Die Beste Aller Zeiten

Going direct to heaven, going direct the other way

Author: Eike Pierstorff (Page 1 of 9)

Siobhan, Tati and I : Interlude – Friday evenings

Friday evening used to be the best part of the week. Now it is has become the worst.

Friday night used to be that magic time when the weekend had already started, but none if it was yet used up, so to speak. Two full days of potentially sleeping in lay ahead of us – not that I actually did much sleeping in; the early hours of Saturday morning when the wife was still asleep were my private time, and I used them to pursue hobbies that the wife lacked proper understanding for (okay, I watched science fiction movies. Sue me). The rest of the weekend was usually filled with activity, most of it dog related. Also there was a suspicious amount of shopping for clothes, because the wife hadn’t given up hope that she might make a respectable husband out of me if she could find just the right trousers. And finally a lot of time was expended on the horror to all loyal husbands, culture. It made me a better man, I suppose.

But at Friday evening there was none of that. Adventure is deviation from routine, and to make sure that we could have a bit of adventure now and then we saw to it that we had as much routine as possible. Friday evening was the perfect time for routine. Every other week we went out for dinner and drink (two large beer and a shot of liquor, half a litre of white wine for the wife), the other weeks I prepared something more elaborate than usual at home (also white wine and perhaps a little chocolate for dessert). Also we informed the dog at eight o’clock or thereabouts that she needed to go about her business with some alacrity because we surely as hell would not leave the house for the rest of the evening. Slightly inebriated we would turn in early, and with the dog on our feet and a good book (literally one, the one that Siobhan was reading – I would be simply glad to go to sleep) we had our little perfect paradise on earth. Those were wonderful times, but they are gone now.

Now Friday evenings have become the worst part of the week.

I don’t want to cry at work, and I certainly will not cry while standing at Siobhan’s bed. So now Friday evening is when I catch up with my crying – crying because suddenly the wife is not somebody I live together with, but somebody I go to visit; crying because I can talk to her, or about her, but no longer with her; and crying because my proud and independent wife has been reduced to someone other people take pity on.

Tomorrow I will carry on. If this Orpheus is to extricate his Eurydice from hell then it  surely won’t be by looking back. But one evening per week I am allowed to collapse in a heap and cry.

    Siobhan, Tati and I: Guest Post by Barbara

    Your stories and your way of telling them are so heartbreaking and gently funny at the same time I find them absolutely moving.

    I have known Siobhán for a very long time; she is one of an extremely small number of people who actually know and understand how I feel, so she is a very important person for me and I hope you will allow me to share some memories of my own with you here.

    I first met her at Bayreuth University in 1992. She is extremely smart and I was not very adept at academic life or thinking, so for a long time I didn’t dare to speak to her. Bayreuth is technically in Bavaria but considers itself not to be, really, and Siobhán and I both come from the same, let’s say more rustic, original part of Bavaria, so I suppose that drew us together eventually. She is, to this day, the only friend that has remained a part of my life from this time.

    When she moved to Berlin, I visited regularly, and she was one of the few people who could be bothered to come and visit me in my not very glamorous new abode of Zwickau, Saxony. When the last of my succession of flat mates there moved to America in 2003 and I was left a little stranded and feeling very alone, she came down for a few days to cheer me up, and we binge-watched six seasons of Red Dwarf. I had to get the videos from the library in advance, a feat which took some organising in those days. It was a memorable weekend, not just because of the shows (we had done a similar thing together before in Chemnitz, when the local cinema decided to show six Star Trek films in one night, and we came out afterwards and the oxygen hit us like an exhilarating drug, and we would do the same again in Berlin with a complete show of the Lord of the Rings trilogy). But to me, that weekend was memorable because it showed me very clearly how well she understood the loneliness I was feeling and how much she cared about making it better. She bought me a little ceramic snail on that weekend, as a symbol, she said, that slow progress is progress nevertheless. I still have it on my bookshelf as a cherished souvenir.

    I spent some of my happiest holidays with her; a weekend at a spa in Görlitz, where we never left the building because we were so busy relaxing and enjoying it so much, and two weeks in Spain, where we had breakfast together every day and then we each did our own thing; she visited museums and other culturally important buildings like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, whilst I spent most of my time lounging about on the beach, doing nothing, or learning to dive. And then we would meet again for dinner and share our stories of the day. I think this was so enjoyable and I have such happy memories of it because there was never any sense of obligation or pressure, there was instead a tremendous freedom to follow our own interests and acceptance that they wouldn’t always coincide and confidence that this would not be an impediment to our holiday together but rather an enhancement of the experience. I have never found anyone else with whom I have been able to do this. It was very, very special.

    Then of course she married. You. I have to say that this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I suppose that in my mind I had settled it that she and I would remain single forever. But she found you. One day she called with the news that she had got married! And when I finally saw you together, even though you didn’t really talk to me or say much at all (you spent most of your time talking to the dog Tati, although I remember your enthusiasm when we watched Thor together in your flat) I could see that you two were good for each other and had been smart enough to recognise it. She was as happy with you as I had never seen her before in all the time that I knew her. I think that your marriage is based on the same relaxed acceptance of different interests and the trust that there will be enough common ground left over for both of you to stand on.

    After you two got married, Siobhán and I still went to the occasional „gig“ in Berlin without you. I always enjoyed these events enormously and I have always been grateful to you for allowing me „in“ on your relationship in this way.
    It has always meant a lot to me.

    — Barbara Fink

      Siobhan, Tati and I: Courtship

      My mother had (or probably still has) a cookbook the occupies a very special place in my heart, a small, unassuming volume bound in faded blue that promised to teach you “basic recipes for cooking and baking“. This is the book that helped me to make my first, tentative steps in the kitchen.

      Now, this must have been printed sometime at the beginning of the 1950s. Much to the chagrin of her neighbours Germany, who had started the war, was rather better off than the countries who had to go through all the trouble of winning it. That does not mean that all that loot from the war or the Wirtschaftswunder money trickled down evenly on everyone, and so this cookbook focused mostly on the art of making a lot from very little.

      Even so the authors had realized that even in scarce times one needs a little luxury, and so the book included a chapter devoted to cakes, cookies and biscuits. One recipe that that particularly caught my Imagination was the for a Hefezopf, a type of yeast pastry rather resembling a challah bread. This was not by itself a complicated thing, but it did look wonderfully festive with the braiding, topped with flakes of sliced almonds and a layer of only slightly melted crystal sugar. You can tell how good it looked because while the book had only picture in blurry, black-and-white picture I yet remember it crisply and colourfully. That’s how good it looked.

      I never had actually tried to make the thing for fear to fall short of all the imagined greatness, but when it was time to impress Siobhan with my prowess in the kitchen I decided that nothing else could possibly be good enough for her. It came out rather well, even if I say so myself; the only thing is that the original recipe was supposed to server a family of ten, and I forgot to scale it down for the occasion. Siobhan’s eyes grew wide when I unwrapped my giant loaf (which may sound rather like an off-color double entendre, but it was really just cake), and from the lower echelons of the kitchen floor a little black nose hopefully sniffed in my general direction.

      It is not that I did not try my hand in romantic gestures; once I had learned to spell her first name I scoured the internet for examples of famous Siobhans’, and finally found, in an antiquarian bookshop, a biography of Irish actress Siobhán McKenna. Siobhan looked at the book and “Oh, I think I was named after her”, she said (apparently my mother-in-law had been a big fan). And that was about the last time she mentioned the book. The loaf however is something she remember fondly for years to come. “I was amazed how big it was,” she would say (still talking about pastry). The three of us munched on Hefezopf for the next two weeks or so.

      Mostly we did so in front of the television while watching episodes of Red Dwarf on DVD. Science Fiction sitcom is not exactly a big genre in Germany, and never before had I anybody to share this particular infatuation with. And as Siobhan said, I was the first person in Germany she had met who even knew that the show existed. It’s not like she is a big science fiction fan – quite the opposite, she finds my penchant for spaceships and far-away stars rather strange – but she liked the bantering between Craig Charles and Chris Barrie (bantering is not something Germans usually do), and the rather physical humour. That is another thing Siobhan and I have in common – after all we met when were were late in our thirties, and had both amassed unnecessary large amounts of highbrow culture in our respective CVs. So we both felt entitled to set poststructuralism and medieval hagiography and whatnot aside, and enjoy watching a rastafari slob guzzle down messy vindaloos, in space, while being joined by a hologram of his dead, neurotic superior in the department of chicken soup dispenser maintenance. And then she would proceed with some insightful remark on art, or literature, or fashion or economy or any other topic that she had just dived into as a part of her freelance teaching job.

      That was the fun of it, that she did not stop to be cultivated, but that to her culture was not a means to elevate herself above others, but something to enjoy and share with others. She even managed to drag me off to art exhibitions that by myself I would neither have attended nor appreciated. I remember a display of depictions of Our Virgin Mary that under her scrutiny revealed much more insight into medieval psychology than those old painters could have possibly had themselves. And then it was back to humour, because there was one more test I had to take.

      “Do you know Eddie Izzard,” she asked innocently. I had no clue, and did not quite understand, what she was talking about, but this was not the time to admit ignorance on anything she deemed important.

      “Sure, I love lizards,” I said, “especially chameleons. Isn’t it amazing how they become almost invisible against the background?”. Siobhan looked at me in a funny way and popped in a DVD. Out on the screen strutted, in twelve inch heels, a man in dress and heavy makeup who ejaculated an incessant stream of syllables while he impersonated successively God (a.k.a. James Mason), Henry VIII, Sean Connery and Darth Vader. Men do not like to admit they have been talking out of their arse, so I turned around with a flourish, pointed at the painted chatterbox on the screen and exclaimed, “What did I say? You hardly see him at all!”.

      Well, maybe this is not exactly how things happened, even if from now on I will remember it that way. It is true however that she looked at me attentively from the side, and when I nearly choked with laughter at the joke about original sin (“Father forgive me, I poked a badger with a spoon”) she nodded approvingly. “He is extremely funny,” she said, “and without any racism, or sexism, or malice”. Which was a very typical thing for Siobhan to say, and I was glad that I had passed the test.

      It’s not that we see eye to eye on everything. I don’t think she understands my infatuation with science fiction, or my habit of fiddling around to assemble small bits of technology that I could much easier buy in a shop (or do without). But then, that became part of the secret of a successful marriage, that we have enough in common to understand each other without talking, and are different enough to always have something to talk about.

      But at the end of the day what really brought us together was not culture, or humour, or even pastry. It was the shared affection for somebody who was, if at all possible, even more craving for love than the both of us. And so we spent most of our time together walking in circles, watching the dog hopping around, the dog watching us walking around, all the three of us engaged in the long, but pleasantly entertaining process of becoming familiar with each other.

        Siobhan, Tati and I: On not having the wife killed

        We interrupted our usually upbeat program for an important service message.

        It has been suggested to me that I see things to negative, and that I “should not always assume the worst will happen”. I feel it is important to clarify my feelings on the matter, and I’m going to do this in the way that, for some reason, helps me most at the moment, which is in public. I guess it is easier to fight your demons out in the light where you can see them (and lest anybody thinks I have finally snapped, the “demons” are strictly a metaphor; I do not, rpt. not, believe in the supernatural). I would be nice if this would set the matter to a rest, but undoubtedly somebody will tell me that I am wrong to feel the way I do. Be that as it may, I wouldn’t be me if I felt any differently, so there.

        Of course nobody suggested to me that I should have the wife killed. The preferred legalese phrase in my jurisdiction is “Einstellung lebenserhaltender Maßnahmen”, the cessation of life prolonging treatment. The phrase is specifically designed to make clear that the process has nothing to do at all with killing, or actively bringing an end to a life. But when I was asked to make a choice whether Siobhan should cease, or if doctors should attempt further treatment I did not feel in the mood for close semantic analyses. Siobhan had given me (as I had given to her) a legal mandate to make decisions for her if she ever were to be incapacitated, including medical decisions. A word from me and the doctors would end their efforts, and Siobhan would certainly die. With treatment, there was a chance she would live.

        What should have been a no-brainer – what kind of husband would give up on his wife after a few days (over ever, really) – became a tough choice as the doctors went through their gruesome laundry list of incurred damage. Left side of the thalamus gone. Unknown amount of damage to the right side. Damage to the brain stem. Damage to the cerebellum. A lesion in the cerebrum. Rising pressure in the brain, due to inflammation, and because the ventricles of the brain had rearranged themselves so that cerebrospinal fluid could no longer escape. Fever of unknown origin.

        The doctors were unable to provide any kind of guidance. In part I think they felt the hospital had already messed up by telling us beforehand that Siobhan’s surgery was a low-risk standard procedure (admittedly it was one of the nurses who had said that, not the doctors) , but mostly I presume they just had no way of what was going to happen. The only thing they categorically ruled out was a ful recovery, they were certain that Siobhan will suffer from hemiparesis in her right side; but there is a wide continuum from needing walking frames while clear of mind as a best case scenario to being committed, damaged on body and mind beyond repair, to a permanent care facility as the worst case, or anything between. They required a decision within the next 48 hours.

        During those two days my mind raced in circles. There was no handle to the situation that would allow me to make a decision in Siobhan’s best interest. As you know I decided that treatment should continue, but that decision I made for my own best interest, not hers, and there is no way yet to know if I did the right thing.

        The only thing that is certain is that I made her suffer a lot. I agreed to have a hole cut in the back of her skull to relieve the pressure. I agreed to have a much larger piece of skull removed from the left side of her head when the first hole proved ineffective. I agreed to have a smaller hole drilled into what remained of her skull to insert a probe that measured intracranial pressure. I agreed to have the back of her head to be cut open again, when the there was an infection to the wound. I agreed to a rather aggressive therapy with antibiotics when Siobhan developed a prolonged fever. And if you think maybe that wasn’t so bad, certainly she did not feel pain while in coma, then you probably haven’t spent forty-seven consecutive days at a hospital bed watching the contorted face of a loved one (and I really hope for you you haven’t). She did feel pain alright. Admonitions that I should not always assume the worst to happen seem rather out of place to me, because from where I am standing the situation already looks pretty messed up.

        And there was, and still is, no way to tell if I made the right call. People keep telling me that, no matter how things will turn out, I could not have decided any other way. But while they are right, broadly speaking – I could not have let her die just to be on the safe side – this does not mean mine was necessarily a good decision. This is not a situation where, if things go awry, I can admit I’ve lost and be a good sport about it. My wife will have to live with the consequences of my decision.

        Siobhan was always convinced that something would happen to her early in her life. That was not any kind of clairvoyance – she is as skeptical as me w/r/t the existence of yonder realms – but owed to the fact that she has been a diabetic ever since her teens, and she thought that some consequence of that disease would finally catch up with her (although by “early” she assumed her early sixties).  And since I love riding that motorcycle, and we were always very much aware that there is such a thing as accidents, we talked a lot about possible consequences should anything happen to either of us. So I do not need to rely on speculations on what kind of live she would still find acceptable – I know it, from her very own mouth. She could certainly adapt to a life on walking frames, or in a wheelchair. But speech, and her mental faculties, and a modicum of mobility and independence while living in her own home are the things she could not live without, and right now there is, despite all the good progress she makes, still a danger that she ends up  mentally impaired stowed away in some facility. The main reason that I have a legal mandate to end life prolonging treatment is that she trusted me that I would exercise that mandate if necessary.  

        But when the time came I decided that doctors should do everything in their power to save her. I did not do that for her – I did it for me. I figured that if nobody could tell me how things would end they might as well end well, relatively, and I just could not bear the thought of living without my wonderful wife. But that is ultimately a gamble – if it turns out that I made the wrong call, and that I have condemned her to a life she could not possibly want, then I would have failed her as a friend and a husband, and a trusted person. I do not know how I could ever live with that.

          Siobhan, Tati and I: Interlude – About food

          Both Siobhan and I like good food, maybe a little too much. Married life did become us a little too well when it came to calories. We complement each other in a slightly detrimental way, since I was raised to believe that portions sizes were lacking if there aren’t any leftovers, and the wife likes to clean her plate since she does not like good food go to waste. Not that any food would have had the chance: Tati appreciates a good meal as much as any of us, and indeed would be hugely disappointed in her humans if would ask her to make do with dog food. I am hugely in favor of a species-appropriate diet and it is hugely appropriate for the species canis familiaris to share their meals with humans, since eating kitchen scraps is basically what turned wolves into dogs.

          Apart from being tasty and nutritious food has also a few ancillary uses. For one, I find preparing food is a great way to relax. Spending time in the kitchen always helped me to relax after a day at work, especially when the result were (well, most of the time at least) so very well received – as inappropriate as it might be, the thing I probably miss most right now is that moment when Siobhan with an expectant smile raises her empty plate in my direction and asks, “Are there seconds ?” (of course there are). Cooking for the wife is, for me, pretty much the epitome of happily married life.

          There was also the matter of breakfast. I usually get up a lot earlier than Siobhan (sleeping in is to some extent a prerogative of freelancers), so at some point I started to serve her breakfast in bed. Siobhan’s habits are not exactly demanding, and the few minutes in spend in the morning to prepare toast are amply rewarded by a smile and a kiss. And Siobhan thoroughly enjoyed that little luxury, too. “Behold the queen of Saba”, she would crow, surveying the vast domain of her bedsheets where, down at her feet, her single loyal subject stretched its paws and wrinkled it’s nose to ascertain if it was worth negotiating for a share of the breakfast (bugger it, it’s porridge again) before the humble servant cleared the table and, on a kiss, transformed back into the not quite as humble husband.

          I also noticed, with some faint amusement, that getting served breakfast in bed entitled her to bragging rights among her friends. The way I found out was that Siobhan was calling a friend, and some time into the conversation the words “YOUR HUSBAND DOES WHAT ?” emerged in a volume that did not really require the telephone line to travel the way from the antipodes to our Berlin apartment. I am as vain as the next man, so that it reflected well on me that Siobhan was allowed to feel just a little smug about the excellent room service was just another reason to keep it up.

          And, for Siobhan more than for me, food was a way to trigger happy memories. It took us a while to track down a brand of malt vinegar that rather tastes like something a person would use to clean their bathroom fixtures (provided they do not like their bathroom fixtures all that much), but which apparently is rather the same that a certain Fish and Chips shop in London used to drizzle on their meals (while we visited London early in our relationship I cannot quite vouch for that, as the shop had been gone by then). And she was quite thrilled when more and more shops started to carry prepacked british tea sandwiches, with egg and cress and without crust and cut into triangles (I can at least confirm that bread tastes much better when cut into triangles).

          Last but not least food became an indicator for our gains in socioeconomic status. We love eating out (once a month, or twice. Well, thrice at most, because then the expenses are becoming frivolous), and our palate evolved with better job opportunities and rising income. First we visited that little Indian place in Feurigstrasse on the basis that two people could get away with less than 30 Euro (both, not each) including dessert and drinks, a price that makes you excuse certain shortcomings like taste, or lack thereof. In time, we worked our way up – when I landed a new job and the Indian place had closed we tried a more expensive place, and rather liked it. And so on.

          This was not just about the food, either. As freelancers we had had a reasonable income on paper, but by the time the money actually arrived most of it was already dedicated to some purpose (usually patching some hole in our finances that had opened while we waited for our money – we were good workers, but not good businesspeople). With my fixed income later on our lives became a lot less improvised, and while Siobhan (and to a lesser extent myself) always championed social causes and justice for the world at large we found what we really craved for ourselves was a regular life with all the trappings of a small bourgeois existence.

          We knew we had succeeded when, some years later, we arrived at our favourite Italian on a hot summer evening and along with dinner I ordered a bottle of water. When I poured us a glas I suddenly had to laugh, and Siobhan was laughing back because she knew exactly what I was thinking. “I know, I know”, I said, “here I am, spending money on water, when you can have water for free from the tap, right ?”. She nodded, and laughed again. We were really going up in the world.

          So, we like food. That was probably the reason, when the time for courtship came, it didn’t even occur to me to invest in flowers or insubstantial chocolates or any of the other things that are usually considered romantic. Instead I headed for the kitchen and cranked up the oven. Clearly, pastry was what was called for here.

            Siobhan, Tati and I – A first Date

            It has pleased god to make the world so that people with unusual first names are easier to find than others. And then he created Irish given names to remind us that his ways are unsearchable, at least if you use a phone book. But I am getting ahead of myself.

            Eight years or so ago I got a phone call from a friend. This time it was about something I like even more than birthday cake – she had called to tell me about a dog. A friend of hers, whom I had apparently met at a party some time ago, had recently adopted a dog and was now worried that as a busy self-employed person she might not always have enough time to go for walkies. So she was looking for assistance, and hadn’t I always said that I would love to have a dog only that as a busy self-employed person I did not have enough time … ? (Yes, I had).

            But this was probably about more than a dog, since it was mentioned at some point that “she has some trouble meeting guys” which, despite being notoriously bad at deciphering social clues, correctly interpreted as “she has trouble meeting guys that I” (i.e. the friend who called me) “approve of”.  “Well,” I thought cunningly (or with whatever of my meagre mental capacities I mistook for cunning, since I am not actually in any way shrewd), “maybe I should have a look at this”. After all I had a few things going for me; I might have been a bit lacking in the looks and charm and manners department, but I had figured a few things out for me, like making my own money, preparing three square meals a day with some efficiency and without too much grandstanding in the kitchen, and more often than not being actually present when I had promised to be at a given time in a given place. So while I probably wasn’t somebody you would wanted to have a weekend fling with, before reality flung you back on monday I had some qualities that might suddenly look somewhat attractive after your friends had long enough disapproved of the guys you met or failed to meet. And if nothing else I would get to meet a dog, so as far I could tell I had nothing to lose.

            There was one problem, though, and that was one of names. My friend could tell me that I was supposed to meet one  [ʃəˈvˠaːn̪ˠ], and “isn’t that the coolest name ever”, but she had no clue how to spell it (and neither, obviously, had I).

            By now I know that Germans are not the only ones to have trouble with the name – Lee Mack has a whole routine about Irish names in general, and “Siobhan” in particular, which is apparently famous with all the Siobhans in the world and they attend his gigs just to giggle for the three seconds when their name comes up. Not that I have any reason to complain – my own name is spelled “E-I-K-E” and is (at least if your are English) actually pronounced “I-K”, so with two redundant “e”s there goes the myth of German efficiency.

            Siobhan’s Bavarian family named did not help much in finding her, either, especially since I grew up in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the Bavarian syllable “oi” is homonym with “eu”, so I ended up with some quite weird ideas on what to look for in the phone book. However it transpired that, apart from having a job, knowing how to cook and being reasonably reliable, I was also gifted with a special kind of stubbornness, so after a lengthy session with the telephone directory and only a tiny bit of abuse from some accidentally cold-called Siobhans I actually managed to fix a date for what in the end really turned out to be a date, even if it was carefully camouflaged as some sort of business transaction over a time-sharing arrangement for a dog.

            We agreed to meet at the Südkreuz train station, which I previously hadn’t been aware to actually exist; the last time I had been in Schöneberg the area had been occupied by the nearly derelict, in a picturesque way,  metro station of General Pape Strasse, which was then knocked down to be replaced by what looked like somebody had tried to replicate Great Britain’s experiment to create an aircraft carrier from pykrete, only this time on land to make the attempt even more risible.

            So meeting at the train station it was, and I was waiting rather nervously for things to come.

            What came was not a thing but a woman, with black hair and a little rogue-ish white streak (that’s “Rogue”-ish as in Marvel’s X-Men Rogue), in a red basket weave coat, and slightly out of breath because she was being pulled forward by a skinny black dog which exuberated with enthusiasm for the world in general and all the nice people in it in particular. The dog greeted me warmly (or maybe she was testing clandestinely with her tongue if I was edible – Tati was, and is, somewhat of a glutton) and then Siobhan and I got to introduce ourselves to each other somewhat more formally. I guess we recognized each other from the birthday party some time ago, but both pretended not to, so as not to spoil a new opportunity with preconceived notions.

            This was in January, and it was really, really cold, and it drizzled, and and to top things off we decided to wade through the mud for a bit (actually we decided to go to a vacant lot that the district of Schöneberg had made available as an exercise area for dogs, but it rather amounted to the same thing).

            Schöneberg back then looked a lot different than it looks now. The houses were still worn down from many decades of neglect, the streets were dirty, and the streets were lined with used car lots flogging of hopelessly derelict jalopies to hopeful young entrepreneurs who had successfully made the long trek from their African or Arab homes to stock up on only slightly bent camshafts and 1974 VW Golf I engines. Leading up to the train station was an avenue that, as I later found out, was named by Siobhan’s visiting friends the “rapist alley”, not, I think, because of any actual rape that had occurred that but because for the fear that  rape might happen any time soon around there, which is the principle by which many formerly civilized western countries are run now.

            It was true, however, that some guys tried to sell weed and illegal cigarettes to the students of the local school and this is why, so the apocryphal story goes, the empty lot next to the school was rented out for a symbolic fee to a hastily formed association of dog owners who then had their collections of mutts and mongrels patrol the property to mutual benefit. The generosity of the local council did not extend far enough to cover any landscaping or paving of ways, so every gush of rain would turn the area into sludge. Undeterred we started doing rounds around the perimeter, and so did the other dog owners until the place looked more and more like a very badly run prison facility.  With nice conversation and the dog hopping around us I had the time of my life.

            It transpired that we had quite a few things in common. We were almost exactly the same age, both freelancers, both not necessarily thrilled by what the world had had to offer us so far but both, for the time being, open to the possibility that life had still something in store for us. Also we both have a penchant for British comedy, and Siobhan was somewhat excited to finally have found someone to discuss Red Dwarf episodes and the nuances of Bill Baileys supporting character in Black Books. She had just embarked on a quick lecture regarding how much Monty Python owed to Spike Milligan when suddenly the shouting started.

            A dog run is a strange microcosmos where people from all social strata and all ways of life meet united in a common purpose, which is to unleash their critters and let them look after themselves for a few precious minutes. As a result city dogs, who have to get along with each other in confined spaces, are much better socialized than the rather territorial country dogs and, at times, better than their human masters. They are far less noisy to start with.

            What had erupted here was pretty much a lower class conflict.  K., a former builder whom bad health had forced out of his job and into indigence, and who would later become Tatis trusted dog sitter (because that is one of Siobhan’s little tricks, turning strangers into allies by taking their concerns seriously) was shouting at a young woman twice his size (but then he is a small man). It transpired that H. had used the bushes around the lot, in absence of a proper restroom, as a restroom, and that the source of K.’s anger were not any hygienic concerns but worry about the welfare of the animals (as dogs have an unfortunate preference for human excrement).  Now all this was reasonable gross and everything, and it would have been easy to side with K., or shake the head about both of them in moral indignation and say a short prayer to thank god that we were not like these Pharisees.

            Siobhan however took K. aside and pointed out to him that, through no fault of her own, H.’s mental development lagged a long way behind that of her body and that shouting at her was not only ungentlemanlike, but also rather unlikely to accomplish anything in the way of education.  Then she spoke, in private, to H. to tell her that if she felt any natural human impulses she should take the trouble and cross the street were the proprietors of the gas station would certainly allow her to use the toilet. Eventually they both relented, and the shouting stopped. With peace thus restored we set out to proceed on our peripatetic ways when the dog, having spotted a rabbit, tunneled under the fence and went for a hunting trip on the adjoining railway tracks. I found myself commandeered to, basically, kneel down in the mud and guard all possible exits while Siobhan and a few volunteers finally managed to retrieve the mutt.

            When she accompanied me back to the train station Siobhan looked a little embarrassed. “I can’t imagine what you must think of all this”, she said, referring to the mud and the excrement and the shouting.

            Well, what did I think ?

            In retrospect I think that this was Siobhan in a nutshell – a strong sense of justice, unafraid to get here hands dirty, and convinced that fixing one small, mundane or  even distasteful problem in the neighbourhood might be more helpful than lamenting about all the big and ugly things that are happening in the world at large. I thought that I rather liked what I saw, a rather down-to-earth knightess in her, after crawling through the mud after the dog, somewhat splodgy armour (actually as it turned out not much armour at all – I have rarely met somebody who cared for others as much, but was as unprotected for herself as Siobhan, so I made it my job in the next years to fend off those things she could not protect against herself).  It was basically then and there that I decided, as any good Sancho Panza would do, to throw in my lot with her if she just would let me, even if it came out somewhat less eloquently as “Want to meet again ? Maybe next week ?”.

            Turned out that she wanted to.

              Siobhan, Tati and I – First Encounter

              Siobhan and I met for the first time some ten years ago, at the birthday party of a mutual friend, and totally failed to hit it off. This was even before Siobhan had adopted Tati, and maybe that was a part of the reason – a crazy love for dogs in general, and that specific dog in particular, is very much the glue that holds our relationship together.

              More realistically the reason was that ten years ago I was gloomy, wild-haired, with a certain predilection for flannel shirts and a distinct lack of social grace. Being unable to focus on more than one person at a time meant that I wasn’t exactly a hit at parties, and I escaped by doing what I always did in such situations, which was to avoid people as much as possible while, and at the same time, not at all avoiding the birthday cake.

              Some time later it turned out that the gloom and the lust for cake had a common cause, to wit Hashimoto’s disease, which was overlooked for many years; I was treated with various medications, underwent needless surgery and in the end was threatened with psychotherapie for alleged depression. In the end I was diagnosed over lunch by a doctor who was just getting started and wanted to commission a website for his new practice. It took him three questions to find the cause of my ailements, and I had a proper prescription before we had finished our starters. After I started to substitute thyroid hormone I still did like cake, but I became a lot less  gloomy, which was slightly depressing in its own right – for almost forty years I had thought that I had an, albeit gloomy, personality and then it turned out I had a thyroid instead!

              But at the time I did not know that and was hogging the cake buffet, when Siobhan came by to liberate one of the remaining slices from my gloomy embrace.  I watched her as she fiddled with her insulin pump. University days weren’t too far back, and among peers we were still discussing gender theory and Donna Haraway’s essay on cyborgs and, for some reason, Star Trek, and so I was fascinated by the fact that somebody regulated a vital body function via an external device. We discussed (i.e. I blathered on about) how the thing was less capable than it appeared (as it doesn’t measure blood sugar, it merely, well, pumps insulin), but how that need for manual intervention really just added to the steampunkish and slightly Borg-ish charm and so on and so forth. Siobhan nodded, selected her cake, and went along her way.

              When years later we recalled our first encounter I asked her what impression I had made on her. With typical candour she said that at the time she found me boring, somewhat strange and, as she put it, “unappealingly depressive” (must have been that thyroid).

              I have no idea why some two years later she still agreed to meet with me, but am I ever so glad that she did.

                Siobhan, Tati and I – Prelude

                Some eighteen months ago my  father, whom I loved very much, died from arterial embolism. There wasn’t a single day since I did not cry, and I just wished that something would happen to take my mind of things. Then my wife suffered a stroke, which just shows that you should be careful what you wish for.

                Or maybe not. For the better or the worse, the universe is not moved by our wishes, and things do not usually happen for a reason. This is in fact my single comfort in these times, that events did not happen because we did anything wrong, or because we are somehow bad people, or we failed to do or not do something that we should or shouldn’t have done. Events occurred as they did simply because something always happens to somebody, only the things that happened to us were pretty bad.

                What happened is this.

                On January 11th Siobhan, my wife, called me at work and asked if I could return home immediately; she had caught a flu, or so she thought, and needed me to look after her. When I got home she lay on the sofa, unable to walk, had already thrown up several times and spoke only slowly, with a slur and uncharacteristic trouble to find the proper words. My wife is a type one diabetic, so I checked her blood sugar which turned out to be normal. That was when I called the ambulance.

                In the hospital they did a cat scan, and discovered an aneurysm at the brain stem partially closed with a thrombus. She was immediately committed to the neurosurgical ward at Klinikum Neukölln.

                The doctors there said that we had come just in time.  The aneurysm had not yet ruptured, so they would insert a metal coil to stabilize the walls of the affected artery. This was introduced to us as a standard procedure with a success rate above 95%. Four or five weeks of speech therapy, so a nurse suggested, and everything would be alright again.

                Surgery was the next day. I called Siobhan at the hospital to wish her luck, and then went online to order her an iPad so she would have something to keep her busy during her stay at the hospital. Then I sat down and waited.

                In the evening the hospital called. They said if it would help me to calm down then I should come down to the hospital and watch Siobhan waking up, only she didn’t. I sat by her bed waiting for her to wake up, until finally the hospital staff started to get worried and she was rushed off again for another cat scan.

                It turned out the blood clots in the aneurysm had not completely dissolved despite the blood thinning medication; some coagulated blood had escaped, and blocked the neighbouring blood vessels, resulting in a brain stroke. There was damage to the thalamus, and the cerebellum, and alas even some damage to the left side of the cerebrum.

                I was worried sick, literally. My short term memory disappeared almost completely, I developed tunnel vision to a point where I was half blind on the left eye and I suffered from chest pain (eventually I had this checked by a doctor who confirmed that there was no organic cause; this was mere panic). I was on sick leave for almost eight weeks.

                For forty-seven days I spent my waking hours at the hospital, while Siobhan suffered through a double craniectomy to reduce pressure on the brain, a tracheostomy,  pneumonia and a systemic fever that only went down many weeks later after the swelling of the brain subsided, all the while she was in a first natural, later artificial coma. Eventually I had to return to work, and Siobhan was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where they started to wake her up. She has made some progress since, but it is still not clear what we can hope for as a result of the therapy; the only thing doctors have categorically ruled out is a full recovery, she will remain paralyzed on her right side.

                Some nice people have suggested that I am somehow praiseworthy for staying with the wife. This is not exactly true, or at least not relevant; rather I am horribly selfish.

                I was not a very happy person before I met Siobhan – not particularly unhappy, either; just idling in neutral gear, waiting if someday, something would happen that was worth the effort. With Siobhan I was tremendously happy, and she did not have to do very much at all – it was enough that she would sit on the sofa and smile at me before she carefully selected another episode of some english panel show, or silently and diligently drew her plans to make me change my hoodies for proper shirts or make me join civilization in some other way. I want that back, to the extent possible (if anything I am worried that I am too selfish – the worst thing that could still happen that the life she returns to is not a life that she deems worth living).

                And of course I made a vow, quite purposefully and deliberately, that very distinctly included the phrase “in good times, and in bad”. Now the good times have been much, much better than I had any right to expect, so it it unthinkable that I would not be at her side during the the bad times.

                So to make you understand what Siobhan means to me and why it is so important that she returns home  (and what the dog Tati has to do with all of this)  I want to share over the next months a few thoughts and memories with you. Some of those are Siobhan’s memories, too; I know she would not like this, but at the moment I am the one who has to function out in the world and make plans for us both, and if telling stories helps me to cope then so be it.

                  Electoral College, German Edition

                  I just watched this segment from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah:

                  While this is rather funny I do not think they are technically correct, as various people throughout the video claim that the US are the only democracy where the president is not elected by popular vote but by an electoral college.

                  Welcome to Germany, where the president (the Bundespräseident) is not elected by popular vote but, you guessed right, by an electoral college, the “Bundesversammlung” – the federal convention.

                  In an interesting twist the electors of the federal convention are not elected in a popular vote, or at least only to the extent that the members of parliament are automatically electors; they make up half of the federal convention.

                  The other half is determined not by popular vote, but elected by the parliaments of the individual federal states. The various political factions in the parliaments create lists of candidates (and frankly I haven’t the faintest idea which criteria they use, but given that almost all members of the last federal convention have their own Wikipedia page I wager that they do not exactly pick the simple citizen from the street). The candidates are elected by the parliaments (the number for each state is proportional to the size of the state’s population), and they meet a single time to elect the president.  While in theory every member of the federal convention can suggest a candidate, “electing” a president usually means to pick a person from a shortlist that has been prepared by the governing faction in the Bundestag, the federal parliament (and I mean “short list” like in “a single name”). So all US Americans who are unhappy with the election result can comfort themselves with the thought that the US presidential election is at least more democratic than the German one.

                  Of course being the president of Germany is not a big deal – the Bundespräsident is nominally the head of state, but the office is largely ceremonial. The real power rests with the Chancellor, the head of goverment – who is not elected by popular vote, but by vote in the German parliament, the Bundestag. And since political factions are free to form coalitions – “majorities” in the english sense, i.e. more than 50% are almost unheard of in Germany anyway; without a qualifier (like “absolute” majority) the German “Mehrheit” is  a plurality rather  – they could very well team up against the largest faction, making sure that basically no one gets what he voted for.

                    Ein schönes Kleid – Roman über eine queere Familie

                    Normalerweise interessiert mich nichts weniger als das Familienleben anderer Leute, aber weil ich weiß das der Author boxen kann wollte ich ihm nicht auf der Strasse begegnen ohne sein Buch gelesen zu haben. Außerdem habe ich gewisses akademisches Interesse an LGBT-Themen, wahrscheinlich weil das einer der wenigen Bereiche ist in dem die westliche Zivilisation ernsthafte Fortschritte zu verzeichnen hat. Als ich ein Kind war gab es keine schwulen oder lesbischen Jugendlichen. Allenfalls gab es Jungs die sich nicht für Mädchen interessierten und Mädchen die lieber unter sich blieben, und wenn sie weit genug aus sich herauskamen um sich als lesbisch oder schwul zu bezeichnen war das was danach kam normalerweise keine Jugend mehr. Was Erwachsene anging – nun, unsere Nachbarin hatte aus beruflichen Gründen öfter die Schauspieler des örtlichen Ensembles zu Besuch und wir durften nicht alleine mit ihnen in einem Zimmer sein, weil ja jeder weiß was die so (ich wusste tatsächlich ziemlich lange nicht was die so. Anspielungen funktionieren immer erst wenn man sie erklärt bekommt, und Gott sei Dank manchmal auch dann nicht). Heute können sich Teenager verlieben und Erwachsene zusammenleben und, wie das Buch nochmal demonstriert, Familien gründen und die Welt ist ein kleines bißchen besser deswegen. Klar gibt es immer noch Diskriminierung bei Besuchsrechten, Adoptionen, Steuern etc., aber das sind Dinge die sich, ein paar ewiggestrige Stoffel hin oder her, durch das konsequente Breittreten existierender Rechtsnormen in ein paar Jahrzehnten erledigt haben werden. Es geht, zumindest in unserer Oase der Glücklichen, nicht mehr um existenzielle Grundsatzfragen.

                    Der Autor weiß das (klar, er war ja dabei), aber es mag zur Erinnerung dienen das sich heute auf verhältnismässig hohem Niveau jammern lässt. Das Buch handelt von einem queeren Paar das ein Pflegekind aufnimmt, und der Fragebogen der zur Vorbereitung für das Jugendamt ausgefüllt werden muss dient als thematische Klammer über die verschiedenen Kapitel hinweg.

                    Die Behauptung dass “Heteropaare keine Fragebögen ausfüllen müssen, die können einfach poppen” finde ich ein bißchen unsensibel gegenüber Heteropaaren die aus verschiedenen Gründen nicht einfach poppen können oder wollen (mal abgesehen davon dass noch andere Motive für die Aufnahme von Pflegekindern gibt), aber vor allen ist das keine genderspezifische Diskriminierung, den muss jede/r Bewerber/in ausmalen. Das Buch kommt auch mit einem netten Disclaimer das es sich nicht als Anleitung zur Aufnahme vom Pflegekindern eignet. Apropos, Bladerunner eignet sich nicht als Anleitung zum Betrieb elektrischer Schafe.

                    Das (handwerklich rundum gelungene) Buch hat den Untertitel “Roman über eine queere Familie”, aber “zwei Papas” und einer davon trans und jeder weiß was die so hin und her, es ist halt hauptsächlich mal ein Roman über eine Familie. Es läuft mal besser und mal schlechter, und das Kind ist manchmal anstrengend (sind die fast immer), und natürlich lohnt sich die ganze Anstrengung total und der Erzähler hat einen Hund der alles denken darf was der Erzähler selbst nicht denken darf und der stirbt kurz bevor das Kind da ist. Das ist wahrscheinlich sehr symbolisch, oder vielleicht ist auch nur der Hund gestorben. Das alles sehr zauberhaft und da liegt dann auch das Problem: Je mehr queere Geschichten Lebens- statt Leidensgeschichten sind um so mehr sind sie eben genauso öde wie die Lebensgeschichten von allen anderen auch, zumindest wenn man so weit von der Zielgruppe entfernt ist wie ich – das ist die Art von Buch die ein Paar einem anderen (oder vielleicht auch ein Partner dem anderen) schenkt wenn mit winkenden Zaunpfählen darauf aufmerksam gemacht werden soll das es jetzt mal Zeit für eigenen Nachwuchs wird. Also wirklich wundervoll, und schön das es das Buch gibt, aber für meine Zwecke hätte es auch gereicht, das zu kaufen und ungelesen ins Regal zu stellen.

                    Jasper Nicolaisen
                    Ein schönes Kleid – Roman über eine queere Familie
                    Querverlag 2016

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