Monday, February 27, 2006

As today's Rosenmontag, we made a morning trip to Mainz to view the various Fastnacht festivities occurring around the city. And by festivities, we mean the various locations you're able to purchase Pilsner and Weissbier while watching an 8-hour long parade. While D and I don't quite have the stamina to watch the parade for an entire day, we were able to capture (along with our friend Je) the spirit of Fastnacht in our five hour wander around the Altstadt. To avoid the classic this-then-that, here are ten items to consider when planning your celebration of a Mainzer Fastnacht:

10) The American soldiers who overhear you speaking "perfect American English" will want to talk and hang out. They'll seem a little lonely, but it's tough to believe when they admit that they've been drinking since Thursday's Mainzer Fastnacht start.

9) Don't try too hard with your costume, as this place doesn't get too competitive with dress. Notice Balloon-man, Black-Hat-man, and the Surgeon (picture, right) all hanging out as the parade goes by. This is as good as it gets, folks, and we're just out here to laugh at ourselves. Something colorful will do.

8) When will these costumed celebrations realize that they'd be so much better if we just held off 'til Spring? It's still seriously cold out there, and we're not sure how the short-skirted Viking (not depicted) can stand to stand and throw back liters of Pils while also taking the opportunity to flash his little conqueror at this poor American immigrant.

But of course, it's impossible to move the date as Fastnacht (or Karneval) precedes the start of Lent, occurring here in Mainz the week before so as to get all tomfoolery out of the system before the religious season of fasting and reflection. Germany's Rhineland gives a special twist to Karneval by using this time to mock politicians and authority, albeit primarily (picture, southwest, in costume) 19th Century politicians and authority. There's also much verbally subversive speech and song about politics beyond the anti-Prussian and anti-French sentiments it was founded on, though much of the contemporary stuff is relegated to speech, song, and undercutting-authority-through-public-drunkenness. So for next year, save the date.

7) Entertaining in itself is standing near the main train station just before the start of the parade (11:11 am), watching the tens of thousands of costumed rush from their intercity trains, down the escalators, and out onto the street in order to find the best possible place to view this Rosenmontagzug. Note the various party supplies, such as kids with kegs on wheels and musical carts tugged by the middle aged, proclaiming for them how they "Pump up the Jam." Much jam, I must say, was pumping.

6) Man, I just took a two hour nap between completing #7 and starting #6. Fastnacht really tuckers you out. How can these people party for five days straight? Lifelong Mainzers tell me they're only able to enjoy once every two or three years. So if this post is convincing you to make travel plans for the next three years, take the middle one off for the sake of your liver.

5) This event must be great if it's something you grew up with, but as outsiders it can be a gawking tramp around the various places and platzes in Mainz. Forget about for pointing out the numerous Indianed-, Arabed-, and Mexicaned-clothed personas walking the street, American-sissy points awarded for exclaiming, "Gee, there's a lot of broken glass around here" or "The Children's Parade on Friday was so much tamer!"

4) Here the unspoken law's that you shout out "Helau!" and someone hollas back the same. However, give an attention-deprived reveler three beers and a water bottle full of Lipton and vodka, and they'll repeat the word over and over until their throat goes dry (thus requiring more fluid-soothing). The younger generation also seems to use this phrase as a mating cry.

3) Boop Boop! Boop Boop! Fastnacht Paradox, Fastnacht Paradox! (hundreds of beer carts strewn throughout Mainz, almost no public lavatories. I was forced to shelter myself in a large evergreen near the river, D and Je to make a stop at Augustinerkeller for more beer and porcelain (picture, east). These two events were, of course, not simultaneous.)

2) Getting ready. My favorite part of Fastnacht is the build-up. First you start to see decorations and costume shops appear around Mainz. Your colleagues begin to tell stories and ask questions. Amazing amounts of manpower come out to set up the various beer stands and bleachers. Occasional costumed officials (as pictured above, standing next to condom head) are met, by you, while walking down empty avenues during lunch break strolls, and again on your 10:00 public night-ride home. Your usual bus line to work is diverted as parts of the city are closed down. After the first Thursday celebrations, you see cut ties and empty bottles in the morning before work (Fastnacht Thursday is for the ladies, and they'll cut off your fabric business-bling if you wear it that day). And finally, the random costumed revellers standing near bus stops in your suburb. Before heading into Mainz today, we saw "around" Fastnacht as the excitement built and built.

1) If you don't hold out, you won't see what you never saw before. The only disappointing part of the day was being unable to see the duck march past. Remember the duck we couldn't see in November? Current rumors hold that that this duck was supposed to close out today's parade. After leaving the insanity of Mainz, we returned to Mombach and turned the parade on TV. I began this post, I then fell asleep. My first words to D, upon waking, were, "Did you see the duck?" No, she didn't see the duck. Perhaps* it's better that way.

And some noticeables from Fastnacht, which doesn't officially end until they symbolically bury the spirit and cry in the Rhein. If you're around this time, next year come check it out. To some, it might just look like Halloween, but really, there's an entirely different jam being pumped. I'll leave you with one more shot, this of the dance party surrounding the Mainzer Karneval Fountain.

*Did you see the duck? Tell us. And if you have a picture of the bird, we'd love to link it or put it up.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Without lauding Google's Picasa too much, I must say the "nemesis" option can consistently make the closest of friends seem at eternal odds (as also displayed with the Bond/Blofeld photo I created below). Check out how my sister appears to be preparing (with a butterfly) to duel the infamous Yeti:

Let the battle begin!

Oh, trouble was always so easy in English, Bond. But today's language lesson comes straight from 007's Vegas adventure in Diamonds are Forever. When addressing your archenemy, always use German's polite form of you (Sie), no matter how much arch is in your nemesis. And for all those other Bond girls out there, here's one that needn't be changed for your run-ins with international spies: Oh, James!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

So, I blush to admit this but I hadn't actually realized that the Olympics were going on this year. Honestly, it feels like we just had the Olympics this summer, so I was a bit surprised to discover that we're doing it again! If only I had known earlier! Mainz is not so far away from Turin and it would have been just a hop, skip and a hefty hotel bill to enjoy the thrills of curling up close and personal.

Sadly, J! and I realized too late that a mere 730 km away thousands of freezing cold people were enjoying the best winter sports the world has to offer. Luckily for us, though, we get one channel on the tv and as this particular channel is public access, they show the Winter Olympics 12 hours a day. Granted, "Das Erste" focuses on sports in which Germany has contenders, namely the skeleton, speed skating, and ski jumping, but this doesn't hold them back from also covering figure skating.

I haven't watched figure skating in forever so I was a bit surprised to discover "ice dancing," which J! describes as "primitive figure skating" because the skaters aren't allowed to do all the twists and flips they do in pairs and singles. But while the skaters seem a bit more limited in the technical field, the repetoire is considerably more open in other areas. As far as I can tell, couples get extra points for smiling as wide as possible, kissing on the ice, dramatic makeup, and wearing super skimpy outfits (none of those "fake skin" leotards for the women of ice dancing!! They risk even bare skin for the gold medal!).

Last night was the first competition for ice dancing, in which couples perform the same routine to the same music and are judged on their technical achievements and their "total program" (according to NBC the latter category includes things like "hand movements"). Italian skaters Barbara Fusar-Poli and her partner Maurizio Margaglio skated to first place after wowing the crowds with their spins and blinding them with their costumes. Photos below for your ice dancing enjoyment.

These photos aren't from the Olympics but from Fusar-Poli and Margaglio's 1998/99 "Dracula" series.

She's just discovered that he has a blood fetish.

The horror!

Things don't look good for this couple.

From last night's competition in Turin.

Oddly, they didn't seem to get docked points for their costume choice.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mainz Blogger Us-es!!

Attentive dotde readers will notice a few changes to the links menu, notably J!'s wish list from (don't give into him, people! He has enough books already, except the "Le Tour" one--we could use a copy of that). Just above these fine literary selections, though, you'll find a link to "a quiet room" which J! found by doing a blogger search on "Mainz." As it turns out, "a quiet room" is a blog about a young couple living in Mainz for a year . . . see where this is headed? That's right! J! has managed, among all the blogs availabe on the entire World Wide Web, to discover our blogger twins!! Who would have guessed?

For example:

1. Chantelle is a German literature Ph. D. student from a university in northern California. Granted, the comparison breaks down a bit because Ben is some kind of scientist at the Max Planck Institute, but really, as I prefer to think of J! as a "word engineer," I think the similarity holds up.

2. They live in Mainz.

3. Their blog relates wacky stories about living in a foreign country.

4. They play settlers.

5. They've the requiste photo of the Lorelei on their blog.

I have a sinking sensation I'm going to run into Chantelle and Ben before the year is out and then there will be an awkward moment when I have to admit that not only do I "know" these people I've never met before, but I wrote a blog post about them. On the bright side, though, dotde readers who hunger for more Meenzer news now have a second outlet--on those days that you visit our lovely blog only to discover that we haven't posted in two weeks, you can just head over to "a quiet room" and catch up on all the local gossip!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The residents of this house are currently snowed in, though they predict roads will be cleared to teach tomorrow. We have been informed that they may make a trip to Dotde's Mombach headquarters in two weeks, if they decide to buy the $310 round-trip tickets (!!!) and make the drive to Newark's fine airport.

If you know this couple, give them a call today and tell these free spirits to pull the trigger on this adventure. We're approaching the height of Karneval here in Mainz, which boasts one of the best celebrations in all Deutschland.

Being assigned as a guest writer is one of the many perks of visiting Mombach HQ. Now that's Klamkaditious!

And while we're on the topic of Northern California, Nathan could you tell me if walking around midtown Sac. is more or less dangerous with Ron Artest in town? I hope to make it back there, one day, and see him at Pancake Circus. I would buy him some pie.

Wally Szczerbiak has no business being in Boston, by the way. Especially wearing #55, a number Eric Williams rescued from the (arm) pits of Acie Earl, who, by the way, was last seen angling down a few Serbian basketball courts last year. Maybe I'll look into tickets, just to see him put up 30 one more time.

If you're looking for something to do in Northern California this month, take a day and head over to San Jose's The Tech Museum of Innovation. Neuroscientific and beautifully shot, Wired to Win will be playing there all month. Brain matters aside, the IMAXian vistas should be enough to convince you to sit around all next summer watching this race (if, of course, you decide against joining us on the green slopes of the Alps). The film's said to have the most incredible shots of the Tour on record.

Scenary aside, what you won't see in the movie is the behind the scenes manipulation of stars and cyclists as doping regulation tries to push its way through the peloton (do you think we really watch the tour just 'cause of the good views?). Tyler Hamilton, as recently announced, won't be able to return to competitive cycling until two days before the road championships. That means no Tour for him this year and a pretty stained reputation. But scandals aside, his foundation does put on a great party for one day of the Tour. So if you can't make it out to Mainz for our trip into the mountains, check his foundation's website for updates on the events which will be held stateside-wide. It is worth the donation to his charity.

But back to Wired to Win...D and I won't be able to see it until the Spring, if at all, when the film travels overseas to spend some time at the Hague. So if you do get a chance to see it in the US, be sure to let us know what you think.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Germany is a bustling, modern, up-to-date country with all kinds of things that don’t exactly fit in with the “Old Medieval Europe” illusion that most of us tourists come here to see. For starters, hardly anyone wears Lederhosen. This is a country that is so progressive that you can actually test your own alcohol intoxication level at your local watering hole. Despite this, however, Germany has yet to figure out what puts the “super” in supermarket.

For starters, there aren’t too many different chains—Lidl, Norma, Penny Markt, and Aldi are the major ones and they are all “budget” chains. These are essentially the equivalent of Food City, only no buying in bulk and better cheese selections. Tenglemann is about even with a small Ralph’s—if you want something exotic like “tortillas,” pretty much the only place to get them is Tenglemann. Tenglemann doesn’t, unfortunately, sell refried or black beans, so the tortillas won’t actually do you much good. On the bright side, though, Tenglemann gives you little heart stickers every time you spend 5 Euro, and after you’ve collected several thousand hearts you can get free cookware and kitchen utensils.

No matter which chain you choose, though, supermarkets here are small. Not tiny, but not huge, either. And there’s no one-stop shopping in these places—you don’t mix your groceries with your dry cleaning. Not only are the stores themselves on a smaller scale than most Americans are used to, but they are laid out a bit differently: you can see over the aisles and there are usually only about five of them. One whole aisle is generally devoted to “liquid refreshment,” by which I mean a lot of bottled water (both with and without bubbles), ice tea (a favorite drink here in Deutschland) and lots and lots of beer and wine. About half an aisle goes to fruits and veggies (only what is in season—Europe is stricter about what sorts of things you can put on produce to preserve them for sale) and at least ¾ of an aisle goes to candy and cookies (this is J!’s favorite part of the store). And did I mention they sell a lot of beer?

The real delight, though, about shopping in Germany is the checkout counter. Cashiers here (and elsewhere in Europe) sit in nice comfy chairs, which I think is great because who wants to have their food scanned by a cranky person who has been standing on his or her feet all day? Especially since everyone else in the supermarket is generally cranky to begin with. This is mostly because of the lines. Grocery store lines in Germany look something like this

only with people, not cars. This is not because everyone goes shopping at once but because Germans, in general, seem to have difficulty with standing in line.* Lines here are really for all the idiots who don’t know any better than to push their way to the front. There’s a subtle art to cutting in grocery lines and it mainly involves sidestepping unwary shoppers while they try to decide which flavor of Airwaves gum to buy (“Menthol Eucalyptus? Cassis + Vitamin C? Spicy Cocktail?”). Lines in supermarkets work basically the same way natural selection does in the wild—the weak ones, the old ones and the foreigners get picked off first.

For example, this evening I dropped by Lidl to pick up some essentials, namely cheese, Golden Toast** and Ritter Sport.*** While I was standing in line, another cashier opened her lane and immediately the two fifteen year old girls behind me whizzed past an old woman with a cane and darted in front. Clearly they’d been trained well. I figured I’d stay where I was since by the time I even registered the existence of the new line it was already as long as the one I was in. How naïve I was. Other shoppers, having noticed my vulnerability, moved in for the kill. A middle-aged gentleman buying about twelve chocolate crème puddings and two loaves of bread pinned me alongside the candy counter with his cart and proceeded to unload his items on the conveyer belt. Then, after making sure that I was still securely squished up against the M&Ms, he squeezed through the aisle on the other side of his cart to go pay. I, in the meantime (not knowing the German translation for an exasperated “hey!!”) attempted to appear fascinated by the selection of Hairbo gummy candies.

If you do manage finally to get to the cashier, you’re in for another special treat. No one waits at the end of the lane to bag your groceries (in fact, if you want a bag at all you have to pay for it) and the cashier’s counter is not terribly large. This means that in the five seconds before the cashier begins scanning the next person’s groceries, you have to whip out the cloth bags you brought with you, bag your items, pay, and collect your change. Essentially, you’ve already failed at this by the time you even get to the cashier. This isn’t really as tragic as it sounds, though, because it gives the person behind you, whom you presumably took advantage of while they were picking out their cigarettes, a chance to glare and shake their fist while they swear revenge.

*Arr! and I once saw a woman on a bus punch another man in the chest on her way to grab a seat that he clearly wanted. The sound he made was something in between a tuberculotic cough and a death rattle.

**Little rolls that come partially baked and that you finish baking whenever you want. I eat about a dozen a week, usually with Nutella.

***Germany’s favorite chocolate bar. Comes in any flavor you can imagine, including marzipan.

So far we have 29 hearts. As far as I can tell that's just enough for a Tupperware lid or the handle of a saucepan. [Writing at the top of the card reads: "Please stick on your Truehearts here"]

Monday, February 06, 2006

As someone who grew up on the southern California coast, I admit that in the past I have had relatively little use for or interest in Groundhog Day. Feb. 2 was simply one more day in a "beach winter" where "bundling up" means wearing shoes instead of flip-flops. This year, however, potentially having six more weeks of winter not only means I have to keep wearing shoes, but that I need to stock up on more Aspirin Complex (the NyQuil equivalent over here) and multi-vitamins. So, like any normal person with a grave distrust of, I headed over to Punxsutawney Phil's website to check out the forecast. According to, things don't look good:

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Around the country there are many imitators of me.

In Harrisburg there is Gus who appears on TV
working for the lottery.

Then all around town,
Cute groundhog statues abound.
They all look like me, I found.

Today on the Knob as I'm doing my job,
I don't like this likeness of me.

It's my shadow I see. Six more weeks of mild winter there will be.

I have to say, though, my faith in Phil was shaken a bit when I read the Frequently Asked Questions page and discovered that Phil is over 120 years old and that he prognosticates in Groundhogese, "a language only understood by the current president of the Inner Circle." I'm not sure how much I trust a tottering, monomaniacal groundhog that issues proclamations only in rhyming couplets. I've decided intsead to place my faith in the fact that all the stores here are already selling tank tops and capri pants--surely this bodes well for warmer weather in the next month.

Feb. 1st has finally come and what better way to celebrate my paycheck than buying a new guitar?! Yep, we have a new six string addition here at dotde. I've always wanted to learn how to play the guitar and since I'm stuck inside all the time (it being somewhat cooler than the 70 degrees F. I'm used to), I figure now's the perfect time to practice. My Yamaha 310 arrived two days ago in the world's largest cardboard box and I was able to play for at least fifteen minutes before my fingers threatened to mutiny. I'm working, right now, on learning "Leaving on a Jet Plane," which is a beautiful but very sad song. I think I should learn something a bit more cheerful next . . . like "The Drugs Don't Work." The thing is, you can really only learn sad songs when you first start because happy songs have too fast a beat. Actually, what I find works best is to select a song in G maj. and simply play the G chord throughout the whole song, regardless of any other chords that should be used. Luckily for me, J! is either very supportive of the arts or tone deaf, because he hasn't seemed to notice yet that everything I play is in the same key.

Speaking of music, J! and I went to dinner this evening at a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant in downtown Mainz. I highly suggest it for any future travellers to Mainz--the food is great and very cheap. The best part, though, is that the owner sings to you instead of talking. So, for example, when you finally decide you want the tasty mussaka, he'll croon away, "eine grosse oder eine kleine?" [big or small size?]. Eventually, if you are J!, you just give in and sing back . . . on the way out the door you'll hear a chorus of "Auf Wiedersehen!" with everyone choosing whatever tune they like best.

It gets its own chair . . .

When it rains, it pours . . . I promise, this will be the last toilet post. This is the website for a project at an art/design school in nearby Karlsruhe. My personal favorite is the pee tree.

The PeePeeProject

Sunday, February 05, 2006

My brother, K, found this and it reminded me of a recent post here on dotde. I'd like to point out that with the old "squat" method toilets this wasn't an issue.

By Richard Harter

The toilet seat problem has been the subject of much controversey. In this paper we consider a simplified model of the toilet seat problem. We shall show that for this model there is an inherent conflict of interest which can be resolved by a equity solution.

Consider a bathroom with one omnipurpose toilet (also known as a WC) which is used for two toilet operations which we shall designate as #1 and #2. The toilet has an attachment which we shall refer to as the seat (but see remark 1 below) which may be in either of two positions which we shall designate as up and down.

Toilet operations are performed by members of the human species (see remark 2 below) who fall into two categories, popularly designated as male and female. For convenience we shall use the name John to refer to the typical male and Marsha to refer to the typical female.

The performance of toilet operations by John and Marsha differ in a number of respects. The costs of these operations are peculiar to the respective sexes and are fixed except with respect to the position of the toilet seat. In particular:

Marsha performs toilet operations #1 and #2 with the seat in the down position. John performs toilet operation #1 with the seat in the up position and toilet operation #2 with the seat in the down position. If the seat is in the wrong position before performing the toilet operation the position must be changed at an average cost C. Optionally the position may be changed after performing the toilet operation, also at an average cost C. (Changing the position of the seat during the performance of a toilet operation is beyond the scope of this note and is definitely not recommended.)

Consider the scenario where John and Marsha each use a separate toilet. It should be obvious to the most casual observer that each minimizes the seat position transfer cost by not altering the seat position after performing a toilet operation.

For Marsha the seat position transfer cost is 0 since all operations are performed with the seat in the down position. For John the cost is greater than 0 since seat position transfers must be performed.

Let p be the probability that John will perform a #1 operation vs a #2 operation. Assume that John optimizes his seat position transfer cost (see remark 3 below.) Then it is easy to determine that John’s average cost of seat position transfer per toilet opeation is

B = 2p(1-p)C

where B is the bachelor cost of toilet seat position transfers per toilet operation.

Now let us consider the scenario where John and Marsha cohabit and both use the same toilet. In our analysis we shall assume that John and Marsha perform toilet operations with the same frequency (see remark 4 below) and that the order in which they perform them is random. They discover to their mutual displeasure that their cohabitation adversely alters the toilet seat position transfer cost function for each of them. What is more there is an inherent conflict of interest. Attempts to resolve the problem typically revolve around two strategies which we shall designate as J and M

Strategy J
Each person retains the default strategy that they used before cohabiting. This strategy is proposed by John with the argument “Why does it matter if the seat is up or down?”. As we see below this strategy benefits John.

Strategy M
Each person leaves the seat down. This strategy is proposed by Marsha with the argument “It ought to be down.” As we see below this strategy benefits Marsha.

Consequences of strategy J:
Under strategy J the toilet seat is is in the up position with probability p/2. The respective average cost of toilet seat transfer operations for John and Marsha are:

John: p(3/2-p)C
Marsha: pC/2

The incremental costs (difference between pre and post habitation costs) are:

John: ( p - 1/2)pC
Marsha: pC/2
Total: (p^2)C

John’s incremental cost would actually be negative if p were less than 1/2. This is not the case; p>1/2. Note that Marsha’s incremental cost is greater than John’s for p<1. Marsha objects.

Consequences of strategy M:
In strategy M the seat is always left down. When John performs operation #1 he lifts the seat before the operation and lowers it after the operation. The respective average cost of toilet seat transfer operations is:

John: 2pC
Marsha: 0

The incremental costs are:

John: 2(p^2)C
Marsha: 0
Total: 2(p^2)C

In these strategy Marsha bears no cost; all of the incremental costs are borne by John. John objects. Note also that the combined incremental cost of strategy M is greater than that of strategy J.

It is notable that John and Marsha each advocates a strategy that benefits them. This is predictable under game theory. However the conflict over strategies has a cost M in marital discord that is greater than the cumulative cost of toilet seat transfers. It behooves John and Marsha, therefore, to adopt a strategy that minimizes M.

This is not simple. A common reaction is to advance sundry arguments to justify adopting strategy M or J. All such arguments are suspect because they are self serving (and often accompanied with the “If you loved me” ploy.) A sound strategy is one that is equitable and is seen to be equitable. In this regard there are three candidate criteria:

(1) Minimize the joint total cost
(2) Equalize the respective total costs
(3) Equalize the respective incremental costs

The argument for (1) is that John and Marsha are now as one and it is the joint costs and benefits of the union that should be considered. This principle is not universally accepted. It is readily seen that (see remark 5) that the joint total cost is optimized by strategy J which has already been seen to be suspect.

Criterion (2) seems plausible. It requires, however, that Marsha put the seat in the up position after performing a toilet operation some percentage of the time. No instance of this behaviour has ever been observed in recorded history; ergo this criterion can be ruled out. (But see remark 6.)

Criterion (3) argues that the mututal increased cost of toilet seat operations should be shared equitably, i.e., neither party should bear a disproportionate share of the costs of cohabitation. A short calculation reveals that criterion (3) can be achieved if John leaves the seat up after performing toilet operation #1 with a frequency

f = (2p-1)/p

Since the value of p is seldom precisely measured and is variable in any event it suffices to use an approximate value of f. If we assume that p=2/3 then f=1/2. This suggests the following convenient rule of thumb:

In the morning John leaves the seat up after performing #1.
In the evening he puts it down.

This rule may not be precise but it is simple and approximately equitable; moreover the use of a definite rule sets expectations. The seat is put down in the evening to avoid the notorious “middle of the night surprise”.

I expect that this analysis should settle the toilet seat controversey for once and for all - if John and Marsha are mathematicians.
* * *

Remark 1: The toilet has an additional attachment called the toilet seat lid which can only be down if the toilet seat is down. When the lid is down the toilet is (or should be) non-functional for toilet operations. Some persons maintain the toilet seat lid in the down position when the toilet is not use. For these persons the analysis in this note is moot. Such persons pay a fixed cost in seat movement for all toilet operations.

Remark 2: Toilets are also used by domestic animals as a convenient source of drinking water unless the lid is down. (See remark 1)

Remark 3: Experimental evidence suggests that almost all bachelors optimize the seat transfer cost, the exception being those who put the seat up after performing a #2 operation.

Remark 4: Folklore has it that Marsha performs more toilet operations than John, hypothetically because of a smaller bladder. John, however, drinks more beer. We shall not discuss his prostate problem.

Remark 5: “Readily seen” in this context means “It looks obvious but I don’t know how to prove it; you figure it out.”

Remark 6: The toilet lid solution is to put the toilet lid down after all toilet operations. This solution imposes a cost of 2C on each party and is accordingly more expensive. It is, however, more esthetic. It also eliminates the “doggy drinking” problem.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

J!, another J (who also teaches at Johannes Gutenberg Uni with me) and I went to see "Die Große Stille" last week (the film's English title is "Into Great Silence"). It is a documentary by Peter Gröning about the Carthusian monks of the monastery La Grande Chartreuse, located high in the French Alps (near Grenoble). The Carthusians believe in the contemplation of God and to this end they live in extreme solitude (hence the monastery in the Alps). They rarely talk, but spend their time reading, working, praying, and chanting Mass.

As a result, it is not exactly a chatty film. In fact, the entire "soundtrack" for the film is diegetic--that is, only what exists within the film itself. There is no voice over, no explanation, and no music (except the chanting). The film attempts to recreate what it is like to spend your time in repetitive tasks, contemplating God. For three hours, the film follows monks as they pray, go to Mass, chant, read, pray, go to Mass, chant, read, pray, chant, etc, etc. The whole point, essentially, is to learn about the lives of the monks not so much by explanation as by vicarious experience. Ultimately, though, because the film can only record a monk praying but not record what he is praying about the film raises as many questions as it answers (if it answers any questions). My biggest one was simply "what are they thinking about?"

It is an interesting film, although I think it could have been better if parts of it had been edited out. I found myself wondering about all the stuff that wasn't being shown rather than what was--I couldn't really help it. By the end, I wanted to know more about the times when the the monks weren't in their routine--how do they get food to the monastery? What do they joke about together? What do they wear when they sleep? That kind of stuff. And while I don't think the film is really interested in that sort of thing, I do think that it is somewhat manipulative of our curiosity about those details--it clearly attempts to demonstrate how monastic life is not, in some ways, so different from our own daily lives (we watch a Brother, at one point, call to cats to feed them, or in another scene the monks all go sledding down a hill) and yet it appears unwilling to reveal anything but glimpses about the similarities. Peter Gröning claims in an interview (available on the film's website) that he didn't want to make a film that "explained" monasteries, so perhaps this is a deliberate move on his part to force viewers not simply to contemplate contemplation, but also to satisfy their curiosity by actively seeking out answers to their own questions.

It is really worth seeing, especially if you have three hours to spare and any interest in monks. Or the French Alps--the setting is amazing. You can read more about the film here. If you decide to go see the film, I would suggest reading about the Carthusian Order before you do--there are a lot of details that make more sense to me in hindsight. Here's the link for the website for the Carthusian Order, in case you are curious.