Saints, heroes, villains, lost souls (7): A unique grandmother’s sad, brave life

My grandmother, Maria Kohler, was a courageous, resourceful misfit with a lovely soprano voice. Around 1920, she left her home and village in Germany’s Black Forest and took a few trains to another region, the Saarland, not far from the French border. This was an unusual step; nobody in this farming family had ever traveled except for the men who were made to go to war. Maria had lost five or six brothers in the recent World War. In the Saarland, she worked in people’s households, cleaning, running errands, and taking care of children. She had a relationship with a man, Hans Schaefer. He eventually moved to Cologne to take a job in a steel cable factory.

Maria was let go by a couple of her clients and fell on hard times. Once again, she left town. She found out where Hans Schaefer lived and showed up on his doorstep sometime around 1925. Later, both Maria and Hans confirmed that this was not a high moment. She said, “I did not know where else to go and had nobody to turn to. It seemed practical for us to get married.” He said, “I felt pressured into marrying her, because she was lost. I felt sorry for her.”

Maria and Hans married. She gave birth to my mother in 1927. There are no happy stories from their lives together. Hans liked to listen to opera on the radio; Maria rattled dishes and told him to “turn that garbage off.” He liked soccer; she hated it and his friends, even more. They never took vacations, either alone or apart. By all accounts, she was a horrible housekeeper who always cooked way too much and threw tons of food away because it spoiled or she did something awful to it. She apparently did not like being a mother, much, either. In pictures of her and the baby, later the child, she always looked disgusted or bored. Hans and family members all described her as cold and uncaring.

However, during those years of a miserable marriage, Maria developed a network of women friends who were close to her almost until she died in the 1970s, when I had already left the country. I don’t know how she met these women. Maybe at church, where she sang in the choir. Maybe in the homes where she did domestic work. Or at the bank where she cleaned after hours. I met some of them in the late 1950s and 60, when she took care of me during the day. They were interesting, funny, and unconventional—even I could tell. Nothing like any other people I met in those gray days. Maria gossiped with almost anybody she saw more than once on the street, probably her favorite occupation, walking or standing and talking, talking, sometimes for an hour or more. But she always made disparaging remarks about the women who were not part of her circle. “She’s dumb, her husband is the boss at home.”

In 1937, following a hysterectomy, Maria was very ill for months. She survived, and she and Hans soon divorced. Later, he told me he left her because she had “become a lesbian” and was impossible to live with. Of course, that would have been a devastating accusation during the Nazi era, even though the regime was slightly more tolerant of gay women than men, who were persecuted, packed off to concentration camps, and murdered.

After the divorce, Hans lived his own life and eventually remarried. He disappeared from my mother’s life until 1971—a story for another blog post. Maria and her daughter lived by themselves. My mother was never willing to talk about that time after her father had left. When the war intensified and Cologne was bombed repeatedly, Maria and the child moved to the Kohler family home in the Black Forest. By all accounts, this was a horrible period for Maria. Nobody loved or even liked her, but they felt obliged to help her out. She and her brothers and sisters did not get along. One day, her brother shoved her down a few steps during a fight, and she fell on a few spiky indoor cacti. My mother was still enjoying the cruel moment when she told me about it decades later.

What I think made Maria often so hard to get along with was that she did not want to be like everybody, she wanted to be different. Better. Interesting. She wanted to be somebody special who does special things. But she lacked the self-awareness and education that would have helped her find and make something of her talents, so she was constantly overreaching. Every week day and most Saturdays, she cooked for my parents and me, dishing up huge amounts of tasteless, salty, greasy, or bitter food that drowned in oceans of brown, fatty sauce. In post-war Germany, people delighted in eating lots and lots, especially meats. Maria never met a pork chop or fish filet that did not want to be excessively breaded and salted, and overcooked in a pan full of some sort of grease until it was almost black and tough to chew. She baked cookies in the same manner, and sent large boxes full of them to her sister, who in return always gave us a package of delicious, sophisticated cookies and cakes of her own making. Even mild or humorous criticism of Maria’s cooking and baking was an insult to her. She sent sections of the newspaper to the relatives in the Black Forest, so they could get an idea of the news from the big city. She wanted to be asked to sing in the church choir, but was offended when people expected her to show up for a mass. She had strong judgments about people and politics, but also was usually completely misinformed.

Sometimes I think I was the only person in the world who knew a good and generous side of Maria, especially later in her life. Because my parents were always at work in their shoe shop, six days a week and seven in the run-up to Christmas, she was the one to take care of me from shortly after I was born until I was about 12 years old, when I started doing my homework in the back of the store, spent more time with friends, and did not see her so much anymore. Maria cooked for me, and often that was even good—simple potato soups, frittatas, vegetables, fried fish, and more. She read me stories from the paper. We went for long walks through downtown Cologne and the city’s parks. Sometimes she took me along to her part-time evening job cleaning a bank branch, where it always stank of cigars and cigarettes and the stuffed suits’ awful lunches. We went to the movies together, watching Disney cartoons and newsreels. We spent endless hours playing board games. She also took me around the department stores and the places where she bought milk, vegetables, meat, and fish, long before supermarkets arrived. She chatted with all the storekeepers, who were usually very nice to me. And, when I began going to school, Maria figured out that I did not comprehend the writing lessons, and helped me through that hard time until I could write. She was also the one to understand that my eyesight was bad and that was the reason for my being slow to learn. I simply could not see what the teacher wrote on the blackboard.

I was the only one who saw how many aspirins and pain killers Maria took every day. When she cried and complained about the people who had disappointed and betrayed her, I was the only one who heard her. For years, I was also the only one who knew about her continuing friendships with the group of older women. There was at least one bitter scene where my mother told Maria not to expose me to them. I kept quiet after that. Maria didn’t care about anything her daughter told her—they disliked each other very much—so she remained loyal to her friends.

Maria did not live with us. She rented a miserable, cold room (no bathroom, shared toilet eight steps down) at the far end of the street. Instead of paying rent, she kept the public areas of the building clean. When we moved to another part of town, she had to ride the buses and trams to get to our place, where I needed feeding and the laundry and other household chores needed to be done. She lived in that hole until she died. My parents, who were by then financially set, never tried to move her someplace more comfortable. “She would not have wanted that,” my mother said later. My parents paid Maria a small amount of money for all her work. I have forgotten how much it was, but I was ashamed when I did find out.

Maria’s is a sad story, as you see. For too long, she was much too close to me, and some of her nervous, crazy restlessness became mine. She also passed on a strange sense of wanting to be special, along with many fears. Because her moods could swing from warm and sunny to screaming furious in a few seconds, and I never knew what brought on the change, I was pathologically vigilant and considerate of other people’s imagined feelings for many years, and always tried to guess and anticipate what everybody was thinking and feeling. None of these things were healthy, and they are all part of me.

Maria died alone, like we all do, but she had been abandoned long before by everybody she knew. Her friends had already passed on. I doubt that anybody cried for her, least of all her daughter. I was out of the country and not in touch with my parents. I had no tears when I heard of her death much later, but I was and am sometimes sad for how her life unfolded.

When I think of my grandmother today, I prefer to recall the good times—when she told me about animals and their habits, when we bought some foam filling for our cushions and all the colorful flakes spilled out of the bag on the way home and we laughed and laughed when we realized that was happening, or when I eavesdropped on her and her friends’ warm, intimate conversations without really understanding a word of them. Other times, I remember the mysteries—why did she always draw pentagrams on shopping lists and other pieces of paper? What did she know about herself when she decided to leave home? To what extent was she really involved with her parish’s dangerous efforts to shelter and save Jews and communists during the Nazi years? What did she really believe? But I will never know.

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First page in my current fiction project: Foreword by the narrator’s daughter

This is the first page in my current fiction project. I’ll finish drafting, rewrites, and corrections sometime close to the end of the year. Some details will change, but this Foreword (graciously provided by my protagonist’s daughter) will probably be the same.

Foreword

My father, Martin Lindeman, vanished a few weeks after the Great Disruption. He more than once mentioned that he had played a role in bringing the Disruption about and that his life was in danger. I found this manuscript on his laptop when, with the help of a friend, I was finally able to access the files on it. My mother, Simona Butacu, his former wife, never agreed to let these writings become public; that’s why I had to wait until after her death to bring them to light. The text I’m handing to publication is exactly as my father left it. I only corrected obvious errors in spelling and punctuation, of which there were very few. I believe that his words can help shed a small, personal light on the time of the Disruption and an unusual, oddly composed personality. I understand that my father is a revered figure in the Emerald Religion, and some of the Speaker’s followers may be very interested in his own words. Against all probability, I pray that, wherever and whatever he is, he may see and bless my effort in bringing the manuscript to print. Dad, I love you and have not given up hope for your return in whichever form you choose to take.

As I read through these occasionally disjointed pages, I realized I didn’t know much about my father. I had never heard about his youth or the murder he supposedly committed when he was thirteen. He never spoke about his life before he and my mother met. I experienced him as a quiet, but restless man who never revealed anything of his inner life. Sometimes I and mother belittled him for that, I’m sorry to say. Given the odd jumps among disparate realities he writes about, it is possible that my father suffered from an undiagnosed mental or other illness, but he certainly never gave any signs of anything worse than boredom. People who met him often had the impression he was shallow and superficial, and I always said he was just really uncomplicated. I understand there was much more to him, but what exactly, I leave to you to judge.

I am painfully aware that my own role in my father’s life was not that of a loving daughter. For many years, I did not respect him, had no interest in his experiences and views, and avoided contact. As you will see, I was instrumental in the ruin of my parents’ marriage. I’m surprised and saddened when I grasp, even in his guarded descriptions, a tenderness and caring regarding myself that I do not deserve. I am thankful to my father as a stranger; maybe in another life, I will have a chance to begin again and have a different relationship.

In particular, I wish to express my unceasing gratitude to Martin Lindeman for having introduced me to the love of my life.

May Eternal Light shine on his path forever and ever.

Roxana Morley Lindeman, Executor

Olympia, Washington, April 2029

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The executive profile: Get past the clean shirt to what’s really interesting

A while ago, I posted a few entries to help you write badly—many people try very hard to accomplish this, but good instruction is not easy to come by. At the time, I completely forgot about an area where bad-writing skills come in very handy: The leadership profiles on many companies’ about-us pages. Many businesses miss a fine story-telling opportunity here.

What do we usually learn in visiting these pages? Executives always wear clean clothes and many of them know how to knot a tie. In some companies, the same shirt and jacket actually seem to follow everybody around to their photo sessions. shirt and tieExecutives understand how to let a smile appear but not let it go too far. They generally have some sort of education. With rare exceptions, they worked in a variety of jobs and accomplished things—founded, led, bought, and sold companies; developed new ideas, products, and services; served customers and headed teams. For the most part, these people sound very much alike, and maybe that’s what writers and website managers hope: They try to follow a covert standard for respectability and cautious neutrality, as if most of the execs were planning to run for pope soon. Much of the language in executive profiles is dry and pale, and makes executives sound unapproachable and not very interesting. They add value, make a difference, pursue innovation, listen to customers, thrive on teamwork, articulate and pursue strategies, sit on boards—that sort of thing. Companies want to give the impression their leadership is competent and effective, and avoid ruffling anybody’s feathers or making any negative impression.

Unfortunately, interest and credibility fall by the wayside. Too often, we have no idea what these business leaders really care about, what motivates them, and what their goals are. We don’t know which experiences they learned from the most, what inspires them, or what they enjoy about their jobs.

I don’t want to disparage what companies are doing with their leadership portraits. I understand where they are coming from. But what we are left with is an anesthetizing uniformity. If business leaders don’t write and publish books and blogs, give speeches, or are otherwise public figures, they generally remain anonymous.

When I had the opportunity to meet business executives, I found that they are usually much more interesting and engaging than what the company says about them in the online profile. They have convictions, ideas, values, insights. Some of them are funny, others downright charismatic and fascinating. Even from a simple marketing perspective, companies should want their execs to be interesting and at the very least have a profile that syncs with the company value story, if nothing else.

Much of the responsibility lies with the writer or website manager who needs to create and publish the executive portraits. Often, the execs provide you with their own content. I know you may not be in a position to argue with them. But maybe you can tell them that you want to make their profiles as interesting and compelling to read as possible, and for that it would be best if you could interview them for a few minutes. If you get that interview, you need to be really on and establish a good rapport in the first few seconds.

Here are a few recommendations that can help develop lively, interesting executive profiles:

  • Have the brief interview face-to-face if at all possible. If you can’t do that, try for Skype or some other visual communication.
  • In the interview, ask questions that likely stimulate interesting comments. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Some sample questions: What recent insight from a customer surprised you and helped you rethink the way you see the business? Where do you see your industry headed, and where do you wish it would go? When you mentor people in the company, what is the one thing you always try to contribute? When you come to the end of a weekend or vacation, what do you most look forward to about returning to work? Can you talk about your strategies in working through challenging moments in business relationships with colleagues, trading partners, or customers?
  • As you follow up, get at least one nugget of insight or innovative, creative thinking that is unique to this person. You can’t usually get at this directly, and you probably should not try to glean it at the beginning of the conversation. Some ways you can try asking: If there is a piece of advice you wish you would have had at the beginning of your career, what would it be? What do you think most observers and analysts of your industry are missing? Are there any valuable technologies, business strategies, or organizational practices you consider completely and unreasonably underrated? When you talk or work with customers, what is the one thing you hope they take away from a conversation with you?
  • If you can feature your executive in a short video where she shares her vision, by all means do so. If you can’t, an audio segment of the interview may be good to use. If you have no other way to introduce the execs than through written words, be sure to include at least one interesting, well-shaped quote.
  • Executive profiles should align with what one finds elsewhere on the company website about products, services, and the organization. But they should not replicate that content in the same words. It will make them sound shallow and irrelevant.
  • Education and past accomplishments may not have much to do with who the person is today. If you can connect prior achievements to somebody’s current role, that’s great. If not, mention it very briefly or leave it aside.
  • Include some content about the person’s personal life and interests, but be careful not to be overly cute, repetitive, or message-driven. In some companies, everybody apparently loves to cook, travel, and volunteer. Elsewhere, they all spend their free time thinking about customers. Keep it believable, individual, and very brief.
  • Portrait photos should reflect the personality of the people depicted and the culture of the company. Don’t use formal portrait shots unless your industry absolutely appears to demand it. Much better are professional images taken in less disconnected situations such as customer and industry events. But also avoid having the pictures look like they were taken at a party, unless that’s what the company is about.

Get the best source material you can, write the strongest content you can draft, and good luck in getting it reviewed and approved. Your website visitors will appreciate it!

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Saints, heroes, villains (6): John Lennon wished my cat well

John Lennon got out of his rusty, beaten BMW and looked for any damage. He seemed relaxed and not the least bit irritated. When he turned toward me and shrugged, the illusion almost faded, but not entirely. Lennon wore jeans and a sweater of the same brown-gray color.

It was June 18, 2001. My cat, Pascal, had a strange injury that I couldn’t properly describe to the vet. But I needed to bring him in. Before I came home and found him, unable to walk, I already had a feeling something wasn’t right. While I was out, I had seen a dead cat on John Street, hit by a car no more than a few minutes ago. A crying woman was knocking on people’s doors to find out whether it was their animal that had been killed. I don’t think she was the driver, but a concerned passer-by. This incident affected me, as if I gained a sense that many years of good luck and fine health for us and the cats were about to come to an end.

Pascal was in his carrier, next to me. He howled in a pained voice I had never heard from him before. I drove out of our alley on to Marion Street. As often, it was impossible to see other traffic because of all the parked cars. Luck did not favor me. I hit the slow, old BMW, probably somewhere on the driver’s side door. Maybe “hit” is too strong a term. Both cars weren’t going all that fast. They touched. But it was definitely my oversight that was responsible.

I rolled my window down and apologized. Lennon said, “This is a very old car. I can’t even tell if there’s a new scratch or ding on it. There are so many already.” He didn’t have John Lennon’s accent. But his voice, in a relatively high range and slightly nasal, was convincing.

He looked at the car again and said, “Really, I’m not going to worry about it. You know how old this thing is?”

I explained about the cat and told him I was worried about him. Lennon said, “I’m sorry to hear that—I hope your cat, you know. I hope your cat will be fine.” He spoke very slowly, with long pauses.

“Thank you, I appreciate it,” I said.

Lennon got back in his car and slowly drove off, heading east. I never saw him in our neighborhood again.

I often imagined what my reaction in his position might have been like. It’s possible that I might have been gracious like he was, but it is just as likely that I would have been angry, cursing the other driver and showing my most unpleasant side. In many situations, you never really know who and what you are until they happen.

Later, I found not one scratch on my Honda Civic.

The cat had heart disease and suffered something like a stroke. We gave him several medications, several times a day, and he had to go to a specialized vet many times. He lived for another nine months, a mostly horrible time for him and us. If this happened again, I don’t know if I would make the same decisions regarding the animal’s care, unless veterinary medicine had better options to offer than back then.

I have not hit another car since that day. It’s not likely that I would meet somebody else as forgiving and supportive as John Lennon.

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Pedestrians don’t need to die, although we tolerate their killing

A few hours ago, once again I was almost hit by a car, in a marked crosswalk. The driver saw me coming, wasn’t going fast, and had time to stop. But she didn’t. This does not happen to me every day, but often enough that I choose intersections with lights or, at least, all-way stops. But even that is no safety assurance. A few blocks away, at the intersection of Madison, Union, and 12th Avenue, cars often don’t stop for pedestrians who have the green light, causing many close calls.

Google “pedestrian deaths” and you’ll be appalled.

Many studies show how pedestrian fatalities trend in different cities and regions. Some improve over time, some not.

Many drivers forget that pedestrians are people just like they are. Instead, they see a needless obstacle that slows them down.

Many drivers forget that pedestrians are people just like they are. Instead, they see a needless obstacle that slows them down.

Male pedestrians seem to be more likely to die from their injuries. But men, women, and children die—every day, all the time. Hundreds and thousands of them, every year. As a driver, I have experienced situations where a person walked out or ran into my lane, in the middle of a block, and only luck stopped me from hitting them. But that happens quite rarely. As far as I can tell from experience and reading up on the subject, almost all pedestrian deaths are preventable. They don’t have to happen.

Why, then, do we let them continue?

Nobody I know agrees with the statement, “Pedestrians deserve to die.” Why do we accept pedestrian fatalities as a given?

Conversations about this topic are often frustrating. Drivers are angry (aren’t they always?). Pedestrians are mad and feel there’s nothing they can do, because they are the weakest party in traffic. They don’t get much respect, in any case—some folks treat this issue like something that’s not worth worrying about. “If pedestrians are careful, nothing happens to them,” I sometimes hear. But that’s not true. Plenty of careful pedestrians I know have been in very dangerous situations.

There may be some drivers who are zombies, sadists, or raging idiots. But most of them are people much like you and I. They even walk sometimes, experiencing the indignities of pedestrian life for themselves. And yet, when we get behind the wheel, we are subject to some sort of possession that makes us lose all empathy. Why is that? Why do we behave so often as if we were callous, unfeeling killers, completely oblivious to the pedestrian risk and experience? We can make and use powerful driving machines, but we have not evolved to the point where we can use them responsibly as a matter of course. Instead, they take us over.

It doesn’t help that, through the millennia, pedestrians were treated as scum. Superior and successful people had horses, carts, coaches, elephants, sleighs, slaves to carry them—they got off their feet as soon as status and wealth permitted them to do so. Physically, their position was almost always elevated, so they could look down on walkers, much like SUV drivers can do today. Pedestrians were in the way, not on the way.

I don’t think moralizing and pointing fingers—any fingers—is helpful, or we would have seen a difference some time ago. So, what can we do? Here are some ideas:

  • Drivers’ education. Provide more training on safe pedestrian/driver interactions. Test more stringently on driving behaviors that are safe for pedestrians. Treat driving more like a privilege, not an entitlement. Do not give driving licenses to learning drivers who have a tendency to act aggressively and thoughtlessly in traffic.
  • Change the perception of driving. It’s a fun, resource-intensive, potentially lethal thing to do. The risks for pedestrians and drivers are huge. We’re telling smokers and drinkers that their habits might be harmful to themselves and others. Why can’t we incorporate similar “drive responsibly” messaging into advertising for cars and drivers’ education? If a generation or two are exposed to it, their driving behaviors might be different.
  • Right turn on red. In areas where a lot of people walk, this adds to pedestrian risk. Drivers simply don’t like to stop and look. We should prohibit the right turn on red at many more intersections than we do now, and find better placement for the signs that inform drivers of the change.
  • Pedestrian education. Pedestrians need to learn how to assert themselves safely. Standing by the roadside waiting for drivers to pass is sometimes unavoidable, but other times you can step out and help them stop, especially if you wear bright clothing, wave, or carry one of those orange flags one sometimes finds. Take your rights. When drivers do the right thing and stop for you, don’t wave them on. Smile, thank them, and cross in front of them. Especially when there’s another pedestrian also trying to cross, it’s completely unacceptable and very unsafe to wave drivers on.
  • Pedestrian action. If you are hit or almost hit by a driver, especially when you are crossing legally, call the police. Try and get a description of the car and driver, or the license number if you can. Walk more. Walk in groups. The more walkers drivers see, the more they will get into the habit of cooperating with them.
  • Change the way we talk. Usually, a pedestrian death is not the result of an “accident.” It’s the result of our actions and attitudes. Call it what it is, a killing. And, sometimes, it’s murder. Let’s get real about how we discuss this. It doesn’t do any good to belittle it.
  • Enforcement. I’m all for the red-light and other traffic cameras, I’ll admit. Also, I would like to see police departments spend more time observing driver behavior and ticketing drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians. I know there are issues of resources and priorities that can make this difficult.
  • Penalties. Our laws are very easy on drivers who kill people, drunk or sober. That needs to change. It won’t happen unless a lot of people clamor for it.
  • Crossing guards. People volunteer in school zones, but why not at risky intersections in other areas? Lots of older people and unemployed might have time to work a crossing during commute times. Cities might even find some funds to pay them a stipend.
  • Social media and conversations. We need to help each other wake up, remember, and be the traffic participants we would like others to become. The status quo is not acceptable. Let’s have practical, non-moralizing talks about what we are trying to change—a car-friendly mindset that’s supported by centuries of pedestrian abuse.

I know pedestrian fatalities may seem like a minor problem if you consider wars, poverty, racism, and climate change. But people are dying needlessly. Is that really what you want? If you ever walk or drive—you can help change the way we act in traffic. Got any ideas?

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Saints, heroes, villains (5): Angry always, forgotten quickly

The first thing you noticed about Josef Peuster was that his shiny head was tiny for how tall he was, and he looked to be at least seventy-five. Peuster ran a duplication machine at Bayer Leverkusen, where I worked for a few months after returning from my first trip to Paris. (See previous installment in this series.) My job was to learn how the machine and related processes worked so I could fill in for Peuster when he went on four or five weeks of vacation.

To get to work, I had to get up at about 4am and catch a tram and a bus and another bus to Leverkusen, one of the most polluted, unhealthiest environments in the world. Sometimes, when I went to lunch or ran an errand to a distant building, I took a company bicycle and rode through spectacularly human-hostile areas, where yellow and black, foul-smelling steam spewed from gigantic pipes and made it hard to see and breathe.

Peuster, the duplication machine, and I were in an office with six engineers who were part of the equipment maintenance organization. This work environment was all-male, all-white. Work orders would come in large cardboard folders, often with architectural drawings attached, for some sort of planning. Peuster and I would get copies of the documents and duplicate certain forms that were routed around other departments for signatures and approvals, material requisitions, or other bureaucratic routines. The work was simple—we didn’t even have to think about which forms went with which work order. Check marks on a yellow sheet told us all we needed to know. We picked the right forms, ran them through the duplication machine to copy certain basic information onto them, crammed them into their folder, and put all the folders to rest in our outbox, where a messenger retrieved them.

Peuster’s mission in life was to slow the process down and make work as miserable as possible for everybody. He let folders sit instead of processing requests, telling people inquiring about the slowed flow they were tyrants and slave drivers. On Monday mornings especially, but also at other times, he would insult anybody who came across him. “You need lots of paper because you put out so much shit,” he’d say. Or, “That’s too much paperwork to cover up the fact that you don’t have balls.” And so on. When he felt friendly, he said, “What is this crap, you don’t really need this, do you?” When somebody got impatient or irritated, he would say, “What’s the matter with you… she didn’t let you do it?” He went on long breaks, during which I would catch up. He told me why he hated people—somebody had made a joke at his expense ten years ago, somebody else always seemed to look at him in an unfriendly manner, another colleague was a socialist and active in the union, and so forth. Peuster didn’t like anybody. He tolerated me because his job needed to be done while he was gone. He didn’t mind when, after a couple of days of training, I just did the work and let him sit around for a few weeks until his vacation started. Somebody must have listened to Peuster describe how complicated and demanding the job was, because that lengthy training was not at all necessary. Or maybe they just heeded his request so he wouldn’t be even more of a pain to be around.

He always talked while I worked. Peuster was in his late fifties, but already had severe health problems that he complained about. Once I was familiar with his repertoire, the conversation was entirely predictable. Without any need for me to chime in, he simply spouted all day. “The damn doctor told me to quit smoking,” he said. “That idiot doesn’t know anything, he’s too young. He doesn’t understand what it’s like when your wife won’t let you sleep in the same room because she misses it and you can’t do it. I often have a hard-on in the morning, but it’s just because I have to piss. It’s nothing that works. The damn drugs don’t help, either. I get exhausted when I go upstairs to the bathroom. Damn these glasses, I can’t see anything in this crossword puzzle. Look at those idiots, do they think we’re machines? They’re just stacking up those folders like they expect us to stay until midnight. The hell with it. I’m too sick to work so hard. Another couple of years and I can retire, if I live that long. Look, there’s the chief engineer, pretend you’re busy, or he’ll be on my case, that damn jerk. Sheesh, what a stupid face he has, like a sheep…”

And so on, eight long hours every day. Eventually, Peuster went on vacation. While he was out, I managed to do the work in about four hours every day and spent the rest of the time reading and smoking. I still had to be there for eight hours, because somebody could need forms to be duplicated any time.

When Peuster returned to work, he was worse than before. His face was always red, probably because he was so angry. He would curse people and everything else. He had lost weight and looked unhealthily thin. He fixated on the chief engineer, a much younger man who never got upset with Peuster’s antics. Complaining about this man took up much of Peuster’s day.

The chief engineer’s last name sounded almost like the German word for “cripple.” One afternoon, when the chief engineer’s office was empty, Peuster shouted across the area, “Time to stop pretending you’re doing anything, boys. The damn cripple is gone.”

Except he wasn’t. The chief engineer was behind his desk, looking for something on the lowest rung of a bookshelf. He glanced our way and did not say anything.

Peuster was back at work the day after, but then he was gone. Somebody had persuaded him to take retirement early. Peuster had spent almost twenty years plaguing his colleagues, but his memory and shadow did not linger. Nobody ever mentioned him. I worked for another week or two, and then my time was up and I started taking courses at the university.

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Saints, heroes, villains (4): Serenity with a secret

When I graduated from my school in Germany at the end of the 13th grade, I took some time off before I started a temp job at Bayer, the pharmaceutics manufacturer that ruined people’s health and the environment all over the area. (More on a villain there some other time.) Before I went to work, I spent two months in Paris. I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in a youth hostel just outside of the city limits and took buses and the metro to get around.

That youth hostel wasn’t your typical wholesome hiker, biker, live-simply-folks, and naturalist hangout. Far from it. It was more like a rock’n’roll stoner commune where the faint line between men’s and women’s quarters had long vanished. Some people arrived, took in the social scene for a few weeks, and never saw the Eiffel Tower or much of anything else. A couple of the scintillating, resourceful travelers I met there later visited me in Cologne.

However, I never saw Rasoul again. He was there before I came and left in the middle of the night, a couple of days before I took the train home. Rasoul was from Algeria, but I don’t know how long he had been away from there. He did not travel for fun the way the rest of us did, I’m sure of that. Maybe he was waiting for somebody or something. He was older than everybody else there and looked a little like Gabriel García Marquez in his early forties. Unlike Marquez, Rasoul did not write fiction. He wrote poems.

Rasoul’s poetry rhymed and sounded marvelous when he read it to us, his voice so low we guessed more than we heard the words. His poems were never longer than sixteen lines or so. His handwriting was ornamental, almost calligraphic. Sitting next to him, I could not read it. I don’t remember what the poems were about—a deity, an angel, a relationship, a forgotten magic. It was lovely to listen to him.

Rasoul also told stories about his travels and experiences. My French at the time wasn’t so great, and I did not understand all of it. But I enjoyed listening to him, watching his lively facial expressions, and catching the gist of an anecdote. I missed his company when he wasn’t around. He was very popular with the women in the place and spent more time with them than with his male friends. Sometimes he disappeared for a day or two, but always returned, until he didn’t.

One of Rasoul’s specialties was interpreting a person’s handwriting. He looked at the letters and gave way to his creativity and intuition. From time to time, I received a postcard from a friend at home. One was from a girlfriend who I was about to separate from. Rasoul’s interpretation of her character was a complete surprise and, I thought, very true. It almost made me feel in love with her again. But she and I were wrong for each other. I knew that.

At the time, I often wondered where Rasoul had come from and where he was headed. He just didn’t seem like an ordinary person, or at least he wasn’t like anybody I had met up to that point in my life. Nobody else had his serenity and poise. Back then, and remembering him now, I believe that something had happened to him—a tremendous insight, a transformation. I don’t know what the visible form of this event was or why it affected Rasoul the way it did. I wonder where life took him after he left the youth hostel, but I’ll never know.

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Saints, heroes, villains (3): Caretaker of her colleagues

When I took a sales job that was to end disastrously, in a company that was about to go under, with a boss who was about to relocate and be replaced by somebody I did not get along with, surrounded by very conservative colleagues with military backgrounds and attitudes—in that worst-fit environment, Alice was the office manager and executive assistant who took care of people. I’m not using her real name for the sake of privacy.

When I first made contact with the company, Alice arranged my interview with the general manager, who was going to be my first boss. She sounded extremely polished and professional, which raised my expectations about the organization; unfortunately, she was in a class by herself and nobody else matched her poise and style. When I was about to be fired nine months later, Alice showed me the warning letter that my second and last boss had her draft. She was upset that he would make her do this instead of writing it himself. She also disagreed with the content of the letter, which made me feel better about it, because Alice was the one person there whose judgment I respected. Because of her indiscretion, I was able to prepare the conversation, and came away less upset and with much better terms.

Alice’s windowless office was next to that of the general manager. Both men in that position were moody, often angry characters, about the same age and with roughly the same amount of years working behind and ahead of them as Alice. One of them was loud and yelled at people, the other one preferred to speak quietly and glare with eyes of poison. Both of them were in the habit of shouting for Alice from behind their desk when they needed something—a document from the archives, a reminder of a commitment or meeting, a meeting to be set up, and so forth. When this happened while one was in a meeting with the boss, it could be most unpleasant to sit there and watch Alice being treated shabbily. Somehow, she never let that darken the friendly relationships she had with the rest of us. At the same time, she did not invite gossip about the two bosses or anyone else. But she helped everybody else work with and around the two difficult general managers. Everybody knew to call Alice first if they had a meeting scheduled or had to approach the boss about something. She would advise us whether it was a good time, or whether one should reschedule or wait.

Another woman working in the office once suffered a devastating epileptic attack and was not able to drive to work for several months. Public transport from her suburb was unreliable and would have taken a couple of hours each way. Alice, who did not live anywhere close to this colleague, picked her up every morning to take her to work. At the end of the day, she drove her home. She continued doing this without a break until the woman was able to resume driving. From time to time, I heard about similar kind acts Alice performed, but she never volunteered any information about them.

Alice loved animals, especially cats, and her husband would not let her have any. Sometimes she bought toys and treats for other people’s cats and dogs, or donated them to a shelter. She never forgot to ask about her colleagues’ companion animals, whose names she always remembered. “I can’t have my own animals, so I have cats-in-law and dogs-in-law,” she said. When I went to Rome and took pictures of the many, often well cared for stray cats there, I put a little album together and told her about the Roman cats and the cat sanctuary at Torre Argentina. It made her happy to hear about it.

For a couple of years, Alice and I sent each other Christmas cards and updates, and eventually I lost touch and a mail was returned to me. If she is still alive, without a doubt she is making life easier and more graceful for the people around her.

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Saints, heroes, villains (2): Charmer, liar, thief, abuser

I got to know Robbi—as everybody called him—through friends of a friend in the same scene of musicians, artists, and aspiring bohemians, back in the Cologne of the 1970s. The last I heard of him, around 1979, was that he fell, or maybe jumped, through a glass door while drunk.

When I first met Robbi, who had probably tagged along with other people who were visiting me in my apartment, I thought he was funny, insightful, and interesting. We jammed together. I played a violin, holding the instrument Indian-style, and Robbi had his bongos with him. That was fun and exhilarating music-making. He had style, dressing in a colorful, silky Hippie elegance.

A friend warned me. He said that Robbi often stole from people, told stories that weren’t true, and had some other unpleasant habits. Apparently, he had taught himself to play percussion instruments and had come close to joining bands, but not more than that.

Nothing special, I thought. In those days, I knew colorful, incredible characters who were never what they seemed and had forgotten the truth about themselves if they ever knew it. But Robbi’s charm, talent, mendaciousness, thievery, and violence beat everybody else by many miles.

For several months, he and I were friends and companions, as best as we knew at the time. He seemed uneducated—he had probably never read a book—but very smart in his assessment of people. He understood music and was a talented drummer. Before encounter groups and my other adventures in therapy, he found ways to reveal me to myself without shaming me, and I was very grateful to him for that.

He also stole my rent money once, and my cigarettes, drugs, books, and record albums, repeatedly. Somehow, he was so charming, and I so naive, that I let this go every time. He also lied with compulsive, tireless creativity, and because he did so much of that and was unable to remember and reconcile his conflicting tales, he was often found out and confronted, which made him very angry. Very soon, I realized that his stories of playing with well-known local bands were never true. Women he called his lovers denied having spent time with him. Robbi told the typical lies people will tell to look more accomplished and desirable than they really are. He also lied for no apparent reason, for example, when he spun a story about some boring party at somebody’s house when he and I had been elsewhere during that time.

When I compared notes with other people who knew him, it turned out that he went by several names and did not have a place to live. I didn’t drink alcohol and did not go to the popular boozy hang-outs, so I only heard second-hand about his drinking—all paid for by others—and his fights when he became drunk and aggressive. Just like me, nobody had ever seen him eat or sleep. Some people had watched him shoot heroin, but supposedly he was not an addict.

Eventually, it became difficult to have a conversation with Robbi, because you could not believe a single word. Then, when a friend needed a new place to live, he conned him into moving to a flat that actually belonged to somebody else; the owner did not find out until the person had moved in with all of his stuff. While the unfortunate tenant looked for another space, Robbi stole and sold his stereo and other possessions. Shortly after that, he visited me together with a woman he introduced as his girlfriend. I still remember the dark, painful tension of that afternoon. She was afraid of him. He slapped her in the face when she looked at him in a way he did not like. I made him leave the apartment. Instead of calling a friend to pick her up or accepting my offer to take her somewhere, she went with him. I never saw him again after that.

I never understood why Robbi had to lie so much. With his talent he could have made his stories become true, earning a living as a musician. With his charm and sense of humor, he could have won people over without abusing their confidence. I did not know much about him, and neither did anybody else. I can imagine what brought him to act the way he did, just like I can imagine his life in the years after I distanced myself from him.

In a large cemetery in the south of Cologne, many hundreds of soldiers’ graves form endless lines of small, white crosses. They are in different sections—I forget whether they are grouped by war or by country—separated by low walls. At an opening in such a wall, two small, chapel-like buildings offer shelter from grief, rain, and sun. One sunny morning, Robbi and I ended up here, sitting in one of these stone huts, enjoying the gorgeous light on the beige and yellow walls. We improvised some music on violin and bongos, and were very happy. I treasure that moment.

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Saints, heroes, villains (1): The cab driver who got me not to be myself

When I was a boy, I had a fat, heavy book called Helden und Heilige, which translates as “Heroes and Saints.” It was a work of hagiography, with life stories, appreciations, and images of all the saints of the Catholic church. I loved reading about these people. The more remote they were in time, the more interesting feats and miracles they were said to have accomplished. I was very disappointed when the church eventually reformed its calendar and a few of my favorite saints did not have a name day anymore. Today, traveling in Europe, I sometimes come across churches, memorials, ruins, rocks, and features of the landscape named after fascinating, amazing saints and heroes who may have lived there at some point. At least somebody’s story became associated with a place that helps to keep a memory or myth alive. Quite a few of these saints appear to be known only in the regions close by.

We all meet remarkable people in our lives. You don’t have to be G. I. Gurdjieff to have this happen to you. We also cross paths with deceptive, troubled, and vicious characters. I know I have benefited from getting to know both kinds. They don’t ever deserve to be forgotten, even if I never knew who they were or what happened to them after we parted. Starting today, I’ll be presenting some of the saints, heroes, and villains I’ve had the fortune to meet. Today:

The kind cab driver who took me to my house and back to the airport

A couple of years ago, Evelyn and I went to Ravenna, Italy, for the first time. Our flights went from Seattle to Amsterdam and from there to Bologna, where we would pick up the rental car. The long Amsterdam flight left around 1:30pm and we got to the airport shortly after 11am.

We checked our luggage, got our boarding passes, and got into the security line.

That’s when I realized I didn’t have my driving license. Without the license, I wouldn’t be able to get the car in Bologna. The printed copy of it wouldn’t do me any good. Without a car, we would not be able to take day trips to the many places in the Emilia Romagna where one cannot get by train or bus. It would still be an interesting time, but probably disappointing in some ways. We decided I needed to get my license, which was somewhere in our house.

While Evelyn stayed in line for her screening, I rushed out of the airport and got into a taxi. I was beginning to panic. Time suddenly felt very short. The driver was a kindly-looking man in his sixties. He had a long, white beard and wore a turban. His voice was gentle and pleasant to listen to. I explained my query and that I hoped not to miss my plane. I forgot what he said, but, surprising myself, I was immediately at ease.

It was a beautiful, blue-sky September Saturday. Freeway traffic into Seattle was horribly backed up. By the time we had to slow down, I didn’t care anymore about making my plane. The driver and I were in conversation. I don’t remember all of what we talked about, but I do recall him telling me about his family members in India, and in Atlanta, New Jersey, and other places in the United States. “I have been to visit them all,” he said. “I am so happy I don’t live where they do. These places are not beautiful. But Seattle is. They come to visit me and are jealous. ‘Welcome to the heaven’, I say to them.”

Usually, I would be very unpleasant and awfully stressed out in this situation. But that man helped to relax, accept, and let things be. I remember thinking, “He’s right, this is one of the best places in the world. It’s not a big deal if my miss my plane and get to Ravenna a day later. Or never.” I also remember saying to myself, “This is not like me at all. It probably won’t last, but it’s very nice for now.”

Eventually, we reached our exit and got to our house. I asked him to wait in front. I ran into the house, unlocked my office, found the license on the scanner/printer, locked my office, locked the house, rushed back to the cab. The driver was gracefully turning a page in a leather-bound book with Arabic writing on the cover. He closed it immediately; I didn’t see what it was and didn’t want to quiz him.

On the way back to the airport, the driver shared more of his views. “Trust is extremely important, it’s the most important thing,” I remember him saying. “Trust and faith. I trust in God to take care.”

Eventually, he dropped me off in front of the terminal. I paid and gave him a large tip. He waved and wished me a happy journey. The plane was already boarding when I got to the gate.

I did not get the driver’s name. He was the kindest, most calming person I could have met under the circumstances. It’s unlikely I would ever share his religious convictions. But his serene graciousness, gentle humor, and kind presence? I can only hope to aspire to that.

So, “welcome to the heaven,” merry Christmas, a delightful solstice, or whatever else you celebrate.

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