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The Prisoner

Please start reading from the beginning, in order for these writings to make sense. They span the winter and spring of 2010, my experiences studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and of traveling around Europe. Maintaining and observing their unusual growth and blooms, with only the most necessary pruning, has been a pleasure, and I cannot imagine my Europe experience without it. The two augmented each other in ways I could not have anticipated–and if you read even a little of it, you too are implicated, in a small way.

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The Moment (something poetical)

The question is: Does or does not my personal life express what is communicated?  As long as my life expresses what is communicated, I am a teacher; when this is not the case, I am obliged to add: What I say is certainly true, but my saying it is the poetic aspect; consequently it is a poet-communication, which, however, is meaningful both for keeping me awake and keeping me striving, and, if possible, for encouraging others.
–Søren Kierkegaard, Journals

My dialectic is ruined.  Very well.  I am only concerned that my previous post, in settling down unto itself in blogspace, has already begun to develop an oaken-ness and twang, like an old wine, on top of those modest purposes it was meant to serve.  It may have left you in a state of false reconciliation with actuality; for that I apologize.  Therefore things must be brought to a more proper close—a proper capstone, my final post, and one written not merely in the voice of a penitent but as one.

*

Brian knocked on his thirty-second door that morning with pride.  His partner was already beginning to lose heart, attempting to mask his discontent with well-reasoned “time to go get lunch and have a break” pontificating.  Why the Church required missionaries to go door-to-door in pairs, Brian would never fully understand, since one always ended up slackening behind the other under the Prospective’s appraising glare.  If the third wheel isn’t usable it has to have some other value.  Would anyone have watched the Three Stooges if Curly were retarded rather than lovably simple?

Door Thirty-Two opened on a young man, his right arm resting on the frame and the left on the door in a concavity whose shape itself petitioned the entrance of the two Truth-tellers.  Looks like an easy sell, Brian thought.

He introduced himself and his friend and explained that they were Helping Hands in the Lord’s service working through the Church of Latter Day Saints, and asked if the man was happy in God’s eyes.  The young man didn’t answer but opened the door a little more, and Brian and his Helping Hand entered.

The three of them sat at his table.  The Helping Hand began the usual discussion of toiling in God’s vineyard, and while a devout man Brian allowed his hand to cradle the back of his closely cropped, youthful hairdo, focusing on what the young man’s history might be.  The Prospective wore a smile so tight it seemed set to crack at any moment.  “That’s very interesting,” the young man said, responding to the latest Mormon platitude.  He thought for a moment, then stood and moved to an open book by his kitchen counter, bringing it back to the bare table.  “This is what I worry about,” he sighed.  He began reading from the book.

‘He very seldom goes to church, because it seems to him that most parsons really don’t know what they are talking about.  He makes an exception in the case of one particular priest of whom he concedes that he knows what he is talking about, but he doesn’t want to hear him for another reason, because he has a fear that this might lead him too far.  He often feels a need of solitude, which for him is a vital necessity—sometimes like breathing, at other times like sleeping.  The fact that he feels this more than other men is also a sign that he has a deeper nature.’  He reclined, and flitted his eyes between the Helping Hands.

Brian realized that his fingers were tightly gripping the tabletop, and he slowly relaxed them.  He felt blood slowly return to the joints and then pass them, moving into his cuticles.  Sunlight cracked the length of the table through the window between them and diffused onto Brian’s face, and warmed his cheeks when he flinched them.  Any attention paid to a facet of the room revealed its relation to the surrounding parts, and Brian found his place within it.

*

Brian lifted the cigarette to his lips and bent his head down to it, so as to minimize as much as possible the time before absorbing the nicotine his body required.  The smoke shot out of his lungs like he was sucking in candle smoke.  “It’s…it’s Kierkegaard in me,” he articulated, turning to me.  I was collapsed on the bench next to him, half-huddling in the March cold, and attempted to laugh off his epiphany.

I tried to ignore the irony that after everything I had written by that point, he was the one apologizing.  I had sensed for weeks the increasing likelihood that he would discover the blog, and I knew that he knew of it the moment he sheepishly asked if I might take a short walk with him after class.

“There’s not much I can say, Brian.  You are now…privy to my weirdness.  This is the kind of shit that I think my teachers have always dimly sensed from me though, that ‘oh, Tom’s getting something else completely from class time,’ barely related to what’s being taught.”

He shook his head.  “If anything, you’re doing exactly what I was talking about in class.  How does one author oneself?  That’s Kierkegaard’s central question.”  He took another draw and thought for a moment.  “The ‘Brian’ character is dumb, aloof, more or less in his own world.”
“You know I don’t actually think those things about you.”
“No, but it is the impression I leave on some of my ex-girlfriends.  It just makes me curious.”
He looked off, above the leafless branches of the trees in the square and Copenhagen’s crenellated rooflines, his defenses ruined and self laid bare to me, as he ruminated over himself, and I waited helplessly for a new charter that could shape our relationship into something safe, as the old one smoldered on the cobblestones.

*

Jon and company practically charged out of their folk high school with joy.  A shy boy Jon took the time to befriend had invited him to his birthday party.  “Can I bring friends?” Jon asked eagerly.
“Sure…yes.  You can do that.  That would be nice,” came the muted reply.  Jon knew how sensitive his friend was and couldn’t wait to show him a good time, making sure to invite all twelve of his closest friends.  He had promised them, a bit mendaciously, something exciting and wild.  “You’ll see,” he breathed excitedly as they boarded the S-train to the boy’s house.  Then again: “You’ll see,” as if convincing himself.  He felt his chin absently, and decided that once puberty asserted itself he would try growing a goatee.

His friend greeted them at the door, patting Jon on the back and thanking him for coming while giving awkward, vaguely welcoming looks to the rest of the posse.  There weren’t enough chairs for all, and Jon volunteered to stand, now feeling vaguely guilty.  Only two other guests were there, a man and a woman; he hoped against hope that more would arrive.  They looked much older than his friend and behaved to him quite nicely—a little too nicely, as if trying to comfort him.

One of them withdrew a cake for the oven, and again Jon thought it strange that they would have baked it in the friend’s home.  How long had they been there for?  It was cut solemnly with a butter knife, passed around like communion wafers to the assembled.  So many dagger eyes were being shot at Jon by his twelve accomplices that he felt as if he were ratting them out for some terrible crime.

Finally the boy stood; maybe he would liven things up with a party game.  “I just want to thank you all for coming,” he began.  His voice was shaking slightly.  “It means a great deal to me.”  The shake in his voice spread visibly to his arms and legs, and he had to sit down.  The female friend rubbed him on the back.

She began: “We’re very happy to celebrate your birthday with you.  We all think you’re a great guy and we’re honored to be your friends.”  Sobbing now; the boy’s head was down and Jon couldn’t be sure where it was coming from.  Possible that it was one of his own friends, as an expression of social agony.
The man: “I don’t think this many people would have come out here today if they thought anything was wrong with you.  None of us thinks that.  Whenever you feel insecure or self-conscious just think about how much we all mean to you, and you to us.”

Jon fidgeted and lifted each leg, one at a time, like a jittery pony.  He hated himself for what he had intruded upon and what he had practically ruined.  The boy had trusted him.  They couldn’t leave—not now, it would have ruined everything.  He grinned a priapic grin that did not leave his face for the rest of the night, as he stared over the heads of his own twelve and occasionally lost sight of the boy among that multitude.

*

I remember now, it was myself and Jon and Eugene and the girl from Yale sitting together, on the hill over Moscow, drinking wine and discussing Western society.

“I could never live in America now,” Jon admitted, with a twinge of dismissal in his voice.  Eugene expressed curiosity.  Jon continued: “I believe that if I were to do that I would need to become involved in PTO and other such things for my daughter, when she’s older, and I can’t imagine holding a conversation with a soccer mom.  Or interacting with them in any such way.  Or subjecting my daughter to such an environment.”  He was a little self-conscious, and I knew enough about Jon’s personality by this point to guess why: like most enlightened citizens, he didn’t want to be caught evincing unmasked prejudice towards an entire culture.  But like most good parents, he was willing to do so if the cultural development of his children were at stake.

“I mean, certainly I wouldn’t want to raise a child in Russia, Jon,” I chastised gently.  “And probably a fair few of the other DIS first-timers feel the same way.  I bet as many are turned off an environment such as this as are fascinated by it, once they see it in the flesh.  You must get a feel for that backlash.”
Jon had flexed his jaw in a deep yawn but suddenly closed it, alert, perfectly stifling the reflex as a dog can.
“Oh, I do, Tom.  I very much do,” he said, a little more cagily than I would have expected.
And then I, unthinkingly: “I’m sure some of the blogs reflect that uneasiness after the long study tours.”
“They certainly do.  And I’m sure we can expect many such interesting thoughts from your own.”

Eugene dropped the chicken mid-bite, having heard rumors of my writings but not yet taken the plunge into it himself.  Yale-girl, fortunately, remained blissfully ignorant of the subtext.
I put on an innocent face, though I knew the moment had arrived.  “What are you saying, Jon?”
“I know you have written about Brian, and I know you have written about me,” he said, with strangely measured enunciation, like a rattlesnake trying to decide if it was worth biting a human too dumb not to fuck with it.  But instead he slithered away: “Yes, it’s very well written.  But you need to read each post several times before you understand what’s going on.  You will win a prize.”

*

And I did. I began to realize the weight of my four months abroad after the closing DIS ceremony, when amid the smiling faces and promises of catching up over the summer I defiantly donned my Kierkegaard hat and began taking notes in my moleskin.  I continued to feel the weight of that when I visited my distant Continental relatives in Austria the week after DIS ended.  I saw myself in them, perhaps they in me.  Kierkegaard remained inside me.  And the journey was not yet over.  I went to Florence. 


Dante rests after successfully interrogating his prey.

I saw the foundation of the Renaissance, the birth of the modern world.  Saw so many Catholic churches that I felt my Protestantism reassert itself with a vengeance.  Kierkegaard was still in me.  I went back to Copenhagen and showed my father the city, some of the landmarks, Tivoli. 

We went to Kierkegaard’s grave, my fourth time there, and my father snapped a quick photo before moving on, and I lingered as I always did, knowing that this was the last time for some time before seeing it again.  I felt him in me again.

I went home.  I confessed certain things that needed to be confessed.
Kierkegaard was in me again as I made my confession, to things I had done and seen abroad and elsewhere, to things I had done some time ago but never fully resolved.  He is in me now as I write this, urging me towards a synthesis of who I am and what I write, which may never be possible, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try.  I realize now that he will always be in me, though as we have learned, that is not enough: these things cannot be sequestered from one’s essence, if you truly consider them transformative.  He and I are on a spectrum, connected and symbiotic, not involuted pieces of some Russian doll.  I bought one for my host family after my travels, a pretty little blue and white thing, and Sophie and Frederik accepted it with happiness.  I ate dinner with all of them one last time in late May, showed one last round of photos to them, promised to come back and visit.  I will miss them all and they will be a part of me, inside me.

I’ve formed a new relation to my parents and friends and country.  But it was primarily an invitation for something more, a greater and purer unveiling, that I could not have understood before my travels, so that in feeding me those foreign experiences it was awakening me to the choice which had always lain before me.  My teachers were the vehicles, the sounding boards upon which I unleashed the expurgated muck of myself, so that I could stand empty and cleansed before the absolute.  Brian, who as a teacher played that role with the utmost reluctance and whose cross-cultural history and internal conflicts practically begged to be dissected; and Jon, whose role was rather so tight and immune to be beyond penetration, but in my feigned excavation, my false confidence at succeeding at finding his essence, awakened his curiosity—and made him by turns, through awkward pauses in the classroom, through the amiable chats after class on his ambivalence towards Germans and excitement at translating Medvedev himself (moments which, though inconsequential in substance, were crucial in re-establishing mutual trust after both our covers had been blown), voluntarily open himself to me.  The Director had announced to us in January, as we squatted side by side in hard chairs like a giant litter of unwanted kittens, that what we got out of study abroad correlated directly with what we wanted out of it.  And now I know what that was—what I wanted out of it was myself.

*

So here is my situation.  I sit with my laptop, finishing this post, on the floor of my giant suburban bedroom, in a home that was the McMansion equivalent of the late 1930s, with its colossal living and dining rooms, and a back lawn that could contain a city block, adjoining a river that I can kayak down at will like a swan in dreamworld.


My mother, the president of a university, with a work schedule I can scarcely imagine.  Everything reminds me or exists in an antinomic state with Copenhagen, its streamlike streets and squares. 

There are no bikes here.  The streets are outlaid in a perfect grid.  Columbus, Ohio.

And we have a cabin now, a second home in the woods, purchased when I was abroad perhaps on the assumption that my suspicion of such an acquisition would be lessened by being halfway across the world.  It sits in Logan, Ohio.  It receives the same radio channels and NPR frequency as Athens, Ohio, my hometown, and I recognize the voices and news items as if I am again graduating from high school, as if I again live on my sheep farm, compelling orphaned lambs to nurse from the bottle.  Does Brian feel this way, in his own Logan, his own college town?

And Northwestern in the fall.  The gentrified neighborhoods of Evanston, Illinois.  The panicky emails on the university listserv every other week about the latest black man “of uncertain height and attire” who assaulted the latest helpless female freshman, who was innocently returning from a night of hard pledging and who can’t wait to get in to law school and who can’t believe a university of Northwestern’s stature allows these kinds of assaults to take place, thank you very much.  Chicago looms to the south, glass and steel and proud towers of men who have “made it”; the South Side beyond it, yawning and wanton and festering, wanting so much to become something like what I have access to.

And the Cult of Brian? It has a few new members…

Some of them are so focused on serving him that they enter a catatonic state.


Some of them carve strange words into their flesh in his memory.

My stateside friends chase down internships and grants.  They are cultivating the parts of themselves they are best at performing, remaking themselves into that and nothing more.  Who wouldn’t? 

That is the battle I am now fighting with myself.  As I look now out the back window to the old servant’s quarters of my home, where servants prepared the meals of previous college presidents, the weight of myself consumes me. 

The weight of where I find myself.  When I then look down before me, at the bones of my novel, that weight seems less unfathomable, if no less heavy.  My novel, which beyond all pretensions is really just about me and my life thus far, and the dangers I might face down the road.  My novel, which is academically and conversationally unjustifiable, except by what edifying truths are revealed to me in the progress of its composition.

I am writing my novel.  I am undertaking the arduous process of narrating myself, on a level far beyond anything on this blog, which was always dishonest enough about my true emotions and thoughts that half the fun lay in that dishonesty, as well as the hidden confession.  Its voice—egomaniacal, deficient of empathy, insufferably glib—is unusable for my current project.  Now the only audience is me, my confession to myself, all wordplay immediately unmasked by the mind which formed it.  I don’t know who I am.  But if there is only one lesson I want anyone to take away from Kierkegaard In Me, it is this: none of you, not Jon or Brian or anyone else, knows who you are either.

Do not take this for darkness or despair, for that is not where I am right now.  I am becoming curious about myself.  Certain memories from my childhood that poeticize themselves into my dreams, or spare thoughts that I ordinarily would have re-concealed, I now meditate on and try to form into words, into a narrative.  Though at every step I am tempted to stop this process, whether by a small parental chore or bare indolence.  How many of us wonder at ourselves?  How many would mistake doing so for egomania?  Is it possible to commit the “sin of reflection,” as Kierkegaard said, for a higher good?  Will I be a different person by the end of the summer, owing only to plumbing previous experiences rather than forming new ones?  The blog was dialectic; this is something else, a pure formation.  Baptism awaits.

I will try not to worry about my life, what I will put on for others, how harshly I will judge myself.  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to your stature?  Look at Brian translating Kierkegaard; look at Jon wandering Russia.  Seek first something higher, and the rest will follow.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.

this is the moment

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The Point of View from My Work as a Blogger

Tom, your mother is shitting little green apples because of the blog.  I’d get on your case too, but I’m enjoying all the strudel.
–Richard Gilbert

Bear in mind that I know far more of the labels you have given to me and this blog than you are capable of producing individually—“weird,” “radical,” “insubordinate,” “insane,” “gross,” “impressive,” “creepy,” “perverted,” “enlightening,” “brilliant,” “a lot of fun,” “goes too far,” “harsh,” “hilarious,” “obsessive,” “reductive,” “an accurate depiction of a certain teacher,” “gay,” “pseudo-intellectual,” “so weird,” “unfair,” “experimental,” “a healthy ambiguity,” “dishonest,” “schizophrenic,” and of course “the abyss.”  Somehow from the start I believed that the abyss of DIS was something worth charting and revealing to itself.  This is the primary point I want to make: that from the start I was always a most humble author, and sought only to bring others down to my own level of humility, because as the days in Denmark ticked by I became yet more steadily convinced that no one else could match my own penitence before the absolute.

Hence the overarching structure of each post individually as well as in totality was always deliberate, and aimed towards the task of a re-levelling of the supremely bizarre expatriate culture in which I took part.  It was necessary to write from behind so that you not immediately become turned off to the project; it was necessary that you become fascinated against your will with a perceived confessionality or unbridled-ness that grew as the blog continued, so that in reading the blog we would all become steadily more deconstructed.  Certainly it is true that I did not always “know” where I was going with it…but these moments were the exception, and besides which these moments quickly revealed their structure in the planned process soon after their completion.  Art, as I hope to God we have at last learned from embarking on this journey together, must venture a little bit into the Dangerous in order to emerge in the Interesting.

So I started with some almost run-of-the-mill material; I say almost because it was, I hope, a bit clear immediately that the blog would be ambitious and cunning, though I endeavored to find a voice a bit vulnerable at first, too, in order to allow the reader to assume a paternal position relative to blogger-Tom.  This was absolutely crucial, for if you had believed from the start that, wow, I guess he isn’t at all afraid of getting expelled for writing these things, or geez, he’s never going to drop the Follicles shit I guess—had you seen these realities from the start, the dialectic would have been ruined, all tension erased, and it would have been easy to corner me into that same crowded box where we put all polemicists, who in my age group are near always disappointingly angsty and shrill.

No, it was necessary to place the blog on the DIS website.  It was necessary to win you over with thought-out, carefully structured, intelligent and heart-felt but ultimately safe narratives that you could pat yourself on the back for reading as a way of encouraging the fledgling creative spurts of a vulnerable Sorbonne-ian in waiting.  The hard part came in deciding how quickly to introduce you to the deeper weirdness of which I was capable.  The key was to commit this not so quickly that it did not appear organic, thus preserving the dialectic, but not so slow that you could confuse the maturation for a legitimate by-product of spending a third of a year in a foreign country.  In this way readers could be passively threatened into questioning their relation to the author without scaring the reader into submission.  And I also had to consider how to synthesize this gradual weird-ening, as well as this escalating readership I acquired which put considerably more pressure on each concurrent post in preserving the dialectic, with my actions in actuality.  It is true that I have not once committed myself to a project here, in life, merely so that I could write about it later.  Down that path lies despair.  However it was necessary to measure my actions in advance so that they not destroy the careful synthesis in the writing.  Hence, I allowed certain ‘repeat-characters’ to learn of the blog’s existence at opportune moments; I introduced new characters after these ‘repeat-characters’ discovered themselves, so that these certain characters would form new relations with these other characters; I forced all these characters to anticipate future appearances on the blog, as a way of adjusting their behavior in actuality to my liking; I could subtly synthesize this new, “real” behavior into the narratives I weaved, so that they had their own dialectics with their fictional counterparts.  And most importantly, in this way, I could allow people to become so fascinated with the fictional versions of themselves that even as the blog became steadily more unbelievable and unstable in its makeup the readership remained high and people continued to ask edifying questions of themselves, past the normality previously possible and well into absurdity.

This all seems quite perspicacious, I know.  But perhaps if I were to discuss a few concrete examples of my method, you would become more convinced of its premeditation.  I can start with the one we are most anxious for, that of Follicles, who represents many things that I will not unpack but whom I will touch on in my purpose to confess, here, as a penitent in pursuit of absolution.  Every post “of” or “with” Follicles was placed deliberately in the spectrum of the blog and was designed to develop the dialectic, whose ultimate aim was to force you into forming a relation to yourselves.  The degree of intentionality had to remain ambiguous—clearly you knew the posts were going somewhere, though if you thought it was all completely planned out “in the beginning” then you would be turned off, feeling manipulated.  In allowing the story to form over time, in allowing his narrative to integrate more and more with places and events in which I was clearly present—in other words, in allowing him to become fully causal—I could make you reevaluate your assumptions transcendentally.  It was never important to me whether you believed he existed or not.  It was absolutely pivotal that whatever you once thought would become questioned, hopefully repeatedly, and that this would unfold in an organic way in your own mind rather than in the purposeful dominion of the author.  While also (I say this at the risk of reducing the mystery of the aesthetic) I grew my mutton chops over so many months, and precisely for the purpose expressed in my previous post, so as to make the final composition more striking when compared with what I had written when the peach-fuzz began to form, namely, the “Brian’s Head” series of posts, which while pushing the proverbial envelope hardly ass-rape it in the manner of later writings.  These things ran parallel—the growing of the facial hair, the composition of the “safe” material—so my premeditation has been proven from the start.

And you all bought it—oh, how all of you bought it!  It is not malice but joy that now makes me reveal my satisfaction to you.  Though I have long known it true for America, I was greatly depressed to discover that Europe too suffers from a great deficiency of martyrs.  This was something that had to be remedied.  But unfortunately the present age is so nihilistic and self-destructive that in order for one martyr to begin to redeem the world, many other martyrs must be made in the process.  That is, the selflessness of martyrdom has been (necessarily) perverted into the martyrdom of the crucifier.  So all of you were crucified here, in blog-space, as caricatures of yourselves alternately highly accurate and garishly exaggerated.  This had to be done so that a true martyr or sufferer could be created—the structure of my method was such that the author’s creations would martyr him.  You think you have been put on trial or judged with a cold eye; but no, it is I and only I who has suffered, only I who have born the weight of the cruelty of the project, for, in the infinite sense, no one has been mutilated or roughly transposed or poetically sullied as I have.

Now you see how the blog was the vehicle for my ultimate penitence.  How every observation or description or narration reverberated inside me to the utmost.  While not a believer in self-flagellation, I acknowledge the importance of secret suffering.  You might ask if I am not now undoing the whole purpose, by revealing the suffering and destroying the dialectic which I no longer have to bear alone.  In response: there is a point after which prostration before God becomes so overwhelming that even serving Him in this back-ended way must be undone, and replaced with the most earnest—most directly earnest—confession.   Tom qua author qua spy needed to be simplified to just Tom.  I do still take a childish delight in having served in this previous, un-dispelled way, although in relation to God I offer this my entire work more shamefacedly and bashfully than a child who gives its parents a gift the parents have given the child.  Everything here is reciprocal—yes, everything—so take nothing at its own value, scatter it all to the winds!  Remember my regret and forget your own, take up my suffering and let yours wash away!  Forgive all, but only to the capacity of your personality!  Take nothing, nothing, nothing as it is, not even—hah!

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Kierkegaard in Me

So?  Should we be weird and do what Kierkegaard would have done?
–K. Brian Söderquist

In the cool morning of the thirteenth of May in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, which just so happened to be the Day of the Ascension, a man walked out of Nørreport station with four kroner in his pocket.  It would be wrong to say that he was an unusual man, for that would mean that he must be defined by the usual.  He wore a light navy jacket, unzipped and blowing in the Copenhagen wind.  He walked with a slight limp that originated in a curious S curve in the lower back; whether a disfiguration or a product of his own calculated gestures, I cannot say.  Beneath the jacket one could glimpse a t-shirt with his home university’s emblem.  His khaki-ed legs swished against each other with purpose; at first glance I would not say those pants suited his demeanor, though those who knew him well found it hard to picture him without them.  But the most controversial aspect of his character was the curious hat on top of his head—slate gray, lined with felt, and circled by an opulent ribbon.  He walked deliberately but as if he had no place in particular to be.  Beneath the hat were two long, symmetrical, mahogany strips of matted hair that nearly met at the chin before curving inwards and tapering off, as if a serpent could have furry fangs.  Was he stared at?  Yes…though he had grown so used to being an object of derision and prejudice that the muted cackles of surrounding Danes affected him rather little.  Quite often, every half block or so, he would stop suddenly in the flow of people and write something in a small black notebook he kept on his person at all times.

The formation of this man had begun one week prior (or perhaps sooner, but we must start somewhere—ahh, mustn’t we!), when he arrived for his last day of classes at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad.  He had matriculated in a class called “Intro to Russian Literature: St. Petersburg and its Great Stories,” and while feeling no particular obligation to attend he suspected he could acquire some unique occurrences for his note taking.  A man named Jon, whom we have met before but whom had not “met” the man you have been reading about, taught this class.  Upon entering the classroom Jon approached this man with great curiosity.

“You are Pushkin!” Jon declared, leaning over the man’s seat and pleasantly propping his cheeks between two meaty, manicured hands.  To the man’s left, a student started to guffaw at the awkwardness of this cold open.  Our hero turned in silent hatred towards this interruption, whom you have also read about before, and whom this man held a white-hot fury for.  For our protagonist was now, since the day before, filled with something that had squeezed out most calling cards of empathy, compassion, morals, and a rather oppressive emotion that has pared down perhaps 99% of all material in these posts and which for lack of a better phrase I will call “authorial restraint.”  Simply put he saw in this other a lonely, sniveling little brat who had been fully awoken to the most obvious absurdities of social interaction but remained obliviously unaware of Jon’s deliberate role-playing.  This other was more comfortable with the safety of conversational obliqueness and snide laughter than the minutely higher level of discourse between Jon and our hero, which lied primarily in a state of mutual irony.  But we all most hate those things that are most like ourselves.

“No, I am not Pushkin,” said the man.  He told Jon what he was meant to be, and the pedagogue nearly shot into the air.
“That is marvelous.  That is immersion.  Did he have mutton chops like those?”
“Indeed, he did.  All you fools have been assuming for months that I grew these out of blind vanity or post pubescent curiosity, when really I have grown them so as to become…him.”
Jon smiled to himself, as he is wont to do, and as this Other was incapable of doing, needing his sniggers to be seen by at least two people at any one moment, lest his wit be unappreciated, like the moon over the day.  He gazed at our man and narrowed his eyelids.  “Afternoon, Ebenezer.”
Some of the more dim-witted classmates laughed at this.  Our man turned back to Jon.  “You see, Kierkegaard is coming in from this direction—” he raised his left hand upward—“and I’m coming in from this other way”—his right hand raised parallel to the other—“and we’re meeting in the middle”—the man’s digits shaking as they come together, an unstable balance achieved.  “So that now, I am neither.  I am a coelacanth.”

Perhaps this would be the best name for us to use for him.  Coelacanth attempted to pay attention to the lecture that commenced, but he just didn’t give a shit.  Jon was an idiot—he understood that now.  That fortuitous encounter in the graveyard had awoken him to the sheer inadequacies of his compatriots with whom over the last four months he had mistakenly entertained notions of mutual respect and solidarity.  He copied down some of these thoughts in his journal:

“None of these idiots understand that I’m not just dressing up as him or acting like him or trying to follow in his footsteps or some other ‘personal field study’ smegma that DIS might plan for its initiates.  They could never suspect that I have him inside me, right this very moment, staring out of me at them through my own eyes!  How horrifying!  How exciting!”

“On another note, an idea: for final Kierkegaard paper, write K.’s name normally and his pseudonyms in quotation marks.  Halfway through, start using quotations for K.’s name and write the pseudonyms normally.  See if Brian notices.”

Coelacanth was unaccustomed to eating large meals, unlike the American who had used his body before his arrival, so he did not realize until after class adjourned at one o’clock that he had not yet eaten that day.  As we all now know, Lagkagehuset has the best sandwiches in town.  But if he went all the way there, he would certainly be late to his next class.  Such were Coelacanth’s ambivalent thoughts until he realized who he now was, and that he was no longer answerable to anyone, and that he was becoming something that had never existed before and that he was a god among these wannabe Vikings of continental Scandinavia.  So he journeyed to Lagkagehuset, picked up a chicken-with-yellow-curry baguette, and calmly threw open the door of “Kierkegaard: Philosophy and Meaning in Life” to face the only man capable of knowing whom he was truly meant to be.

Brian paused mid-sentence, the expectations of his mind’s eye clashing with the reality before him of some snot-nosed Appalachian know-it-all dressed in the image of he who extinguished his Mormon wick, this kid who had a (fucking) limited knowledge of how the world really worked but who had enough gall to interrupt the last day of class with (apparently) a silent song-and-dance routine designed to undermine his authority as a teacher.  There was one every semester.  The class, more silent after the interruption than they had ever been when the professor opened his mouth, suddenly burst into hushed whispers.  “…and there he is,” Brian finished, weakly gesturing to the intruder, who mockingly waved at the crowd and insolently dragged a chair across the room to assume his customary position in the far-left of Brian’s peripheral vision.  The poor lecturer refused to make eye contact throughout the rest of his spiel; Coelacanth pitied him, in the same way we all secretly pity Porky Pig’s infinite, though innocent stuttering.  Though Coelacanth swore he caught a neurotic glance every now and then that broke this illusion.  It was crucial, he knew, that after that show-stopping entrance he must act completely normal—to do whatever Amerigo would have done, so that the facades not become destroyed.  “They must not suspect what I have really become…they must continue to believe that I am that old student, who just felt like getting some undeserved attention on this last day of class…they mustn’t know that he and I are now one.”

“Madness…this is far too distracting…I have never been in his presence such as this before…never ‘So let me ask if any of you have any questions about Kierkegaard the man?’ in the act of translating or lecturing or the sheer loneliness of reading him have I been so confronted…how can this little prick wield such ‘I’m not sure if I told any of you, but I live in the same apartment where Either/Or was edited’ preternatural power over me…sickening…the way he splits his notes between an innocent binder and that god damn ‘yes I have a love/hate relationship with him, just as he had one with himself’ little moleskin…and how he’s acting so calm right n—wait!  There?  No, no, no no no it can’t be…he cannot have absorbed him, not this quickly, not in over twenty years have I succeeded…yet that one-sided incline of the mouth—wouldn’t call it a smirk, no, it’s too much like him ‘Let me just say, don’t write those final papers with your left hand’ for that…how could he have surpassed me so easily…”

And the irony, as you have already guessed, is that Coelacanth was completely in command of the situation, calmly recording these thoughts before they occurred, and devising a flawless parry in the process.  “Only I could have absorbed him, as you well know.  You suspected it on the way to Jutland; you couldn’t resist telling me, thinking you could crush the molten, glass-blown bulb under the weight of its own promise.  Sometimes drowning the Idea tempers rather than shatters it.  Shouldn’t have opened that window, friend.  Shouldn’t have planted the idea in my mind to carry out the deed…”

After the class was over, Coelacanth approached Caitlin, who had hated his guts ever since he implied that she was in love with John, another classmate who went to Prague and whom we have heard about before as well.  Caitlin could not have known, Coelacanth thought, that that had been written as a defense mechanism for Amerigo’s own blossoming affection for her, the same way that six-year olds most mock the playmate they want to share cooties with (bear in mind that Coelacanth had access to all of Amerigo’s deepest, most secret thoughts).  Caitlin would not even make eye contact with Coelacanth as she described her final research paper on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as well as Kierkegaard’s influence on popular music in the Sixties.”  It was an interesting topic, maybe a little too cute for its own good (which she was anxious about, he knew, so no reason to belabor the point), so thus a good microcosm for Caitlin’s own character.  “There’s no reason to be clinical with me,” Coelacanth wanted to say.  “I know you hated Amerigo.  But he’s gone now.  Or at least, he will be gone very, very soon.  Can’t you like me instead?  Aren’t beginnings more fun than your scarred restraint?”

There was one more class that day—“Church and State: Religion and Politics in Europe”—which Coelacanth took pride in attending.  His vacant professor, trying to foster an “organic” debate between class factions on the burka’s position in secular theory, mistook our mutton-chopped man for Thomas Jefferson.  “How fascinating,” Coelacanth thought.  “All these actors think the role I’m playing is whichever one most corresponds to their own field.  What a filter over reality!  How can one learn anything, if all foreign fixtures can only illuminate yourself, and never things as they are?”

These thoughts continued apace for the next several days, as Coelacanth went down farther and farther into himself, as his hapless host family re-evaluated their decision to harbor a student this semester.  Finally, on that thirteenth of May, the man stepped out of Nørreport and into the unknown.  It would no longer be fair to call him Coelacanth…honestly, I don’t know who or what he was, that day.  He walked to a large bank in the Latin Quarter of the city, which bore a plaque commemorating the birthplace of Denmark’s most famous philosopher.  Somehow the metal slab annoyed him, as if it were laying claim to that figure rather than merely marking his former presence.  Etched in that way, as if that story was somehow finished…  “We couldn’t help being born here,” the man thought.  “And once you label us you negate us.  The sign simply says, ‘right here, on this spot, a sign was put up’.  How pathetic.  And yet in a strange way, also so dignified, for we are all just signs that point to our own put-up-ness.”

He traveled to the Research Center established in his honor, but it was closed to him in celebration of the Christian holiday being celebrated that day. “Such is Christendom,” he thought grimly.

There was a statue of a famous theologian nearby at which he paused in silent, ambivalent contemplation.

He then found a café, ordered a glass of white wine, turned inward to his journal, and wrote down very strange thoughts:

“…Visit Brian during his office hours.  Confess that the difference between fiction and reality is no longer completely clear.  Laugh awkwardly and slap myself across the face, as if to awake myself from the nightmare.  Start crying.  At this point he will say something sappy and trite.  Write down this spiel and attribute it to Kierkegaard in my final paper.  If he confronts me: accuse him of stealing it from Kierkegaard with confidence, erudition.  He will give in.  If he does not: write a blog post in which he does.”

“…Write a short story in which Jon wakes up one morning to find he has forgotten how to speak Russian.  Divorces his wife, becomes estranged from his children, etc.  Disperse the short story to some big publishers.  Win a Pushcart prize.  Give the award to Jon and whisper: ‘I am sorry for your loss.’”

The man placed a large tip on the streetside café table, and began to walk down Strøget.  He received many stares from the passers-by; so be it.  “It is better that they notice me in this way; that I be visible to the crowd as a member among them but differentiated from them, that I remain the exception but in an unthreatening way,” the man mused.  “In that way they must relate themselves to themselves with me as the intermediary; I set the standard which cannot be met but which itself sets the others.  Only through this method can anyone be improved—improved or destroyed…God, is not the most static thing also the most intolerable?” 



He leaned against the exterior granite of the street’s Burger King and began staring at every red-haired woman that passed—a number impressive by American standards but hardly exceptional for Scandinavia (“hence, an appropriate channel for observation,” he wrote in the journal).  One woman at random he began to follow back down the street, walking in step with her, allowing her to catch glimpses of him by occasionally tripping into her peripheral vision.  When he sensed the look in her eyes transition from bemusement to rape-alert status, he made a u-turn towards the old city hall.  “Yet how many of these women,” he thought, “in some secret way want to lie with me, in all my mystery and philosophic zest?  To produce a love-child of possibly demonic origin?  And how many of these children are already running down the streets of Copenhagen through the avenues of their mothers’ lecherous minds?  How many of these bastard ideas will live miserable, half-conceived lives?”

There was a statue by the old town hall that was surrounded by Koreans, a seated figure with cane and a top hat only mildly more impressive than our hero’s.  “Of course the joke, the grand joke, is that all these people and statues and buildings are here as a part of my costume.  They have been placed here for me to see them in this way as a part of me.  Everything is inside me.  But unfortunately the joke is so large that it ends up not being funny, the dialectic is ruined for absorbing its own opposite and again becoming bland “Truth”, and again I am the object of laughter rather than the true punchline.”  Unfortunately it so happened that our hero hated this statue, along with the man it depicted, with unbridled passion–the only Dane able to usurp his glory.  He took notes by the bronze titan, and allowed the Chongs to take his picture.

So he continued down H.C. Andersen Boulevard to a small business that drew his curiosity for being a quite recent addition to the Copenhagen religious world.  He removed the hat as he entered, knowing that some battles are not meant to be fought, fidgeting it nervously with his fingers behind his back.  A small woman who he somehow implicitly knew had dual Danish-California citizenship (I would guess because of the Capri pants, which are a dead giveaway, though I was not there) manned the reception desk, surrounded by books with the same shiny golden title font and a raging volcano on the cover.  “Excuse me,” he began, “I’m looking for some information on…I believe it is called Scientography?”
“Scientology?  Ja tak.”  She pointed around her at the books.  The man smiled.
“Jeg taler engelsk, unskyld.  I was hoping you could describe to me its main tenets.  You see I am on a budget, and cannot afford a copy, although I have a curious mind.”
The bluntness confused her in an edifying way, and our hero received such pleasure from this that he was beside himself—literally, able to look at himself with glee.  She tried her darndest: “Well…we believe it’s all about energy, I suppose?”
“Fascinating.  Continue, please.”
“There is energy that is everywhere, and some of it gets inside you and stays there for a long time, and so we want to help you find out what’s inside you and see if you can overcome it.”
“I see.  Thank you for that clarification of some awful rumors I have heard.  It so happens I have worked very hard to place something inside me, having overcome the vacuum that was there previously.  But I will remember your teachings should a reversal prove appealing.”

He replaced his hat on his head, nodded at the poor frumpy dame, and exited. 

His final destination was a location well known to him, and which we have read about twice before.  Fortunately the graveyard was not crowded, and the man was able to approach his own grave in relative peace. 


I would call this an “out of body experience” except that our hero was very much embodied at that moment, though the grave angered him unexpectedly.  “Not that I ever felt at rest, no.  It looks nicer from the outside than from within.  My brother ensured a good send-off, I will say that.  But it was not on my terms…the clergy were there.  Is it any better now?  Can I reclaim my resting place for myself, as an observer rather than as the interned?  There is again strife for me; this body I inhabit has more than enough.  What a short-sighted epigraph I had chiseled above me!  I no longer walk and experience as myself, but as myself in he-who-has-become-himself-through-myself, and this is not at all the same thing.”  He wrote:

“Meet Richard Gilbert and Kathy Krendl (cf. ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’) for some Continental traveling.  Dress as Tom, talk like him, act like him in the same self-conscious, shy way, etc.  Before going to bed each night bow to them and say, ‘Excuse me, I must rest eight hours between performances.’  Charge them for an encore.”

He continued to wander the tombs, looking for something in particular–a person whose grave he thought he kept almost seeing in the corner of his eye, but which always rested in a corner of his mind.  A tour guide passed in an unbelievable outfit, the stuff that bull’s wet dreams are made of, shouting exaggeratedly soft d’s and ø’s to a group of lens-zooming Århus tourists.  He approached her in fear and trembling.

“Unskyld.  I am looking for Regine Olsen.”
She gasped knowingly, sensing but, for her own sake, not fully examining who stood before her, and instead simply pointed down the path to a location that, he pleasantly noted, rested not so far from his own internment.  He looked down at the gleaming marble that bore her name: of course, she was also buried with that other man, but the residual pain that dwelt within him was tempered by decades of thought over her betrayal.  He knew she had wanted a safe life.  But she had also tolerated his eccentricities, both in life and on paper once he lay under the earth.  The paper stuff she had even ensured would be published.


He picked some daisies nearby, cemetery regulations be damned, and placed them on the manicured ivy tendrils atop her supine corpse. 

He remembered how young she was.  He remembered how she would play the piano, bent over the keys at a forty-five degree angle, focused on the music and not the way his cane trembled and slipped as he rolled it between his wrists, watching her.  He taught her and tutored her in one moment, while that Schlegel fool did first one and then the other, failing at both.  Succeeding only in turning her into a governess in some far off land…though in spite of himself, our man had learned the importance of going abroad.

But coming up on his left side was another man, one who was not so easily intimidated as so many others by an American in a top hat.  He approached our man without trepidation, leaning against a nearby obelisk, smiling crookedly.  There was nothing exceptional about his looks: perhaps in his mid-twenties, jeans, a neon yellow t-shirt that was now quite faded.  He took long draws on a cigarette, exhaling its smoggy refuse as one would with a pipe.  He began: “What is it you are doing, exactly?”
And our hero knew exactly what was going on.  “I am qua you.”
“Are you?  Am I no longer needed?”
“Of course you are.  But I am fulfilling that role now.”
“This endeavor of yours has incurred opprobrium as enormous pride and arrogance.”
“Yes.  But for a higher end.  For love of the neighbor.”
“I must tell you, I do not think it is so much love for ‘the neighbor’ which drives you, but instead an unasked for—though I must say, retroactively appreciated—affection for me.”  He paused.  “Do not think I appear for just anyone.”
“You don’t know…you cannot know how much I admire you.  How many others would have dared to keep you inside them, as I have?”
The stranger suddenly went rigid before our protagonist, with an intellectual arousal so great I hesitate to differentiate it from fury.
“What is the difference, then, between an admirer and an imitator?  An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at least to strive to be what is admired.”
“That is asking too much.  I—“ He stops, bowing before this stranger, who has somehow so quickly deconstructed what is inside him.  “As much as one man may embody the spirit of another, be fascinated by another and through that fascination discover him, work himself into him until he becomes parallel with him—allow me to be that!”
The new entrant smiles.  “You should have known by now that I ask much more of my disciples than that.  You cannot facetiously follow in my footsteps, eat at my haunts, or live in my abodes (or more pathetically, the abodes of my literary attaches) and expect to be in any transcendent way closer to me.  You cannot merely keep me inside you.  You must become me.  You must remain yourself and yet also allow my mask to go right to your core.”

He removed our hero’s top hat.  “Did you really think the masquerade would not end?  That we would never hear the chimes of midnight?  You are answerable to your own country and family.  DIS will soon end.  And I am not some fetish for you to carry around or act as, at will.  I must instead always be inside you, so that in the final equation, you are also inside me.”  He took one last draw and held the smoking stick before the man’s face.
Søren Kierkegaard’s cigarette bored into my skull and skewered his own essence from within, which it extracted from my recesses—and I had not realized how unexamined my own were, so that upon the removal the sound of bubbling heat filled my mind, a throbbing of nothing, and I turned back into myself for the first time in four months.

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Filed under Personal, Philosophy, Pictures

The Burial of Follicles

Where we bury our dead has always been a semiotic game.
–Jon Kyst

Here here here here here.

My Danish Language and Culture class gathered around me.  The visage of Mette, our professor, cracked into a proud smile as she awaited my speech.  Only now did I consider her rigidly horizontal bangs oppressive.  I remember the self-satisfaction oozing from her as she had doled out speaking assignments for our field study—my last—one week earlier.

“And Tom will be presenting on…Søren Kierkegaard!”  Certainly this had been planned; she could intuit the obsession, if not the deepening void, that lay inside me regarding that man.  So there we were, in Assistens Kirkegård, standing before his grave.  I had tried to locate Regine Olsen before our scheduled meeting, but she was hidden from me.

“Before he wrote his most famous works, Kierkegaard was engaged to Olsen.  But immediately after proposing to her, he realized it was a mistake.  We don’t know the exact reason he felt this way—possibly he thought he was ‘already married to God,’ or didn’t want married life to interfere with his writing.  But at any rate, he abandoned her.  He became world famous, but his love for her never died.”

The rest moved on to Niels Bohr.  I lagged behind, once again finding it hard to leave his grave, just as it was that first time on Groundhog Day, when I had barely finished my second week in Copenhagen.  The flowers were blooming and the leaves spreading around the marble slabs now, on the fifth of May.  But I was determined to leave yet another marker on the tomb.

I withdrew from my left coat pocket the small cardboard box that had once, months ago, contained the gift certificate I had won from that Arrival Week Scavenger Hunt around the city.  I opened it gingerly.  There he was, his body now wan from death but still retaining its distinctive half black/half gray division.  From my right pocket I took a small garden spade–stolen from my host family—that would serve but one purpose.

“Oh Follicles, I knew this day would come.  You knew, even in that moment of passion, that I hated myself for the act, however much I concealed myself behind calculated gestures.  I tried to terminate our connection…I hoped that would make it easier.  But now I see that is not possible.  Will not some part of me be buried with you?  Merciful God!”

My fist clenched around the spade.  Closing the iron gate behind me, I knelt for a third time before the one man whose life thread was most similar to my own. With clinical precision I sliced the earth; I wanted only a shallow wound, afraid I would pierce the coffin beneath (on a related note, it is astonishing how poor the security at Assistens Kirkegård has become).  Gently I lowered the box into my makeshift burial chamber, delaying the closing of the casket until the last possible moment.  I finished: “There is no way I can recoup the harm done to you, to our relationship.  But I will ensure you are not alone.  And there is only one other worthy of sharing your tomb.  Now rest with him—find the peace that neither you, nor he, could find in life.”

I crossed myself and closed the cardboard casket.  My hands smothered it with the tilled earth, leaving a brown bump beneath the psalm inscribed on Søren’s slab.  I put the spade back in my right pocket, and to support myself I thoughtlessly dug my fingers down over the new grave.

And instantly I knew something was very wrong.  It was a terrible, cosmically terrible mistake I had made.  I had forgotten what a ley line Follicles had shown himself to be; I had forgotten the magical conflations possible on anniversaries, when we so often visit the graves of loved ones—and it was the one hundred and ninety-seventh anniversary of that man’s birth that very day.  These forces together allowed my now-dead creation to form a micron-bridge to the exact sphere of being that most frightened and hypnotized me.  The recursive grave I had callously created—this game I was playing, along with all the games you have been reading about these past four months—was something much more sinister than anything I could have intended.  There was no way out, I knew, even as I saw Mette’s face disappear behind a distant tombstone.  With fascinated horror, I felt him flow from the deep earth into Follicles’ ventricles—if hairs can be said to contain ventricles—and from there through my fingertips to my innermost marrow, shooting straight to the spine and going up, up, up to the medulla.  And everything flared white before the sun was shut off…I fell, and darkness descended.

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The Modern World-System

From left to right: old-style Christendom; stuffy city bureaucracy; failed Communism; Capitalism for the itinerant.

There seems to be much too great a distance between loving and hating for one to be able to have the right to bring them so close together, in one breath, in one single thought, in two words that, without intermediate clauses, without parenthetical phrases for closer unity, without even the slightest punctuation mark, follow immediately upon each other.
-Søren Kierkegaard, No One Can Serve Two Masters

I hated Berlin for its currywurst—nothing more than masticated meat doused in ketchup with a flurry of paprika or some other vaguely ethnic spice—and for other things too; the city had no essence, presumably lost underneath the rubble of two great ideologies, which both died in Berlin but left behind hideous remnants in the form of a charred Reichstag, Shoah memoriams, and a dusty concrete TV tower of a design I thought I’d left behind in Russia, and the funny thing is I told Kyle this repeatedly as we walked across the city’s museum island or sat at cafés sipping local bitter citrus drinks, but of course his response was always something along the lines of ‘yeah but what do you expect this isn’t an American city where you wouldn’t expect an essence’ and I’d retort ‘yeah but here it feels like it definitely had an essence say one-fifty years ago but then lost it’ and he’d say ‘yeah but don’t you think you should give it a chance maybe the essence just has to be discovered’ and I’d say ‘I imagine if I was able to spend a sizable chunk of my life in the city like I have in Denmark then it could transcend that superficiality if that’s what you want to call it but there’s only so much time in the world I mean why did you want to come’ [this was a thinly veiled tie-in to some unfortunate misunderstandings with my host father, who had told me he was embarrassed that I didn’t talk to anyone else when I went to church with them, which induced in me a state of intense paranoia and isolation whenever overhearing my host siblings jibe or my host mother trill or lilt—as I did not know the telos of these acts—only for me to discover shortly before my Jerry-flight, through an awkward but necessary (and passively instigated by the DIS Housing Department in response to yet another complete misunderstanding between myself and Bjarne) conversation in which my host dad clarified that, yes, he was embarrassed, but FOR me and not OF me, which naturally defused most of the tension, but as I had lived for two weeks under the assumption of the former hermeneutic I approached the reconstruction of normal relations with trepidation], and he’d say ‘well I just wanted to reclaim the city from my parents since I was here with them in December you know and I felt like it wasn’t really mine in a way plus the weather of course wasn’t good there was snow everywhere as you can imagine so I knew it would be warm and nice this time of year and it seemed like a good opportunity’: indeed, the weather was great, and I didn’t even need my jacket as we gloriously leaned off the neo-baroque rafters of the Berliner Dom cathedral, gazing over the entire city {a view unmatched until our last night atop the Berlin TV tower—I had hated seeing its dusty phallus as we wandered the streets or while Kyle found our next route to the metro [he did all the navigation, me not wanting to deprive him of “re-owning” the city (besides which, I generally resign myself to the rank of Merriweather Lewis in the presence of a Sacagawea, a legacy of second-child upbringing exacerbated by a particularly domineering, nigh-Wagnerian older sister)]—when we walked around its bulbous, windowed top like angels on a day off, calmly snapping photos of a metropolis which by that point had revealed every one of its nooks and crannies to us}, where I said to Kyle ‘look at the smaller church domes with the golden orbs skewered on top they’re like upside down martini glasses’

and he said ‘yeah and check out the excavation site over there I have no idea what they’re digging up but it sure looks like it’d be something Neolithic’ (here I wanted to say ‘your mom’s Neolithic’ but thought better of it)

and I continued ‘yup it looks just like a giant sandbox plus check out the base of the TV tower it has huge corrugated ramps that look like paper airplanes

as well as the empty lot that some pedestrian has carved a cardioid into’ and tying all these images together—bear in mind that we were atop the most tourist-visited monument on the island that at some point city officials explicitly cordoned off to hold only museums (including the cathedral that is its own museum)—I concluded that ‘it’s like the whole city around us is trying to teach a lesson that none of the Berliners are paying attention to and instead they’re just goofing off,’ which Kyle thought was incredibly creative; these conversations were useful, yes, towards my understanding of the city, but did not make me feel any better, as even as they were occurring I was playing the role of poetizing this place, turning it into a palatable aesthetic for me to absorb, and it was becoming increasingly hard to play those sorts of games after the expansive and dangerous territory I was beginning to analyze that had reared out of me as a result of my Athens, Stockholm, and Russian excursions (by which I mean, in telling the story of that journey I had begun to unveil past parts of me that perhaps aren’t yet ready to be explored—that was another weird thing, by the way; I mean when my host parents told me that ‘you are not the old Tom anymore’ and I almost wanted to say that ‘well what do you expect I’ve been living in a foreign country for over three months shouldn’t something in me have morphed or died’ but instead I said ‘I’m sorry but I don’t know what you mean’ as if I really didn’t, but of course I did: it was because I was opening myself and finding things that I hadn’t quite assumed would be there, so that New Tom was gaudy with baubles and silences plumbed from somewhere way deep down), and I can only hope you understand what I mean by this, this indefatigable but strangely affirming melancholy that especially hit after a tapas meal near the city center when Kyle and I got Haagen-Dasz—me with my mango sorbet—and I closed my eyes and thought about how my mother had refused the offer of a starving newborn from its desperate mother on the outskirts of an Indian slum when she was there for an international symposium (‘don’t look her in the eyes, or you’ll never be able to live with yourself’ my mother’s colleague whispered), which must have appeared in my mind because of a gypsy who had just accosted me for Euros to save her own unseen infant, who I now realize almost definitely didn’t exist–yes, it must have been then that I turned to my companion and said ‘you know I’m not sure anymore why I came to Berlin’ and Kyle said ‘what do you mean you came for



real German bratwurst,’ which brings me back to my original point about how God-awful the currywurst was (I’m not exaggerating how awful it was, and to make things even more gastronomically unsatisfying I choked on the spirits we bought on our second night and so failed at getting drunk, unsettling my stomach enough to not be able to continue but not so much that I hurled, while Kyle charged merrily on and by the end of the night could barely stand, leaving me with the pitiful memory of finishing merely my own first Sex on the Beach at a bar) at the fast food stand near the Heart of Gold hostel where we stayed–which, against the bets of both myself and Kyle, was named after the spaceship from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and not the Neil Young song—and which was located an unknown distance from the old Wall line between East and West, which itself, constantly and for some unknown (though perhaps, in light of my recent self-revelations, merely unexplored) reason reminded me of that story of how men and women originally shared one body and were as happy as can be, but were divided by the gods, who became jealous of their happiness, so that they thereafter longed for each other endlessly, and I also thought about all this on that plane ride from Copenhagen, wondering about the land ahead of me and how I would describe it later–to others and myself–but knowing I couldn’t wait to fall in love with Berlin.

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Filed under Awkwardness, Language, Personal, Traveling

Time to go! Time to go!

…one for health, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth is not mine any more – it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.
–Eubulos, from a lost play

So it was finally time for the farewell dinner party at Café Vanil’noe Nebo; I was sitting with Jon, Eugene, Ryan (U. Hawaii) and Monica (Yale) behind a beaded curtain that click-clacked every time a course arrived.  Our server, fortunately, brought spirits early in the night.  Eugene started to speak to her in Russian when Jon jumped in, saying something authoritative and evidently shutting Eugene down.  The woman smiled, showed Jon the label on the bottle she was holding, and they all guffawed.  As Jon lifted his glass in preparation for toast, I tried to get the skinny.

“What was that about?”
“Oh, it’s complicated.  Eugene had asked her what kind of wine we were having tonight, which is a distinctly un-Russian question.  Speaking fluent Russian but saying that would have made her think he was an immigrant, perhaps Caucasian.  Not good.  So I tried to fix it by saying ‘look, we’re having dry, white wine.’  But as you can see—“ he gestured to his glass— “neither of those adjectives is accurate.”

The Russian-speaking immigrant and the culturally-assimilating foreigner.

Jon was tired but tried to give a long account of everything we had done on the trip in order to salvage the toast.  As he had explained to us on our first day in Russia, it is customary to give as expansive a speech before drinking as possible, though the Russians do not drink “to” anything specifically.  That last commandment we always disobeyed, even Jon, who used that universal fall-back “To us!” before sipping from his wet red wine.

Soon I had one in me.  Monica was talking.  “You know, what made me a little uncomfortable was that in Saint Petersburg, and at Red Square too, I felt like I was walking with ghosts.  I could feel the death there.”  I thought about that; Peter was truly built on the bones of thousands of Russian serfs, who perished from disease, overwork or something else unpleasant in the construction of its planned facades and streets.  Red Square’s deathly legacy came mostly after its construction—it was the place to be for revolutions, executions, demonstrations, civil wars…its name refers not so much to the ideology dominant during its recent history but for the stuff that spills out of you when you question that ideology. I knew that the square contained at least a few bricks baked in Athens, Ohio, which were laid before such a trade route would have prompted a diplomatic crisis…how many of my bricks were bled on?  But I had one in me by this point so I allowed my thoughts to stop there.

“Monica, aren’t you always hanging out with Zheela?  You two seem attached at the hip.”
“Tom, we are capable of spending time apart from each other.”
“I doubt that.”

Our server kept things moving, with a steady line of food (which was good but wasn’t my primary goal that evening) and drinks (!!!) coming at all times.  Shots went out—Jon, disappointingly, refused to participate.  I made the toast for the second one.  “To…to a trip that I’ve wanted to take for six years, since the first time I read Dostoyevsky.  To the opportunity to get to know teachers and interns and fellow students better.  To…the realization of dreams,” I finished.  We slammed them and I turned to Ryan.

“Dude, I really do think it’s crazy how Hawaii became populated.”
“What, with becoming a state?”
“No, originally.  How Polynesians were like, ‘let’s just get in a boat and go off somewhere and hope we don’t die.’”
He gave me an awkward stare, which annoyed me, because I had been keeping that concern inside me ever since I had met him six days before, hoping he would have a final answer on the subject.

Whatever.  Somehow this table was starting to seem lamer and lamer, so  I quit them and made the rounds to Annika, Dennis, and—other girls!  I was no longer bitter about getting cockblocked, and a 3:1 ratio of girls to guys is too good to pass up.  The third shot came.  Annika’s turn to toast.  “To your parents’ children,” she said simply.  I felt the vodka burn my esophagus, but less so than the two shots before.  Aww yeah, I was getting there, all right!

Not sure how many were in me by this point.

Annika turned her cute little face towards me.  “Tom, how much are you going to drink tonight?
“I don’t know.  A lot.”
“I bet I can drink more than you.  If you lose, you have to jump in one of Copenhagen’s ponds.  Naked.”
“Okay.”  Tonight that made sense, though I never did find out what would happen if she lost.

I looked at the girls around me.  One of them had had a “forced Russian friends” experience that was dramatic.  She had been with a female student and her mother and father, who could not speak English.  The student translated for them; as the vodka came out that night, it became increasingly clear that the father was attracted to her.  Finally he compared her to a woman in a painting by Botticelli—through his daughter’s mouth.

“Yes, and in the painting that you remind my father of…” she waited for the drunken paterfamilias to finish.  “The women is wearing the ‘clothes of the earth’…”  She paused out of hesitation.  “Naked.”
The mother was laughing and slapping her knee.   (oh husband!  You can be so silly and embarrassing!)  After the ‘clothes of the earth’ speech the forced Russian friend quietly removed the vodka from the table.

Five down now, plus the glass of red wine.  “I want to make a toast to the women,” I began.  “Each of them.”
To the first: “I like your vaguely Continental accent, which produces a lot of sibilants.”
Second (Botticelli girl): “You have a nice figure.”
Third: “You have red hair, which I kind of have a thing for.”
I skipped Dennis.
Fourth (Monica): “You went to Yale.”
Actually, when I thought of that it sounded like a well-meant compliment, but it was not received as such.  She was the only one not hot and bothered afterward, and I felt a little guilty.

Jon is embarrassed by my drinking.

Six down.  I turned back to Monica.  “I feel like I should pay you a better compliment.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Yeah but you look dejected.  I like your bracelets.  I like the way they reflect the candlelight and I can almost see myself in them.”

I was starting to lose it, but was not completely gone.  I turned to my right, and saw Eugene hitting on sibilant-girl.  “You know, I worked at either the first or the second best hospital in the country.”  He downed another one.  “Depending on who you ask.”

After the seventh I got up to use the bathroom.  I passed Annika, who was leaning against a forgotten wall, nursing a shot she seemed unable to finish.  Poor little thing; birds are not meant to drink this heavily.  But as I furtively zipped up my fly, having forgotten to do so in privacy after urinating, I noticed the bar was placed conveniently close to the bathroom.  I stopped by for a quickie.  “DIS,” I slurred.  “I don’t have to pay shit.”  The bartender begrudgingly handed me my shot, which by this point tasted like absolutely nothing.

Eugene wandered over, not drunk himself but a little tipsy.  “We’re getting cut off.  No more free drinks.  But we can still get stuff back at the hotel.”
So we loaded onto the bus; I remember hugging all the girls around me and generally being more intimate than I would care to recollect.  I’d rather not openly relate the rest of that night to you, but here are a few images that do the job pretty well.

Raising the roof in front of Marx.

I don't remember taking this.


Eugene kept trying to get a picture of my incredible dance moves. This is the best he could do. There was a naked stripper there that I boogied with, but a bouncer pulled me away.

I awoke with my first hangover, mild but definitely there, as the phone cried to my left on the bedside table.  I lifted the receiver and heard a familiar, trying-not-to-judge voice.
“This is just a wakeup call,” Jon muttered.  I hung up.  I’m not sure if anyone else received one; clearly the story of my exploits had gotten around to him.  We loaded up and went down to reception; nobody there looked particularly happy.

“One of the hidden success criteria of a trip to Russia is getting back from Russia,” Jon revealed as we entered the airport.  Indeed, it was especially difficult for us.  One of the girls I had infected threw up while in line to process her visa, and had to mop it up with a spare shirt.  I myself took forever to get through security, confused by the blue plastic bags you had to wear on your feet, the full-body scanner, and the multiple pat-downs necessary to board the aircraft.  Eugene came back, crazy-eyed, to find me.

“Go!  Go now!  As in, the plane is leaving the runway and you have to run!”
I power-walked to the gate, where Jon again gave me a Michael Jackson salute.  Five minutes later we were in the air.  Russia, apparently, didn’t want to let go of me, and the feeling was mutual.
“Surely this is not your last visit to the big country,” the tour leader said, shaking my hand as I departed for the metro out of Copenhagen International.
“No.  And thank you for taking me, Jon.”

I came home and returned, after a longer break than I realized, to course work.  My host family offered me wine for dinner, and I refused.  I slept for fifteen hours that first night back, and was still sore from dancing on Monday, forty-eight hours after clubbing.
“Tom, I’m going to start a blog just about your dancing abilities,” a Loyolan said to me before my Kierkegaard class.  I figured, that’s fair.

On a practical note, I am leaving for a five-day trip to Berlin with Kyle, so there will be another delay between posts.  Try to enjoy yourselves in the mean time.

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