Bran/d

I had never seen them in any movies when they first became a couple, which was the point of it, really; it was almost a shock to see Brad Pitt’s face in Fight Club, in Ocean’s Eleven, years later when my world had opened up to the age-inappropriate. It was almost a shock to find out he was an actor – that she was an actress – that these words, movie star, were not markers of caste or superiority but descriptions for a job that people did. That they were paid to perform labor I could touch, see, consume.

It is a fact of childhood that the world is populated by two sorts of people. The first sort is the real: your parents, your siblings, your neighbors, your babysitter, your teachers, the dogs you see on the street. The second sort is the unreal: the monsters under the bed, your Barbie dolls, the cowboys and pirates you’ll be when you grow up, Harry Potter, Robin Hood, historical figures like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln who you can play-pretend as. The celebrities in the magazines you see at the supermarket.

This second sort are not false, not even quite imaginary. You can see them, speak to them, go on adventures with them. But you also know, instinctively and deeply, that you do not need to treat them like they are real. They are gone once you stop looking at them. There’s a flatness to them, an animation, a brightness that the real ones can’t summon. They are not there for their own sake; their stories are for you. You can put them back in the box when you’re done.

One tries to avoid the realization, for example, that one’s parents are people. It’s unavoidably unpleasant. No matter how wonderful the two people that raised you are – and many of them are very wonderful – it is awful to suddenly know that they too were born, grew up, thought and felt and think and feel.

It is often simultaneous with the realization that one’s parents are not perfect. But it is not synonymous, and this distinction is important: knowing that one’s parents have made mistakes is not the same as knowing that one’s parents are humans, that even their good qualities are human qualities, that they see each other as people and not as natural phenomena.

It is an unspeakably rich realization – all the more so for the fact that it comes shortly before one realizes that everyone is a person, that everyone has the same depth of feeling as oneself, that everyone has a distinct voice and a unique personality and a compelling story and a set of habits and quirks reflected in no other person. There is a more-ness to the world, afterwards.

But there is a less-ness, as well; and it is a lessening of that brightness, of that flatness, of that glamor and gleam and coloring and background soundtrack. It is a realization that all of one’s stories about other people are, in the end, imaginary. That eventually all of the painted sets in the Hollywood of the mind will be taken down, and the credits will roll, and the actors will be sitting in front of you, a little smaller than you imagined they would be.

I had never seen either of them in any movies, and that is the point of it, in the end. They had no jobs; they had no lives. They existed in magazine spreads for me, static, like a mosquito frozen in amber.

They were very beautiful there.

Hair

I first dye my hair in the fall of 2014. It’s a cool, windy fall, the kind that sets me pulling leggings on under my jeans, tugging my jacket closer around myself on my way to Rocky Horror; the island of Manhattan is just beginning to open itself up to me, after a long, nasty spring where I hobbled from classroom to classroom with a broken ankle and a pair of crutches.

There’s a girl in my Gender and Communication class – well, not a girl; she says it’s all right to call her she, and her, but that she’s actually got no gender at all. She has a pair of black combat boots, a green pixie cut, and a sarcastic retort for every boring or bigoted comment someone makes in class, and I fall a little bit in love with her that fall.

Well – not quite love, in the same way that she’s not quite a girl. It’s the peculiar ache in so many queer people’s chests: what is this admiration, this immediate tug of kinship and understanding? Do I want to kiss you, or do I want to talk to you, do I want to be you?

What I want, I decide, is her haircut.

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Family History About the Holocaust

Sorry for the lack of updates, folks. There’s really only one reason for it, which is that it feels so difficult to talk about anything other than Judaism; I’m having adventures, I’m going places, I’m making plans, I’m making friends, but these all feel increasingly like B-plots. Being a Jew living in Europe – the difficulty, the discomfort, the pride, the grief – feels like it underlies everything else.

It also feels, paradoxically, increasingly difficult to write about. I don’t know if I’m capable of analyzing it in the way it deserves right now. What I can do is talk about something that happened on Wednesday – visiting a Nazi historical site with one of my classes – and relate some family history that I learned.

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Rhythms

I’ve mostly taken a break from the adventuring this week (…which means only going to a few new restaurants, and seeing one or two exciting sights, and barely traveling to four Berlin neighborhoods, which is a pretty good sign in terms of “am I making good use of my study abroad time”.) I’ve gotten a respite from the homesickness of last week, which is nice, but being in a new country is always tiring; it’s good for me to wander around Berlin, practice my new German-speaking skills, and try to catch a little more of the rhythm of the city.

That last goal is getting easier all the time – last morning, going out for bagels with some friends in Friedrichshain and watching the Spree sparkle under me through the U-Bahn windows, I felt like I felt some of that rhythm for the first time so far. Cities always have an underlying tempo, New York especially; it’s famous for just how fast it is, how electric, always buzzing and moving and never sleeping.

Berlin definitely doesn’t feel like that. It’s more measured, more mechanical – the shops are closed every Sunday, the buses come every ten minutes, the trains are always on time. New York’s soul feels very tied to the organic life in it: the rats, the pigeons, the street-sweepers, the construction workers, the sirens, the car horns. Berlin is more tied up in its buildings, its train tracks, its graffiti, its traffic lights. One has the sense that if all the people suddenly disappeared from Berlin, every train and bus and tram would keep running all on their own.

With the add/drop period finally over, I’ve settled on my classes for the semester – after a number of changes. A brief recap of them below the cut, and I’ll hopefully have some real stories to tell next week (going to Dresden on Friday!):

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Witches and Saxons

On Thursday morning I woke up missing New York so hard my stomach hurt. It was snowing on the East Coast, and well above freezing in Berlin, and I caught a photo of Washington Square go by on my newsfeed and turned over and buried my face in my pillow and thought, I gotta do something about this.

“Get out of Berlin,” advised a friend of mine, who moved from NYC to Sweden a few years ago. “Grab a bus out of town and get drunk in Leipzig or Hamburg or Dresden. When you come back home to Berlin, you’ll be surprised how much more home it’ll feel.”

So I bought a Deutsche Bahn ticket to Thale, Saxony-Anhalt, and took off at 6:30 AM on Saturday morning.

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Hallo to Berlin

So for those of you who don’t know: I’m studying abroad in Berlin this semester, and I arrived at my study-away dorm in Kreuzberg (read: hipster central) on Monday. I flew in from Stockholm, after a weekend spent with the Lishansky family, who kindly put me up for two nights while I wandered around Gamla stan (Old Town) and saw the palace, a flea market, and a variety of wonderful churches.

The strange thing is that Stockholm seems like a month ago, not just a week. I’ve only been in Berlin for six days, and already so much has happened – I’ll try to do a recap below the cut:

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A Collection of Images and Sensations, In Order

Fall in Oakland meant the arrival of two things.

The first was a religious ceremony: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I would roll black tights with long runs in them up my pale legs, pull on a blouse the color of salmon, and along with my brother in his khakis and last year’s too-small button-down shirt, climb into the stuffy darkness of the car. We’d follow the click, click, click of my parents’ shining shoes down the sparkling pavement to the Paramount Theater. It would be late – or late for children; the September or October wind would bite at my cheeks, my arms. When I was small enough that I didn’t know what goosebumps were, that was where I learned – hurrying after my mother’s quick stride, watching my legs pebble pink under the sheer grey of my tights.

The other was a tradition that my parents had helped begin, and something that I assumed quite casually every block in every neighborhood in every city in America did until I was almost thirteen. It was a block party – a large block party, with nearly every house on both sides of the street bringing out food, setting up volleyball nets, filling water balloons, calling their friends and their children’s friends and their children’s friends parents to come and talk and laugh in the street. This, too, was a place of unexpected pain: I’d walk barefoot down the middle of the road, sharp rocks and the heat of the pavement pricking the soles of my feet. My sandals would be back at the house, just by the door. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to go and fetch them.

Where most of my childhood memories I see as through some sort of haze – a contextless image of an enormous redwood stump that surfaces whenever someone says camping, a bloom of preteen recognition at the smell of a particular brand of shaving cream, the vague and gently unsatisfying nostalgia of rereading Where the Wild Things Are – these are never blurred, never out of focus. I know, if you ask me, whose driveway would have a collection of mini-pumpkins waiting to be painted in anticipation of Halloween, and where the fire truck would come in just before the sun began to sink low in the sky; I know the exact shade and texture of the chairs in the Paramount Theater, how they felt when I wore velvet, how they felt when I wore cotton. I know how the apples they gave the children on Rosh Hashanah mornings tasted, crumbly and left-out-too-long, and I can sing the Hamotzi in the same voice I sang it as a child: hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to God for bread. I know the slap my flip-flops made as I jogged through the aftermath of the water balloon fight, and the way my wet T-shirt felt on my shoulders and my stomach.

The block party was almost always after Rosh Hashanah, unless Rosh Hashanah came very late in the year. There was no danger of them being on the same day – though it was not true, as I assumed as a child, that everyone celebrated the Jewish holidays, there were certainly more Jewish families on the block than just our own – and besides, it wouldn’t be a block party without Yaron, our Israeli neighbor, cooking falafel.

It was a strange thing, though, that no matter how early Rosh Hashanah came, no matter how late we held the block party, the latter would be warm and the former cold. Oakland would fill up with fog and rain and cold winds for Rosh Hashanah, and on the day of the block party give us a perfect, golden afternoon.

Summer always did last longer in California than it did anywhere else. It was as if the sun, crossing from east to west around the planet, hung on a little harder to my little corner of the northwest – as if, even as the leaves turned brown and gathered in whispering piles on the pavement, the warm gold in the air and snapping blue of the sky that made the rest of America think of June and July came there when it was done with the East and the Midwest, and spread itself over October like a cat over a blanket.

Rosh Hashanah marks the end of the growing season. The prayers for its companion holiday, Yom Kippur, read, on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast… It is, in a more modern image, the moment when the Jewish people hand in our test to the teacher and wait, breathless, for the grade. It is the day when there is nothing more to be done for the crops, for the fields, for the harvest; it is the day when you put down the year, dust yourself off, and stand back to take a long look at what you’ve done.

It’s perhaps right, then, that fall should be a time of memory for me.