ANIMALS – [1950] From The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara.

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Copyright © 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Sadness in Galleria Kaufhof

I was in the city doing a bit of errand running (read shopping) and while I was waiting at the cashier I was surprised by one of my colleagues who was similarly occupied. We both looked at each other sheepishly, made awkward small talk, and then separated. There was an unspoken agreement to not recognise the fact that at least one of us was wagging…(me)*

My expedition into the city was somewhat something of an anomally. I’d been feeling sad for weeks, sad and tired. It had been such an effort to drag myself out of bed and I had decided that if I wasn’t to become a complete hermit I needed to start scheduling regular tasks and activities to make it necessary to get dressed every day.

I had been working on some charcoal and ink scribbling and found that despite trying to avoid it, one really can’t work with charcoal using only those charcoal pencils. They just aren’t black enough. Thus as part of my “get out of the house” doctrine I rode my bike into the city centre to get some art supplies. I also wanted to find a couple of hair accessories as the elastic was going in my existing ones, and maybe some essential oils with which I could fumigate the house. None of these purchases could be described as frivolous, but they were those small niggling necessities that can be postponed indefinitely.

I went to my regular mini-shopping mall place. It has a bunch of specialty shops, including a really good art/craft supplier. After I picked up the charcoal, I agonised over whether or not to buy a 10 cm high wooden sketch model, but decided that I already had enough single-use junk in my tiny flat. Instead I went ahead and made my purchase and then trundled down to the health store to finish the rest of my errands. It turned out that the shop assistant in the health store was out to lunch. I didn’t want to wait around so I thought I’d give the major department store across the pedestrian zone a try. And thus are we back at the awkward encounter with my colleague.

I searched the cosmetics section for the things on my list to no success. However there were lots of cosmetics products in beautiful well-lit displays. I realised that, though these items weren’t on my list, some other niggling purchases were nail-polish remover and a new eye liner. To be perfectly honest the whole time I was walking around the city I felt so disconnected to my surroundings. Like I someone had just shaken me rudely from the middle of a deep sleep, but when I made the decision to buy those extra things I felt somehow a kind of thrill. I mean I was hardly mortgaging the farm but in some ways those two small items were indulgent. They weren’t on my list, but I was buying them anyway.

In the end I went into town and bought one thing I intended and two things I hadn’t. Don’t you call that impulsive.

I felt slightly thrilled. Even through my encounter with my colleague and after the purchase had been completed, the feeling still remained. And then I was thinking. My father has always complained about him and my mother not being able to save. In their relatively anachronistic (for my generation) relationship, he brings bacon, she cooks it. My Father wouldn’t know how to pay the first of his bills let alone acquire food**, even though he has been relatively successful at what the majority of people would find a complex job and my mother, who does keep the household running, did not attend high school for any time that counts. His main complaint was/is that if at the end of the month there is any money left over in their budget, my mother spends it. Normally she spends the remainder on nick-knacks that she later discards or potted plants that she quickly kills. She consumes, as all good little consumers should. I tell my father it’s the small price he has to pay to have someone manage his private life. If he had a PA it would probably cost him about the same. He grumbles.

However that day, after years of the same argument, it struck me that perhaps my mother isn’t another drone in the Western patriarchal military-industrial complex :p . Maybe she’s sad. Maybe she’s been sad for years and the busy-ness of activity and of errands and things to do is the only thing getting her out of bed in the morning…and maybe when she buys some more useless crap at the end of each repetitive cycle it just takes the edge off of life, creates a thrill, a transient thrill, but enough of a thrill to keep her going until the next valley of necessity.

And then I thought about my father (and me) and his disdainful anger/frustration at her behaviour. I ask myself, though we are all from a libertarian viewpoint autonomous agents, doesn’t he (and I) bear some responsibility to ensure that she as someone with whom we have a primary relationship can have a fulfilling, and if not happy, satisfactory existence?

Mostly I just felt guilty, that I perhaps I had been so myopic and made so little effort to empathise with those around me. And waiting in line to buy my trinkets watching all the faces around me also shopping. I wondered how many of us are sad? and whether we cause this sadness in each other?

I wonder about our responsibility to each other and I think we are failing.

I should really explain why this is relevant to those who do not know me well. While I have nothing against consumerism I am by no means a shop-o-holic; I have been described as tight with money, even miserly. This is an erroneous characterisation. It’s not that I hate spending money or I want to hoard money. I just have high expectations and am willing to make a purchase only once I have found the thing that matches what I’m looking for exactly. I must admit, I do have to force myself (or be forced) to buy things. It took me 5 years to finally settle on the model with which I would replace my aged laptop. However I love my new laptop and I’m glad I took so long to finally decide on one. I want to buy things that are high quality and exactly suit my needs regardless of the price (relatively speaking).
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Actually, since he has become semi-retired he can now do this. He can now also cook pineapple chicken.
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Buchenwald, Weimar

Recently I took a long weekend to visit Weimar in the German Bundesland Thüringen. It’s a fairly significant location in the history of the German state relative to it’s size and has a reputation as the  home of Goethe and also of Schiller those giants of human thought. One thing that I didn’t know was also there are the remains and memorial of Buchenwald labour/concentration camp are about a 15 minute bus ride from Goetheplatz in the city centre.

The former camp grounds have a visitors centre and a museum, the preserved crematorium, stables and officers quarters and one guard tower. You can also see what remains of the concrete pylons which held up the barbed wire to stop prisoners from escaping. Though this sounds like a lot, actually the whole area is very open and if you didn’t know its history you would probably describe as having a park-like atmosphere. It’s on the route for a number of tour bus package holidays and there are of course the mandatory educational visits of  (giggling, oblivious) school aged-children from the region.

The museum within the grounds is very thorough and if you can understand a little German, then you have access to perpetrators and victims speaking in their own words. Many of the detailed or original documents were in German only.  We spent about 3 hours walking through the grounds and museum. There is also a collection of survivors’ and post-survivors’ art. The more recent works made on commission or by people who felt like they had a contribution to make were of modern schools and in some cases, I felt – given the gravity of where we were, exploitative.

This was my first visit to a memorial like this. I’m not a huge history buff and I don’t make a habit of visiting concentration camps. I still feel incredibly ambivalent about the whole experience. My primary response was “what’s wrong with people” and in some ways seeing the now peaceful area of farmland and adjacent forest made me feel guilty for even attempting to holiday or otherwise have fun after my visit. I’ve read, heard and seen many sound-bytes about the evils of war and crimes against humanity; Lest we forget and the panoply associated, but to be honest whom do these memorials really serve?

As an educational tool, the children and youths in military service we saw there seemed bored and faintly amused. For international visitors there was very limited information in foreign languages. As a place of mourning or penance, from what I read, everyone who survived limped as fast and as far as possible away from the place never to return. For those people looking for some kind of insight into how the Holocaust happened; I now have more questions than answers.

The foremost thing that struck me was that, at least in Weimar, the atrocity that was the concentration camp was an atrocity of individuals perpetrated upon on other individuals. These atrocities were not only from camp guards onto prisoners but from one class of prisoner onto another. I think for foreigners is not highlighted is that though the National Socialists were not backward about their desire to wipe out Jewish people , it seemed their ideology was pretty much into general social eugenics, including (if I may phrase it this way) political eugenics . The officers and guards used hierarchies of German political prisoners and Eastern European slave labourers to keep down the ” dysfunctional” prisoners and allowed a very small number of people in authority to control great masses of people. This was one of the things that really disturbed me. When the camp first opened and people were in relatively good health the great mass of prisoners working together probably could have overcome the guards. Instead they emulated their jailers twisted ideology and impressed it upon their own squalid living conditions achieving a new kind of normal.

Also from the reports of people who worked in the camp, they too seemed in some ways to somehow disassociate the absolute horror of what they were ore doing into some kind of new normal. An illustration of what I mean would be someone like a clerk or something, being happy that they got all the trains off to Auschwitz and other extermination camps on time, satisfied at a job completed competently and not considering the monstrosity of the whole thing. Most people  with a passing knowledge of modern history won’t need any more detail on that line of argument. Though if you do you should probably read Hannah Arendt. In any case,  as I mentioned before it all made me think of the following questions:

  • If the people running the camps were normal people, what would stop me from committing similar atrocities in the same circumstances?
  • If the Gestapo hauled me out of my bed in the middle of the night to torture me about my political loyalties, whom would I be willing to name and how would I be willing to degrade myself to regain my freedom?
  • If people started printing hateful things about a group of people in my town, and later some of them were forced into exile or disappeared at what point would I a) know that something serious was happening, and b) speak out against what was happening?
  • If war was coming, would I know when to flee?
  • How can people say that there is no absolute right and wrong?