I really can’t understate what a mental struggle it is for me to pick myself up and go out into the world, especially at night. My natural tendency is to remain home, remain alone, just enjoying my own company and entertaining myself. It feels like the demon is clutching my leg as I try to climb out, injecting me with anxiety. Over and over again I’ll reconsider actually going, trying to settle on some excuse like it would be too expensive or the bands might suck. I listened to some of the bands’ songs on YouTube actually hoping they would suck and I’d have a good reason not to go, but they sounded good enough. Worth checking out.

I drank a few beers in the evening while finishing up the most recent season of True Blood, which has been keeping me entertained and happy to stay home at night for weeks (as well as getting me thinking about things like demons). By quarter to nine I was loosened up enough to overcome the natural social anxiety I’ve had for as long as I’ve been alive, and get myself out the door and into the rain.

I felt much better once I was actually under way. Listening to Lacrimosa on my I-pod as I rode the U-Bahn to Dragonerstrasse, I figured I’d give the demon a good run for its money tonight. Yes, I’d just slip in quietly and keep to myself for awhile, but hopefully as the night would wear on I’d come out of my shell and start chatting with people as I had two weeks ago in Kassel (though I had no intention of getting even half as drunk as I was then). There might even be attractive single women there, in which case I’d have to at least try to flirt with them. I figured if Corey can do it then why the hell can’t I?

The Hannover Musik Zentrum was tucked away in a strange little area between a few residential blocks and what looked like an abandoned rail depot. There was no one around as I approached the place, and then suddenly I was there. I walked inside and somehow paid the entry fee without speaking any German, then proceeded to find the coat-check place and hand in my jacket and umbrella.

I spotted Holger right away, as he was standing in the front on the right side of the stage near the coat-check. The bar was also there on the right, and I quickly ordered a beer and walked closeunzuchtr to the stage, on which Unzucht was already performing.

Holger was taking pictures the whole time but he shook hands when he spotted me and indicated that we’d talk later. I sipped from my beer and watched Unzucht perform—decent but nothing too impressive. They were a second-rate band at best, but they looked about as quintessentially goth metal as you can get. For my first genuine metal concert in Germany, it seemed appropriate.

This being my first genuine metal concert in Germany, I also spent a lot of time scanning the crowd, gauging the whole scene. I was dressed in the darkest clothes I have—a plain black T-shirt and dark blue jeans—and I was glad to see this wasn’t too far from the norm. Everyone was wearing black but almost nobody was all decked-out fashion-wise. There were a few people wearing black top-hats but for the most part it just looked like a bunch of German people in black clothing. The only other difference between this and any other crowd of Germans is that I actually fit in much better there with my long hair and beard, as I haven’t seen such a high concentration of people with the same look since I’ve been here.

Naturally, my eyes were mainly scanning the room for beautiful women, but during the Unzucht performance there were none to be seen. There were plenty of girls there, but every last one of them was overweight to some degree. I know it makes me shallow, but I’m just not attracted to overweight women. I wish I was but I’m not. It’s the same with men—I’m just not attracted to them. I’d like to be gay—fuck knows it would make having a sex life much easier—but I just can’t. My brain isn’t wired that way. Perhaps the isolation-demon is responsible.

But the fact that no good-looking women were around was actually a source of relief for me. At least now I wouldn’t have to force myself to approach anyone, as there was no one there whom I had any desire to approach. I could keep to myself, talk to Holger at the end, and call it a night. Experience had. Self-imposed-obligation-to-go-out-into-the-world-for-one-night fulfilled.

Then Unzucht finished playing, and suddenly she was next to me. She literally seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as the band finished playing. A girl about my height with straight blonde hair, light brown eyes, and the most perfect cheek-bones I’ve ever seen. We were standing too close for me to check out the rest of her body without it being too obvious, but she seemed thin enough and her face was beautiful enough to make up for any shortcomings the rest of her might have had.

So now I’m suddenly standing next to the most beautiful girl in the club, and my demon roars to life. “Hah!” it laughs. “You thought you could make it through the night without a fight, didn’t you? Well I’m going to make sure you don’t say a word to this girl! You’re going to pussy out, she’s going to walk away, and you will learn once again that you are mine!

“Fuck you, demon” I think, but I already know he’s right. My mind is spinning trying to come up with something to say to her, any combination of words that wouldn’t sound crazy or awkward or stupid…but I’m drawing the most monumental blank of my life. There’s just this void in my head where words should be. The demon is obscuring them from me.

It probably doesn’t matter, I think. This girl is drop-dead gorgeous. There’s no way she’s single. Her boyfriend will walk up to her any minute and I’ll no longer feel an obligation to say something to her.

A moment later a guy did walk up and stand beside her, and for a second I thought I was off the hook, but he didn’t speak to her. He started talking to another girl, one standing behind her. The two of them weren’t there together. It seemed she was there alone—completely alone—not even accompanied by a girlfriend.

What the fuck was this? I knew the demon had dominion over my own mind but could it actually be influencing events in the external world? I have never seen a girl this beautiful at a club on her own, and she just happens to be standing right next to me! This is not fucking fair.

Okay, well, it is what it is. I was dealt this shitty hand and now I’ve got to play it. But how? I keep looking at her but she never makes eye contact with me. It would be so much easier if she were to look at me, do something to acknowledge my presence. If we made eye contact it would then be quite natural for me to smile and say hello, strike up a friendly conversation. But she never looks at me. All she has to do is turn her head 45 degrees to the right, but she doesn’t.

The worst part is this is the exact right time for a conversation. Coppelius is setting up and the DJ is playing music at a low enough volume to hear the person next to you. Once the band starts playing, there won’t be any opportunity for a chat…but then again…isn’t that just what I want? An excuse not to have to talk to her? Hopefully the band will start soon and I can say “oh well, I just didn’t have enough time.”

Holger comes back and says hello. He’s going to head to the front for the first three songs, as that’s all he’s allowed to take pictures for. After talking to him in English I turn back to the girl to see if she noticed my English-speaking and whether it intrigued her, and she is looking at me but before I can open my lips she’s turned back away.

“See?” says the demon. “She’s not interested in you at all. She knows you’re standing there and she’s aware that you keep looking at her. If she had any willingness to talk to you whatsoever she’d make eye contact. But look how she’s deliberately avoiding it. If you do say something to her, it’ll be an imposition. She just wants to have a good time and enjoy the band, not get hit on by pathetic losers like you. If you talk to her it’s going to be awkward as hell and it’ll poison the rest of the show. Do her a favor and keep your mouth shut.”

Like a slave before his master, I obey. He knows all of the right bricks to throw at me and now I’m sealed behind the wall. I wanted to have a good time tonight, but now I’m not where I want to be. Now I’m in a dark place.

Perfect for dark music, at least. That’s what I think as the lights go down  and Coppelius finally takes the stage. They look very interesting and I’m excited to hear just how hard thcoppelius_Posterey can rock out with flutes and cellos. The singer is an obvious showman, going through a funny little routine before they begin playing. But once the bassist starts plucking on that cello and the base notes ripple from the speakers just a few feet from my head, I know that this night is at least going to be enjoyable on a surface level. My entire skeleton vibrates from the bass—it’s like my bones are getting a massage. Time to forget the girl standing next to me and slip into the zone.

But alas, the girl is just too close to shut out of my mind. She’s got a hand-bag strapped to her right shoulder that repeatedly brushes up against me as she dances. Bizarrely, I find myself deriving a strange pleasure from it, as though she’s dancing with me. It may not be her body rubbing up against mine but it’s something attached to her body—the kinesthetic sensation of the handbag’s texture against my arm is the end of a causality chain that begins with her motions. Touching that bag is as close as I’m going to get to touching her.

Another important element of the situation is the odor. People are farting up a storm throughout the show—it can’t be heard but it can definitely be smelled. Yet she maintains the most pleasant aroma throughout the evening, and I occasionally turn my head just to get a whiff.

I’m constantly looking over at her, especially when the lights go up in the audience. Every time I look at her face it looks more beautiful than the last. I haven’t been in close proximity to a girl this beautiful for such a long period of time for as long as I can remember. I try to simply appreciate the beauty for its own sake, to separate it from the desire attached to it.

But oh how nice it would be to put my hand behind her head, to touch her check with my other hand and move in closer, admire that skin from an inch away and press my lips against it…god what an amazing sensation that would be.

If she would just look at me! Obviously there’s not going to be any conversation going on during the show but we could at least acknowledge each others’ presence. I could make a gesture towards the band and say, “They’re pretty good, huh?” or something of that nature, thus establishing contact and paving the way for some kind of chat when it’s over.

But she doesn’t look at me once, even when her dancing sets her off balance and we collide a little, her eyes remain either closed or on the stage. And my how adorable she looks when they’re closed—even though I’m only seeing half her face! She looks so lovely as she just rocks gently to the music, her lips occasionally singing along to the lyrics (I made sure to take note of that) or sometimes pulled back in a mysterious and lovely smile…she must be having a funny thought. Oh, to get inside her mind…what’s going on there? Who is this person? What is she doing here all alone? What is her name, for fuck’s sake? Will I at least go home knowing her name?

Eventually that becomes the goal. If nothing else, I have got to find out this woman’s name. After the show, when the lights come up, I’ll have a moment to turn to her and say hello. If she looks at me, that’ll be perfect, but even if she doesn’t I’ll make myself tap her on the shoulder and say hi.

“No you won’t” the demon taunts me. “You won’t tap her on the shoulder while she’s walking away from you and you know it.”

I suspect the demon is right, but I try to focus on what to say. Now that I can’t actually talk to her the demon isn’t hiding words from me anymore, so I try and plan out the whole approach. “Hello,” I’ll say. “I just wanted to say thank you. You’re very beautiful, and I’ve really enjoyed standing next to you tonight. Would you do me the honor of telling me your name?”

I knew it was flawed and rather silly, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. I know you’re not supposed to tell a girl she’s beautiful—that’s basically saying “I’m a loser and you could do better than me” but the goal tonight was not to start a relationship but only to beat the demon. To prove that I can beat him by obtaining the name of the girl around whom the night was revolving.

The show goes on and on, delaying the moment of truth as I prepare to face it. Holger is standing next to me and we’re shouting into each others’ ears from time to time but mostly just silently watching the show. He buys me a beer which helps me loosen up a little more, although I can tell I’m not nearly as loose as I should be for flirtation purposes. I’m even holding back on the dancing, not wanting to look like a fool in front of this girl, but I think that if I did get into it a little more I might have a better chance. It can be endearing to women if a guy is obviously enjoying himself a lot. You don’t want to be so drunk that you can barely form coherent sentences, but a slight buzz isn’t much better than no buzz at all. The ideal place to be is somewhere in the middle.

At one point I thought I might be off the hook, as she took her phone out of her pocket and read a message from someone named Tim. Who’s Tim? Probably her boyfriend, right? He probably just couldn’t make it to the show tonight for some reason and that’s why she’s alone. So that means I’d be doing the right thing by not approaching her, right? That’s what the demon thinks anyway.

But I know that’s no excuse. For all I know, Tim is her brother or her father or her even her boss. I’ve sent text messages to girls I’m not in a relationship with. I couldn’t justifiably draw any conclusions from that. No, demon, I’m still on the hook.

The band plays their “last” song and walks off the stage, but I relax because the chance of an encore is 100%. The crowd is clapping hard in unison, the lights are still down, and no final bows have been taken. They waste no time in coming back to the stage and rocking out a little more. I’m really liking their music but I’m too distracted by the girl to get fully into it. At least its darkness complements my state of mind well.

I can feel the moment of truth approaching. The band finishes one song and I desperately hope they’re not done. Please just put this off for a few minutes longer. Thankfully, they play another song. As they walk off the stage again I hope for another encore. I turn to Holger and ask him if they’re done or if he thinks they’re coming back. He says the lights are still down so they’re coming back. After we’ve exchanged those words I look over at the girl and for the second time, her eyes meet mine (it’s only the second time I’ve even seen her left eye). She knows I exist. She knows I’m not German. But she doesn’t want to look at me long enough to give me a natural opening to say hello. Her gaze darts back to the stage as quickly as I notice it. I think of whether there was something I could have said just then but it’s already too late. But don’t worry—now’s not the time. Just stick to the plan.

The band comes back to play one final song, a slow and moving tune about soldiers. English lyrics—half their songs had English lyrics. But the girl only sang along to the German lyrics so it’s still quite possible she doesn’t speak English. The language barrier is a huge asset to the demon, but after the experience in Kassel I’ve resolved to just assume basic English-speaking ability on the part of everyone. That will at least remove half the difficulty of making my approach.

And now it’s almost time to do it. The song ends, the band takes their final bows, and suddenly the lights go up. It’s now or never. I turn to face her directly but she doesn’t even glance at me. She turns to the left and starts walking towards the door. The demon grabs me by my arms and holds me back, laughing maniacally as I watch this girl walk away. “She doesn’t want to talk to you!” he shouts. “She deliberately turned the other way so she wouldn’t have to acknowledge you! Let her go. It’s what you want to do anyway—let her go.”

The demon’s words reach me, and I succumb. As she takes two steps away I almost raise my arm to tap her on the shoulder but the demon is holding it down. How easy it is to just let her go like that, to let her walk away without saying anything and tell myself it’s what she wanted. It’s so incredibly easy, so much easier than saying something. All I have to do is nothing. Just let her disappear into memory, then go home and brood. Let the demon have its victory.

Brooding it is, I think, and I turn toward the coat-check counter to retrieve my jacket and umbrella. Holger has disappeared but I’ll find him to say goodbye before I leave. Just a quick trip to the bathroom as I feel the demon dance around inside of me, delighting in its triumph, looking forward to the feeding frenzy it’s going to have when I get home and wallow in self-contempt.

I look all around the main room of the club trying to find Holger but I don’t see him. I give up and decide to go home, but spot him in the room between the main room and the lobby where people from the bands’ crews sell CDs after the show. He’s showing his book of pictures to a girl who looks like she’s with one of the bands, perhaps trying to do some kind of business. I say hello to him but he’s still in a conversation with the girl, which allows me to take a step back and examine the room.

Holy shit—there she is. Standing by herself in the back of the room with a CD in hand, probably waiting to get to the desk so she can meet someone from Coppelius, she looks positively radiant. The demon freezes. He senses danger. He knows I don’t want to go home and brood. He knows I’m thinking of Corey and how I should be able to do this if he can. He knows I’m hungry for a victory.

I take a step towards her and she spots me. It’s unmistakable. Her eyes meet mine and then immediately—immediately—she turns her whole head away.

I stop in my tracks and turn back around. “See that?” says the demon. “You weren’t just imagining things. She really isn’t interested in you. The last thing she wants is for you to go up to her. You saw how quickly she turned away. Take the hint, man. Spare yourself. Spare her.”

Yes, maybe she finds me repulsive and is terrified that I might actually go up to her. Or maybe she’s just über-shy. Maybe we have that in common.

Holger and the girl are still talking. The girl is still standing there all alone. I’m about to go home and fight the urge to take a knife to my skin for the first time since high school. If the demon wins tonight, it’ll be an epic triumph the likes of which he hasn’t known for years.

Fuck. That.

I take the metaphorical sword that I was ready to jam into my heart and plunge it into the demon instead. The surge of anxiety so overwhelming I feel I might drown in it rising within me, I take a deep breath and walk straight up to her.

“Entschuldigung,” I say. She’s not looking at me, and the German word for “excuse me” sounds much friendlier than the English. As soon as she looks at me I switch back.

“I just wanted to say hello,” I say, surprised by the calmness in my voice. In the back of my mind I already realize I’ve won. The demon is stunned, his mouth agape as he lies bleeding.

“Hello,” she says, an unreadable expression on her face.  For the first time I’m getting an extended look at her whole face.

“I was standing next to you during the show,” I say.

“I know,” she says. Of course she does.

Now what? “This was my first concert in Hannover,” I say. Not technically true but true enough for the purposes of this conversation.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“America,” I answer. “Have you ever been there?” If she had, this would have put me in very comfortable conversation territory. If she’d been to Brooklyn it would have been perfect.

“No, I’m from Hannover” she said. Uh oh. The first sign of less-than-perfect English. The first real sense I get that she doesn’t want to be talking to me.

“No, I mean have you ever been to America?” I ask. She hasn’t. “Anywhere outside Germany?”

She lists a few countries, and I nod. “Are you a big fan of Coppelius?” I ask.

“I don’t know…” she says.

“I noticed you knew all the words,” I tell her. She smiles at this…it’s heavenly…but can’t seem to think of anything to say to it. She tells me this is the fifth show of theirs that she’s been to.

I realize I’m not in flirtation-mode at all. I’m in English-teacher mode, attempting to make small talk for the sake of small talk. My voice is super-high and I don’t sound comfortable at all. I know what I’m like when I’m acting naturally, I know I can be fun and relaxed but not at the moment. At the moment we’re both uncomfortable, and the escape-route is just too tempting.

“May I have your name?” I ask. I’m slightly amused that the question came out that way.

“Zora,” she says. It’s a beautiful name when she says it. With an American accent it’s kind of ugly, but with a German pronunciation of the Z and the R it sounds lovely.

“Zora,” I repeat and smile.

“What’s yours?” she asks politely.

“Kyle,” I tell her. She repeats it and smiles.

We’ve been talking for about 20 seconds but it feels like an eternity, like we’ve just had the longest conversation of our lives and now we know everything about each other. I get the distinct impression that she’d like to be left alone, and I’ve already accomplished my goal. To move the bar even farther now and attempt to keep it going, to possibly find out how to contact her…it’s unthinkable. Why not quit while ahead?

“It was very nice meeting you, Zora,” I say, and I take her hand.

“It was nice meeting you too,” she responds, and I’m unable to tell whether her tone is one of relief or disappointment.

“Have a good night,” I say, and turn to leave.

I say goodbye to Holger and walk out the door, immediately tossing some Lacrimosa back on my I-pod and lighting up a cigarette. I don’t open the umbrella. The light rain on my face feels wonderful, and I’m feeling more alive than I have in a long time. Meanwhile the demon sits in the corner clutching his wound, plotting his revenge.

I continue to feel good for the rest of the night, even staying up for a couple more hours listening to music and appreciating the emotion.  I’d broken the hardest barrier and actually gone up and approached a girl I was strongly attracted to. I don’t remember ever doing that before—just going up to a girl at a club and striking up a conversation. I usually wait around for an opportunity that never comes. This time I didn’t wait. I just fucking went for it, and it felt pretty good. I beat the demon and punched a hole through the wall. It may have been nothing more than a 1-minute chat, but it was a major breakthrough on my part. Even Corey didn’t become a ladies’ man overnight. I figure it may be a long process but that success is possible. I just have to be content with baby-steps, and I was proud of myself for taking one last night.

But the morning has a cruel way of shedding a different light on things, and I woke up today with nothing but regret in my heart. The hole in the wall let both good and bad emotions through. I’ve been alone for a long time, but this morning was the first time in a very long time that I actually felt lonely, that I wished I had someone to be with.

Oh Zora, were you really as uninterested in me as you seemed or were you just shy? Would you have liked for me to stick around? If you had, you could have said something like “you have to go now?” when I signaled that I was leaving and I would have stuck around, but you sent me no sign whatsoever that I was welcome.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. This was an amazing fluke. An incredibly beautiful girl, all alone, standing right next to me. It’s rare enough that a beautiful girl is anywhere all alone but the fact that she stood right next to me, thus giving me an excuse to approach her later (not to mention that I could have spoken to her any time throughout the night) is insane. That kind of thing may never happen again. I didn’t get much of an impression of Zora but I liked what I did get. She seemed sweet, atypical of German girls. She might have been a truly wonderful person, alone only because of her shyness. I might have let someone really special slip away.

Of course I plan to go to a lot more concerts now, and perhaps she’ll be at one of them. If she is, I’m good to go. Now that we’ve made contact approaching her again will be easy, and I’ll be better prepared to have a relaxed conversation—something I was not in the right frame-of-mind for at all last night. But there’s a solid chance that the Coppelius show was it—that that’s the first and last time I’ll ever encounter the lovely Zora.

So I don’t know whether to be proud of myself or to beat myself up. I wounded the demon but he’s already healed and ready to do battle again. I can only hope that he’s been permanently weakened and now that I’ve exposed his vulnerability I’ll eventually be able to destroy him completely.

But even now I hear him whispering: “You don’t want to destroy me. You need me. You want to be alone and I keep you that way. When you signed up for this life, I came with the package. We’re in this together, and we’re in it for the long-haul. As you get older I’ll only get stronger, and in the end I’ll have my ultimate victory—you will die alone.”

At this moment I fear he’s right. The world outside the wall is too riddled with emotional turmoil. The distance between the way I currently am and the way I’d have to be to get a woman to go out with me feels insurmountable. I probably will die alone.

American Politics: Football with a Script

November 13th, 2010 No comments

I follow U.S. politics because I think it’s important to know who’s pulling the levers of power in the world’s most powerful country, but it often feels like watching a game of football. The Democrats had possession of the ball for two years, and during that time they pushed legislation while the Republicans mounted a strong defense, limiting them to a field goal at best. The Democrats’ recent loss of the House of Representatives prompted them to punt the ball and gear up to spend the next two years on defense, defending themselves against relentless investigations as well as the inevitable push to undo the good parts of health care and financial reform.

But something about this match doesn’t seem right. All of the moves seem choreographed, the outcome pre-determined. It feels less like a sporting event and more like a scripted reality TV series in which the actors already know what’s coming but they try to act surprised when it does.

I’m not the only one who had the idea that the Democrats were trying to throw the 2010 election. Some were making that claim as early as March, when the Democrats’ refusal to put the public option for health insurance up for a vote revealed to everyone with a shred of intelligence that they never actually wanted it in the first place. The public option would have been a touchdown for the Democrats, exactly the kind of genuine systemic change that the voters were hoping for when they went to the polls in 2008, but they never even made a serious push for the end-zone.

Clearly there were other forces at work—forces more powerful than either of the teams on the field—who had determined from the beginning that there would be no government-run health insurance option to compete with the profit-driven corporations. All the Democrats needed was a good excuse to give it up. Republican filibusters worked perfectly when the Democrats had 60 seats, as all they needed were one or two conservative Democrats to play the villain and join the Republican filibuster until the public option was removed. But when Scott Brown was elected and the Democrats had no choice but to push the legislation through under a process that required a simple majority, the Democrats were caught with their pants down. That wasn’t part of the script.

It should have been obvious to everyone then and there that the public option’s failure had been planned all along. But the corporate media did its job by brushing it off and diverting peoples’ attention long enough for the Democrats to pick their pants back up and go on pretending that they were actually trying to get real reform done.

That was a deeply significant moment. The fact that politicians from both parties are working to serve the corporations and not ordinary Americans has seldom been more obvious.

I believe we’re at another one of those moments of clarity right now. There’s no reason the Democrats should have lost the mid-term elections as badly as they did. Even with their constant caving-in on the most significant aspects of legislation, they still managed to get a lot more positive things done than the Republicans have for as long as I can remember. People may have short attention spans but they still remember the eight disastrous years of the Bush administration and the economic crisis brought to us by Republican policies. The Democrats had a winning narrative if they’d only chosen to aggressively push it, but they didn’t. Rather than constantly remind people of what a miserable failure Republican policies have been for the middle class, many Democrats chose to run against their own party, touting all the ways in which they were unlike the president and more like their Republican opponents.

The fact that the Democrats who most blatantly followed that strategy did poorly in the elections should have made it clear that it’s not compromise and capitulation that voters are after, but real significant change. With a few notable exceptions, strong progressive fighters won and corporatists lost. The message of the elections on the Democratic side should be clear: Democratic voters want their leaders to stand up to the Republicans and fight for real change, and if they don’t see that happening they’re going to stay home.

But that wasn’t the message the Democrats were supposed to get, and they seem to be going to great lengths not to get it.

According to the script they all seem to be following, the Democrats were supposed to lose big in 2010 and thus put a stop to the two-year period of reform that the country’s most powerful interests decided to allow. They got everything they wanted under Bush (short of the privatization of Social Security) and enriched themselves greatly at the expense of the middle class. The demand for reforms were so great in 2008 that they must have decided to toss the people a bone, to let the Democrats take the ball for awhile and give progressives the impression that they were getting what they wanted. Naturally, they wouldn’t let anything too drastic go through, but they’d succeed in getting half of progressives to believe that what they did get was the best they could hope for.

At this point, half of the people still reading this will be rolling their eyes and dismissing me as a conspiracy theorist. Half the people really believe that the Democrats did the best they could for the American people and the reason they lost the election is that independent voters decided they didn’t actually want liberal policies.

But consider how well the theory fits the facts: The Democrats had a chance to vote on the Bush tax-cuts before the election. They could have extended those tax-cuts for 98% of Americans and let the cuts for the wealthiest 2% revert back to pre-Bush levels. Not only would this have taken $700 billion out of the deficit, but it would have been extremely popular. The Democrats could have shown themselves to be true fighters for the middle class, willing to do something that would only benefit them and not the super-rich. They might have even been able to ride the issue to electoral victory.

But they decided not to force a vote, and look what happened. As expected, the Republicans won control of the House (and they would have won the Senate too if it weren’t for unscripted elements like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell) and the peddlers of conventional wisdom in the mainstream media immediately started calling for the president to get “back in the center”, to “show some love for Republican leaders”—essentially to bow his head. Some have even gone so far as to say Obama shouldn’t even run for a second term and instead spend the next two years doing everything the Republicans want him to do.

Suddenly there’s an opening to extend those Bush tax-cuts for the top 2% after all! The president can say he’s doing it in response to the election results, as though the voters’ most resounding message was to cut those poor rich people a break.

There was never any chance that the rich would let their taxes go up in the first place. They just had to dangle that out there, make it seem like a real possibility so that progressives would go on believing that the system can still be potentially changed from within. The script may have its twists and turns, but in the end the rich always get what they want.

The truly ominous thing is what lies on the horizon regarding spending cuts. Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission revealed their proposals this past week, extremely unpopular measures including cutting Social Security and Medicare, raising the retirement age, slashing the federal workforce, and increasing the gas tax, all while cutting taxes for corporations!  (And how convenient that this should come at a time when the president is in Asia and can’t be easily reached for comment?)

From here the narrative should move in a very predictable direction. Obama and the Democrats can play the good guys as they criticize these proposals, but in the end they’ll have to implement some of them. It’ll be mirror-image of the health care fight: rather than being forced to give up on the best elements in order to get the half-decent ones through, we’ll be forced to accept some of the least objectionable proposals in order to prevent the most egregious from going through. And just as those of us who complained about the public option’s failure were told that we were too liberal and shouldn’t complain just because we didn’t get “every last thing” we wanted, we’ll now be told that we shouldn’t complain just because we didn’t block “every last thing” we didn’t want. Some compromise was necessary, they’ll say. Obama and the Democrats did the best they could.

It should be abundantly clear by now that Obama and the Democrats are not doing the best they can. It’s as though they’ve got wide receivers in the end-zone during every play but the quarterback just runs a few yards before allowing himself to be tackled. Whether he ultimately falls short of the first-down and loses re-election remains to be seen, but judging from the direction the script has been going so far I’d say it’s a distinct possibility.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying there is some organized group of wealthy and powerful individuals who really have planned out the entire political football match ahead of time (though that idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds). It’s enough that the system is rigged in such a way as to ensure the best possible outcome for the already-rich-and-powerful every time. They’ve got enough money to buy enough politicians who will do their bidding. Not every Democrat agrees to follow the script, but enough of them do. And sadly, the president is one of them.

That is what the progressive movement is confronted with right now. They thought they’d finally found someone to change the game when they got Obama elected in 2008, but since then they’ve just been playing the exact same game in which the outcome is predetermined. They think the president should do more passing and less running, but they’re not suggesting he quit the game altogether.

It’s up to us to leave the stadium and go directly to the script-writers themselves. We have to demand that they burn what they’ve written so far and start composing a new story, one in which our team actually tries to win, or perhaps even one in which there are more than just two teams to root for.

We need a script in which the income disparity between the rich and the middle class actually goes down, where the federal deficit is reduced by cutting military spending and not entitlements, where Americans are put back to work through massive investment in infrastructure and research, where we actually do something about climate change and environmental destruction, where Wall Street bankers actually face consequences for crashing the economy, where war criminals are put to justice even if they used to be the president or vice president, where homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else, where billions of dollars a year aren’t flushed down the toilet on a failed war on drugs, and where every child has the same opportunities as every other child regardless of where they come from.

But that script is very difficult to write. The one we’ve got now is much easier: put all our hopes in politicians and lament our helplessness as those hopes are dashed repeatedly. Watch our team get crushed and go home in defeat. Until we acknowledge what’s actually going on—that American politics is just a scripted game of football designed to keep us all in line—that’s all we’re going to be doing.

Germans vs. Nuclear Energy

November 10th, 2010 No comments

Although I’ve been living in Germany for more than two years now, I rarely write about its internal politics, mostly because I don’t feel confident enough in my understanding of the system to comment intelligently. However, there are some things I know enough about to form a solid opinion, and nuclear energy is one of them.

Full disclosure: The language school I work for has a contract with one of Germany’s largest energy companies, so most of my income comes to me (indirectly) from the energy industry. Not that such a thing would influence my opinion (I’ve worked for companies I hate before) but discussing the issue with people in the industry has no doubt had some effect. Most of the information in this entry comes from them.

You might have heard about the recent protests in Dannenberg, at which tens of thousands of demonstrators blocked the railway tracks in an effort to stop a shipment of nuclear waste returning to Germany for storage after processing in France. The shipment was headed to the town of Gorleben, where the residents successfully managed to bring in Greenpeace to turn what had been purely a “not in my backyard” issue into an international rebuke of nuclear energy in general.

I am a bleeding-heart liberal, so I am a fan of Greenpeace and of protests in general, but on this issue I have to disagree with the demonstrators.

When it comes to potential sources of energy, they all have their downsides. Oil and coal pollute the air and accelerate global climate change, hydro-electric dams wreak havoc on the surrounding environment, and nuclear energy produces radioactive waste. People who live near facilities in which this waste is stored have a legitimate gripe.

But the fact is we need to produce energy somehow, unless we want to go back to a pre-industrial civilization. [While I personally wouldn’t mind that, I’ll just assume for the sake of this entry that we all do want to keep the engines of civilization churning.] It would be nice if we could run our cities using nothing but clean and renewable energy, but as of now this is just not feasible. Current technology for harnessing wind and solar energy does not output nearly enough to sustain civilization at its current level.

The only realistic options are fossil fuels or nuclear power. Since nuclear energy doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it seems the logical choice. The radioactive waste is a problem, but only for the local areas in which that waste is stored. It doesn’t harm the environment on a global scale like fossil fuels do. Furthermore, the amount of radiation that people who live near storage sites are exposed to isn’t terribly harmful—I wouldn’t say it’s harmless but it’s not much worse than tobacco, alcohol, or any of the other poisons people put into their bodies voluntarily—and those people do have the option of moving somewhere else (as much trouble as that might cause them).

I therefore agree with Chancellor Merkel that nuclear energy should be considered a “bridge” technology—something to keep Germany’s cities operating until clean energy technology can completely replace it.

What Germany has been facing over the last decade with regards to nuclear energy is a political problem. Unlike the United States, Germany has more than two major political parties. They have the two big ones—the conservative CDU (Merkel’s party) and the more labor-friendly SPD—but they also have a few other major players including the far left “Linke” party, the business-friendly FDP and the Green Party. This means that there is almost never a single political party with a plurality of votes in the parliament. To form a working majority, the party with the most seats has to form a coalition with another party.

When the SPD was in power, they formed a coalition with the Green Party, and one of the Green Party’s demands was to phase out all nuclear energy from Germany. They successfully passed legislation that would force all nuclear power plants to shut down before their expiration dates, cutting their operational life-spans by more than ten years in most cases.

When the CDU took over the majority, they had to form a coalition with their arch-rival SPD, which made passing legislation about as impossible as it is in the United States when the government is divided. Nothing was done on the nuclear issue, but when the FDP gained enough seats in the last major election a new coalition was formed between them and the CDU. One of the promises made before the election was that a CDU-FDP (or “Black-Yellow” referring to the parties’ designated colors) coalition would re-extend the life-spans of Germany’s nuclear plants back to their original expiration dates.

This is an important point that has been overlooked by nearly everyone reporting on the protests. Nobody in the government is proposing building more nuclear power plants or even extending the life-spans of those currently operating. They only want to allow those plants to run as long as they were originally intended.

Try telling that to the protesters. Their hearts are in the right place, but what they want just isn’t practical. Without its nuclear plants, Germany simply wouldn’t have enough energy to make it through the next ten years. They’d have to make up for the shortage by buying their energy from France. And guess where most of France’s energy comes from? Nuclear power.

The Green Party has promised to fight the Black-Yellow coalition’s efforts to keep the nuclear plants running, and it will soon be decided in court whether this can be done by simple declaration or if it must be done with a majority vote. If it requires a majority vote, the measure will fail because recent local elections have cost the Black-Yellow coalition their plurality.

I find it slightly ridiculous that so much energy is being wasted (pun intended) on this issue. The protesters calling for the abolition of nuclear energy in Germany remind me of Tea Party protesters calling for more deregulation of the financial industry. Both are espousing a cause that if successful will actually do more harm to their country than good.

It would seem that even in Germany, people respond with knee-jerk reactions before thinking things through. They hear “nuclear energy” and think of Hiroshima and Chernobyl and decide that it must be bad—end of story. Pay no attention to nuance: to the fact that Germany’s laws require so much oversight and so many safety precautions that a Three-Mile-Island-like situation would be unthinkable here, that nuclear energy is far cleaner than most of the viable alternatives, and that Germany simply can’t operate without it right now.

The real criminals, however, are the politicians who use the nuclear issue to boost their popularity and deliberately mislead the public into believing it’s more dangerous than it is and who ignore the practical costs of its elimination.

Hopefully we will one day be able to power the entire world with clean and renewable resources, but we’re not there yet. Until then, we have to go with less-than-ideal technology, and since the alternatives do far more harm to the planet I’d say nuclear is our best option for the moment. People should eventually demand the complete elimination of nuclear energy, but the demonstrators currently protesting in Germany are at least 50 years too early.