Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Life and Zivilcourage

As a long-term ex-pat, it’s sometimes hard to separate what you learn from living in a foreign country and what you learn just as a routine part of getting older. Since I moved to Berlin eight years ago, several campaigns have pushed people to not just ignore racially motivated – or just plain old run-of-the-mill – crime. In German, it’s called ‘Zivilcourage’ or civil courage. Mostly the ads said call the cops if you see something. (As a side note, anyone that’s dealt with Berlin police officers knows this is no real or immediate solution as the first thing a Berlin cop will tell you is that it’s not his problem – for real). In any case, the ads always made me think as I sat on the U-Bahn on the way to work or a bar.

What would I do?

I’ve never really been privy to serious violence but there are at least two instances where I was disappointed by my reaction. Two events that I still run through my brain on sleepless nights. Granted, they border on the banal.

One night I was on my way home from a buddy’s and was standing on some random Kreuzberg U-Bahn platform when a Turkish guy started play fighting with his girlfriend (does it matter what nationality the guy was?). “Play” is used loosely in this context as the ritual was more a show of dominance and poorly disguised misogyny. It was clear that with the right combustibles and behind a closed door, the play could (and would) become abuse. But so the two fought and the girl giggled and then she got a bloody nose.

These were two adults I reckoned. It was stupid and naïve but there you go. That’s life. However, the entire time a guy with Downs Syndrome had been watching with great concern. The bloody nose was too much for him to take. He asked (to be honest, it was more begging) the boyfriend to please stop hurting the girl. As soon as the man opened his mouth, I cringed.

What came next was a fountain of obscenities and threats from the boyfriend. The insults were bad enough but to threaten someone who is just voicing concern over someone you supposedly love seemed a tad much. The Downs Syndrome guy just stood there and absorbed the tirade, still obviously concerned about the girl. What did I do? Moved to the other end of the platform. At the time, I thought my only option was to intervene and tell the boyfriend to lay off. To worry about himself. That this guy was only concerned about his girlfriend and didn’t necessarily understand that it was play fighting. I figured the boyfriend would most likely leave the man alone because of his handicap but might not respond so compassionately to me. So I left.

And it still bothers me.

This week, during a sleepless night over a recent tax audit, a potential solution occurred to me. I should have just tried to extract the retarded man. Asked him his name and asked him to escort me to the other side of the platform. I have no way of knowing if this would have actually worked, but I’m pretty sure I should have done something.

About that same time, there was a smaller, similar incident that still stays with me. There is a woman that wanders the streets in our neighborhood with the kind of genetic disease that has left her short, misshapen and with a face that would have certainly landed her at the bottom of a well or had her flaming on a stake 200 years ago. I only ever see these kinds of people in Europe (where do we hide them in the States?).

She stumbles through the streets muttering to herself (if you listen closely you’ll hear her insulting everyone who passes by). She totes a plastic bag that she fills with deposit bottles and anything else re-usable she finds in the trash cans on the corner. She’s harmless and just another piece of the urban wallpaper.

One day a local teen-ager took it upon himself to discuss her constant muttering with her. She responded with the kind of hate and scorn you’d expect – I assume he was just fulfilling the paranoid dreams that fill her life. But rather than keep on going he stopped and confronted her with another stream of obscenities. This lasted for several minutes with the woman working herself into a defensive fury and the boy relishing her pain. He was no threat to me and it would have been nothing to say: hey, fucking stop. Now.

But I didn’t. I went to get a coffee. And it still bothers me.

When I think about these things (and, to be fair, it occurs to me that there are many more examples where I actually did something), I wonder if this is just a part of life and getting older, or part of life in Germany. I’m bothered by the fact that a public service campaign has co-opted and labeled my own internal doubts – Zivilcourage. This further complicates my contemplations on what it all means.

Though, maybe it just means I should occasionally show more Zivilcourage.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Stress and zen

Three weeks ago I ran twice the whole week, two miles each time. Then two weeks ago work and stress caught up with me and I didn't jog at all. This made me unhappy and the whole Sunday before the next week I thought about how I needed to go for a run that Monday. But I also had work that I needed to do that weekend that didn't get done and so, when Monday rolled around, I was starting to stress that I didn't have 30 minutes in the morning to hit the track.

I kept telling myself it would be good for the stress, but I was worrying I wouldn't have time. Then Monday morning came and Cy decided to have a tantrum about wearing this or not wearing that or who should get him dressed and the resolution added 15 minutes to the morning ritual. Then breakfast took longer than it should have and I started getting really nervous. I needed to get the kids to daycare and then run and then get back to get some things done. I was starting to think I wouldn't have time.

I couldn't decide whether to drive or strap the kids into the trailer but Cy at some point had announced he wanted me to drive and I made the mistake of agreeing. I hate driving. It's a mile to the kita and world is getting warmer. I don't need to use the car. So now I was worrying about the work I needed to get done (would the clients call while I was away to see what I was doing?), whether or not we'd get to the nursery on time, the fact that I didn't really want to use the Volvo and the fact that I wanted to run but now probably couldn't.


I thought this as I bundled the kids out of the car, got them into the nursery and into their slippers. I had this nervous, anxious feeling in my stomach and my head kept saying, I can't run, you should run, I can't run, you should run.

I had pretty much decided I wouldn't. There was an article to write and a translation to do and all that before I even started thinking about my day job. There was no time to run. I slid the key into the car and opened the door. Then, about the time my butt hit the seat, I had this odd moment of zen, of clarity. It was like all the stress, all the worry just left my mind. It evaoporated.

"Just go run," I said to myself. It was that simple. Just go run. And so I did.

I think about that moment a lot. I've never had that and I'm not sure where it came from. Whatever it was, was right -- none of the clients called. Nobody cared. The work got done. Everyone was happy, and I got to run.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I'm sorry

Mostly I'd like to apologize to all those people I lambasted under my breath back when I was a cyclist. Those people who said they gave up competitive cycling because they just had too much to do. They didn't have time to train. They didn't have time to take care of their bike. They didn't have time to travel to races.

They didn't, I said to myself, have any commitment. And as so often happens with age, I now see where I was wrong. Because in September I got busy with various projects and didn't have much time. And then Sabine got busy with various projects, which meant I had to take the kids more often and had even less time.

And so I only ran once, maybe twice a week. It went like that through September. Then October. Then came November and, as happens every year, the illness wave hit and went until mid-January. There was a week in early January where I was healthy again and managed to run every other day for a week. Then I got sick again but today we both finally managed to make it to the track: 8 laps. Two miles.

It's a start, I guess. But still I'm sorry.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My uncle, the fighter pilot

Two winters ago my father planned a family Christmas at his place in Denver. Even though his sister (my aunt) couldn't make it, his brother (my uncle) and his kids (sort of my cousins but they were adopted late in my life so I don't really think of them that way) could, and I was looking forward to hanging out with everyone and showing off my own offspring.

When I was a kid, my uncle was a flight instructor for the Air Force and flew really sweet t-38s (the jets that acted at Migs in Top Gun). He graduated from the Air Force Academy and always seemed very military to me, which is especially exciting to sub-teen boys. Pretty much, he was the coolest. The mental image I have of him as a svelte, young man in a blue uniform next to a twin-engine fighter certainly played a significant role in why I got a pilot's license in college and seriously considering flying planes for a living.

So it was a shock when my (now-retired) Air Force uncle hobbled through my father's doorway two years ago on crutches. He was no longer the kind of person Hollywood made movies about, not even if they star Rosie O'Donnell. It was his hips, he said through pasty lips and over a rotund, nearly-obese body. He was having both of them replaced in the new year, he reassured us.

Holy fuck, I thought. Is this where I'm headed? Hip-replacement surgery at 58? I write constantly about orthopedic firms salivating over the aging, fattening population in America but I never expected to actually confront it.

My uncle, aunt and cousins all left in a huff several hours later (long, unimportant story) and we eventually got to talking about those hips. My father insisted it was the result of high school football. I, on the other hand, was (and am) convinced it was more his sedentary, post Air Force lifestyle. From the second he walked in the door I had been thinking, shit, I have to do some kind of exercise or that will be my future.

And so my uncle is now responsible for not only my pilot's license, but also partially for the 2.5 miles I did yesterday in 23 mins.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Oh, running

Oh, right, running.

Back in the '70s, when pop psychology was known as 'psychology,' I realized I had an inferiority complex (everyone did at the time). It still manifests itself in me feeling that everything I do is half-assed, at best, and that if I do something, then everyone can do it.

Running is no different. Earlier this year I was sort of down on the whole effort since I wasn't losing any weight and my times weren't improving. I wasn't even jogging with any regularity, I figured. Then I looked down:

Sure, you say, cut yer toenails, Andrew. But that's not it. My shoes are actually wearing out, which made me feel better about the whole thing. I was actually running. And the holes in my shoes inspired me to register for a 10k at the start of July. And I eventually talked Sabine into it too.

And, a couple weeks later, we had t-shirts and (because this is Germany, certificate capital of the world) a certificate that showed we completed the 10 kilometers in the center of Berlin in one hour and one second (my time showed us coming in a minute quicker because we started way back and had to wait that long to get out of the gate).

Then we sort of stopped running because we went to Poland. Then Norway. Then had visitors from Stuttgart. And then we went to Kassel. And then the grandparents came. And two people had birthdays.

But we were back on the track this morning and, while I'll confess the three miles are likely something almost anyone could have done, I have to tell my inferiority complex that not everyone did the three miles.


Friday, August 10, 2007


Off topic: For two years at the end of the '90s, I lived in Frankfurt, and I was miserable. I'd begun to convince myself the city wasn't entirely at fault since I was at a pivotal juncture in my then-youngish life: I was working for a crappy company (Bloomberg News) and had just left a six-year relationship. In addition, I'd just moved solely under my own power to a foreign country. These were hard times.

Then I went back there yesterday for a job interview.

The place feels like the capital city of a third-world nation rather than the financial hub of the world's third-largest economy. As anyone will tell you, the area around the train station is the chief problem. The area around every German train station is seedy but Frankfurt's has a special flair and it's because of all the five-story granite buildings. They're all poorly maintained and either in need of a good soak or demolishment. Covering their facades are signs for various foreign banks, often in foreign fonts, lending an air of uneasy foreign-ness.

Trams, cars and buses all power by, spewing a diesel fog and adding tension. Junkies and dealers serve as the area's wallpaper while African, Indian and Eastern European businessmen chainsmoke in cheap, worn suits. Though your brain says you're in Europe's biggest country, all your senses say you've just landed in Ghana to negotiate the purchase of 3,000 used mobile phones with a contact who's only given you his first name.

I can't blame all my misery on the place, but it certainly added salt to my psychic wounds.


Monday, May 28, 2007

The Back

Everyone wondered if I'd told the doctor I'd started running. I didn't but I wasn't telling everyone everything anyway.

Back in late March I was bending over to add a little more heat to my morning shower when I felt the cliche flash of pain in my lower back. Since I had spent part of the previous weekend lugging crates of Bionade, OJ, apple juice and water into the flat, it wasn't unexpected. I've had this kind of thing my whole life and it usually means a couple of days of tight muscles and occasional spasms while rolling over in bed (or sneezing). But it's not only heavy loads that cause problems, I've noticed it kicks in psychosomatically every time the morning scale edges to 200.

The morning of my most recent back trouble, I had reached 200 again (yes, despite all the running), so it came as little surprise. But the not being able to walk was a surprise. The not going away even after three days was a surprise and me deciding to see a doctor was a surprise. I didn't tell him about the running. I didn't tell him about the 200. But I did mention the crates. So he gave me some drugs and the back was better -- but not 100% -- right away.

It made me nervous and through all of April I only ran once a week and not very far. For the past three weeks, where we toured through various U.S. states, I only ran twice (on a golf course in North Carolina, which I can highly recommend -- the running on the course, not golf).

But, one day back and heavily jet-lagged, I put in two miles at Volkspark Friedrichshain this morning.

My back has always been a problem and even when I was a competitive cyclist it would go out. It never affected the riding and I often suspected it had something to do with an imbalance in muscles since I never did any cross-training. Now I just think it's genetic though my father blames my years recreating on trampolines in the greater Littleton, Colorado area. He has the same back and once owned a trampoline center where people presumably (in his mind) paid to gradually ruin their backs.

Back when I weighed 220 it was such an issue that I carefully picked where I would sit and consciously avoided restaurants and bars that didn't offer fat friendly seating (I especially hated benches).

Part of this running business is to avoid getting there again so I'm working up a new schedule using my post-vacation optimism and I'm hoping to do something about my depressing work life to avoid the frequent trips to the chocolate drawer.

Still, America wasn't much of a help. The scale today: 204. No back trouble though.