For me, the year was 1978. My friends in school, all were listening to this song. In a way, it was the only song from an East German band, to which we would admit listening. Well, most of us. We would play it on our cassette recorders; today you get it on youtube. This song has been playing for years; and I aged with the musicians. The lyrics are by Hildegard Maria Rauchfuß, who was 60 years old, when I heard the song first.
Grandpa Wilfried told me this: I am very glad you are listening to me. My grandkids usually don’t. None of them. And I have five. Four boys and one girl. At least, the older one of my son Horst sits with me in the kitchen, when they come and visit. But I have told them many times that I need their help jotting down my memoirs. It’s all up here, but I need help with the writing. It’s hard. I only went to school for three years. I was born in 1900. My mother gave me to my granny. Maybe I was better off with her. I don’t know. I have always visited with my mom until our dear Lord called her back. He will know whether she did right or wrong. I have long forgiven her. Yeah. I grew up on a farm. Do you know where Pomerania is? That’s where I grew up. After the war, the Poles got it. They live in my house, too. On a farm, everybody had to chip in. Didn’t matter how old you were. I would herd the geese or the goats, and later look after the cows. I did go to school. I was very good. I learned the Bible verses pretty quick and could spell them. Kids of different age were in one room, and the teacher had to look after all of us. I would sit in the front. And in my third year, he would ask me to look after the younger kids. I was a teacher, too. I would teach them how to recite the Ten Commandments. I can still do that. Never have I beaten a pupil, even if they misbehaved or made a mistake. Then I had to leave school. They needed more hands on the farm. In the field. But I was not always working out in the fields. I worked my way up and saved some money. When I met my wife Lisa, I was driving the horse carriage. And on Sundays, I would take the farmer’s family to church, and on market days — to town.
Ach, the market. But that was much later. Do you want to hear that too? I love markets. Chatting with the people. Selling fruit and berries and vegetables. After we got married, we had a grocery store in our house in Pomerania. In a small town only forty kilometers east of the river Oder. Close to Frankfurt. Not that Frankfurt, the other one, Frankfurt an der Oder. “Because Frankfurt is whopping, they part it in twain: Frankfurt an der Oder and Frankfurt am Main.” Did you know that one? A lot of the stuff, we could grow ourselves in the garden plot at the back of the house, but for the really special things I went to Berlin. Lisa took care of the store and the garden. I used to play cards with the lads on the train to Berlin. Lisa never liked the cards. Devil’s work, she said. People argue and fight too much. Too much. But what’s the fun in playing cards, if you don’t play for money. I don’t see the point. We only played Skat — you know Skat? clever little game, that. 32 cards — we only ever played for a quarter pfennig. I won a couple of marks here and there. Thanks God, I never lost much. My son Horst’s oldest always wanted to play, when the family visited grandma and grandpa. He had a lot to learn. Skat is not child’s play. When I asked him, he would say: I have money. I would win everything he had on him. Couple of marks usually. He knew gambling debt is a matter of honor and paid up. Maybe, he had also figured out that I would always tell grandma how much the boy had lost again. It made her heart bleed and she gave him more than he had lost. Win-win. We both had more pocket money in the end. Pocket money. I would give the whole wages to my Lisa each pay day. We had lost the store and the house, when they kicked us out at the end of the war. I would have loved to have a store, but Lisa said No. She said we don’t have the energy to start all over. I am still not sure, but she knew better most of the time. So, we both worked. Ja, I just kept the pocket money, so I could buy my cigar and maybe a beer. They have this very nice restaurant right in the middle of the park across the street. Have you been to Frankfurt? It’s not too bad. The other money I made selling fruit and veg and herbs at my stall on market days, I kept it. We had lost the house, the store, the garden. I was still a prisoner of war, when they were kicked out. Lisa had a couple of hours to pack and leave. She put a few things on a trolley, sat Horst — he was five then — on top, and she and Elsa, my daughter, started walking towards Frankfurt. Twenty kilometers. Although we were even closer now to Berlin, I never really went there again. I had such a good time at these markets. Everybody was so nice. Always time for a chat. Always time for a little joke. That’s what I like — chatting with the people. Mainly girls. I have never done anything wrong. A little bit of teasing. A funny anecdote. And then I would come home to Lisa.
I love anecdotes, would always tell them to my grandson. You see, I want to smoke my cigar after lunch. And when Horst’s family came, we were a lot of people around the table. I only smoked in the kitchen, never in the best room. The chatter of the family was too much for me anyway. I did not want to say much, who wanted to listen to me anyway. My grandson came with me to the kitchen; he didn’t seem to mind the smell of the cigar. The others always complained. Took me a day or two to finish a cigar in the ashtray. I wouldn’t think he was interested in the family conversations either. They were not for kids. So I would ask him questions and tell him anecdotes. He wanted to become a school teacher. A bit like me, really. I always asked him whether I had told him this tale before. He always said no; sometimes I wasn’t sure. A polite boy, he just let grandpa talk and listened.
There was this narrow bridge across the river, no other bridges nearby. So, to get from the village to town you had to cross that one. One day, a carriage with two horses and with the driver sitting in the front came from the east. The driver made the carriage was not touching the bridge railing on either side. It was only when he reached the middle of the bridge, that he looked up. The horses stood still. There was another carriage right on the middle of the bridge, coming from the west. He had not seen them coming. And the other driver saw him too late as well. Now here they were facing each other on the narrow bridge. A good day to you, the other driver said. And a good day to you, he said and added, you will have to back off, I was on the bridge first. No, you were not, was the answer, and it is you who will have to back off. The driver thought for a moment and then said: Listen, this has happened to me last week. If you don’t clear out from the bridge, I will do with you as I did with him last week. The other driver scratched his head and began to push back the horses and the carriage. When he was off the bridge, he drove to the side of the path and let the carriage pass. Then he said to the driver: Wait a moment. I did what you told me to do. Now tell me, what did you do to the other driver last week. The driver smiled quietly and said: Well, when he did not drive off the bridge to let me through, I did and let him pass.
Ja, anecdotes like this I would tell my grandson. I would interrupt once in a while to ask him questions, what he would have done as the driver. So that he could learn a thing or two. I just don’t like fighting, it’s better to back off to keep the peace. And I truly do not like war. Our dear Lord does not want us to be at war.
I was too young – bless the Lord – when the first war was. You have heard lots about the wars, right? But as the second one went on, they took everybody. Hitler had closed our church already; we didn’t want to have any part in the united church of the Reich. Give to God, what is God’s, and give to the emperor, what is the emperor’s. I had to go to war. And they gave me a rifle. I had never touched one. Thou shall not kill, so it is said. They took us to this shooting range, all us grown men in uniform. Them rifles are dangerous. I panicked. Maybe just a little. I didn’t know how to hold the darn thing. I didn’t know how to aim. I didn’t know how to shoot. But it was them who got frightened. My drill sergeant said: Stop this, Wilfried! Right now! Put down the rifle! I was sent to the kitchen. My Lisa has always been a good cook, as a woman should be. They learn that kind of thing. I didn’t. Then they sent us to the frontline. And I was still in the kitchen. These huge pots. It wasn’t that difficult. You just put any stuff they give you in these big pots, pour water in and stir it up. It went well. Mostly. One day, I must have dropped in too much from the sack barrow with the salt. I didn’t like that soup, anyway. So, I didn’t even taste it. When the lads came back from the trenches – pretty awful out there – for their lunch, they were spewing and spitting. Somebody must have told them that it was my fault. Things always were my fault. And if I didn’t do them right, they were still incorrect. I said this many times. They had to go back hungry. Back to the trenches. I guess they were not in good shape that afternoon. I had to hide for the rest of the day. And they lost that position that evening. The next day we had to go back west. The Russian captured us all soon after. Anyway, my son Hans often said: “Dad, you lost Hitler’s war. because you ended up in the kitchen, the boys couldn’t eat properly, they lost the battle, morale went down, and we all know how it ended.” Hans was happy too that this horrible war ended.
I think enough said. Thank you. It doesn’t happen very often that somebody is listening.
Why is this an Adjacent Story? Michael Praetori provided the answer. How did these stories start? In 2020 — Just me.
Fridays are different from the other days. I meet up and write just for myself in a group. 45 minutes each week. This less than an hour has become my lens on the remaining 165. In a week of 168 hours, I type for one and hear for two and have kept it up for four months, because the writing and the listening got under my skin. Slowly. I am in text. On Fridays.
On Fridays, I don’t use my words loosely — friends — when I write. I listen to them and get taken away to the within and the without. Gently. I am moved and don’t have to journey alone. Writing with friends, using vocabulary that I uncovered in Webster’s, some yesterday and some 25 years ago. And the words of the friends are finely woven, skillfully thrown, gracefully spun. A poem recited, a story retold, a letter drafted. I listen in awe each Friday.
Each Friday, each writes a piece each. This matters. Writing is jotting down words on paper, hammering them into a machine, scratching the surface of wood, or spraying the grey of concrete, and so much more. Many different ways, and all have one wish in common. The writing longs to be seen and heard and kept. At least once in a while for a while. For that, I am learning to read and to listen and to build. For my writing.
My writing does not make me a writer. It makes me susceptible. Some words get under my skin, and I lay down mine with more care, since I like words more than cheese. And cheese, I love. Luckily, English has more words than any other language I know of. Willingly, it borrowed and kept the spaghettis, the kitsches, the schadenfreudes, the sputniks, and the BBQs of this world for me to choose from for my writing.
My writing does not net me money. I know I am lucky that way, not needing the gain. Instead I use the texts to have a wallet for my understanding and sympathy, so that I can take out words to pay others the respect and give them the delight that I would like to commit freely. In a second language, committing is easier, when I am writing.
My writing does construct me. I am not a writer, but I would not be the same, if I did not craft a text among people who write and listen and speak so eloquently and empathetically about a written word of mine they heard. And then I don’t have words to say how thankful I am to all who help in my construction. So I am writing on Fridays.
One word at a time.
I could hear the fire crackle. I was so close. Had we been sitting for a while? More than an hour? Was he looking at me? It felt like I was looking in a mirror. There was merely my fireplace and the somber calm of my living room downstairs. When I was looking at him, the words in my head were louder than the fire. I could hear his voice and mine: “why don’t you say something?” I heard his usual answer: “oh, come on what should I say? you wouldn’t trust me anyway. I am not even sure I trust myself. you know that I don’t like talking about myself. you know that I don’t buy all this sharing-crap. are you not listening to me?” My reply was quick and sharper than I had meant it to be: “all I do is listening. most of the time. but I don’t want to know about your dad. or some distant cousin I have never met. and certainly not your colleague from 17 years ago. I want to know about you.” So, I got an angry reply: “so, you don’t like my stories … am I boring you … you find me boring?” My next response was well rehearsed: “no, I don’t. I am just not interested in this woman you were talking about in so much detail. you go off on these tangents. why were you talking about her? what’s the point? I asked you a question and you were talking about her. it’s always about other people. and I was asking you. I really don’t get it. never have; probably never will. I want to get closer to you, know you. I don’t want to hear some story.” His attempt to explain was equally predictable: “I keep telling you it is in these stories. I am in these stories. all I have is stories … … … hold on a second … you don’t like my telling stories … and you want to get to know me. why would you want to do that, anyway? … … … everybody has stories, right? and you want to know about me, right? so. I rest my case. … don’t talk to me. talk to them. I talk about them too much, you say? talk to them. maybe … they talk about me. maybe they don’t. I don’t know. does this even make sense?”
I could hear the fire crackle. I was so close. I guess I must have been nodding off for a little while. Silently. Enough is enough. Just get started. Maybe, I could make a list of these people. I could go through his years. More stories? The same stories? Or will they be different if they tell them? I will just listen. Just listen. I should write them down, so that I can really look at them later. Just get started. But where do I start? Surely not at the beginning! I don’t even know where it all began. The stories of his grandpa, maybe? “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; it is we who have borne their iniquities.” Or do I need to go back farther? And then? A story from each of these people? More than one? How about the years? Did something happen each year? I guess I need to make a list. A list and a calendar? That’s all I can think of? It is not that he is elusive or invisible, but I do not want to make any assumptions. I just want to listen. Listen to stories about him.
Since, I have often looked back to this evening, sitting at the fireplace. I should really get started …
Why is this an Adjacent Story? Michael Praetori provided the answer.
So, I take it you are one of the people who start reading a book on page 1, before or very shortly after having bought it. In this particular case, you will be glad you did. Please bear with me for just a brief moment.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Michael Praetori, and I am not the author of this book nor am I a literary critic or even a writer. My connection to the book you are holding in your hands is a different one: Some months ago, I was sent a manuscript accompanied by a letter. In this letter, Gregor Samsa, the editor, explained the purpose of the aforementioned package. I have to preface his explanation by saying that I am a physicist. I have studied complex dynamic systems, taking both theoretical mathematical and empirical perspectives. I shall not bore you with the details, but the relevance of my research over several decades will become apparent soon. Gregor requested that I provide, what he called, a scientific review of the manuscript and pointed out the reasoning behind his unusual request to me. This has been my first review – I believe this is the term used in this industry – of a work of fiction, and in all likelihood, it will remain my only venturing out into this realm. As an avid reader, I do have a certain degree of familiarity and appreciation of fictional literature, but I would never lay any claim to having genuine professional expertise in this realm. Gregor assured me early on in our correspondence that this expertise was also not needed.
I do apologize for my intrusion at the beginning of this book, because I realize you would much rather like to read what the author has to say; and he does say things so much better. Yet, the publisher thought it opportune that I shed some additional light on the fabric of this book by way of introduction. Therefore, I beg your patience and would invite you, dear reader, to have a close look at the book’s title. Gregor was obviously not interested in my take on the Stories; rather, he elicited my response to the concept of Adjacent and adjacency in general. Specifically, he was keen to understand better the validity of the scientific premise underpinning this book’s structure and perspectives. I am using the plural wisely here: perspectiveS. At first glance, the book appears to consist of a multitude of different stories. Each has its own characters and perspective. Some characters have a second or even third appearance, but it might be difficult – for the non-scientist – to ascertain a pattern of these recurrences and to overlay the various perspectives in and of these stories. And this is where complex dynamic systems research is assumed to be very useful.
In laymen terminology, a system consists of multiple interacting and interrelated components. The interaction and relationships of individual and clusters of components display certain patterns, which can be observed and hence discovered. A dynamic system moves over time; it is essentially a process. This implies that your connected air conditioning and heating devices at home are not the dynamic system, but the process of heating and cooling by and of itself is. Of course, changing the ambient temperature of a space is not a complex process, is not a – complex – dynamic system. We speak of complexity when many interacting variables are involved in the system. It is their frequent interactions – think of them as bouncing of each other like billiard balls just thrown onto the table – that induce their change during many of the iterations of the system, adding layers upon layers of complexity. I will end my excursion into physics here, as this needs to suffice as a necessary and theoretical explanation.
As in physics, as in the book, it is not uncommon for us to find it hard or even impossible to directly observe a certain single component of the system or a character in a story and to not impact, influence, or even change the component in the system, the person in real life, or the character in a story with our observation. Especially when the system component we intend to observe is very small, like an atomic particle, shall we say, the energy of our observation is often greater than that of the particle. The influence can be immense, and we cannot necessarily trust what we observe to have been the same, before we observed it. In this case, what can be done to ensure appropriate and informative observation with transparent and replicable results? It is here where I marveled at the book’s consistent approach.
Gregor, the editor at the publishing house, assured me that I am not spoiling your future reading pleasure by revealing that the Adjacent Stories evidently only have one and exactly one main character. The inherent tension of me talking about one main character and, in the same breath, about many characters in many stories is intensified by the fact that the main character does not make an appearance in any of the stories. The reader has to assume it is a he and this he appears to be of some significance. Yet, the author claims in the very first story that he finds it impossible to observe said main character.
Dear reader, if I have not lost you at this stage of my elaboration, it will be apparent to you now that knowledge items and experience from science in general and physics in particular can be transferred into humanistic endeavors. In physics, we are well familiar with minute particles and obscure phenomena that are difficult or even impossible to observe and therefore difficult to understand. It does not seem to matter why they are so hard to understand; it matters what approach can be employed to gain a better understanding. In science, the necessary approach has been labeled multiple triangulation. We observe two or more, let us just say by way of example, particles over time. These repeated observations of carefully selected particle pairs let a scientist draw probabilistic yet solid inferences and at times conclusions about the unobservable third particle. Thus, it is possible to gain an unbiased understanding of this third particle over time.
You see where this excursion into science is going. The author, in my opinion, carefully selected a substantial set of characters over time, as a matter of fact, over several decades of both the twentieth and the twenty-first century. In each of the Adjacent Stories, he pays close attention to one of them in their interaction with others and in their temporal and local contexts. This way, I would submit, the reader gains a better understanding of the apparently elusive or perhaps deliberately obscured main character. After careful reading, I certainly did.
Please allow me to conclude these “words before the book”, my prolegomena, with a more personal remark. Not only are the Adjacent Stories firmly grounded in a scientific paradigm, judging from my own reading experience, it is a great pleasure to uncover each character’s story – some of them are funny, others are historically illuminating, and a few are simply thought-provoking – and to unravel the story of the main character, without his story ever being told. In addition to being a scientist, I became a detective as the first reader of this book.
So without further ado, I would like to wish you, dear reader, enjoyable hours with the book you are holding in your hands. Now that you have worked your way through this introduction, you will not regret having started your journey into the Adjacent Stories.
Michael Praetori, Professor emeritus
Grasp it, clasp it, catch it. With your hands. Grasp it, see it, know it. With your mind.
For me, it has been six months. Six months of living in LA. Every day of the week. No driving-up from San Diego every other weekend. Half a year of working from home during the day and sleeping in the same bed each night. I have not yet fully grasped my luck.
COVID-19. I have not grasped that either. I must not grasp someone’s hand. That much I understood. Why the sales of Corona beer plummeted, I don’t understand. A lot of things have strange names. Naming a virus after a beer? Who had that idea? Or was it a hoax? It’s a bad name. Corona. Radiates abundance, power, and glory. Some would like to have these within their grasp. But being crowned with a virus? How frightening when one can’t breathe and can’t see why not. Invisible.
As in the folktale, the emperor is donning new clothes. His crown invisible, untouchable, he is grasping at straws, while his serfs are catching the virus, gasping for air. What’s going on in the land under him?
How do I get a grip, get a grasp on life? This life under a mask. Does it matter that there is a travel warning for Vienna? Does school take place in Wuhan? Russia is peddling the remedy? The US is on the list of countries from which one must not come?
I did not visit my mother in Finsterwalde this summer. So, I renovated the kitchen. Catch them while you can, I thought, especially, when you are in the house every day of the week. Lucky: In the kitchen, I am breathing regularly, when I have breakfast in the morning, before I sit down at my desk for a day’s work. Paid. As it always was. I have a full grasp of my little island; grasping this world will take me longer.
Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity [which I have now also moved to this blog]. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…
The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.
I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?
So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.
*ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move)
In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.
So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.
5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.
So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?
Or is there another way? What do you think?
As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)
This is the penultimate transfer of a post from the Panta Rhei Enterprise site. I had written this originally in July. I would think that apart from the dates being even further out, not much changed … for the better. I am still optimistic that it will. Eventually.
At least the tidying up of this blog and the one at Panta Rhei is nearing its useful conclusion.