April 11, 2010 1 comment

This post is a reset button. I thought I could keep up with a blog, write one post a week or something. Epic fail. Life, though relatively undemanding while unemployed, still cycled through periods of stale mental activity and frantic time commitments. But seeing as life will be making one of its many transitions this spring, I figure my blog can join the renaissance.

Today is the last day of my unemployment. I still don’t quite believe it, but I believe it enough to post it publicly. This last year and a few months have led to me be skeptical of everything that might previously have been considered a sure thing. Even a signed job offer seems surreal until you begin to act on it. And so tomorrow, my first day of work at my new job, perhaps I will fully believe.

It is fitting that this final day fall on the 55th anniversary of President FDR’s death. His Social Security Act is what created the unemployment assistance that was part of a few things that buoyed my wife and I over the last 15 months. We unintentionally visited his monument last week while visiting the cherry blossoms in DC. Seeing the bronze replica of the bread line reminded me of soup kitchen lines in San Francisco and in front of our old apartment in Cambridge, MA. It did not remind me of anything personal, which could be considered a sign of our national progress in matters relating to unemployment (that fewer people who lose their jobs must experience Depression-era loss). Some of those affected in this recession did indeed endure such lines, waiting to find work, collect food stamps, or get free meals. I am very grateful that we did not have to do this.

During this past period of my life, I have been thinking more and more about labor issues. I made my own naive mistakes in trusting our employment system, though I wish it were something we could all be sure of. Layoffs and downsizing have their detractors, backed both by studies and anecdotal reports. Regardless of what side you take, it appears our economy is going to take a long time to re-employ the millions of unemployed workers. I was let go from a division of a large corporation that, so we were told, was growing rapidly (double-digit profits the past two years and no forecast of any major stalling). I was banking on a continuation of my employment.

This major change in my life has closed the door on previous ways of thinking, and for that I am grateful. I am more realistic about the work I will do in my life and more aware of periods of no work. At the same time, I feel freer to imagine ideal situations for myself and to actually plan for them. Employment is never guaranteed, and thus we all need to push ourselves to do tasks which are diverse and applicable to many potential situations. I may have been laid off from what was at the time a sort of dream job, but my current outlook appears better than it ever did.

I hope that the economy and our ways of employing workers can change for the better. We all deserve the security of being able to live, and since we’re nowhere near getting rid of the need to pay for this ability, we ought to have a more humane labor standard. I don’t know what this looks like, but I am not going to forget my months of recession. To that end, I will periodically post some thoughts, hopefully related to things I’m reading (i.e. evidence to support any wildly idealistic claims). It may not be the specific work for which I will be paid in the coming months (hopefully years), but hopefully someday I can apply these thoughts in a way that saves someone’s job or creates a new one. Perhaps I can even discuss ways to get around the need to pay (with wages) for the ability to live. I think we all need to investigate the employment system and the way we work, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how fragile our workplaces are.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Im Herbst

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

This is a bit late, and I’ve fallen well behind the 24-hour news and blog cycle; however, it is not just about one day, but many strung together across several European borders. November 9 is also mixed up with more than one historical event. The date certainly deserves more than quick memories to be shelved for use on the next anniversary. In fact, I’ve been reading a novel for the last couple of years (yes, it’s a slow read, but not in bad way) that deals with the bureaucratically slow memory of that event and its political consequences. Deliberately or not, this sort of crabwalk through memory is something I do; it may or may not be a healthy way to access past events, and it takes a very a long time.

I want to remember a trip to Germany as part of my recognition of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the fall of 1993, I visited Berlin, Potsdam, Wittenberg, Koblenz, and various little places throughout the Rhineland. The wall was still up in many out of the way neighborhoods of the city. We stayed in the former East Berlin, at the Radisson on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse near Alexanderplatz and in the shadow of the Fernsehturm. (The building is still a Radisson hotel, but it is also the site of the new DDR Museum.) Our room overlooked the street, from about 4 or 5 floors up, and I slept on a makeshift daybed in the window. I fell asleep every night to the newly capitalist part of the city. A constant flow of traffic, spotlights, the whine of sirens, drawing me in to dreams I still have today.

Our first day, the day we flew into Tegel, we went right out into the city. It was the sort of intrepid tourism I would engage in now, but at the time I was a child working on no sleep. I couldn’t possibly sleep on the overnight flight from San Francisco. No kid passes up the opportunity to stay up all night, even if it means spending that night crammed in the center aisle of a jet. So despite my whining for sleep, my father hustled us to the Marienkirche across the street and then to a cursory examination of Alexanderplatz. He was about to start a week of day-long meetings, so this first stab at Berlin was one of his only moments of sightseeing.

Later during our stay in Berlin, we ate at the revolving restaurant on top of the TV tower. It is my earliest memory of a cityscape. I don’t remember the San Francisco or St. Louis skylines (the only two cities I was aware of at the time) any earlier than this image in my mind. Berlin became my idea of a city. I also saw my first opera, The Magic Flute, at the Staatsoper. This actually had little effect on my cultural development—I am still trying to get into opera. However, the museums on the Museumsinsel next to our hotel were life changing. I lost myself in some of the Northern Renaissance rooms, and stood for at least 30 minutes in front of a danse macabre scene, something like Hieronymus Bosch or Brueghel, filled with devils dragging souls to hell. It is a mystery how such painters could portray so well impending doom and terror with such seemingly whimsical figures. It creates something of an acknowledgment of death in the mind. With all the art, churches, castles, and music, Germany became a tableau of history before my eyes; it’s current events paraded the same streets and alleys, living with dancing skeletons and pious Madonnas.

I do not remember going to see Checkpoint Charlie, but I do remember the confusing Soviet—not German—memorials to World War II. My parents weren’t too interested in discussing communism and capitalism with me. I imagine the Cold War didn’t affect them too much on a personal level. On this trip my father was working with the German utility companies to plug Berlin back into the Western power grid. His German colleague’s wife was from East Berlin and had escaped at some point in her youth. She told us stories about the Berlin Airlift and watching the relief packages floating from the sky just a few years after bombs had been in their place. At one point, my mother and I took a river cruise down the Spree, where parts of the wall still lined the banks. On the train, I met a former East German MiG pilot who was sitting across from us in our compartment. He was reunited with his sister in 1989, meeting her at the wall in some part of the city.

Despite my prior ignorance of the political situation—of course, this is acceptable for a 10 year-old—I had been studying for this Berlin trip for several months. My father’s family is German on both sides, and I was very passionate about my European roots. This trip was going to be a great chance to realize my ideal notion of Germany, which was mostly made up of German classical music and World War II. I got a language program for our computer and began learning German. I learned a fair amount, so much so that I became the interpreter for my family in some instances. I translated menus and street signs. I wanted to interact with the hotel staff and the people on the trains. My confidence only went so far. In the pool locker room at the hotel an old German man, wrapped only in a towel and not for long, spoke to me in German, just some friendly address to a youth. I quickly rattled off my “sprechen nein deutsch” and got out of there.

It was startling to be mistaken for a German. Though I had been preparing months for this, Germany was completely unmanageable at a certain level. It was much more than military monuments, baroque churches and new culinary experiences. There was something far more important happening that I had no connection to. Looking back, I can see the significance in some of my more benign memories. The disparities between parts of the city were easy to see by taking the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz into the Tiergarten neighborhoods; for me it was simply the train to the zoo. It could have been starker, since Alexanderplatz was already well on its way to Westernization. So much of the area around the hotel had remained as it was right after the war, despite the luxury of the hotel itself. The wall became a tourist attraction, but the human stories I heard about it were full of a genuine melancholy, a mix of memory and freedom. There was a bazaar on Museum Island filled with Eastern bloc refugees selling kitsch. I begged for an aviator cap with goggles but my dad would only buy a peaked hat with GDR insignia. The city’s beggars and homeless made San Francisco look like the Magic Kingdom. They were even further removed from the tourist since many spoke only their Slavic native languages. By the time we went west to the Rhineland, the trip became a vacation, far from the political realities of Berlin and Eastern Europe.

The failure of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc became one of my childhood narratives, something I grew up thinking about and that still occupies memories and dreams. When I came home from Berlin, I was immediately sucked into the Balkan wars for independence. Those events became my favorite news pieces from outside the US. Instead of growing up as another generation stuck in the paradoxical certainty of the Cold War, a new historical future opened up. I think many of my generation stopped thinking about Europe pretty quickly, now that it was no longer part of our own American narrative. In fact, I imagine many Americans didn’t really care about it even before the fall of the Wall. From this far away, I feel like I have no legitimate connection; but Berlin changed me in 1993. It is the site of my induction into a historical world, filled with more complexities than sure definitions. When I remember that trip, I see the shifting edges of Berlin’s landscape. They don’t stay fixed long enough to make many generalizations or theories, but I imagine that is exactly what it was like when the wall fell. Freedom certainly opened up the eastern world, but it quickly blurred into uncharted maps of political, historical, and cultural regions still being discovered and rediscovered today.

Categories: Recollection Tags: , ,