Back from Berlin! It was great to be at EuroPrideCon and meet, at last, so many of the humans I’ve only known as little status boxes on Facebook.
It was a real native experience, let me tell you. I ended up in the ER my first morning, with a serious case of Traveler’s Tragedy. My socialized medicine cost me 300 Euro/$365 up front, but fortunately Mom talked me into buying $80 in travel insurance at the last moment. They drained my blood for testing and put me in a bed just like that – of course it was like 9 AM so the place was empty, not the case when I left. Within five minutes, they already knew from the blood that I was dehydrated, and stuck me with a fluid bag. The doctor was about Doogie Howser age, quickly reviewed me, and put me out in the waiting room when the fluid bag was drained (they needed the bed by then). A few minutes later he handed me a Cipro blister pack, the bill and lab results, and I was done.
So my Berlin experience ended up more bourgeois than I planned. No clubbing, no bars, no drinking. Museums, the Berlin Philharmonic, a day trip to Sanssouci and the like, but I did end up doing laundry in Friedrichshain, where Nick and Kyle ended up living at the end of the stepfucker cycle, so that was fun and funky.
I’m sure it’s old news to Euros to hear it from Americans but holy shit your transit system. I could get from anywhere to anywhere by just walking a few blocks and getting on bus tram or subway. At first I would see one and think, o shit that’s my bus I gotta jaywalk I’m gonna miss it. Then you get to the station and it’s like 5-7 minutes max before the next one? And there are signs everywhere, including TV screens in the bus, that tell you how long it’ll be and what the next stop is? What planet is this? I never saw a traffic jam, and in fact, the traffic was light all day everywhere, compared to here. And why not when transit is so easy to use? You’d only really need a car to leave the city or go to CostCo. By the end of my trip, I was a Berlin transit master (albeit with Google Maps firmly in hand, anxiously checking and rechecking the names and number of stops remaining to make sure I had it right).
Food seemed a lot cheaper there, too. I had an apartment hotel, and for the most part I made my own sandwiches and soup, nothing heavy thanks to said Traveler’s Troubles. In line at the grocery store, I figured out that I needed my own bag, but they were for sale right there. The only thing that appalled me on the trip was the smoking. There was a cigarette vending machine at the checkout, and god, so many smokers. Here in the US I now pretty much associate smoking with poor people and teenagers, but not there. There were ashtrays everywhere you went.
But then again, I hardly saw any fat people at all, so there’s that to be said about overall health there. I was often reminded that “Berlin isn’t Germany,” that it’s basically what Austin is to Texas. No doubt there were lots of fat bastards outside the city.
I’ve never seen so many bicyclists, so I suppose between that and smoking, you’d stay thin. Of course the whole city is flat, so pretty much anyone can bike anywhere, especially with bike lanes…everywhere. I never could remember that where there weren’t bike lanes in the street, that the unmarked set of cobblestones in the sidewalk were the bike lanes, and I received more than one angry denunciation in German for wandering into one and blocking the (to me) invisible lane. People would crowd like lemmings into one half of the sidewalk to wait for a bus, leaving the bike lane on the other half of the sidewalk completely open. And motorists didn’t try to kill the bicyclists. (He says, having received 11 stitches in the head once from a hit and run in Golden Gate Park that pretty much put me off urban bike riding forever.)
For all the alarms about legions of barbarian hordes swarming Germany, I never did see any refugees save for an odd beggar in front of the supermarket and a couple young guys picking through the trash near Museum Island. Which in its own way was kind of weird, to think that they’d been contained “somewhere else,” away from the nice parts of town, far from the tourists.
I satisfied my historical obsession with the Wall and East Germany with trips to the DDR Nuseum and the Stasi Museum, which was amazing though very disturbing – to think you’re in the very rooms where the decisions were made that resulted in so many lives being ruined or taken. I didn’t get to the Mauer Museum with its Wall replica, but hey you can’t do it all. The remaining sections of the Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie, are basically like the Times Square of Berlin, which isn’t such a bad thing. There’s a discreet cobblestone track you can follow if you want to see where the Wall used to be, but some things really are better gone, as long as the memory is preserved.
I wasn’t sure about going to the Jewish Museum, because I knew it would upset me. But then Orlando happened and I thought, fuck me if I’m not already emotionally upset, so why not go. It was a deliberately disorienting experience, with no clear path through the museum exhibits, as if it was meant to mirror the confusion and distress of the Jews, especially during the Holocaust.
The cards depicting objects left behind by the dead were blunt in their summaries. “She was murdered at Auschwitz.” “He was later deported to Treblinka and murdered.” No abstract “she died at” but the plain fact of murder.
The most affecting part wasn’t even an exhibit, but the Holocaust Tower. It’s a dark triangular room, 80 feet high, lit only by a sliver of open window at the top, which lets in enough light to see by, as well as air and the sound of the outside world, like the sort of small high window most of us associate with prison cells.
In the corner, I saw what I thought was some kind of emergency security feature, a ladder up to the top, that didn’t reach the floor and was out of reach of even the tallest person, so it wasn’t like a fire escape ladder you could pull down. Then I got up close and realized the rungs were bolted into the wall, and the symbolism hit me – the dream of escape, the means in sight, but out of reach. There was despair but also hope – there was light and air, a world outside, there was a ladder and a way out. Only later, lone wolf and solitary minded soul that I am, did it occur to me that escape wasn’t impossible – you could reach the ladder, if you stood on someone else’s shoulders. Some could help others escape, and in the end maybe even be pulled up themselves, but on your own, you were fucked.
I had one other really magic museum moment, in the Pergamon Museum. I got there at opening time and raced directly to the head of Nefertiti. I had the whole room to myself as long as I wanted it, other than three very watchful guards. I got to go around and around the statue, read the cards, come back, read them again. Given that this is the “Mona Lisa” of the museum, it was really wonderful to have it all to myself, to focus on the thing I came to see and not be diverted by the jostling rabble. And, it gave me the idea about how to wrap up the Rob the Daemon stories!
It was great to be away from the “same day every day” life I’d been living, and great too to be back in my own comfy bed. Being away from that life, being able to see it from a literal and figurative distance, made me realize that all this time, my quest wasn’t just about “being a full time writer,” but about getting into something new and exciting, about making some huge and thrilling change to my life, about shattering the boring sameness of the same day every day that most jobs deliver, are designed to deliver. Being in a new city in a new country, learning new rules, even the little things the guide books don’t tell you about (like the sidewalk-cum-bike lane, or the way cashiers will always ask you if you have exact change instead of just shoveling change back to you, or how many people smoked everywhere), was what I needed – a whole new way of daily life to learn, at least at a basic level.
When I started writing erotica in 2012, it was the fucking Wild West. You could publish pretty much anything, and make a mint selling short stories for $2.99! I came into it deaf dumb and blind, knowing jack shit about self publishing, and quickly learned how to make my own EPUBs, how to spot and exploit a trend, how to write fast, how to make my own covers, how to read and understand sales reports… I learned a lot, in a short time, and it was fun.
In the end, or at least the end of this phase of my life, it wasn’t fun. Amazon’s market share became bigger and bigger, and the rules changed from day to day – one day you’ve got hot smut making bank, and the next it’s been banned (“blocked” in Amazon parlance, their Marketing department knowing better than to use the actual term, CENSORED.) For a while it was a fun challenge, dueling with them, moving on to writing full length romance, exploiting suddenly mysteriously available loopholes in their Puritanical standards like stepfucking. But then the glory of battle wore off, and it became trench warfare, with Amazon changing compensation rules with little or no notice, making the whole thing more stressful and exhausting, even more so because you never knew when the next Bezosteroid would crash into your business plan, full of “exciting changes.”
In the end, I was lured by Amazon’s KU siren call and became, basically…Amazon’s bitch, subject to whatever they wanted to do to us next. And, as with any line of work where worker supply exceeds demand, they could and can and will fuck over writers because hey, you don’t like it, there’s six million wannabe writers ready to take your place and accept our terms. And you all know how emotionally exhausted I got about having to put on my Little Miss Sunshine face and go out and promote so relentlessly, when I was already tired from these battles, from the creative process itself.
What I loved most when I started was the newness of it. The whole new world I was entering, and all the (yeah, partly delusional) possibilities it offered. That’s gone now.
But, over the last six months, as I started researching Strength in Numbers, I became really fascinated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. And put a little money in it (I know, exactly what all rich people say about their giant investments, but seriously, a little is all I have). And watched it grow, even balloon, seeing my Bitcoin go from $375 to $700 and rising, my two Ethereum buys going from $11/$14 to $19. Of course, having a financial stake in something, as I had in selfpub, really drives my interest.
And cryptocurrency really is the Wild West now. And best of all, there’s no central Mordor, no Amazon abruptly changing the rules and turning the world upside down overnight (though of course governments are bound to step in at some point and fuck it all up, but not yet). I’m not a programmer and I failed algebra in high school, but I know I can get my head around the concepts and execution if not the underlying math. And there are still no “for dummies” guides to this shit. Even the explanatory books and web pages make those flying leaps over what the author thinks are “so obvious” they don’t need to be walked through, the classic mistake of technical people trying to explain their shit to non-technical people. So writing that guide is an ambition I have, right there.
I don’t believe in souls, and I even have a hard time with words like spirit, but what my…something needs, my deep psyche, is something new, a Wild West where all the rules aren’t written yet and the land hasn’t all been homesteaded and the gold all mined and it’s still fuckin’ Deadwood out there. That’s what I want for my life, and my writing.