Friday, September 11, 2009

A Much Needed Vacation

I'm writing this post right now from my mother's new place in Alameda, California. Three weeks of vacation which includes here, the City (what we call San Francisco in the Bay Area...) Bodega Bay and a trip to visit my grandmother in Bayard, Nebraska. A much needed vacation what with all the stress August brought....

I won't be posting much (if at all) until after the 30th of September, but stayed tuned for lots of photographs and musings on my West Coast/Mid-West adventures!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paper or Plastic?

A week or so ago I was, for some reason, talking to my husband about credit cards in America.

"You know, they don't come out of your bank account." I told him. "You can charge and charge and then just pay a small monthly payment."

"What??", he said. I had to explain it to him several times before he could even believe what I was saying....

Yes, it is true that people in Germany have less debts, but one of the main reasons is because it is just not as easy to get them. It's not that easy to get a credit card and, if you do get one, the money comes out of your bank account every month. Only certain shops accept credit cards and you can basically never use them in a restaurant, let alone at the movies, etc. Living extremely above your means just isn't really possible, or at least you'd have to work very, very hard at it.

There are two reasons that people sometimes might assume my husband and I have money, these reasons being a) he is a count and b) he is a lawyer. But having the title of count might sometimes get my husband better reservations in restaurants and there are also always a few military history geeks who recognize that he is related to Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (a fact that my husband finds more irritating than interesting...), but his family never really had much money; after the war, his grandfather (who never got his arbitur=high school diploma) worked as a school janitor. As for his job, he is a free-lance criminal defense lawyer which is not nearly as well paid- but far more interesting- than business law (where the firm expects you to work like a dog. He has friends who work 14 hour days and also often on the weekend. Yes, they may earn a lot, but that's no life....) Right now I'm not working but when I do all I can offer is my artsy/writing stuff (which makes little to no money) and my teaching job at the technical university (which pays enough money for a modest, single person lifestyle in Berlin, but certainly not for a family...) Anyway, to make a long story short (opps....too late!) we may not be rolling in the dough, we may not really be saving enough, but we do have one thing that I consider very important: absolutely NO debts.

I listen to NPR everyday on the little radio in my kitchen. Since the financial crisis, they've, of course, been talking about consumers and there habits. Everyone seems to be feeling guilty and/or pointing the finger at people who took out all these loans they couldn't afford. Newsflash everyone! People in the U.S. were living above their means! Well, duh. Not only has it been easy to do so in the states, it has also been actively encouraged. People get their first credit card at 18 and, if they don't default, are then offered another and another and another (and it's basically impossible not to get one because if you don't, you have no credit history which means you probably can't rent an apartment, get a loan, buy a car, etc....) For a while there, it seems people could even send their unemployed chimpanzee with a criminal record to get a loan for a new house at the bank. People are also taught to always be blindly optimistic: "I just know I'm so going to get that big promotion, that big deal is just around the corner, it's all going to work out great. Let's go buy a new plasma t.v. and just not think about it." I heard a man being interviewed on NPR a couple of days ago and you could tell he was just racked with guilt about his former spending habits. But in some ways this makes me angry: yes, the consumers have been stupid and yes, it's good that some of that might be changing, but there should also be protection. These big companies and banks just should have never even been allowed to pray off of people's weaknesses, especially ones they have been encouraged to have.

I wouldn't say that I'm a person who is especially "good" with money, but luckily I seem to have been born with an inner voice that told me "don't get into debt!" (not a voice that has necessarily been shared within my family....) I've never had more than one (American) credit card at a time. I went to an expensive private college, but I got some scholarship money and then lived at home and worked full time so I could take out the minimum amount of loans. Yes, it was a sacrifice and yes, I did miss out on "college life" (what with working and studying full time and then spending the rest of my time in the practice room, I didn't really have much time left over for anything social...) but in the end, it was definitely worth it.

Granted, universities in Germany are basically free (they wanted to start charging some money- a thousand Euros a semester I think, or may 500- but people freaked out about it...), but they are also somewhat of a pain in the ass. I studied a few years at Humboldt Universit├Ąt here in Berlin and I didn't like it at all. The classes were overfilled with students (though they become less and less as the semester progresses.) There were two types of courses you can take: a) a Vorlesung, which basically means a professor reads some boring text in front of you and you just listen and take notes or (prefereably) get your friends to sign you in so you don't even have to go, and b) a Seminar where you either write a paper or give a presentation. Always the same dull model every time, with some exams in the middle of your studies and at the end. But if you don't finish and finally get your Magister or Diplom (master's) (which probably takes about 7 years) you have nothing to show for it because there is no bachelor's degree (this they are also maybe going to change, though people are resistant to the idea.) The idea that a professor should make a subject interesting and accessible and/or be in anyway "there" for you is also a foreign concept: Professors usually have an office hour every two weeks for forty-five minutes and, when you get there, 15 desperate students are lined up at their door.

Anyway, the unversity system may be a bummer here sometimes, but hey- it's free. Not what you can say about the U.S. I've often toyed with the idea of getting an MFA in creative writing. You can do a low-residency program where you go there only a month to six weeks out of the year (two blocks) and the rest of the time is spent writing. I recently looked at the program at Bennington and guess what? It costs $15,000 a year!! There are undoubtedly programs that are not quite that expensive but still; what would I get out of an MFA? A chance to concentrate even more fully on my writing, a chance to hone my skills, a chance to meet fellow serious writers. But is that worth over $30,000? No. I'd rather just stay on my own. And besides I couldn't do it even if I wanted because that would mean seriously living above my means which is something I never want to do.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bored Couples

I really like the work of the English photographer Martin Parr. He did a photo series sometime in the late 80s/early 90s called Bored Couples. Here are some of the shots:

We all know couples like this, couples who don't seem to have a word to say to each other and you wonder why in the world they are even still together and yet they are. A friend of Jasper's calls the ones you see in a restaurant "The Dining Dead."

Parr's work got me thinking about relationships in general and the different kinds that there are. I thought I'd compile a list here just for the fun of it. The list is, of course, from the point of view of a straight female since that's what I am, but I would also love to hear a straight/gay man and lesbian version if anyone would like to share one. Ok, here goes.

1. The "We Will Stay Together Forever and Ever and Ever" Couples
I thought about calling this one "The First Love" couples because that is what they usually are. They can barely spend more than a few hours apart, they wear each others jeans, they read each others e-mails, they have lots and lots and lots of insider jokes. They become so merged that it's impossible to think of one without the other: You never say "Steve" or "Kathy" but "Steve and Kathy". The idea that they might ever break up is enough to give the girlfriend an ulcer. If they do break up, then be prepared for a lot of drama and ice cream and vodka and weepy phones calls at four in the morning. (Yes, as you can see I have had experience nursing friends through this before and no, it ain't pretty, but hey, that's what friends are for....)

2. The "Who Needs Enemies When We Have Each Other" Couples
You know these people. When you're together with them they rag on their partner the whole time, sometimes taking it so far that you start feeling uncomfortable. Do they hate each other or love each other or love to hate each other? Who knows....

3. The "Independent" Couples (possibly the "George Glass" couples.)
Do you remember the Brady Bunch episode where Jan, jealous as usual of Marcia's popularity, makes up a boyfriend named George Glass? She pretends to talk to him on the phone and makes excuses why he can't come to a party until, finally, she fesses up....I've also known couples like this: Susie is supposedly in a relationship and yet she always goes out alone and you've never met her significant other even though she's been your friend for a while. Are these couples just fiercely independent? Do they have something to hide? Or is it truly a case of "George Glass" syndrome?

4. The "Matching Jogging Suit" Couples
These couples scare my husband. A lot. "No matching sports equipment or I'll file for divorce!" he has joked. (But I also find them frightening, so he has nothing to worry about.) My guess is that couples like this are just a continuation of the "We'll Stay Together Forever and Ever and Ever" couples. They are also probably the most in danger of the man leaving for a younger woman following his mid-life crisis after which the woman will start breeding chinchillas.

5. The "So I Guess We Should Just Get Married" Couples
These people have been together a while. They both like popcorn. Why not just get married? If they do, they are also probably the most in danger of becoming the Bored Couples to be mocked by some smart-ass photographer on the prowl (I'm talking, of course, as much about myself as Mr. Parr. ;) )

6. The "Long Distance Relationship" Couples
They live in different cities of countries. They see each other for three intense weeks a year then spend a lot of time being on their own (also possibly seeing other people in an "don't ask don't tell" kind of open relationship situation....) Although they might not admit it to themselves, they wonder if the relationship could last if they lived near each other. The answer? No. (Ok, I admit this one is about my first husband!)

7. The "Thou Shalt Never Look At Another Member of the Female Species" Couples
I've heard this one often enough: A man gets a new girlfriend/gets married and the woman forces him break off contact with any female friends or acquaintances. It doesn't matter if they are old, lesbian or just plain butt ugly; if they have a vagina, she doesn't want them around. And watch out if she catches him saying he finds another woman attractive or peeking a glance...Personally, I don't get this at all. My husband could cheat on me if he wanted to (though of course, there would be consequences...) and me being super jealous and possessive wouldn't stop him: in fact, it would be more likely to just push him away. Relationships are based on trust and I wouldn't ever let someone treat me like this. And men who break off friendships just because their girlfriend doesn't like it; man, stand up for yourself and, um, get some balls!

Ok, my listing ability is now exhausted. Anyone have a few that I might have forgotten? I also would like to have a photo example of each type, so if you have any, please send them my way. :)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hope This Brightens Your Day....

So Miss Mia has somehow messed up my computer screen and it is now so dark I can just barely read it. I've tried readjusting the brightness, etc., but no dice. The light meter on my camera is also acting strange, making my photographs much darker than they ought to be. All of the sudden, the world seems to have plunged into darkness....Thought I'd post this picture to try and brighten my day a bit. I took it here in Berlin on Marheineke Platz and I find it such a lovely example of urban grit mixed with niceness. Hope it might brighten your day too! :)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Trends And Why I Hate Them: You Can't Touch This

Today, on the lovely playground on Chamisso Platz of all places, I saw a woman wearing them: Harem (a.k.a M.C. Hammer) pants. This apparently stylish woman was pushing her child on a swing with pants like this covering her modest behind:
Yes, it's true: This is a trend and this woman (so sorry to say I didn't have my camera or she would be SO dissed right now!) was not the first person I've seen wearing them. The good news: These pants remind me a lot of my two and a half year old daughter. The bad news: That is, when she has a gigantic LOAD in her diaper!!! People, people, people, what are you thinking?? Do you just want to have a "What the hell was I wearing back then?" snapshot for the family album? And don't give me that "But they are so comfortable" excuse. So are paper bags, but as far as I've heard, no one is wearing them...

Granted, these pants are apparently striving for equality: whether fat or thin, curvy or androgynus, they are simply unflattering on everyone.

As for the end of the world, forget about those four hors
es and the whore of Babylon or whatever else it is they wrote in Revelations. If this 80s revival goes so far that BIG HAIR actually comes back into fashion, then the world, as we know it, will surely have come to an end....


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