Sunday, January 31, 2010


The world is not perfect. Half of the testicle fruits I bought at the market yesterday at ten to the pound were rotten, their fatty green flesh interlaced with twines of foul tarnish, though the fruits looked good from the outside; winter is still not over; and The New Yorker rejected The Catcher in the Rye when it was offered a chance to publish excerpts.

The New Yorker's negative decision didn't hurt sales of the book much. About 250,000 copies are still sold every year, 55 years after its first publication, enough to afford the author, J.D. Salinger, a life free from financial worry and out of everyone's way in the boonies of New Hampshire. He never had to sell any written words again, though he did for a while. In 1965 he stopped. By his own admission, though, he continued to write, furiously, hundreds of pages, in draining all-nighters. This was for his own entertainment and for no one else to behold, enjoy or interpret.

Last Wednesday, J.D. Salinger died, at 91 and after decades of seclusion and silence. A master of the English language and a brilliant storyteller has left. The reason that his death didn't touch me as much as John Updike's the exact same day one year earlier is that I haven't read any of his stories and haven't developed a feeling of closeness and understanding.

I know Salinger only for his main work, the book that made him famous all over the world, and for the longest time I lived under the illusion that he hadn't published anything else at all. Not that it would have mattered – The Catcher is brilliant – but Salinger was a great writer before that book. He published a good two dozen stories in prestigious magazines before sending Holden Caulfield off onto his three-day odyssey through New York City. (The New Yorker published thirteen of his stories over the years. Read them online if you're fortunate enough to have a subscription.)

Unless I manage to lay my hands on a Complete New Yorker DVD set, I will not read Salinger's earlier stories. Nevertheless, I might yet get to appreciate him more widely. With some luck, the clearing out of the attic in the farm house in New Hampshire might produce trunks and cabinets stuffed with paper. Some publisher might figure out which sheets to staple together, and books might soon hit the shelves. That would be no consolation for the loss, but a fitting conclusion of the story of his life.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Berlin to London

It's the last weekend of January. A twelfth of the new year is already over. How fast it happened – yet again. Must have something to do with aging. Who doesn't still remember the days of childhood when birthdays were ages apart, months wouldn't end, and the summer holidays didn't come around forever? Now everything happens at the same time and coalesces into a big blur retrospectively.

What have I done in January? I already don't know anymore. This blog is of not much help – there are only five posts so far this year, and they don't say much. At least they are a reminder of my resolution not to put so much verbal prolixity online anymore. Another resolution was to train hard for the marathon. This one I've kept to a similar extent, going out frequently but not so much as to freeze rigid in the snow and ice that still abound. I'm slowly getting into shape.

Right now, I'm sitting in my living room looking out. The sun's shining strongly and it promises to be a brilliant (though very cold) weekend. My new Nikes are bouncing up and down with excitement, trying to break free from their containment in the lowest shelf of my shoe cabinet, but before I take them out for a run, I'd like to commit last night to memory.

I was a the Royal Festival Hall for the kick-off of a four-concert mini-residence of the Berliner Staatskapelle. Over the course of a week, the famous orchestra is giving four performances, playing all five of Beethoven's Piano Concertos. The quality of the orchestra and the clear musical focus would be enough to sell out the hall, more or less. But why were all tickets months in advance?

What made this series so special and the tickets the hottest in town was the fact that Daniel Barenboim doubled as conductor and soloist. Barenboim is the Bono of classical music, the biggest name on the stage, a visionary in many ways but primarily an artist: one of the best conductors and one of the most renowned pianists in the world.

About a year ago, I had witnessed this second part of his artistic persona when attending two concerts of Beethoven's piano sonatas, also at the Royal Festival Hall. The music was sublime, but the experiences contained so much more. Seeing him play quiet parts with his left hand while his right grabbed the towel hanging over the side of the piano and then dried his forehead was special. Feeling the power of the maestro, how he held an audience of nearly three thousand motionless in rapt attention was magical. There was just a little piano on the big stage in the far distance, and a little man working the keys. Sometimes caressing, sometimes pounding, magic was created.

I expected magic last night, and I was not disappointed. When the orchestra took their places, something odd became obvious: Instead of the rostrum, all musicians faced a piano positioned centrally at the front of the stage. A few minutes later, Barenboim entered, walked over to the piano and just stood there. With a wave of his hands, the music started. He was conducting.

But at some point, the first solo part started. Barenboim sat down and played, but kept conducting, either with his eyes and head, or with his hands. Most incredible were the times, sometimes mere bursts, when only one of his hands had notes to play. The other would immediately jump into the air and give directions to the musicians. It was a visual feast, even from my cheap seat in one of the last rows.

Unfortunately I'm no expert and can't say whether it was also an acoustic feast, commensurate with the hype. All I can say is that the music was wonderful and that I enjoyed it tremendously, as did the rest of the audience, judging by the applause after the concert. Barenboim himself was quite visibly delighted during the curtain call. Chest swollen with self-admiration, he strutted back onto the stage like a proud peacock to receive his ovation.

I'm looking forward to giving him another, on Tuesday after the concluding concert of the series, but before I can enjoy that, I have to suffer a little. It is three degrees outside, but my trainers are getting anxious. They want to be taken running, and I should do so before the sun vanishes and nothing is left to distract from the miserable cold.

Friday, January 22, 2010

news of the week

The other day I finished reading The Black Swan. After two aborted attempts when I had to return the book to the library despite extending its stay on my shelf by a generous three weeks each time, the third try went altogether better. I'm not going to talk about charms again. Nevertheless, I find it reassuring that book practically read itself all of a sudden.

It was a bit of a ramble and conclusions are hard to draw, but the ride through it was highly enjoyable. The bottom line was, Don't be the sucker. The context? The world is full of unlikely events whose potential magnitude must not be underestimated. Don't build the castle of your life on the sands of unlikely events with potentially devastating consequences.

I'm not sure yet what to do with the book's central message. Do I view risks and opportunities through a lens warped by classical probability that has not much to do with most of reality? Will I change my behavior? Only if I see the light. Only if there is a light. I'm not sure of that.

So instead of grasping the big picture, I held on tightly to a few small ones. What struck me most and has already had a profound impact on me, was the observation that listening to or reading the news more than once a day (or possibly once a week) is a massive waste of time.

News is made and reported all the time, 24/7, and on the internet even al gusto. Yet most of what I read and hear when I follow the news will be superseded in quick succession by newer news, and most of my time was invested for nothing. I've always known this and always silently deplored that I follow the news too closely, checking the Economist or Der Spiegel hourly for updates. The Black Swan has somehow brought me to my senses and given me the strength to withdraw. Now I wake up to the Today Show on BBC4 and know all the news for the day. The time I've gained can be invested in the reading of more edifying materials or in the writing of such.

The curious thing is, even when news is not constant company, there's still a lot of it around, and a lot that causes me to shake my head. Enough, in fact, to fill another rant of the week. I had started using tags in this blog with the main purpose of keeping track of my rants, but this category of posts has languished since its inception. Here's another.

The UK is at war. Soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and some might even still be in Iraq. Every week, casualties are reported, always in the hourly news on Radio 4. And every time the little newsbit that describes how the brave warrior lost his or her life ends, listeners are notified that "the victim's family have been informed". How is this news if that's how it always is? Presumably a casualty wouldn't be put on the news if they family hadn't been informed, so why bother telling?

Staying with the war effort, the big news today was the accusation of a British company of selling non-functioning bomb detectors to the Iraqi government. Over the years and to the tune of 50 million pounds. It wasn't that the devices malfunctioned – they simply had no function. The managing director of the company, Jim McCormick, who was arrested today on the suspicion of fraud, once told the BBC that "the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar". To make this clear: Dowsing is the looking for underground water with a branched twig. The divining rod that was sold to Iraq consisted of flimsy pieces of plastic for substance and a rotating antenna for effect. There were no programmable electronics, no sensors, no batteries. Who made this purchase? Who arranged the contract? Who is responsible?

In another story of skirted responsibility, two brothers were sentenced in Sheffield today for attacking and torturing two other kids. Both victims suffered the gravest of injuries; one was left close to death. The perpetrators were ten and twelve. They were also living in foster care. The local authority that placed them in care has apologized for neglect. It's been all over the news. What wasn't reported was the reaction of the parents. Shouldn't they carry at least part of the responsibility? And yet, their existence, or that of the foster parents, wasn't mentioned once.

In other news, the UK terror threat has been raised to severe, but there is "no intelligence to suggest an attack is imminent". Two weeks ago, my reaction would have been a simple, So what? Now, after reading The Black Swan and thinking a bit about risk I'm more tempted to point out that the UK motor traffic threat remains critical (the highest level in the Home Office's system). Crossing the street might kill me. Driving to pick up furniture for my bedroom might. Ditto riding my bike to work. Two and a half thousand people are killed in car accidents every year in the UK, and I'd rather keep my eyes open for a stray car than for an unpredictable suicide bomber. If that's in keeping with the spirit of The Black Swan, I don't know.

Monday, January 18, 2010

friends left behind

With artistic license, I can say that I've lived in four countries, none of which is my home country. I am German, but the Germany I was born in doesn't exist anymore. The German Democratic Republic went down the drain twenty years ago – and a jolly good thing that was – when courageous citizens decided they wouldn't take the tyranny of poorly concealed evil anymore and took to the streets. It didn't take long to topple a government that was enfeebled by economic decay, ideological rigor mortis, and the relentless progression of time. Less than a year after the revolution that took everyone by complete surprise, my country of birth ceased to exist when it was engulfed by the Federal Republic of Germany, in the only case of national reunification that ever worked.

But being charitably accepted into the western world in a fit of irrational exuberance that quickly turned into mild but pervasive frustration didn't equal arriving. Too frequently, the hopes and dreams of East Germans were dismissed as follies of feeble, needy and self-insufficient brothers. Thus, for eight years after reunification I lived in a place in transition, not here yet but certainly not there anymore. My old country had ceased to exist, but it didn't feel like I was living in the new one yet.

Before that could happen, before I could instinctively feel at home, I stepped through the wide-open doors of opportunity and exchanged one unknown for another. Over the course of the next twelve years, I've lived in the US, France and England. Each of these places was a step on the way, chosen for an education or a job, but never for life. My biography is thus a string of temporary existences that don't relate any more to each other than stories in a current-affairs magazine. There's only one unifying feature.

In all the places I lived I’ve made friends. Everywhere, I've built rather abstract social network and developed concrete and strong friendships with individuals that meant a lot to me. But no matter how much they meant to me, there came always the time when I had to say good-bye, either because I was leaving or because I was being left behind. A love nurtured over the years, from the fragile magic of its beginning to its full beautiful bloom, is always taken into account when the future is planned and a move considered. But friends not accorded such generous treatment. No, they are always left behind without second thoughts.

The thoughts – and the anguish – come later, overwhelming the mind and scarring emotions permanently. No collection of ephemera, however random and vast in scope, can give sufficient solace when social ties have been severed. I have large cardboard boxes stuffed tightly with photos telling stories of riotous fun, and the neatly organized folders in my email client lay bare what wasn't shown in the open. They are meant to retell the joys of the past but only serve to highlight the losses, those that I've suffered and those that I've caused, which are frequently one and the same. It's better to leave the boxes shut and the folders unopened.

The present is full of joy, as it should be. I make new friends wherever I go and find happiness around me, while the past recedes with every passing day. But there is no mistaking; even slowly fading memories are pockmarks on my emotional world map, jarring, stinging and irritating.

From time to time I reminisce about the old times and try to count all the people that formed part of my social sphere, at one point or another. The number is in the dozens, and the faces and hearts behind the numbers are now scattered all over the globe. I know people in Mexico, Argentina, various parts of the US, in Singapore, Korea, Australia, and all over Europe. This already impressive geographic diversity hides the true extent of the problem. I know people from many more places who happen to have left the country of their birth just as I have, following to distant shores the irresistible call of opportunity and fulfillment.

Thanks to modern means of communication, I can call any of them at an instant, or sent them an email, or chat. I can even visit them relatively easily, thanks to cheap flights and no travel restrictions for holders of the right passport. The friends I've left behind are closer than they would have been in the past, but, crucially, there's also many more of them, and the stings of separation add up to a constant torment. I can't just call someone to meet him for coffee later in the afternoon, and I can't just send a text message to invite her to the movies tonight.

Many friendships are suspended in a sort of social coma to make the pain bearable. Most friends, especially those living far away, are just an entry in my address book most of the time. I discovered early on, by accident and laziness, that I don’t lose good friends by not staying in contact. As long as I know where they are and how to reach them, I can reach out any time the occasion comes up, any time we happen to be geographically close. The connection that is reestablished instantly and naturally when we see each other for the first time in years is one of the most amazing and gratifying experiences that has graced me.

Dammed feelings, held back over time, are released and flood the conversation. Hours pass effortlessly. So much has happened to us, and everything needs to be told. And curiously, everything fits. It feels as if we had met only yesterday. Everything seems as it was. Good friends change, their character refines, they progress professionally, move, start families, but in the vast majority of cases they stay the persons I know, value and love.

These magical moments, islands of calm in the relentless progression of time, are rare, and that is good. One should not look forward to looking back. The past has done its duty; it must rest. The fading of memories that are not refreshed from time to time is an illusion. They don't dim; they're simply outshone by the prospect of a bright future and the memories yet to come.

This story is not about the future. Who knows how that's going to turn out? I don't, and frankly, I don't care. I'm with Janis Joplin who observed that the future never happens. It's all the same day, today. Life takes place here and now, independent of where I am or what I do – and always in the company of good friends.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

one more

It's cold in old England, and not only here. The entire island is under a nasty spell. Today, many newspapers carried on their front pages the same satellite image of Great Britain, showing an unbroken white surface, a blanket of snow stretching from Land's End to John O'Groats and from Margate to the undiscovered north-west corner of the land.

London is a bit of an exception. Winter has moved in, but the white stuff in the parks and gardens lacks the fluffiness and playfulness of snow. It's harsh frost, as unforgiving as a public-school headmistress, that covers the lawns and bushes. The paths, streets and sidewalks seems clear, but beware. They are covered with an inch of treacherous ice that hasn't melted in five days.

I haven't been out running, but that's not the New Year's resolution that I've broken. I'm still taking the preparations for my third marathon very seriously indeed. I haven't been out because I've had a bit of a cold, conveniently befalling me right before I embark on my training. Next week will see me back to form and on the planks of the university sports center. I have scheduled circuit training and spinning classes (and am dreading them).

Not eating meat of dubious provenience is also not a resolution I have broken. Outside a little bacon rasher that was part of my New Year's Day's breakfast, I've haven't had dead animals' body parts on my plate. The consequences cannot be estimated yet, but I expect them to be dire. I'm constantly hungry and in danger of losing weight. While some might rejoice at this prospect, I'm concerned about having enough energy for a three-hour marathon and keep eating chocolate to make up for lost calories. At some point I'll have to go to Whole Foods and buy a piece of wholesome hand-raised cow; otherwise I might not last long. Anyway, at the moment I'm still going.

I have failed in a different regard, in a resolution of passivity that proved to hard to keep. Last year, I acquired some 25 books, of which I read a good dozen. I read also a few I've had for a longer time and some I had borrowed or planned to give away after reading. Overall, that roughly evened out. My bookshelf has become heavier, but the books don't just sit there gathering dust. Still, after buying Orchid Fever and getting In Patagonia, my wish list had been whittled down to one. With the exception of one, my bibliophile desires were fulfilled, and I had resolved not to add to my collection this year.

The book that was destined to be ignored was The Black Swan, a piece of socioeconomic heresy that explains how the world is shaped by the highly improbable. Statistical outliers several standard deviations from the expected and freak events off the scale can have potentially earthshaking consequences; yet human nature tends to suppress the very idea of these events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb gained instant notoriety for publishing his thesis at exactly the time that highly improbable and entirely unforeseen events threatened to pulverize the financial world.

On two occasions, I had borrowed the book from from the library, most recently just before Christmas. Both times I started reading with wild enthusiasm but had to realize quickly that the book required more thinking than I could fit into the three weeks the library accorded me. Each time I got intellectually stimulated by the introduction but then ran out of time. Last Sunday, I returned the book for the second time, unfinished. Then on Monday, on my way to lunch, I saw it in the window of the Oxfam store. I couldn't resist and bagged it, breaking my first resolution when the New Year was less than a week old.

I don't feel too bad about it. Given that I have twice failed to read the book when taking it out from the library, the only way of succeeding was by owning it. Well, owning it and reading it, and with the weather expected to stay arctic for at least another week, I'll have plenty of time to do that. But I'll do so anxiously, checking the forecast periodically to see when I can finally go outside and run.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

do no evil

It was in the summer of 2001. I lived in a large house in Salt Lake City, Utah. My birthday was coming up and one day I found a package on my porch with the familiar arrowed swoosh tattooed all over it. There was no doubt, the two events had to be related, but it wasn't immediately obvious who had sent me a birthday present or what it was.

The box was nearly cubic and quite heavy. It was too big for books and too hefty for some nonsensical highly collectible protectively padded bone china doll. I was curious, dragged it on into my living room and ripped the cardboard open. The space inside was almost entirely filled with the solid white body of a bread maker.

I was explosively delighted but then the curiosity I still felt flipped to bafflement. Who could have guessed? Who could have known that I wasn't a big fan of sliced bread and related wonders? A sheet of paper, stuck to the left flank of the apparatus, revealed the person responsible for this act of unsurpassed generosity. It was my mom.

Then, as now, my mom was leading a quite life in a small town in Germany, away from the burning edge of technology, happily riding her bike through the woods surrounding our town. How did she get ten pounds of Chinese-made kitchen appliance onto the steps to my porch nearly five-and-a-half thousand miles away?

Hadn't it been for the power of the internet and the commercial acumen of, she would have never been able to get a bread maker to the US, let alone onto my doorstep. But with the help of an internet-savvy daughter, she pulled it off, providing for several years of good fresh bread on my table. I've always loved my mom, but back then on the carpet of my living-room floor, I warmed my heart to Amazon.

They're in the business of making money, quite obviously and quite successfully, but they hide this primary objective under a fuzzy layer of overwhelming customer friendliness. They sell most of what customers could possibly want, don't ask for much, and ship it quickly, wherever you want.

Over the years, before my 2001 birthday and afterwards, I have ordered countless times from Amazon, shipping packages to the US, France, Germany and the UK. I have never been disappointed.

The other day, I bought friends in Italy a Christmas gift. doesn't exist. The redirection pages lets the user choose an alternative based on linguistic capabilities., and are the options. The shipping cost, no matter what is picked, is as if the order were processed by the nonexisting All was good.

All was good until my friends opened the package and tried to play the DVD. What it said on the package, on the receipt and on the DVD was not what showed on their screen. The disk was all messed up and needed to be replaced with the right product. I took it upon myself to effect the transaction.

I clicked through endless script-based screens to set up an exchange, getting increasingly frustrated. "The item is not as described" only got me a refund. That's not what I wanted. Picking "Parts were missing" helped. The item would be exchanged. The original would have to be returned, though, eligible for a shipping refund of up to £1.24 only (which is not even enough to send a letter from Italy, let alone a package).

There was no phone number. I was getting a bit annoyed. Anyway, I submitted the request. This had been a gift, and it'd better be right. Whatever. Less than half an hour after the request, I got an email that's evidently been written by a human being. It said that

as the cost of returning the package is in this case prohibitively expensive, we ask that you keep the original item with our compliments. Perhaps you would like to donate it to a charity in your area if you feel it would be appropriate to do so. There will of course be no additional charge for the replacement order.

The story ends at this point, but not the post. This is supposed to be an advertisement for one of the few companies that I really like. And I write all this to justify that, from now on, all the links to books I recommend will carry a Amazon affiliates tag that will earn me a little commission if any of you is tricked into buying a book by what I write. Please click through my links, and happy reading!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

new year

The new year is a few days old. It started like the one before, with fireworks by the Thames. Just like last year, I went down to the river when it was almost too late. To get a prime viewing spot in front of the London Eye, one has to arrive before 8 pm. After that, the embankment is full and the tube station closed.

I got to Temple after 11, and crowds were heaving in every direction. A D.J. from the BBC played music and hotted up the masses, broadcast live on national radio and blasted through the cold air of the night with the help of a five-meter tall speaker dangling off the arm of a crane.

The countdown to midnight ended in a big cheer, and explosions of fireworks rocked from the colorfully illuminated ring of the Eye. I liked them much better than last year's; next year I'll try to get to the river early enough to camp directly in front of the Eye.

With a small bottle of champagne and two glass flutes, we were an island of civilization in the sea of kids drunk on music, euphoria and cheap booze. While the party raged around us, I greeted my own new year and contemplated the future.

Earlier, I wrote a bit about things to try, things to change and things to abandon. This came out unnecessarily negative and defeatist. I don't intend to scrap activities that fill my time with purpose and me with joy just because of the slight obstacle of ineptitude. If I have fun doing something, I'll continue doing it.

However, at the moment my spare time is overflowing with activities and hobbies, and none gets what it is due. In light of this I cannot follow the maxim, put forth by the folks at, that if you can't learn to do something well, you'd better learn to enjoy doing it poorly. In my opinion, life's too short to do too many things poorly. I'd rather do a few things well. Consequently, I will curtail some of my clumsier activities and channel the freed time into pursuits with potential.

The Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Writing lies on my desk, looking at me with hope and eagerness. Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia and Eric Hansen's Orchid Fever form a neat little stack of two right next to it. Where's the future going to take me?