History

Good Night, Hiroshima

I’ve been in Japan for twenty-six straight days now. That’s almost twice as long as I expected this business trip to last, and I still have no return ticket booked. The delay is the mundane kind — no catastrophe, no accident, just an engineering project that’s been 90% of the way complete for days. If you’ve ever tried to debug a cabinet full of wires or find the one broken sensor in a tool the size of your bedroom — or if you’ve ever struggled to find the right word, or labored to fix a mysteriously leaky faucet — you know how infuriating that last 10% can be, like you’re swimming up and up and up in a deeply black ocean, the surface perpetually out of reach until one day, suddenly, in a stroke of insight and with no warning whatsoever, your head breaks the surface and you gulp down victory like oxygen.

So I’m here. Still swimming. But as places in the world to be trapped go, I’ve picked a nice one.

Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Even with a population of more than 500,000, Matsuyama has a reputation for being a little sleepy, and certainly when compared to the nonstop electric veins of Tokyo, Matsuyama’s pulse beats slower. It’s a hot spring town, built around the Dōgo Onsen, a spring that’s been used for over a millennium. (I checked, not a translation error.) There are cherry trees on the hills and a long history of haiku poetry, all surrounded by a ring of emerald mountains that shepherd the city to the sea. The city’s age leads to narrow streets, compact cars, and without a burrowing subway like Tokyo’s, the narrow streets are almost always full of those compact cars, so that my five-mile morning commute stretches on in the backseat of a taxi for half an hour. But no one seems to mind the pace, no one seems to mind the wait, and whether this is Japanese politeness or just Matsuyama’s own relaxed tempo I haven’t yet been able to determine.

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The downtown is dominated by a giant forested hill, capped with Matsuyama Castle, a 17th century fortress built by some feudal daimyo that overlooks the entire city. My hotel sits in the shadow of the castle, as does the prefecture capitol building and Okaido, the half-kilometer-long covered pedestrian thoroughfare that’s lined with shops, sushi restaurants, and 7-Elevens. The new nestles right up to the old. Following Okaido away from the castle on the hill, it dead-ends into the Gintengai pedestrian alley, which runs perpendicular for another half-kilometer of fashion, ramen, and fancy stationery until it dumps you out at the city’s gargantuan department store, topped by a massive Ferris wheel that carries you up into the sky until you, too, can have the view of a feudal lord. You can see for miles in every direction, but in the summer there are almost always clouds threatening tropical rain on the horizon.  Every restaurant has a cache of cheap umbrellas they give out to patrons if the sky opens up during dinner.

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I’m working in a neighborhood called Nishihabumachi, an industrial port right south of the airport. I’ve watched planes land and planes depart, and a week after I first arrived a giant container ship, the Santa Serena, pulled up to dock a hundred meters away, gravid with logs — more logs than I’ve ever seen. I watched the massive metal cranes on the ship’s deck duck and nod for two whole days, unloading piles and piles of wood, before with a blast of its foghorn the Santa Serena heaved itself loose from the shore, turned, and headed back out to sea. More planes took off. I took a taxi back to the hotel.

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But today is clearer than I’ve ever seen it in Matsuyama, so clear I can see islands in the distance between the Seto Inland Sea and the Iyo-nada Sea that I didn’t know were there. The geography I can see from Nishihabumachi is breathtaking, all these rocky islands that burst from the crystal blue ocean, dotting the sea and the horizon as they fade away into the distance, into eternity. It’s hard to be upset about being here, looking at those islands. But they are all so separate, so distinct, that they seem lonely, isolated despite their numbers. The more islands that reveal themselves out of the mist, the lonelier they look. They are travelers that surfaced from the sea to find themselves adrift and unconnected.

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Matsuyama is 42 miles south-southeast of Hiroshima. I’d have a clear line of sight to the famous city from the pier where I ate lunch today if it weren’t for those islands. For the first time today, as the sea seemed to stretch on forever, I realized just how close I am to Hiroshima, how close I am to the place where mankind dropped hell out of an airplane and onto a city for the first time, where in an instant we turned 80,000 lives into glass and smoke.

I have conflicting feelings about the U.S.’s atomic bombing of Japan. I think everyone must. It’s an impossible question, a moral morass — was it necessary to end the war? was it a way to intimidate the Soviet Union? was it the best use of a generation of scientists’ talents? was it revenge for Pearl Harbor? did it save countless American lives? did it murder thousands of Japanese civilians? did it spare the lives of Japanese soldiers?  I don’t envy Harry Truman, the farmer turned haberdasher turned senator turned president, thrust into the decision by Roosevelt’s sudden and complete cerebral hemorrhage. But mostly what I thought about today, as I ate lunch and stared across the sea — tried to stare straight back in time — is what Matsuyama must have seen on August 6, 1945.

This is Hiroshima on that day in August, 71 years ago. A tower of flame, an inferno 60,000 feet tall. Fire and fury and ash and void. Buildings vaporized; human lives turned to shadows on the pavement. If you were standing where I was standing in Matsuyama, would you have seen the flare, brighter than anything in history, a new sun rising violently on the horizon? Would you have heard the blast, loud as hell’s own thunder, rupturing the air? Surely you would have seen the cloud, that ominous cloud of smoke and souls, rising like a hunched vulture above the city, above the rain clouds themselves?

Maybe it’s because the sea northwest of Matsuyama is so beautiful, but it’s hard for me to imagine any of that. This is not a desolate or war-torn or ugly place, not a desert in New Mexico or a war zone in the Middle East, but blue and alive and sparkling. And yet there are plenty of 80-year-old Japanese men and women I’ve passed in the streets, eaten next to at sushi restaurants. There are people to whom this is not history but reality, not an abstraction or imagination but something seared into their memories.

This is, more or less, a feeling I’ve had before, when I visited a concentration camp in Germany. That the world was so beautiful — the sky so perfect, the grass so green — that nothing atrocious could have ever possibly happened here. It’s a fallacy, obviously, but it makes me wonder what will happen when the witnesses are gone and only history remains. It’s easy to lose the past in the present.

Japan seems to be keenly aware of this, and integrates its past with its future fairly seamlessly — I’m in a town where the main tourist attraction is a thousand-year-old hot spring, after all.  I’ve linked to yesterday’s obituary of Elie Wiesel in the previous paragraph, but I think I want to close with two quotes from him, both given in speeches, not written in his books.

First —

It’s up to you now, and we shall help you — that my past does not become your future.

And second —

If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.

Good night, Mr. Wiesel.  And good night, Hiroshima.  May we leave the world a better future than your pasts.

Back to the Future

It’s been one hell of a week in American politics.

This country, which is normally so glacially slow to change its mind about, well, anything, executed two U-turns of portentous moment and neck-breaking alacrity: it suddenly seems the Confederate flag is no longer welcome in many parts of the South, and it suddenly seems that same-sex marriage is here to stay.  If I haven’t made it overwhelmingly evident elsewhere in this blog, let me just say here that I applaud both these decisions.  They are progressive steps in the right direction for our country, for our people, and for our national morals.  I could sit here and extol them, laud and congratulate, and I am happy to do that in person — but here, now, I want to get out what still worries me, before those worries fade into the fog.

This is not to take away from the week’s victories, and I don’t want to insult their power by whining that we have more left to do.  It should go unsaid that there is always more to do.  But — moral objections aside — I’ve seen some frightening arguments against the two decisions, and I feel the need to reinforce the point that moving forward requires taking an inventory of our past.

* * *

The Southern Cross flag (“Confederate flag” is really a misnomer, since the flag you’re thinking of was used only as a battle flag, though like most people I use the terms interchangeably) is a symbol of at best insurrection and at worst vicious hate.  That it’s used proudly, as a symbol of ancestry and regional pride, has always left me incredulous — and I think belies a dangerous misrepresentation of history.  The Civil War was not that long ago, and if its roots and lessons are already being distorted, I worry for how it will be presented ten, fifty, a hundred years from now.  Yes, it’s fine to be proud of where you come from.  I have nothing against nationalism (state-ism?), but the Southern Cross has a legacy that is drenched in hatred and racism, not in pride and independence.  The only defenses of using the Confederate flag that I’ve heard go something like this: the flag’s not about slavery, it’s about standing up for your ideals and small government and mom-and-pop shops and freedom! Or, the flag’s not about the Confederacy, it’s about the Army of Northern Virginia standing up for their ideals and small government and mom-and-pop shops and freedom!

Okay, I’m not going to dance around this — those arguments are bullshit and I’m going to demolish them.  I’ve been reading a lot about the Civil War the last couple of weeks, which I credit to watching “Lincoln” on a long trans-Pacific flight and listening to some great podcasts on a drive from the Bay Area to LA.  This by no means makes me an expert, but I feel at least as qualified to make assertions about 19th century American history as I did at the end of my AP US History class in high school.  I think that you could make an argument that the North did not enter the Civil War to end slavery, did not enter for liberty in any sense, but fought for the abstract idea of “Union.”  Fine.

But you absolutely cannot say that the South seceded and went to war for anything other than to preserve slavery.  The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave a speech in March of 1861, just a few weeks before the South really kicked off the Civil War by shelling Fort Sumter.  In the speech, Stephens lays out all the ways the progressive constitution of the CSA is far superior to that of the backwards-thinking nation to the north.  I’m going to quote a sizable swath of it, because it’s so repulsive I think everyone should be required to read it.  The emphasis is mine:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.  This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.  Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.”  He was right.  What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. … The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.  It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. … Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.  It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the storm came and the wind blew.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.  This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. … The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago.  Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics.  All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning.  It is a species of insanity.  One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics.  Their conclusions are right if their premises were.  They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.  If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

In summary: what the actual fuck.

So, once and for all: yes, the Confederate States of America was built on slavery.  Yes, the armies that flew the battle flags were fighting for slavery.  And so yes, the Southern Cross, that battle flag of the Confederate army, is — by its leaders’ own admission — not merely a pro-slavery banner, but in fact a total proclamation of white supremacy.

To say otherwise is to whitewash (sorry) history.  This is something that I think is incredibly dangerous — a nation should be made to face its sins and remember its misdeeds, and the United States has plenty of both.  Willfully or ignorantly ignoring one of our most blatant sins by arguing the Confederate flag only shows some sort of home team pride makes me worry not only for our citizens’ knowledge of their country’s past, but for their willingness to lead that country in the right direction in the future.

* * *

If misrepresenting our past is dangerous, it is possibly no more so than clinging to it doggedly.  This is what I saw in the dissenting opinions from the Supreme Court’s decision for legalizing same-sex marriage.  I’m going to ignore Clarence “Slaves Did Not Lose Their Dignity” Thomas, but between Scalia and Roberts, there was plenty of confusing logic to go around.

Here’s Roberts:

The majority purports to identify four “principles and traditions” in this Court’s due process precedents that support a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry.  Ante, at 12.  In reality, however, the majority’s approach has no basis in principle or tradition, except for the unprincipled tradition of judicial policymaking that characterized discredited decisions such as Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45.  Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society.  If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy.  But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.

Scalia is more, um, Scalia-esque:

This is a naked judicial claim to legislative — indeed, super-legislative — power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government.  Except as limited by a constitutional prohibition agreed to by the People, the States are free to adopt whatever laws they like, even those that offend the esteemed Justices’ “reasoned judgment.”  A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.

Here’s the thing: normally I’d probably agree with these statements.  Roberts and Scalia are right; it is not the Supreme Court’s place to legislate from the bench, and doing so unbalances all those checks America’s founders fought so hard to set up.  But the fact remains that something like marriage is a fundamental human right that was being ignored, or in the worst cases banned, by local governments.  This is absolutely a case where the court can and should step in to prevent injustice and inequality.

I know citing a previous case may be dangerous, because you can always throw the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson back in my face, but I don’t understand how you can look at Obergefell v. Hodges, which restores a fundamental right to a group of people state governments had been discriminating against, and not see Brown v. Board of Education 2: Electric Boogaloo.  Yes, normally the court should not interfere in the legislative process.  But I think in extraordinary cases, the court has an obligation — both moral and legal — to wield its power to right iniquity.  The justices cannot sit by as states trample their citizens’ rights.

Kennedy realizes this in his majority decision, and makes a fantastic point about how we cannot foresee the morality of the future:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.  The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.  When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.

I deeply respect Kennedy’s willingness to say the Founding Fathers may have not been omniscient.  While I believe these titans of American history — Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, et al — were visionary, I worry that our current commentators and leaders elevate them to almost infallible status, when they are merely men, and so almost by definition fallible.  Our veneration of the Founders, capital F, borders on blind hero worship.  These men were brilliant, yes, and their invention (American democracy!) equally so, but we have to remember not to apotheosize them — because they were, occasionally, wrong.

My point here is that just because the Founding Fathers said or believed something doesn’t necessarily mean the country has to go on saying or believing that more than two centuries later.  It is important to cleave to the ideals of our country’s Founders not out of some dogmatic loyalty to them, but because they are, on the whole, right.  Every generation must think critically about this statement — like Justice Kennedy.

We cannot rely on past ideals just because we idealize the past.

* * *

I guess I don’t know how meaningful this is to say after writing a thousand words or so of what is more or less diatribe, but I really am happy with this week’s results.  Removing the Confederate flag and legalizing same-sex marriage are major coups for love, equality, humanity.  I’m proud to live in a country where these events came to pass, and I just don’t want the past to cloud that.  I want us to always recall and acknowledge, as a nation, the mistakes of our history — so that we can move forward together: respectful of our history but unburdened by its beliefs, aware of our failings but unshackled from their causes, nostalgic about our past but unbounded in our future.

The Eagle Has Landed

This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first mission that successfully landed human beings on a thing that wasn’t the thing on which every human being ever in the entire history of humanity has lived.

That we as a species pulled this off is still staggering to me.

We put three living humans into a small metal tube perched on six million pounds of concentrated liquid explosion, shot them straight up into the air until they reached a point where they are so high up there is literally no more air, then guided the metal tube to a piece of space rock hurtling through the void almost 240,000 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, and did it with less computing power than I carry around in my pocket today.

(I use that computing power, by the way, to look at cat videos. To reiterate, NASA used it to send three men — three normal, terrestrial people who cannot fly and who must breath air — to THE GODDAMN MOON.)

The sheer audacity of the US space program’s goal — to send living, breathing people to the moon and then bring them back still living and breathing — is incredible. Beyond the technical challenges this had to pose to 1960s-era scientists and engineers who were still marveling at the hand calculator, beyond the funding that had to be found by politicians who had chilly wars to fight, beyond the undoubtedly bowel-loosening terror that had to be faced by the men in the Apollo capsule as they careened wildly through the firmament towards a tiny chunk of rock floating in an endless sea of nothing, one simple fact remains: the moon is really, really, really far away.

A case study: Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando. The closest Taco Bell to Kennedy is 13.2 miles away. The astronauts that left Kennedy to go to the moon could have traveled round-trip to that Taco Bell more than nine thousand times and not covered the same amount of distance. That’s beefy five-layer burritos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for more than eight fucking years.

Or they could have driven from the launch site to Washington, D.C. and back 140 times, a trip that would take 146 days of non-stop driving. Or to San Francisco and back 50 times. To Fairbanks, Alaska and back 25 times. They could have gotten in a plane and circumnavigated the globe almost ten times (no great circles here — I’m talking circumference) before reaching the moon.

My point being the moon is really, really, REALLY far away, guys. It’s cold and it’s alien and it’s distant and we’ve been there. Forty-five years later, the moon landing remains one of the most impressive things accomplished by mankind. It is, of course, a testament to what we can do when we put our minds to it, work together, follow through on some third sports movie cliché, and decide there’s no way those goddamn red-loving commie bastards are getting there first.

In thinking about how to close this post, I was tempted to point to the moon landing as proof that government-sponsored science works, that it’s important, that’s it needs to continue. I believe that’s all true, but I don’t want to use this anniversary to harp on that message too much. Because when it comes down to it, forty-five years ago mankind — essentially a troop of slightly-evolved and overly-opinionated monkeys — shoved three of its own in a can, blasted them into outer space, and took that first small step into the giant universe beyond our world.

And that’s just really, really cool.

Atom and Evening

Ramble starting: Like probably every poem I write (there are not many of these, and even fewer good passable ones), this started out as some sort of melancholic, nostalgic reminiscence about an ex.  It is, um, no longer about that.  Which is good.  I think the title should probably be “Trinity” but the “Atom and Evening” pun was too good so I had to keep it somewhere.  Ramble over.

\ \ \ Trinity \ \ \

In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared
A new sun in the desert, a garden of glass
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

With a crash heard for miles, the soil was bared
And Earth knew it was nude but knew not what had passed
In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared.

Then the heat and the light—they swelled up like a prayer,
Conflagrations to preach supercritical mass
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

Congregations were watching, as close as they dared
For orations of fire and moral morass
In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared.

With the sermon uncertain, men gave to their heirs
Broken bonds, a charred sky, and a bright ghostly blast
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

The horns heralded progress, a new age declared—
While by evening the future already was past,
In the morning the atoms all sparkled and flared
When the dust of the ground formed a cloud in the air.

On Pete Pew

There are two main reasons why I’ve struggled in the last two months to put down in words my feelings about the all-too-soon passing of Pete Pew.  The first, and least important, is that most platitudinous of excuses: I’ve been busy.  Which is true, I guess.  It’s hard to force yourself to really take time to reflect on something as momentous a human life when you’re caught up in school and projects and relationships and all three seem alternately to soar and crash around you.  But I was busy in high school, too — Mr. Pew was a large reason for that — and I’ll be busy for the rest of my life, hopefully.  So it’s time I learn to take some time to think about what matters.

What matters are people like Mr. Pew.

Which brings me to the second reason I’ve struggled: I had no idea what to say.  How do I personally eulogize Pete Pew?  What did he do for me that was so unique?  Why does it feel — jokes about his height aside — like the world has lost a titan?

Hart High has definitively lost a titan.  I have lost a phenomenal teacher.  But I think the answer I’ve been looking for is that it feels like there’s such a void for exactly the same reason I don’t know how to make this a personal recollection.  Yes, Pete Pew did amazing things for me.  He taught me U.S. history and government, sure, but he taught me how to be a voter, a citizen, a human being.  He wrote one of my recommendation letters, helped get me into Stanford.  He challenged me to be a better student, a better learner, a better person.  Every day.

And he did the same thing for everyone else.

It’s staggering to me, when I think about it, how many lives Mr. Pew directly influenced.  Five classes a day, thirty students a class, twenty-six years of teaching — thousands of students who owe their understanding of how the country works to one man.  The epitaph on the building at Hart that now fittingly bears his name says that he believed the students he taught never let him down.  Well, that’s only because he never let us down.  Not one.  Not ever.

There is, I suppose, a third reason why it’s been hard for me to formulate my thoughts about Mr. Pew: I’ve been feeling guilty.  Guilty that I didn’t come back to visit Hart High more often to see him.  It’s the same guilt I have about not calling my grandmother enough, or not driving out to see my grandfather more — knowing how important a person is to you, and knowing you didn’t do enough to tell them that while you had the chance.  In the words of Pete Pew, just prove it, baby.  I don’t know if I ever did — for Pew, for my grandparents, for anyone.  I don’t know if I ever could.

The guilt is compounded, in a way, by things I keep learning only postmortem.  (My grandfather went on a date with a different Doris Schiffmann before meeting my grandmother, Doris Schiffmann?  Mr. Pew, my polo-shirt-wearing, six-foot-six high school history teacher was an accomplished Hawaiian slack-key guitarist?)  It’s especially the case with Mr. Pew.  I knew Pete Pew for really an hour a day, five days a week, for two years, excluding summers.  In that short time, his diligence, his passion, his love of teaching had a profound effect on me.  But there’s a whole life outside of that, and I can’t begin to imagine the effect he had on colleagues, friends, family.

I especially can’t begin to imagine a Hart High education without him.  That generations of students will pass through the brick buildings of Hart without hearing impassioned lectures on tariffs or presidents or John C. Calhoun, without puzzling over Pew’s political views, without looking up to Mr. Pew (literally, I mean, but I guess also figuratively) — it’s unthinkable.  This is the crux of it all, I think: Mr. Pew gave so much to so many at Hart, had so much of an effect on everyone, and now that tradition has ended.  The end, as they say, of an era.  We’re left with a plaque, a building, and memories to link the two.

Pete Pew was arguably the best teacher, pure and simple, that I’ve ever known.  I mean that in his literal ability to educate — and his classes’ test scores attest — but also in the commitment he showed to his profession.  He’s one of half a dozen teachers I’ve had, tops, at any level, who went so far beyond the extra mile for their students there’s no idiom to describe it.

Even now, then, Pew has taught me one more lesson.  People are always telling me, at this whole end-of-grad-school point of my life, to go find something I love doing.  But it’s not enough to do what you love.  You have to prove you love it — and that takes some serious commitment.  Just prove it, baby.

I can only promise that I’ll try.  The confluence of ability, passion, and position the likes of which was realized in Pete Pew is exceedingly rare.  But wherever I end up, whatever I’m doing, at least I’ll know my way around my pocket constitution.

For that, for everything, I’ll say once more: thank you, Mr. Pew.  Thank you.

Actually, I’m Jewish

Actually, I’m Jewish.

It’s a phrase I’m used to saying, for one reason or another.  What are you doing for Christmas?  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: going to a Chinese restaurant.)  Why are you dressed in a suit and walking away from class on the first day of the quarter?  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: going to shul for Rosh Hashanah, and then probably to a Chinese restaurant.)  How come you didn’t play Little League?  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: and Koufax I ain’t.)

I’ve been saying it for as long as I can remember, since my second grade class wrote letters to Santa—and I wrote one to Harry the Hanukkah Elf.  I’ve got the tone down, too, inflected enough to not offend whoever makes me say it, but casual enough to not sound offended.  Done right, it’s downright diplomatic.  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: but thanks for asking anyway, I mean it, really, and don’t feel bad about it, there’s really no way to tell—not like we have horns or something—and if you’d like to know anything about my culture I’m probably a mediocre ambassador but I’d be glad to do my best to use my bar mitzvah, my Hebrew school, my bits of Yiddish, my ability to tolerate gefilte fish, to use anything, really, to help explain whatever may be on your mind.)

I’ve been saying it for so long, in fact, that I’m completely taken aback when, in the back seat of a luxury sedan in the middle of Berlin, the ethnically Persian, culturally German girl beside me—who’s a bit of a world traveler and has carried on conversations with two people in this car and one on a cell phone in four different languages—turns abruptly in her seat and asks me, without warning, “Are you Jewish?”

“Actually, uh, yeah, I am,” I stammer.

* * *

If you’re expecting me now to say that being Jewish during the quarter I spent studying abroad in Berlin was weird or isolating or deeply significant or anything like that, well, sorry to disappoint.  Most of the time I didn’t even think about it.  I really didn’t even think about it when I applied to the program—Berlin was just another European city, a name like Paris or London or Venice.  Unlike Paris, London, or Venice, though, Berlin was faceless.  I could picture those other three, could picture Moscow or Madrid or Dublin, without having been to any of them.

But Berlin was blank.  It had no Eiffel Tower, no watery canals, and for whatever reason the sights and monuments I would fall in love—or at least wanderlust—with had never entered my sphere of, ummm, “world travel awareness.”  (There’s a German word that captures exactly what I’m trying to say here, I’m sure, but hell if I know what the word is.)  I associated Berlin synecdochically with Germany, and Germany with, well, Bavaria.  Munich beer halls, dirndls, fantastic accents.  Hans Gruber.  The Sound of Music—which, I know, takes place in Austria, but the two countries were pretty thoroughly amalgamated in my mind before I visited both of them.

Of course, there were also the wars.  World War I’s all spiked helmets and U-boats to me, maybe because I’m hard-pressed to imagine a Princeton professor leading my country to war, or maybe because it’s largely eclipsed in media and high school history by its successor.  World War II is the spoiled child of military history, getting all the attention with its whole war-on-fascism and final-battle-between-good-and-evil deal.

So I guess Berlin wasn’t really completely blank.  Stretched over the empty canvas of that city like a dirty film were images of wide streets lined in stark red and black iconography, iron crosses and swastikas, Nazi rallies and narrow little mustaches.  But, I told myself, I was young enough and progressive enough and forgiving enough to look beyond that, to let Berlin dump its demons into the abyss of the past and travel there with a clean slate that I was ready to fill with beer and pretzels.

My family had other ideas.  My parents seemed fine with it—if perhaps a little unsure why, exactly, I was choosing to go to Berlin out of the ten or so other study abroad programs easily accessible to me—but my dad made a point of telling me what his dad would have said if Papa Winger hadn’t snuck so many Denny’s cheeseburgers into his doctor-prescribed, heart-healthy diet.  My grandfather, born in the roaring twenties in New York and second youngest of twelve, left Winger Bros. Meat Company to join the US army as a cook, ended up on a command plane in the 82nd Airborne division (the how of this story is a little unclear to me), and one cloudy June morning in 1944 landed behind enemy lines on a beach in the north of France.  His eyesight, like mine, was abysmal, but instead of discharging him the army had taken his rifle, given him a gold bar on his uniform and a Thompson submachine gun, and told him to squint and kill some Krauts.

The point being I can understand, at least superficially, why my grandfather never so much as looked at a Volkswagen for the rest of his life.

My other grandfather had also been drafted into the army during World War II, but hadn’t fought in Europe.  He had the same bemused questions as my parents about why Berlin, but went one step further.  “What do you think it’s like to be a Jew there?” he asked.  I didn’t know.

* * *

The quick answer is that being a Jew in Berlin in 2010 turns out to be a lot like being a Jew anywhere else.

* * *

I found out a year after that conversation with my grandfather that, Jewish or not, going to Berlin was probably more of a homecoming than I ever thought.  I always assumed “Winger” was an Ellis Island name, assigned by lottery to replace some Polish construct held up by an arch of consonants pushing on the weary keystone of an O.  But one of my dad’s cousins did some digging into the family’s past, unearthing the earliest recorded Winger sometime in the eighteenth century in eastern Europe—a long time before any huddled masses yearned to breath free, before any of my relatives, tempest-tost by Teutonic turmoil, washed up on the shores of America.

This cousin’s guess about the origin of our name?  It evolved from the German word for our ancestor’s profession.  Some Winger progenitor followed the German vineyards that were exported to Poland in the middle of the last millennium.  We’re winemakers.  Winger.  Weinmacher.  Pass the Manischewitz.

* * *

But back to that luxury car idling in Alexanderplatz traffic, and the question from the high-class German-Persian girl next to me, mercifully in English, but otherwise out of nowhere:  “Are you Jewish?”

Actually, no, I could have said.  I’m German.  More German than you, even.  Or I could have told her I was Swedish, since my ancestors lived in what was technically the Swedish Empire, which swelled into eastern Europe in the 15 and 1600s.  Or Polish, or Hungarian, or Czech, or Ukrainian, Silesian, Russian, Lithuanian—borders that swam around the Winger clan so often that different generations were often wildly different nationalities.

But that’s just it—the borders changed so much, and so long ago, that I have no connection to any of those countries.  When I think family history, I don’t think of German wineries or Hungarian dairy farms.  I think bar mitzvah.

So I say what is the obvious answer, even if I am caught a little off guard.  “Actually, uh, yeah, I am.”

The girl leans back in her seat, looking pleased with herself.  “I thought so,” she says, and makes some vague hand gesture that could be referring to a nose, some hair, maybe even a circumcision.  It’s hard to tell.

* * *

It’s not hard to tell, apparently, that I’m new to Berlin, despite my efforts to blend in.  I bought a trendy European jacket and by sheer luck already owned the same pair of Adidas that dots the aisles of every U-Bahn train like a conspiracy of leather ravens, bobbing their heads rhythmically with the sway of the train car as German commuters tap their feet, shift their weight, huddle by the exits.  Within a week of getting to the city I made a point of not carrying the subway map with me on my commute to class.  But I reek of America.  It’s in the way I walk, the way I quickly look away when my people-watching is discovered.  It’s in my plaid shorts and my cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and hopelessly ingrained into the English copy of Lolita I’ve been reading on the train.

I expected all of that.  I’m a Californian and proud of it, and trying to blend in came from a desire to distance myself from tourists, not from my country.  But I didn’t expect to find out that it’s also apparently not too hard to tell that I’m Jewish.

Less than a week after I was called out in the car in Alexanderplatz, I’m having dinner with my host mother in her apartment.  She’s middle-aged, single, and—I’m extrapolating—probably lonely in her tiny two-bedroom flat, with only a stream of one-quarter students keeping her company.  Ten weeks and they’re gone, absconding in the early morning to catch a flight back to their homes, their loved ones, their families, just like I’m planning to do in a month and a half.

My host mother isn’t German.  She’s a Bosnian immigrant, speaks German as a second language and English as a third.  Between my rudimentary German and her passable English, we manage to communicate in hybridized, halting Deunglish, thought I can’t help but feel something’s always being lost in translation.  Perhaps by necessity, our conversations are usually curt and simple.  I can’t do anything more in German.  But tonight, over steamed spargel and boiled potatoes, she breeches new ground.

“So.  You,” she says, out of nowhere.  “Are you, ah, Juden?”

I’m caught off guard again, but this time I manage a smile and take a bite of asparagus.  “Ja.”

“Ah,” she says, leaning back in her chair.  “I had thought so.”

Again with the certainty.

* * *

The long answer to my grandfather’s question—what’s it like to be a Jew in Berlin—seems to be this:

Being a Jew in Berlin in 2010 turns out to be a lot like being a Jew anywhere else, except that you’re thinking, all the time, about that question your grandfather asked you and wondering if maybe things are different but you’re just not noticing them, wondering if the fact that acquaintances come right out and ask about your religious identity in a way that’s almost unheard of in America is indicative of a cultural difference, a shamelessness akin to nudity at a public beach, or if it portends some lingering Semitic sensitivities—not necessarily anti-Semitism, mind you, but maybe just some sense that German history was different for these Jews, diese Juden, these once-yellow-starred and starving people, and that this is something to be aware of, something to note, to observe.

Then again, neither of the people who asked me straight out about my Judaism were truly German.  They were, undoubtedly, Berliners—but Berlin is a city of immigrants and emigrants.  The street signs just happen to have umlauts.

* * *

There’s a long history of Jews, those eternal immigrants and emigrants, in Berlin—lives lived well before the Holocaust, which in both my secular and religious education was the only facet of German Jewish history ever discussed.  The city’s grown around them, but the sights are still there.  Majestic synagogues, ancient Jewish day schools.

Berlin is a new city, shining metal skyscrapers erected out of bombed-out rubble, jockeying for skyline space with the few crenelated nineteenth-century low-rises that survived the Allied assault and the dull gray soviet housing projects that dominate the east.  The new construction didn’t leave the Jews behind—their ghosts are etched in the jagged lines of the Liebeskind Museum, in the ivied statues of the Rosenstraße memorial, in the endless field of concrete blocks dedicated to die ermordeten Juden Europas.

I’d be lying if I said the thought of experiencing the more infamous side of German Jewish history didn’t enter my mind when applying to study in Berlin.  But I didn’t know these memorials existed, that architects and sculptors had attempted to recreate in concrete and granite the terror and inhumanity of the Holocaust.  What I did know about, what I was prepared—what I hoped, even—to see, was a concentration camp.

* * *

I had my chance one week before people started confronting me about my heritage in cars.  A group of students was taking the train to a camp, led by a German history professor.  I went along.

We didn’t go to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, though, not to any of the names that had been painted in blood and tears and human ash on the inside of my skull by history teachers, Sunday school rabbis, Spielberg movies.  We went to a little town north of Berlin called Oranienburg, and visited the monster slumbering in its belly: a camp named Sachsenhausen.

There are a lot of reasons you’ve probably never heard of Sachsenhausen.  I had certainly never heard of Sachsenhausen.  It wasn’t a death camp, first of all, which would be a distinction worth something if 100,000 people hadn’t died there.  And though it was a concentration camp, it was largely used for communists and political dissidents.  (Somehow in the wash of history people always seem to forget that Nazis murdered not just one multitude, but many.)  The camp now centers around an enormous memorial the Soviets erected after liberating it, a giant obelisk depicting brave communist comrades who stood up to their Nazi jailers.  Unlike other camps, Sachsenhausen is more Soviet museum than mausoleum.

I only thought about all of this hours after I left the camp.  The entire time I was there, I could only think about how goddamn beautiful it was.  The sky wasn’t dull gray like I imagined it was at all these camps.  It wasn’t cloudy or brooding or menacing.

It was blue.  Fucking blue.

And it was big and beautiful and stretched on forever to the horizon, forever up to the heavens, forever back in time, oblivious to everything that happened underneath it.  At the time I thought it had no right to be so be beautiful.

I realize now that I had no right to tell it not to be.

I came to Berlin partly to be a part of history—the history of the twentieth century European Jew, a history of my own aunts and uncles and cousins whose names I don’t know, my history.  The skeletons of crematoria are still standing in Sachsenhausen, charnel houses to hold sepulchral the shadows of burning human flesh and the echoes of desperate screams.  There are also gravestones.  Large stone blocks placed evenly around the footpaths, granite slabs with memories interred.

The thirty or so people I was with walked past the first grave marker, but I hesitated.  I kicked the dirt around at my feet until I found what I was looking for: a rock, irregular, small, and a little dirty.  I picked up the rock and rolled it in my palm twice, then placed it slowly on the granite block.  Everything looked for a second like the rolling green hills from my childhood, like Eden Mortuary in Los Angeles, the bronze plaque of my grandmother’s plot, the embossed words, Ruth Felder, beloved wife and mother and grandmother, the little rocks to lay by her name that my brother and I would run around collecting—frolicking in the cemetery—and then it was gone.  A pebble on a slab of gray.  The blank slate of countless futures, the single point of the present, the weight of the past.

When we left Sachsenhausen, one of my classmates asked me why I had stopped to put the rock on the gravestone.

“Well,” I said and paused, trying to find the words to sum up a long funereal tradition, wondering how much detail to delve into, if other customs—rending clothes, covering mirrors—should be brought up.  How do you talk about one part of tradition without giving the whole story?

“Well,” I said, as I realized all that needed to be said.  “Actually, I’m Jewish.”

Gridiron Rhetoric: The Histrionic Historiographer on Andrew Luck

[Cross blogged for Leland Quarterly]

In the course of human history, there are individuals who, from time to time, rise above the dirt and grime of ordinary humanity and transcend our mortal lives, become immortalized as shining paragons of all that is commendable about our species.  These are the titans of their age, giants nonpareil whose names are writ in the tome of history indelibly.

As the Histrionic Historiographer, I have been silent for many weeks.  But that is because I have been waiting.  Watching.  Observing.  And now, the time for apotheosis has come.

This quarter has given us one of these aforementioned titans, one of these names that will haunt the halls of Stanford University forever, enshrined with the likes of Jordan, Branner, Elway, Tresidder, Plunkett, Hoover, even young Leland Jr. himself.  This quarter, we have seen greatness.  This quarter, we have seen Luck.

Maybe you've heard of him.

Luck was born in 1989 to Kathy and Oliver Luck, the latter a former NFL quarterback for the Houston Oilers.  The young Luck spent much of his childhood in England and Germany playing football (that sport with the black-and-white ball and the ridiculous haircuts) before returning to Texas, where he—you know what, I’m tired of dancing around it.  Let’s cut to the point:

Andrew Luck is the best fucking architect ever.

It’s not even a competition.  I mean, there have been some great architects, don’t get me wrong.  When you look at the forward motion that Frank Gehry can create or the changes that Walter Gropius brought to the game, well, those are phenomenal advances that revolutionized the industry.  But no one—no one—architects like Andrew Luck.

Luck is the full package.  He can draft, he can model, he can analyze.  He has an extensive knowledge of complex building codes and is adept at reading local planning and zoning laws to ensure he constructs the best possible building for that specific location.  And the man can build like no one I’ve ever seen.  Houses, office buildings, stadiums, dams, Russian palaces, pyramids, synagogues—you name it, Andrew Luck knows how to design, orchestrate, and execute it in the field.

Just by numbers alone, Luck stands out.  He’s designed over eighty different buildings during his time at Stanford, and built models of another seven.  This is especially remarkable when you consider that Luck’s only been an architecture major for three years—he spent his freshman year on the Farm undeclared.  In just three years, Luck has managed to break almost every architecture record the department keeps, and consistently turns in quality buildings when the pressure and odds seem insurmountable.

But it’s more than numbers.  Luck is the only architect to ever master both Trojan and Irish architectural styles—in fact, on a recent class trip to Los Angeles, Luck was able to revitalize the aging Memorial Coliseum, replacing it with a wide open thoroughfare from end to end, a radical redesign that was greeted with huge industry fanfare.  Luck not only does the final design work on each of his buildings, but is involved with the planning from the beginning, often deviating from professors’ prompts if he sees a better way to build.

Whatever firm acquires Luck next year is in for a marquee architect, one who has the potential to make a huge impact from his very first day through the door.  Luck’s talents are unique, his intelligence unrivaled, and his ability to integrate sustainable design practices while creating a building that is not only functional but also aesthetically appealing is simply incredible.  Someone should give him a trophy.

It’s really too bad he’s just not very good at this sports thing.

Finally, a look at some rhetoric from around the internet: