I. To Walk
I’m in the apartment of my new German friends, Jan and Mira, in Shöneberg, Berlin, watching Argentina and Germany in the 2014 World Cup Finals, or in German, Weltmeisterschaft. There are about a dozen people: some French, an Italian, a Russian-Ukrainian Couple, a small group of Germans and me. A sedate and calm crowd, but Jan was more tense than usual, even at the same time as being a gracious host. I watched an earlier World Cup game with him and he is an ardent Football fan and knows this German team well; he has followed all the players for years and is proud that the team is different from teams past in that there are no prima donnas and each player is highly accomplished and has a more refined sense of sportsmanship and most importantly for him, it seems to me, the team is diverse, with German citizens who are not of German descent. “It is good for Germany to see this kind of team …” he says.
Then, of course, there are the nerves and pride that comes with watching your team in the championship. The game hadn’t started, yet, but the TV was on with the pre-game. So, Jan was visibly more nervous and agitated with anticipation. Excited really, and trying to tamp it down by declaring spontaneous irrationalities to whomever he was talking to or to the room at large – in the form of one word: “Lauft.” from the German laufen, to walk.
The translation varies depending on intonation and context; basically, it means:
“I’m just chill’n,”
“Lauft” – “I’m in control; there is nothing to worry about.”
or it may offer assurance to all within earshot
“Lauft.” – “We’re in control, and all is right with the world”
or it may have a subtle nudge or command within it, such as
“Lauft!” – “Don’t look at the TV because it is out of our control, and we must maintain our equanimity before the game starts.”
especially when the sportscaster is talking about the strength of the Argentinian offense.
But really, with every translation, there contains an a priori claim in “Lauft,” a deep-rooted sense or thread of a connection to the Ultimate Coolness of Cool of the type captured in Atticus Finch channeling Sean Connery playing Clint Eastwood playing Inigo Montoya as he performs the role of Pierre Beruhov, mixed with not only the skills of Bruce Lee, the stature of Morgan Freedman and the composure of Cary Grant, but additionally with a garnish of Richard Feynman perched in a Campanile playing a carillon, wearing Ed Norton’s Pork-Pie Hat while floating in the aura of Adonis, as Tom Sawyer skips a rock across the Mississippi, in the remake of The Seven Samurai after merging with a cross between James Dean and Hawkeye Pierce, who has the shoe-clad feet of Liam Nielson where one moves like that of Mikhail Baryshnikov and the other embodies the full grace, knowledge and power of Geronimo, and is a composite of the grimace of Robert DeNiro, the gait of Christopher Walken, the eyes of Frederick Douglas seeing it as it is, the ears and all of the concomitant mental attributes of the music faculties of the brain of Beethoven and the oratory skills of the reincarnation of Cicero within the additional musical endowment of Duke Ellington, as the ghost of Alec Guinness’s Obi wan Kenobi hovers above in Zeus-like grandeur as the Guardian Angel of All; and, so, could even mean:
“Lauft …” – “I don’t have a care in the world and I’m not even thinking of Football,”
“Lauft … * …” – “There is peace and harmony within me and I confer it upon all my love ones and guests, despite the potential chaos and catastrophe that could befall us if Germany looses the World Cup, in which case psychic maelstrom ensues, but life will continue and I ask that you all continue along with it … as I restore the balance by receding into the secret alchemy of my existential blackness.”
The simplicity of “Lauft” belies a powerful force that if harnessed properly could change the orbits of the Stars with a mere glance.
The game is slow in the beginning, and neither team is taking chances or doing anything rash. It looks as if it will be a terribly measured and controlled game. A little boring really. I revert to using Google Translate on my cell phone to transform my English desires into crafted German sentences to have intelligible German Conversations with others, which is really me blurting out a string of German phrase and seeing if I get a flash of recognition from anyone. A buoy to my ego, I get decisive German responses; but, a forcing to my introversion, I understand only about 50% of what they say back to me. Anyway, the TV offers solace because one always has an excuse to just turn and look at it.
20 minutes into the Game, nothing is happening and Jan gets up to go to the bathroom. Seconds later, without warning, a decisive, solid shot on goal by the Germans – a serious shot that took me by surprise. With the spontaneous, impetuousness of an American, I uncross my legs and slam my feet onto the varnished wooden floors with a thud, lean forward, arms outstretched and release a sonorous yell:
that echoes throughout the Shöneberg apartment, and I immediately catch myself and turn to everyone: “Sorry. Sorry. Tut mir lied. I was just surprised. Sorry. Kein Problem.” I mean: I was the only one to move much less make a sound. These Europeans are a sedate bunch, and I think out loud, trying to laugh it off with self-deprecation: “Yeah, leave it to the sole American to create a scene.” I look around for some recognition or connection or something, and got none. As I lean back, however, the French man touches my arm and says, “Lauft.”
Yes, exactly. Lauft … Lauft everyone …*…!”
The dust settles, the game rolls on and Jan walks back into the room, sits down next to me and I report that he just missed the first real threatening shot of the game and that he could have missed the first goal. He said:
Oh I heard you … and I wasn’t going to be fooled by that
I look around for some non-verbal something from the others, and, again, got none – which either meant they had all moved on and/or didn’t care that much, or they didn’t understand our English. Jan states:
When I’m watching a game with a group of my buddies and one of us goes to the bathroom sometimes we’ll all start cheering and hollering as if something really big just happened to get our buddy to come running back with his fly down only to realize he’d been fooled …”
Yeah, Jan, but …
You weren’t gonna fool me …”
But really, Jan … that was a serious shot on goal … could ‘of … the first goal of the …
Jan: “Lauft …”
Ok, ok … Lauft./?
Didn’t matter though. Jan cared. Still 0-0. The game ticked on and Jan stopped saying “Lauft”
well before halftime … 0-0 remained the steady balance … and the game went into overtime,
which was difficult to handle because the game was so even that the thought of going
into penalty kicks was painful for me because penalty kicks seems so random
and not a true measure of the skill of a team, and, besides, I knew
it was going to be painful to everyone else.
They were all quiet, but I knew
they were into it.
Well, speeding this up, Germany finally won 1-0 in overtime, and Jan was visibly relieved and very happy and we discussed again how this team really is different from the other German teams for their diversity and how they are all really good and have illustrious histories with the game and – this key was repeated – the team has players who are German but who don’t look German who have Turkish or African blood. He repeats, “This is very good for Germany to see this…”
People stood and refilled their drinks and plates and walked around the apartment; some made the move to go. I enjoyed the game, but I was also preoccupied and felt a bit intimidated because my German still wasn’t a free-flowing conversational fluency. I did have a question about German on my mind all night and I wanted to nonchalantly bring it up in conversation somehow, but it didn’t seem appropriate or relevant during the game and I didn’t know the other Germans well and … well … my question didn’t have much to do with anything, and I didn’t want to force it; besides, I’d have to use basically all English to discuss it. In fact, I think I would have rather tried to convince them I had a tiny Leprechaun in my pocket that farts Unicorns, than to explain in German my obscure Language, metaphysical issue –
Not really easier, Sam, just within a different family of weirdness …
Ok … ? …
… this metaphorical mash-up of a thought of yours is a diversion: measure the social timing
and just ask him … at least your question is rooted
Fair. Since Germany won and Jan was relieved, I steeled my resolve and decided I would try and ask him. I mean you only live once and as Osho says:
Experience life in all possible ways –
good-bad, bitter-sweet, dark-light, summer-winter. Experience all the dualities.
Don’t be afraid of experience, because the more experience you have,
the more mature you become.
and, even though Osho being Osho, his subtext to “all possible ways” was probably referencing every sexual position possible, I decided to apply this quote to having the courage to use a new word in public. Really, I just had to do it. I had to face my fears of ridicule and utter the utterance that I have never uttered to another human being who had most likely never heard this utterance uttered, ever before. Firsts are scary. I tell myself: it’s just more experience; reputation be damned …
I hesitate … maybe … I will lead with the tiny leprechaun bit.
No, don’t do that.
Huh? Of course, you’re right, you’re right: I imagine Tom Sawyer
winding up to skip a rock across the Mississippi and …
So, Jan … no more need for Lauft.
Neh. Neh. Lauft … always Lauft,” he says with a smile and sits back with a forced coolness, but a genuine ease.
Well, let me ask you a question, here … you’re, like … thinking … in a pretty
different, uh, way; and, uh, your pretty happy, now, like right…”
“Oh, yeah,” and he leans forward and starts to go into why this is so important and how this team is truly different, and how they are really each in their own way just exceptional players and how he is glad to have so many friends in his apartment from different countries, and I am compelled to interrupt…
Well, ok, Jan. I get it … see … I got this issue.
He stops and looks and listens
See, question really … um …
He implores with his eyes … and I realize that he would have been open to me saying
just about anything, and combining Leprechauns and Unicorns
sounds like so much fun, but I don’t go there:
So, you’re happy and relieved that Germany won …
Oh, am I ever …
Well, would you say you are in a state of Heutegesternmorgenwelt…
Heutegesternmorgenwelt! Well … anyway … your probably not – forget it – but it’s a German word I discovered a few days ago.
I pause. He is silent.
Me: “Uh … Heutegesternmorgenwelt: a new German word … ever heard of it?”
I swallow; I smile, hoping for the best.
he repeats: “Heutegesternmorgenwelt,” and leans back, chuckles, and looking up to the ceiling, thinking.
Yeah, Today-Yesterday-Tomorrow-World. Cool, right?!
A deeper pause. All I can do is breathe, and it is a conscious breath, in and out …
Hmm … Yeah.
he sounds it out:
Heute … Gestern … Morgen … Welt …*… wow …!
I mean … Cool, right?!
Yeah, like what’s that even mean …
experiencing … well, I read that it means experiencing time in a chaotic non-linear way
You know that’s pretty good. like, what … ? …
Yeah. I really don’t understand it either, but it’s a real German word and with Germany winning the World Cup – this might be disorienting enough to bring on Heutegesternmorgenwelt – or so I thought – and I just wanted to see if you ever heard of it … and besides: stringing words together to make new ones … er … and so typically German …
yeah … uh … exactly. I actually knew that word once. Like, you’re probably the only one at this party I’d ever think of asking if they knew what Heutegesternmorgenwelt meant, and I’ve been dying to use it in a sentence. Which I know is pretty advanced since I can barely say the basics in German … and like, I’d never use Rind-da-fleisch …eh … er…
Yeah – that – in a sentence…. It’s meaning has no relevance to me … I have nothing to do with the labeling and inspecting of beef. But, the mixing up and breaking up of the experience of time into multilateral directions is well …
Yeah, I get it …
So, we end up talking about a different set of “world” words that have clear and meaningful categories in semiotics, existential philosophy and biology:
- Eigenwelt: an organism’s inner world of personal experiences.
- Mitwelt: the social world of an organism, which has embedded within it the tension between the extension of individuality and the social pressure of conformity and belonging to a group. We, our species, are perhaps forever divided individuals because our minds are split between these two categories, perhaps buried deep within our minds, there are two distinct, devoted physical faculties of each category within our brains, and different cultures may emphasis one faculty over the other; but, they are both there, nonetheless, and perhaps in perpetual competition and tension with one another – that is my conjecture, anyway.
- Umwelt: the physical environment or surroundings of an organism, or rather what that organism is capable of experiencing of its environment and what it uses to understand its surroundings. It can be seen as a subjective model an organism uses to understand the outside world. For example, an aspect of a human’s Umwelt is a spectrum of radioactivity we call visible light: we see only a limited type of radiation and there are wavelengths both larger and smaller that exist all around us that don’t feed into our sensory input and thus don’t contribute to our Umwelt.
I was glad I watched the game at Jan and Mira’s, and I left with the last few guests and went to bed to a surprisingly quiet Berlin.
The next morning, I woke up determined to use Heutegesternmorgenwelt in a sentence and started writing an essay, like I mentioned
in my first post about Heutegesternmorgenwelt, which just kept going and going.
Guess that is a quality of writing and learning, writing and remembering … and maybe of Heutegesternmorgenwelt, itself, or not. I don’t know.
But, I really think all this has to do with my travels in India,
which was … well … I don’t know what that was, either …
but I know what it is I want to do …
Anyway, for the next 5 days I write with, about and among Heutegesternmorgenwelt …
II. To Mime
On the evening of the fifth day, I take a break with some other German Friends, Wenke, Antje and Thomas, whom I had met back in 2008 during my first extended stay in Berlin. We get tickets to see Midsummer’s Night Dream – German style – at Berlin’s “Shakespeare in the Park” open-air theater that’s in the heart of the city. I was looking forward to how this Shakespeare sexual fantasy comedy translates in German and into a German sensibility. (BTW, the performance was excellent and thoroughly enjoyable and very glad we saw it, and the German rendition did not disappoint: the fantasyland was superb, complete with acrobats and sex swings flying all around the stage. But this is a bit off topic, so moving on…).
We have time before the performance begins, so we walk about 1 km to get dinner; and, along the way, I do some mental calisthenics to prep myself to speak as much German at dinner as I can. Ever since I first met Thomas, he was always considerate and helpful in bridging my language gap. His English was one of the best in the group, and basically fluent. When I was hanging with him in 2008 and he would make additional efforts to translate both ways for me as well as to give brief explanations for my benefit, but not in a pedantic or condescending way, more by way of giving hints and keeping me in the conversation. He was matter of fact and straight forward, and I appreciated and respected his efforts to include me – very thoughtful. As I formulated some dialogue that I hoped would make the dinner conversation flow, I bumped into one of my German mental blocks…
For whatever reason, when I try to use the second person plural “you” as in “you all” or “you guys” I trip up and draw a blank. I’m convinced that it is because of a lack of practice with this form, but there may be other reason (which I won’t explore now except to say that there are certain words that are close in phonology and morphology that I need to pause and consciously make a distinction by formulating my brain and mouth into the right configuration before I can say the word; and, as strange as it sounds, it seems to me that I need to access a different part of my brain, like I am turning on one neural pathway, while turning off another ((“Ahem … most people would simply call that thinking.” Ok, Mr. Quotations: whatever; there is more to say about your comment, but I will not be derailed)). One such pair of words for me is the number 2 and the number 3, zwei and drei in German. Interestingly, Wenke has the same thing except with the English numbers Thirty and Forty. I find all this puzzling and will research this more; but, moving on).
As we walk, I suspect they were going to ask me what I’ve been up to, since they hadn’t seen me in a few weeks, because I had cloistered myself in a new sublet on the other side of the city. I vowed, however, not to bring up Heutegesternmorgenwelt at dinner, because that is all I had been thinking about for about a week and I just didn’t want to delve into these obscurities again. So, I was considering asking the group a series of questions and to get their opinions about a few innocuous things, and I knew I needed to be clear about the second person plural for this dinner; so, I decided to ask Thomas for clarification as we walked. I wish I had the ability and energy right now to convey this conversation to you because at the foundation our miscommunication was pure comedy and it actually took me a better part of the walk to the restaurant to communicate to him that I just needed a refresher on the German Pronouns, but we got through it and in typical Thomas manner, he gave me about three different ways to say the same thing; he was helpful and it was too much information and I realized I need to do some refreshing of my own. We caught up to Antje and Wenke and sat at an outdoor table at Wenke’s favorite sushi place, looking out over the Spree River.
We sit and, as predicted, they ask me where I’ve been and they wonder what I’ve been doing with myself this second time in Berlin. I tell them that I am finishing up writing about my India Trip and looking to find a way to complete the sculptural work I started there. They want to know what “finishing up the India trip” meant. Fair question. I try to be concise in my summary: to convey to them that part of finishing up this India Trip was getting some distance from what I experienced there (since India, in my mind, is beyond different) and what I want to do next both as an artist and with a life; and, that writing has become more important to me over the years and being in India gave me great material and that writing is one of the least expensive creative outputs I can engage with because it doesn’t require much overhead; and, besides, I am asking different questions of myself and so I am expanding both the things that interest me and the ways in which I am learning about those interests, which is the impetus for this blog in the first place.
Sometimes when I try to be explicit and direct this way, it does just the opposite and I realize it is perceived as more cryptic and abstract and thus it seems more evasive than I intend; and, thus, I am not surprised when they push me and ask:
but, what are you writing about?
Well, observations, ideas, things I want to know more about, descriptions of things that draw my attention and …
They seem unsatisfied. I throw out all my strategic planning during the walk to the restaurant, and I pause to inhale to full capacity and say:
So, um … I discovered this new German word that I’ve been writing about how …
Thomas: “Oh yeah, tell us. What’s the word.”
Now I’m fully in it and there is no backing out … So, I embark into the unknown once again …
See: it is this word I recently discovered and … it’s great and … uh … sehr cool.
And, I’m not really sure what it means or how to describe it
and I won’t be able to explain it to you
in German, but see …
I hesitate, but think of Osho and his encouragement to have more and more experience. “Yes,” I think, “I can do this. I can go further than before.” I wind up one more time as Tom Sawyer would to skip a stone across the Mississippi:
Well … It’s Heutegesternmorgenwelt.
and the stone plops right into the water and sinks …
laughter and incredulous guffaws all around….
Yes. Yes. I know …
Wait. What? Nein. No
Yes!/? It’s Heute … Gestern … Morgen … Welt.
Oh … Gogehlmösch!
Heute what!?! that is not a word.
I think it is … Yes … Today-Yesterday-Tomorrow World.
Ha?!@@!? AH – Oh, Sam …
Antje and Wenke titter back and forth in German.
… its amazing and … well this is what I’ve been …
No, Sam. that is not a word. Thank you.
… writing about at any rate …
Their German tempo picks up …
Yes, truly Heute–gestern–morgen–welt: it’s a word!
Thomas breaks his German cadence and chimes in:
No. Not a word.
Ja, Ja… it is a word … Heutegesternmorgenwelt … Really!
German is flying back and forth now and I simply try to hang on. Thomas is flabbergasted, Wenke’s hair, which is of a brilliant, iconic Teutonic Gold and always long, elegant and straight to a perfection, is getting whipped out of order as she turns her head back and forth between the three of us – “Oh, Sam … your Geheimnis ist Crazy. Sam?!” – in fact, it seems to me that as she speaks her hair is tying itself into knots at the mere sight of me.
They are an outward expression of my internal turmoil the first time I discovered the word. It’s perhaps a natural reaction: I think it is that Heutegesternmorgenwelt flies against all common sense order that jumbles the very foundation of all thought; I don’t think we are in it, but we need to find a new balance at the dinner table, because Wenke’s hair may just strangle me and Thomas is fidgeting in his chair, looking up into the sky, thinking, and either he will start floating away with the airiness of his thought or his chair will crumb under the weight of it.
I caused this turmoil, so I have to set it right and I am not sure what to do and I feel under cross-cultural pressure so I begin to mime the meaning of Heutegesternmorgenwelt. Miming is perhaps of a lower order than the Language Faculty, but it’s the best I’ve got. I start by miming what I believe is a fairly good representation of deep time, which mesmerizes both Antje and Wenke and holds the Teutonic Gold in abeyance, as I repeatedly expand and contract my arms, back and forth, in and out, to explain the vastness of time and space as compared to the brevity of human history and the narrowness of human perception. Thomas pays no attention to me: he’s thinking and I keep moving – now, I’m miming a timeline whereby yesterday, today and tomorrow are all jumbled together into a mental melee mash up … which entails making my hands leapfrog over one another, jumping around the table, avoiding the tangle of Wenke’s hair that has become hypnotize by my miming movement, like a bunch of nervous cobras preparing to strike (and I know a thing or two about cobras having just been in India). I am undeterred and gain momentum: now, I flitter my fingers and hands in rapid succession back and forth, first left and right to depict the historical problems of telling a story about the past that is inevitably confined by and confirms the position of the present, and then I float them up and down to symbolize the rooting of our highly refined and yet restricted minds and bodies by not just in time, itself, but, more pointedly, by biology and how the latter can seem disconnected from the former. That’s what I’m trying to do anyway. I also throw in a German word every now and then for good measure; but, I’m not sure if I’m getting my point across, but at least I know Antje is paying attention because her facial expressions morph from confusion to, well, jocularity, I guess, with each repositioning of my hands.
And, then, Thomas comes back from his deep thought, and holds up four fingers for emphasis and declares:
You have taken four words and just put them together
as one word. No. Nope.
Not a word.
and he laughs, folds his arms and catches eyes with Antje, who gives her husband a reassuring glance. I miss a beat and stop my miming. I debate whether I should say “EXACTLY! … you do that in German all the time!” but I refrained and said:
Ok. I didn’t make this up. Here’s the definition in English. Are you ready?
It means … Jeez, and this isn’t going to help any … but … it means experiencing time as a non-linear chaotic discontinuity …
Silence. Stillness. Pause.
Finally, Wenke: “Sam, please … what is non-“
Then, Thomas: “No. Not a word.”
See. I told you the English wasn’t going to make sense … but, here listen to this …
and I begin miming again and combine it with my best German pidgin, when suddenly, without warning …
Rising up from Antje’s corner of the table comes this sing-songy german chant/nursery rhyme thing whose interdiction couldn’t have been better than if Cindy-Lou Who herself landed on the table as if to said, “I think I know what’s going on, here.”
Everyone stops, and Wenke’s hair goes limp, and we become ensorcelled
by Antje’s voice. I can only convey the angelic, kookiness
with an English example of the same form that has nothing to do
with the meaning of her song, but everything with
the rhythmic pattern that took over
Hickory Dickory Dock
and everyone freezes:
The mouse went up the Clock.
The Clock struck One
The mouse went down ….
and then all three of them chimed in unison:
HICKORY DICKORY DOCK!!!
and burst into laughter!
I am as silent as a mime can be and stunned – frozen in mid-gesture – and more shocked
than the first shot on goal during the World Cup finals:
my mouth open and my eyes wider
Um … excuse me? Can you repeat that … (Nochmal, bitte …)
and they do over and over, amidst laughter and giggles … repeating the rhyme and chatting and reminiscing and repeating it again and again.
I actually didn’t care what it meant, because what is amazing is that all three of them, as if on cue, start to recite this rhyme, as if their three brains just became one, and I am the beast subdued by song. A Lilliputian Leprechaun could have walked across our dinning table doing the Groucho Marx strut with an even tinier Unicorn dancing the Charleston in tow and none of us would have noticed. I don’t think we are in a state of Heutegesternmorgenwelt; but, I do think we are definitely in a state of La-La land, because I don’t know what is going on and Wenke’s Golden locks of power were straight, calm and regal and I am like a two-year old listening to a nursery rhyme for the first time and have no idea what it means, and I kind of like it this way.
I could go into the rest of the conversation and the hijinks of translating this (it is, in fact, related to Heutegestermorgenwelt), but this post is long enough … maybe later …
Anyway, Heutegesternmorgenwelt can create disorder in our human perception of time as well as with each other; it is not expected and not anticipated and that creates a
disturbance … the strategy to deal or not to deal that is the … or wait maybe it’s:
the strategy to define or not to define that is the question …
more soon …