House Spiders — The Enemy Within

The most recent Titanic‘s "Letters to Our Readers" section addresses house spiders (who I didn’t know were subscribers):

Honorable House Spiders!

All these years we’ve lived together with you without serious problems.  Indeed, you could even speak of a peaceful co-existence.  And now we have to read in the specialty bug magazine Draco the following description of one of your species that lives all over the place, which bears the already rather unsettling name Scytodes thoracica:

The house spider "covers its prey with an stringy fluid and thus binds them to the ground.  The powerfully-build poison glands actually produce poison only in a small front portion — the larger rear portion excretes an extremely stringy glue.  From here, the spider sprays, under extremely high pressure, a secretion onto the prey from a distance of up to 2 centimeters.  The secretion immediately sticks to an immobilizes the prey." 

Poison glands?  Spraying glue?  Stringy secretion?  All this in our bedrooms?  In the kitchen?  The bath?!  But there’s more: "If the victim makes a strong escape attempt, it will be spat upon repeatedly.  Then the spider, looking quite relaxed, will eventually come by an apply the poison bite.  The victim will either be sucked dry right then or brought out of its bindings and dragged to a hiding place by means of the spider’s chelicerae and pedipalps."

That, house spider, is the last straw, and we really don’t want anything to do with it.  So next time we greet you in the sink or shower, whether you’re looking quite relaxed or not, we aren’t going to take your chelicerae carefully in a hand towel and shake your pedipalps gently out the window — instead, from this point on, we’ll get the vacuum cleaner and turn it up to 1000 watts!

Eek!  A Spider!  —  Titanic

I ♥ David Hasselhoff

Indeed, David Hasselhoff, like Paul Auster and Jim Jarmusch, is a much bigger star in Germany than in the U.S.  I don’t know exactly why, but perhaps this video for "Hooked on a Feeling" helps explain it.  Let me quote from an email I wrote to a friend after he sent me this link:

I will tell you something, without a drop of shame.  I enjoyed the hell out of the song and the video.  All of it.  The angels, the Masai warriors, the inexplicable detour to Alaska, the foreshortened background featuring dancing businessmen.  It was catchy, irresistible, and not without a disarming dose of self-deprecation.  A frothy, senseless celebration of lighthearted, lightheaded love.

And I stand by that.  David, ich hab’ dich gaaaanz lieb!!!

German Joys Mini-Review: Stasiland

Just reading Stasiland, a 2003 book by Anna Fuller, an Australian journalist and recovering lawyer who traveled through East Germany interviewing people who had something to do with the East German security state, either as members or as persecutees of the Stasi (the abbreviation for the East German Ministry of State Security).

Stasiland is loosely episodic and somewhat memoir-like, so it takes a little while to build up momentum. When it does, though it grips you. Many of the stories Funder tells will probably be familiar to Germans, such as:

  • The Klaus Renft Combo, East Germany’s only halfway-rebellious rock bank, who were tolerated uncomfortably by the State until they went too far and were disbanded by official decree in 1975, during a meeting the band later taped and broadcast;
  • The Lipsi, a "dance craze" officially ginned-up and imposed by the East German state in the 1960s to compete with rock and roll (Funder calls it "a dance invented by a committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing");
  • The frightening ideological mania of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a convinced Communist whose job it was to appear on East German television and explain, in long, unhinged tirades, why Western TV shows were despicable capitalist lies and propaganda designed to conceal a hellish, dollar-driven war of all against all. Even years after the wall fell, "Von Schni–" as he was called (because of viewer’s tendency to switch off the set as soon as his show came on), screamed at Funder that Germany needed it back "More! Than! Ever!"

Funder also gives full justice to stories that would otherwise have been lost in the flood of news — including tales of reuniting families, empying prisons, and former secret-service officers seeking to submerge quietly into their new jobs as security consultants or detectives — attending the fall of the wall.  Funder interviews about an equal number of ex-Stasi officers and ex-political prisoners. It’s odd to see how normal the ‘dissidents’ are. Few were particularly outspoken — the State wasn’t persecuting them for shoving blurry anti-regime pamphlets into mail slots or writing "bourgeois" plays, but only for trying to escape the country. Their stories are frightening, moving, and told by Funder without sentimentality.

The ex-Stasi officers Funder interviews, who responded to Funder’s newspaper advertisement requesting interviews(!), often defend their former wiretapping/interrogating/torturing of their fellow citizens. She interviews them in their stuffy, dark-brown living rooms in Germany’s suburbs. The explain to her how they recruited informal spies, exploited the State’s all-pervasive social role to bend people into line, and generally did a bang-up job of keeping the East safe from imperialist assault.  They take pleasure in describing how easy it was to get ordinary East Germans to spy on each other and turn each other in.

One more appealing figure is Hagen Koch, tells of how he gradually became disillusioned with the Stasi, and in 1985 applied to leave for the regular army. As a last act of defiance, he took from his office wall a small award plaque for "cultural work" done by his unit. The Stasi formed a committee and launched an investigation of the plaque’s disappearance, but Koch stonewalled them. During a 1993 TV interview, the plaque appeared in the background.  Shortly afterward, he claims, West German detectives visited him and told him he was being charged not only with stealing property from West Germany (which inherited all the East’s property), but also for lying during the East German investigation of the plate’s disappearance. He never had to go to prison, but his wife lost her job.  Whether the story is true or not (the lawyer in me says the claims were probably too old to prosecute), it could be true.  This tale of the man-hours spent and lives damaged over a meaningless €2.50 feel-good trinket says as much about the German soul as any volume of Schiller.

There aren’t many books written by native English-speakers about ordinary people in modern Germany, but Stasiland, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004, stands out. There are some minor flaws, such as the fact that the memoir-like portions of the book sometimes don’t integrate well with the stories being told, and an irritating tendency to use Australian slang like "skerrick." However, these are minor quibbles. Stasiland is by turns funny, thoughtful and moving, and well worth a read.

Horst Fascher and the Early Beatles

I just heard an interview with Horst Fascher, the German club-owner who gave the Beatles their start in various clubs in the German port city of Hamburg in 1962.  He’s written a book called (title in English, book in German) Let the Good Times Roll, about his adventurous life. 

Fascher himself is a formerboxer who spent some time in prison for manslaughter, but also learned excellent English in the sea trade.  Fascher realized the Beatles’ potential soon after he heard them. He invited them to play in clubs he managed, most notably the Star Club, provided them with accommodations (the Fab Four slept two to a room in a two-bedroom place), and even invited them home to share his mother’s stew, which she cooked in a big laundry-pot and flavored with plenty of meat that Fascher’s father, a butcher, brought home.

Fascher had plenty of juicy anecdotes.  The Star Club, it seems, was no dinner theater.  Things got moist and smoky and alcoholized. Paul McCartney handled it all gracefully — he really was the nice Beatle, according to Fascher.  In fact, he still returns Fascher’s phone calls, although Fascher has to go through McCartney’s front office like everyone else, since McCartney has no cellphone. 

John Lennon was much more difficult (George was introverted and thought only of his guitar).  When a fan yelled something rude or spilled beer on him, Lennon might well call him a "fucking Nazi bastard."  Not infrequently, Lennon jumped into the crowd and started mixing it up.  Fascher stepped in to prevent Lennon getting beaten to a pulp.  Fascher introduced the Beatles to Hamburg’s infamous red-light district, St. Pauli, and recorded their amazement at how realistic German transvestites looked.  Fascher also hinted, with some amusement, that he made sure the boys always had "the things they needed" when they decided to "pay visits" to that part of the city.

Fascher’s mother, German to the core, asked the Beatles what they were doing about washing their underthings.  The Fab Four replied modestly that they washed them in the sink in their communal apartment.  "Nonsense!" she said, "you’ll only turn them gray that way.  Bring them over here and I’ll wash them."  So the Beatles packed up their sweaty underwear and brought it to Fascher’s mother’s place for a thorough German scrubbing.  I wonder how much a 44-year-old pair of John Lennon’s underwear would fetch these days?

There’s much more in the whole interview, which you can download here.  Two warnings: the interview’s in German, and West German Radio’s links often don’t work…

The Meaning of Bicycle Bells

I get to Germany, and decide to go buy me a mountain bike, since I love to ride bikes.  I visit my local bike shop, where the gruff but lovable Herr Wagner sells me a Specialized HardRock.  He begins to screw a bicycle bell onto the handlebar.

"Oh, I won’t be needing that," I told him.

"Yes, you will."

"A bicycle bell?  I haven’t had a bicycle bell on my bicycle since I was ten years old.  It’ll probably fall off, anyway."

"You must have this," Herr Wagner said.  "It is…necessary" he said, searching for the English word.

"But it’s a mountain bike.  I don’t need a bell when I’m riding trails."

"You will not always be on trails.  And it is the law.  All bikes must have a bell.  This is a crowded country.  I give it to you free."

"Well, alright then."

So I figured that since I’ve got a bell on my bicycle, I might as well use it.  When I came up behing people on the sidewalk or on a trail, I gave them a friendly little ding!  In the United States, it’s considered courteous to give pedestrians a brief verbal warning when you cycle past them.  I figured that in Germany, the bell was what you used to give a friendly warning.

I soon noticed that whenever I rang the bicycle bell to tell people I was approaching, people’s heads would whip around to me.  Or they’d jump immediately to one side — and I mean immediately.  One guy, walking alone on a fairly narrow trail near a hedge, actually jumped into the hedge and worked himself a little way in, before eyeing me in fright and resentment as I bicycled by.  People walking dogs would pull little Fido’s chain so hard and so quickly that I was afraid Fido’s neck would break.

"Man, these Germans sure are high-strung," I thought to myself unheedingly.  I began to secretly enjoy ringing the bell and watching the people jump as if they’d received an electric shock.  It was as if I were a king or a mafia boss — everyone immediately jumped to their feet in my presence.  Finally, a biker was getting the respect he deserved.

Then I went bicycleing with a few German friends.  We came up to a group of people and I rang my bell.  The group scattered, as always.  My German friends said "what did you do that for?!"  "I was just giving them a friendly warning," I said innocently.  "So they knew we were coming."  Then my friends explained to me: "No, no no!  You only ring the bell when you absolutely have to.  Otherwise, you do not need to say anything."

As I found out, bicycle etiquette is different in Germany (or at least in my part of Germany) than it is in the U.S.  If you can bicycle past someone and leave a meter between you and them, you just do it without saying anything.  If it’s going to be somewhat closer, you may wish to make a sound or announce "bicycle" (Fahrrad), so they know not to make any sudden movements as you ride past. 

You ring the bell only when the people walking on the trail have to move in order to let you ride by.  That is, you will hit them, or will have to stop, if they don’t move to the side.  The people who were walking alone on the trail always reacted the most urgently to the bell.  This is because they knew they weren’t blocking the path — there was plenty of room for me to cycle right past them.  So when I rang the bell, the message I was sending them was "I do not have full control of my bicycle, and might run into you unless you move right now!"  Understandably, they did just that.

Now, of course, I understand the rules, and often go riding for hours without ever using my bell.  I’m just glad I didn’t make the same kind of cross-cultural mistake when I was riding in Texas.  Because then, somebody would probably have shot me…

The 6,000 Euro Insult

On German T.V., there’s extremely highbrow (3-hour documentaries about opera stars), high-middlebrow (Harald Schmidt, a German carbon-copy of David Letterman), and then things pretty much go to hell in a handbasket.

The lower order of entertainers are pretty dire, as the FAZ newspaper recently lamented (German).  According to the FAZ, a brief interlude during the 1980s, in which German comedy introduced character-driven sitcoms based on everyday situations, "the crooked teeth, horrible glasses, and funny hairdos are back."

So are the schoolyard insults (assuming they ever left).  "TV Entertainer" Oliver Pocher recently staged a gag on the popular TV quiz show "Wetten, dass" in which he stood in a public square in Hannover and encouraged people to dye their hair orange using a spray-can.  For some reason.

As a German woman named Dana Gottschalk approached, he looked at her ID card, which showed she was 29 years old, and remarked "You sure look old for your age!"  He then hinted she might want to enroll as a contestant on a TV show on his regular network, in which people get cosmetic surgery.  [Yes, the show exists, and it shows graphic before, during, and after footage.]

Unfortunately for Pocher, publicly insulting someone’s honor is an "invasion of their right to personality" in Germany.  Gottschalk sued (German) Pocher for 35,000 Euro.  Even Pocher seems to know he went too far; he agreed to pay 1000 Euro.  The judge eventually set the amount at 6000 for the tasteless remark.

The truth is not a defense to this kind of legal liability in Germany.  Therefore we were spared the spectacle of Pocher mounting a defense by showing Gottschalk really did look old for her age…

Sad, Neat Little Piles of Garbage

Once or twice a week, I leave my apartment building and am confronted by a pile of garbage in the street.  A small, modest, neat pile of garbage, stacked near the curb, to avoid blocking the sidewalk. 

You never know what you’ll find in these tiny landfills.  The mainstay is cheap, stained IKEA furniture: rolling metal Lyörgny TV carts, "beech-finish" Billy coffee tables pocked with cigarette burns, Nuellmorg cupboards whose doors hang off at jaunty angles, sodden Blebby barstools.  Inevitable, there’s a bulky, cream-colored 1994-vintage computer monitor or gargantuan, blocky dot-matrix printer.  Then there’s the cast-off clothing that’s somehow not fit for the recycle bin — stained Wolfgang Petry T-shirts with their arms ripped off, or comforters blotched with large, unnerving stains. Then there’s the eerie pathos of the cheap plastic childrens’ toys and endless pairs of tiny plastic-and-velcro shoes (where are those kids now?  Are they happy?).

  Window_sperrmuell_moyland_004The image to the left is typical.  We have the decomposing chairs, sheets of unidentifiable disassembled white and wood-finish components, the white plastic toy baby carriage. Two frightening purple-and-black hulks, apparently couches, make love right out in the open.  Note that for all the undeniable God-awful ugliness of it all, it is stacked so neatly that the bicycle path to the right is completely free.  Yes, there is order among this apparent chaos.

This is not the result of a garbage strike or freakish breakdown in the German love of organization.  It’s a normal neighborhood event.  The people who’ve stacked up this garbage are have called up the Sperrmuell (bulky garbage) service earlier in the week.  A big truck will haul this stuff away in the next few days.

Because the trash pile is temporary, the neighbors don’t mind. In fact, they love it.  These displays are like little free garage sales. It’s not at all uncommon for ordinary folks walking along the street to spot something they like and take it with them, clutching their precious find to their chests and eyeing passersby with distrust as they scurry back to their own moist, furtive little apartments. Apparently, they’re afraid someone will steal the hideous lamp or fungal sneakers they rescued from the pile, since they have no legal right to it themselves. Sometimes, most of the pile is gone long before the garbage truck even turns up. 

But not those ghastly purple couches. They went to the Great Living-Room in the Sky, I’m pleased to report.

Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man”

Warning to German readers: I’m about to review Grizzly Man, a 2005 documentary by the grand old man of German cinema, Werner Herzog.  There are no plans to release this extraordinary movie in Germany.  I don’t know why this is so, and I hope whoever controls this decision changes their mind.

Now to the review.  Herzog’s name conjures unshaven, sweaty half-madmen hacking through a trackless forest, cursing God.  And Grizzly Man is no disappoinment, although the Herzogian protagonist here — a wildlife activist named Timothy Treadwell who lived among wild grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness — is real. 

Treadwell believed that man can live peacefully with bears, and brought along videotape — which he shot himself, often alone — to show how it’s done.  He shoots himself  singing and talking to the bears (to whom he gives names like "Mr. Chocolate"), droning "I love you" over and over in a high-pitched voice to keep them calm, and even approaching and petting them.  Treadwell filmed thousands of hours of footage of the bears and of himself before his luck ran out in 2003, when he and a female companion named Anne Huguenard were killed and eaten by an old, emaciated brown bear who was unfamiliar to them. 

Herzog lets Treadwell emerge primarily through through his own film footage.  Among surprisingly skillful wilderness photography (which earns Herzog’s admiration), there are more personal moments.  During his lonely summers, Treadwell treated his camera as a "confessional," as Herzog puts it, committing his innermost confidences and inadequacies to its lens.  Herzog supplements this footage by interviewing Treadwell’s friends, acquaintances, and family members.

The film’s narrative is a peeling-away of the layers of Treadwell’s personality, and Herzog paces it masterfully.  At first, Treadwell is a happy-go-lucky ecccentric, wandering cheerfully around the unspoiled Alaskan outback, meditating in his high-pitched lisp about the wonders of nature and the individual quirks of his furry friends.  Gradually, however, we learn of past brushes with drugs and mental illness (likely, bipolar disorder). His homemade tapes begin to reveal tinges of paranoia and self-aggrandizement; he’s convinced the bears are in grave danger and only he can save them (but they are perfectly safe, and his conduct actually threatens them by accustoming them to the presence of humans with darker purposes).  Treadwell is also evidently horrified when the bears defy his sentimentalized image of them by, for instance, murdering their own cubs or eating each other. 

Treadwell’s "study" and "protection" of the bears developes into little more than a backdrop to his own warped narcissistic posturing.  In one amazing scene, Treadwell launches into a profanity-laced five-minute tirade against the government and society, painting himself as the bears’ only true ally.  Herzog turns off the sound to Treadwell’s rantings and interjects his own comments while Treadwell stalks the screen.  Then the soundtrack to Treadwell’s ranting resumes, only to reveal he has been circling obsessively around the same meagre set of self-aggrandizing delusions.

Herzog narrates the film in his own crisp, slightly-accented English, not only providing context, but sometimes interjecting his own views of Treadwell’s life and philosophy.  I found this a minor distraction; many of the points Herzog makes are clear to the perceptive viewer.  But in general, Herzog treats Treadwell’s friends and supporters — as colorful a supporting cast as any director could wish for — with dignity and respect. 

By choosing a real person, and a very odd one at that, Herzog has set himself a challenge: how to illustrate the dark forces driving Treadwell without turning him into merely a laughable kook or deranged loner.  I found that Herzog brought it off almost-perfectly, and delivered a portrait that is all the more frightening and moving because of the respect it has for its troubled subject.