Archive for September, 2014
I’m taking a break from Underspecialized. A while ago I started this blog in order to do two things- write consistently, and do so publicly. Having stuck to that method, I’ve explored hundreds of topics, had lots of fun, and hope you have too. Thank you for all the support. I know reading’s hard, especially on the internet. And whether you did it because this was actually interesting or because you didn’t want to feel awkward next time I saw you and asked what you thought, Thank You.
Although it may be undue, I feel the need to give an explanation. In raw terms, I’m going back to school, working full-time, and have little energy to spare. Artistically speaking, I find having to write every week, nay, having to share what I write every week, constraining. Some things need to be incubated for longer periods of time in order to properly develop. But if I go down that line of thought, then there’s pressure for me to top Underspecialized with something even more ambitious. That may happen. But it may not happen (and that’s OK, too). It’s empowering to let something go without conditions, and to wait and see what happens (or doesn’t happen) organically.
Of course I’m afraid of stopping. But I’m also excited to see what happens when I do. This might be the end, or it might be a hiatus before returning in different form. We shall see. Hiatus, incidentally, comes from the Latin word hiare, which also means to yawn. Who knows, maybe it’s contagious?
Just the other day I was sitting under a tree when one of its leaves fell on me. Dead. Bright yellow. I felt sad and thought: it’s not a seed, why does it have to fall? (Because all summer this leaf was receptive to the sun). Its job is over, now it falls to the ground… maybe it will become compost for further growth.
Thank you from all my heart,
PS- in one last act of shameless self-indulgence, please look to the right at the archives for any posts you may have missed. : D
I entered Zagreb Cathedral and noticed a series of posters bearing the picture of Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s image has always been a particularly powerful one in Croatia because of a single fact: despite Croatia’s being next door to Italy and the Vatican and despite its forming the common border of Western and Eastern Christianity whose reconciliation the Pope has long sought, this Pope, who had traveled to the farthest reaches of Africa and Asia, had through his first dozen years as pontiff still not come to Croatia. This was mainly due to the legacy of Cardinal Stepinac… -Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts
I’m not a Buddhist, but I want to tell the story of the Buddha before relating it to my time in Croatia.
Once there was a young man named Siddhartha. His father didn’t want him to see any of the suffering of the world, so he kept his son safe in his palace with all of the comforts of the world, forbidding him to go outside. One day, Siddhartha disobeyed, leaving with a friend. The first thing he saw was a sick man.
“What’s that?” he asked his friend. “People get sick, Siddhartha”. The next thing he saw was an old woman hunched over her wobbling crane. “And what’s that?” Siddhartha asked. “Everyone gets old” said his friend. Lastly, Siddhartha looked upon a dead man surrounded by his wailing family. “And that?” asked the young prince, clearly agitated. “Didn’t you know” said his friend, “we shall die, too”.
Torn from the ignorant bliss, Siddhartha was plunged into the truth of human suffering: we get sick, grow old, and die. Rather than return to the palace, rather than despair, and rather than become cynical, Siddhartha developed compassion. The experience transformed him into the Buddha.
After leaving Austria, after the family reunion and the yodeling, I went to Dubrovnik with my sister Kristy. Dubrovnik is a city on the Adriatic coast, in present day Croatia. Traditionally, it’s the eastern rampart of the Catholic Church. Nowadays, many Germans and Austrians make holiday there. It’s like the Florida of Europe, without the assholes and sandy beaches. A Serbian acquaintance of mine from Chicago, lets call him Lazar, recommended we go to a small island named Mljet off the coast of Dubrovnik. Mljet is 30km long, has two salt water lakes and is a national park.
You can only get to Mljet by ferry (or unless, obviously, you have a boat of your own) and the ferry only goes once a day, at about 09:00. Another ferry goes back to Dubrovnik at 4:00. Our first day there in Mljet we walked around looking for a place to stay but couldn’t find anything. In this part of Croatia you don’t stay at hotels or even hostels but at people’s apartments that are converted into a kind of B&B- each participating building has a blue sign in front of it that says ‘sobe’ (rooms). Room after room was full. We panicked, thinking we’d have to take the ferry back to Dubrovnik and not get to spend the night in Mljet. A nice girl told us to be persistent; if we couldn’t find one she’d call someone. That gave us courage and I went up to house after house (there’s only about 30 houses, I might add) and soon we found a room for the both of us for about 30 euros. The proprietor offered to shove the beds together but we told them we were brother and sister.
All the time there the locals kept asking us how we, Americans, heard about Mljet (I guess it’s not that common). I kept telling them my Croatian friend from Chicago recommended me. Again, Lazar’s Serbian. This honest mistake proved to be fortuitous.
Mljet was breathtaking. My sister called it the place everywhere else in the world wants to be. The hills smelled like cedar, pine trees of Colorado. The sound of cicadas was a constant. The water was clear, dark tortoise. The lakes were so salty I, who usually can’t float on my back, could do so for as long as I wanted, marveling at the power of a chest full of air. People skinny-dipped. People brought their little children for a vacation, perhaps the last before their parents were too old. People ate freshly-caught fish and felt at-one with the world. I said to myself: If I had a terminal illness, I’d like to come and die here.
Only 22 years ago, all was different. Yugoslavia, a country that existed from the end of WWI to the collapse of Communism, fell apart into six separate countries (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro). In 1991, Serbia went to war with Croatia. As Serbian paramilitaries marched to the Adriatic, atrocities were committed, massacres. Dubrovnik was bombed but held out. Mljet, the beautiful island we rested in, was occupied. The Croatians fought back, extending the border back east. Atrocities were re-payed with atrocities. Two years later, war broke out in Bosnia. “War”. Genocide occurred. First the Serbs against the Croats and Muslims living there, then the Serbs and Croats versus the Muslims living there. Genocide in the nineteen-fucking-nineties. Went on till Clinton intervened. Don’t lose sight and think ISIS embodies a Muslim disregard for life. The tail end of the 20th century saw ethnic cleansing committed against Muslims by Christians.
I sent “Adela”, my doorperson, a postcard from Croatia. She’s a Muslim Bosnian. Fled Bosnia in the nineties with her family. Like many Yugoslavians, to Chicago. When I got back to the States, she’s so grateful about the card. I asked if it was offensive, I knew the Muslims had problems with the Croats. “No” she says. “Our problems were with the Serbs”. We start talking. She alludes to atrocities, things she’s witnessed but has never told anybody (at least not her kids). “How can’t you tell your kids?” I asked. “How can I tell my kids?” she says rhetorically. “What would be the point in telling them what I saw?”. I push her harder, I say that it’s healing to share your burdens, that maybe one day her kids will want to know what she had to go through.
(She wishes to keep them in the palace)
“How can I tell my kids?”, she says again, “how can I tell my kids that I saw men take a pregnant woman and cut open her stomach like this (she makes a quick stabbing gesture followed by a slice) and then throw the baby up in the air and catch it on the knife before it hits the ground in front of her?” I’m silent. “How can I tell my kids that I see a man cut off all the fingers of a three year old child and wear them around his neck like a necklace”- She’s continuing faster now, as if she’s not even aware of my presence- “how can I tell my kids that I see a man tied to a burning log left to die like that, or that another man has an ax slammed into his asshole and is screaming to be killed but they don’t let him”. I’m shaking my head. “How can I tell my kids? Benny, if I told you everything I saw it would be a book this thick (she holds up her thumb and finger, inches apart).”
(I don’t blame her)
After traveling to Croatia, and having such a beautiful time, and after listening to Adela, hearing about the lived experience of people there in recent years, I decided I needed to learn more. I’ve been reading a book called Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, which is a combination of history and travel writing, focused on the Balkan Peninsula, to which Croatia is a part. The violence Adela shared is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The number of horrific things that have happened in the past century, the number of times I had to put down the book and attempt to contemplate the amount of agony a single human can undergo, the number of battles going on today due to wars and empires from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
Did you know the Catholic Church supported- and in some cases participated in- the slaughter of Jews and Eastern Orthodox Serbians in Croatia? Did you know a Serbian, Gavrilo Princip, launched WWI with the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand? Did you know the Bulgarian government (putatively) funded the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life? The Balkans, a forgotten place, keeps popping into history, often covered in blood. Lazar had uncles who were in Mljet during the war, doing things he refused to share… that’s why I’m glad I said he was Croatian.
The worst thing, Adela said, the worst thing was that the people committing these atrocities in front of her eyes weren’t soldiers, weren’t foreigners from Russia or some far off land. They were her neighbors. She knew them and they knew her for years. They babysat each others children and borrowed flour, before the war. “This is what happens, Benny, with war”. Society breaks down, the rules are suspended, and people become not people. The “e” in humane is lost and all you have is human, all-too human.
When I was in Europe I spent half the time with family, half the time alone. It was a good mixture. Too much of one without the other can make you go crazy… some Buddhists believe in a two-directional type of solitude, whereby you go off and be alone in order to come back and be more fully present to the people in your life. I abide by that entirely. Especially with travel.
On one leg of the journey, I was with family in Bavaria, a large state in southern Germany. Bavaria is a distinct region of Germany, almost its own country. It’s the land of beer and lederhosen, the Catholic Church, BMW and Audi. It’s also where the Nazi party originated in the 1920s, in the loud and frothy beer halls of Munich.*
In many ways, Bavaria reminds me of Texas. Bavarians call themselves Bavarian first, then German, much in the same way that Texans belong to The Lonestar State. Actually, many Bavarians identify on even more of a micro-level, since each village has its own dialect- a dialect that might as well be a different language to someone living only 10 or 15 miles away. Neither Texas nor Bavaria is exactly cosmopolitan, either, despite having several major cities.** Their politics are conservative, reflecting their rural, hinterland backdrop.
My mom’s dad’s dad came from a small town in Bavaria called Obermässing about 30 miles south of Nuremberg. Great-grandpa Karl Kremel was a blacksmith and served during WWI (for the Germans) taking care of horses. Later he emigrated to Milwaukee. One story his son, my grandfather, likes to tell is how when Karl was living in America and heard about the GI Bill and all the benefits it provided to veterans, he applied. A few weeks later, he received a courteous yet frank letter from Uncle Sam, stating that the GI Bill applied only to soldiers who fought for the United States.
Today, Obermässing has 738 inhabitants, about 38 of whom are my distant relatives. When my family and I came to visit them, they gave us coffee and cake, a tour of the town, and dinner at a beer hall with live Bavarian folk music and steady currents of cold beer. I had a conversation over the long wooden table with Albert, who wore glasses, resembled one of my cousins back in the States, and was one of the few residents who left Obermässing for Cologne, studying to get a PhD. (Southern Germany, somewhat anachronistically, still practices primogeniture; Albert is the second son to his brother Stefan.)***
He asked me why I was recording everything. I told him about my blog. He asked me why I did my blog, who was I doing it for. I said it was its own reward. He was baffled. He asked if a lot of people in the States do things for the hell of it without anyone telling them to. I said some people do, but not everyone. He asked if I was ever going to stop. I said it was an ongoing process of indeterminate nature, that I am committed to every step of the Way, while simultaneously questioning the entire endeavor.
I said it’s like a relationship or job- you keep going with faith despite the fact that you know one day you may not. He asked if a lot of people in America see things that way. I said no, I guess not, people think something has to last forever or it can’t be meaningful at all. Why else balk at atheism?
* This is not an overstatement. In 1923, Hitler and the nascent Nazi Party tried to seize power in a coup that started, like many of their meetings, in a beer hall. Hence the ‘Beer Hall Putsch‘.
**San Antonio, Dallas and Houston all have populations in the millions. Likewise for Nuremberg and Munich. Additionally, both states have a lot of cash, due to oil and the automobile industry, respectively.
***Primogeniture: The right of the eldest child, especially the eldest son, to inherit the entire estate of one or both parents.
You’re only truly dead when you’re forgotten
-Some Dead Guy
In the States we have something called ‘perpetual care’. Pay enough money and a team of landscapers will keep your grave free of long grass and detritus until the end of time- even if nobody’s alive to visit you. Some day in the distant future, archaeologists may look upon the weed wacker as the all-important bridge to the afterlife in the same way we view the mummies and sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt.
While in Germany I visited three cemeteries*, and observed a much different practice. Instead of teams of anonymous men zooming around on lawn mowers, there are wells and watering cans available for the public to plant gardens over their family grave sites.** Whereas we throw flowers on the surface of the Earth, they plant flowers inside the Earth.
At one cemetery, I watched widows buzzing around with watering buckets, trowels and clippers, tending to their husband’s graves as if they were were enjoying a relaxing Sunday in their garden. They were enjoying a relaxing Sunday in their garden. It just happened to be in a cemetery, above their husband’s decomposed bodies.
Oh yeah, that’s another difference between US and German burial practices- rather than bury you in a gigantic, impermeable soda can, the Germans simply bury your body in the ground so that you may rot and become the nutrient-rich soil that fuels the flowers your loved ones cultivate above. Beautiful, right? Organic, symbolic of renewal and everlasting life.
But what happens when your wife dies, too? The kids take care of the grave, sure- but they won’t spend as much time pruning and transplanting the daisies you continue pushing up. And what happens when they die, and their children die, etc.?
You start wishing you paid a group of landscapers to take care of your grave forever, that’s what. Because what happens is eventually nobody’s around to maintain the grave site, and it becomes overgrown.
At one cemetery I saw this in clear progression.*** In one section were the vivacious women buzzing around. In another section were the skeletons of hedges and whatever perennials continued to bloom- unsystematically. Then, in the oldest section of the cemetery, things had been so neglected that it was basically a forest with headstones hidden in the underbrush. This was the most eery part; I felt like I was in a haunted woods. A few of the tombstones were hundreds of years old, but others were only a couple of generations.
“You’re only dead when you’re forgotten”. In other words, you’re only dead when people cease the lawncare around your grave site. While in the States we have the illusion of perpetual care, it’s actually vapid, because who cares if your grave site is impeccable if nobody comes to visit? Nobody, that’s who.
German burial practices- while perhaps depressing and decrepit- are actually more authentic and true to experience. The fact is after enough time everyone will be forgotten. But look: a healthy forest!
*One cemetery was actually in Austria, but for all intents and purposes, in a german-speaking country
**Plots also tend not to be for a single individual, but an entire family. Under one tomb stone you may have several family members decomposed, mingling together.
*** This was in Schwerin, Germany. Schwerin, part of former East Germany, is poorer than most cities. This perhaps made the lack-of-care more pronounced than is typical.