Monthly Archives: July 2008
Noulevac: A Canton of Mystery—4E
Every city has its center. Every metropolis, village and town has a “downtown” to call its own, a place said to embody the very traits that the area is known for. For Albeit, this “center” is not just a geographic dot on the map but the cultural heartbeat of the entire place. Its name is Noulevac.
A good chunk of the area within Albeit’s city limits can be classified as “downtown.” Unterwalden, Phoebe, Graupel share that designation, which means an extra subway line and higher-density housing and office space. Noulevac, then, is the downtown of Albeit’s four downtowns. As the only “landlocked” Canton, it’s surrounded by city on every corner and serves as a hub for the region as a whole. This makes it a government and transportation hotspot, of course, but nobody thinks of the Canton in terms of roads or bureaucracy. They see it as the standard by which all other Cantons are judged; the epicenter of the cultural and intellectual earthquake that Albeit has come to embody.
Noulevac was not always as prominent as it is today. At the onset of the city’s development, Unterwalden and Phoebe—the commercial and residential centers of Albeit—stole much of the show. Many predicted that Noulevac, a mixed development that lacked Phoebe’s high-density apartments or Unterwalden’s skyscrapers, would soon become dormant as residents moved elsewhere.
Such claims were based on the assumption that Albeitians are like all other city dwellers: that they care only about tall buildings, skylit shots and fashionable neighborhoods. Noulevac boasted none of these, but what it did offer was the very thing that most Albeitians look for: a place where independence and originality are valued over conformity and the mainstream. Noulevac is famous for its “creative camaraderie,” an atmosphere where writing, art, design and other right-brained activities are valued and appreciated. Unterwalden drew in the businessmen, but Noulevac attracted that odd breed that enjoyed creating over earning. It is no secret which Canton became more popular citywide.
It would be a grave mistake, however, to label the district as “bohemian,” “cosmopolitan” or even rebellious. Noulevac is not the stereotypical “art district” for private college students. 70 percent of its residents are between the ages of 30 and 60; the remaining 30 percent, surprisingly enough, are mainly senior citizens. The people who live and work here don’t follow trends as much as they do their creative whims, resulting in a Canton whose dress and residences seem to belie their right-brained nature. Fashion-oriented? No. Avant-garde? Few “Vaccies” even know what that means. Passionate and committed to developing their creative abilities? Yes, say the Canton’s residents.
At the same time, Noulevac’s 60,000 inhabitants aren’t always prone to share their work with the world. Many describe themselves as introverts through and through, in the sense that interaction takes second fiddle to introspection. Residents can go decades without knowing (or understanding, at the least) the people who live next door. This, in part, is why the area has come to assume the title of “Mystery Canton.” Noulevac is the Canton that started the tradition of secret societies: groups that work together on creative projects while keeping their work shielded from the outside world. Some of Albeit’s most legendary societies base their roots here, although—not surprisingly—few can gauge the full extent of Noulevac’s secret society involvement. All that can be said is that the majority of the residents are affiliated with at least one mystery group, in-Canton or otherwise.
Even the district’s design has generated some interest. Urban planner Bernardo Focelli never did reveal why he gave the Canton its seemingly arbitrary name, or the derivation of the street names for the city’s two crossroads: Ekspiotoc and Ewtenpia. At least one society is said to understand the meaning.
There is no limit to the cultural symbols with which people can define Noulevac: the A-frame houses that much of the Canton lives in; the interconnected buildings (either by skybridge or tunnel) that secret societies have built; or Noulevac Park, a garden whose chief draw is the elaborate wood-wrought castle in the middle. The beauty of the Canton, though, is that all one-dimensional labels tend to fall short. The only way that one can truly understand the district is to spend a little time in the area, to interact with the shyly brilliant inhabitants, to receive a “Letter of Invitation” from one of the district’s secret societies. Then, and only then can they come to see the full cultural and creative extent of the Canton called Noulevac.
Hauraki: Albeit’s Best-Kept Secret
Hauraki, as the Globe’s online editor Sieb Henderson once said, is one of those Cantons that an Albeit native can go their entire lives without visiting. To some extent, this is true. The Canton lies at the southernmost edge of the city, bordered only on the northern side by a part of Albeit. In many respects, it stays isolated from the rest of Albeit; nobody considers it a major transportation hub, commerce hub, dining hub, shopping hub or residential Hub. Even the mayor of Albeit in the late eighties, wondered if he wouldn’t do best to “Shave off Hauraki and make the number of Cantons a clean ten.”
A funny thing happens, though, when people enter the region for the first time. As it turns out, Hauraki is not just an extraneous blob on the city map, but a community filled with as many attractions—if not more—than the other 10 Cantons of Albeit.
An old rumor goes that Hauraki was the last region to be awarded to an urban planner; nobody wanted to design what appeared to be the most secluded area in all of Albeit. This much is true: those who created the main blueprints for Albeit weren’t sure if the Canton needed to exist. Southeast already had three regions to call its own; the city was already, as the joke goes, with a clean 10 neighborhoods. Ironically, this debate over its purposefulness led to Hauraki getting the lion’s share of city projects. By the time Albeit’s chief planners decided the city needed a university and a football stadium, the other Cantons already had their designs finalized. Hauraki was the only place left to build.
And so, even a satellite picture of the area reveals some enticing destinations. Hauraki is not only home to Albeit You, a university that hangs dear in the memories of many residents, but of all the main sports complexes and stadiums in the city. One of the Canton’s best-known landmarks is Canepa Park, a 70,000-seat stadium built entirely underground. Residents walking on the glass ceiling above can watch Alball and football games played out a few hundred feet below. Canepa and the University take up much of the region’s area, though space remained for a few other important developments. No trip to Albeit is complete without an elevator ride atop the Fanning Tower, a 260-meter structure that lets residents make out the southern edge of Montana. As if this weren’t enough, the city has the only major golf course in Albeit.
With all this in mind, it would seem that the only people who bother to enter Hauraki are height-lovers, Alball fans, college students and golfers. One must not forget about the residents themselves, who might just be the city’s biggest attraction.
Hauraki started out as the least populated Canton in all of Albeit. In the decades to come, though, it grew denser and denser as people flustered with the changing face of Unterwalden and Graupel started to migrate there. Haurakans tend to embody the “Central Tenants” of Albeit: Independence, creativity and a little mystery sprinkled here and there. They are known especially as an artistic base, with almost all residents experienced in some shape or form with the brush, pottery wheel or chisel.
What separates the Canton from other creative regions (Pacfyst and Spengler, to name a few) is its residents’ tendency to work together in groups. As one resident explained, “Here in ‘Raki, we actually talk to our neighbors. We go out to dinner with our neighbors. If one of us has a cool idea, we enlist the help of our neighbors.” Few secret societies exist in Hauraki, chiefly because one’s fellow residents are usually happy to work with someone on a project. Many proud Haurakans call their namesake the “Interconnected Canton,” and it shows: the majority of the area is more than happy to help one another.
Though Albeitians are known as religious people, the sentiment is especially strong in Hauraki. One of the most vibrant religions in the area is Quakerism, which almost a third of the region identifies with. When Haurakans aren’t searching for the Inner Light, they can often be found out in the streets with a pair of Alball rackets, an easel or simply themselves.
Hauraki, thus, isn’t just the Extraneous Canton or the Unnecessary Canton. It’s the Creative Canton, the Interconnected Canton, the Active Canton, the Educated Canton and the Observant Canton—in more ways than one. If it weren’t also the Southernmost Canton, perhaps more of Albeit would come to appreciate it.
I must admit: looking around the historic confines of Yankee Stadium, I didn’t quite understand what made the ballpark so great. My seat was squeezed next to the railing and overlooked a breakneck-steep stairway. The largest scoreboard displayed two colors: light and dark. The architecture was about as fancy as the paneling on my fridge.
To my confusion, though, people venerate this stadium as if it were a concrete version of Babe Ruth. It mystified me as to how people could feel deeply connected to such a ballpark.
And so I sat, watching the Yankees light up the box score as hundreds of grandstand bulbs lit up the field. Whatever stadium enlightenment I expected to get from “The Cathedral” hadn’t arrived quite yet.
Something occurred to me as I stabbed into my frozen lemonade, though: the ads hanging above the center field stands had to have been changed thousands of times, if not tens of thousands. Dozens of generations—from Civil War veterans to those who don’t understand our current war—had sat in this azure seat before me.
The Yankees roster has been a revolving door, but the hotel has stayed the same. In New York, where a Times Square billboard has a shelf life of mere weeks, seeing anything last 85 years in this city of change is remarkable. Even more amazing, the Bronx Ballpark has only undergone a few design-focused renovations.
That was the point that I had been missing. The great irony of it all is that the thing that makes Yankee Stadium so dull on the surface—its old-style demeanor—is what makes it so commendable on a deeper level. This ballpark, I’m sure, has stood up to hundreds of developers and CEOs who wanted to put their own stamp on it. This ballpark refuses to become just another asset for a corporation; hence, the name “Yankee Stadium” instead of, say, Geico Field. This ballpark has survived a near century despite the lure of other newer, larger, greener, cheaper, cleaner stadiums. Darwin, had he cared about the sport, would be rolling in his grave.
There are some beautiful places to watch a baseball game out there: Nationals Stadium in Washington, to name the latest and shiniest. Give taxpayers even the most hi-tech design out there, however, and your “ballpark of the future” will be in the past come a decade. Yankee Stadium never fell for that strategy, even when the 70s renovations rolled into town. Its appeal lies not in its ability to blend with the times, but to outlive them. Not to rise and fall with the tide of local interest, but to stand, as a column, steadfast in the water.
I make no claim to understand why Yankee Stadium should have been the ballpark to overcome the cycle of renovation and contemporizing. This is my lone hypothesis: in a city where neighborhoods reinvent themselves daily and businesses spar on shaky ground, the citizens of New York desired something more permanent—a pillar to weather the tides. For some, that pillar was Yankee Stadium. Residents desired a sense of permanence: to be able to visit the ballpark of their childhood and find almost everything intact. The steadfastness of that concrete hunk has shaped it into a counterbalance for the progressive. (Yes, baseball purists, I understand that the stadium’s been tweaked countless times since its 1923 initiation. Nevertheless, the overall structure has remained more or less intact.)
Alas, this Bronx establishment won’t enjoy quite the permanence as did the Coliseum. Its death is slated for the end of 2008, though it will enjoy status as a park in the architectural afterlife. The new stadium retains much of the features of its predecessor, but I can’t help but feel that the original stadium’s longevity won’t be one of them.
Sure, my initial reaction to “The House That Ruth Built” was of confusion and indifference. But once I realized how amazing it was that Yankee Stadium managed to retain its identity for decades on end, the somewhat uninspiring architecture at the stadium became an inspiration in itself.
“Quadrantism” in Albeit
If it’s true that humans instinctively divide themselves, Albeit is a great piece of supporting detail. The residents live in a community divided into four separate Quadrants, each of which contains anywhere from one to five Cantons. If it’s also true that humans instinctively stereotype, Albeit certainly doesn’t defy the status quo.
The four Quadrants—Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast—are no more than a few miles apart at their corners, yet the residents of Albeit often act as if each lies in a different continent. The resulting stereotypes and blanket statements have never gotten destructive enough to warrant an anti-”Quadrantism” campaign. Even so, any Albeitian who makes the mistake of identifying him or herself by a section of the city is making a risky move.
Albeit’s residents, of course, are stereotyped as anti-materialist and creative, but also poor, odd and somewhat secretive. (The city has a long tradition of embracing all of these terms, especially those that separate them from the mainstream.) Thus, one shouldn’t think of the Quadrant-specific language as overriding that which pertains to all of the Cantons. The following is a general overview of the preconceptions and biases that affect specific parts of the Albeit region.
One might as well start with Southeast, the largest of the Quadrants. Stereotyping this area is quite tricky, as its Cantons range from entertainment centers to housing projects, from universities to Postball stadiums. Anyone who hails from Southeast is expected to give their specific Canton; otherwise, the person whom they address will have a host of contrasting stereotypes to pick from. (Perhaps this is a good thing.)
There are a few adjectives that have come to define the entire region, however. Most people in Southeast are known to be a little bit quirky; in Albeit, the common phrase is “a pink flamingo mentality.” Hauraki, the southernmost Canton in Southeast, is indeed known for the flocks of plastic flamingos that adorn some of the lawns. Southeasterners are considered wealthier than their neighbors in Southwest and Northeast, but this isn’t to say that every resident has a mansion and a Rolls. Indeed, Elam—known more or less as “The Welfare Canton—” is the poorest area in all of Albeit.
Moving into Southwest, clearer generalizations begin to appear. This part of the city was relatively uninhabited into the mid-nineties, but experienced a matriculation of “Old School” residents who wanted to escape the increasingly mainstream Cantons of Southeast. As a result, Southwest residents are known for their independence and need for space. The stereotypical Southwesterner also has a love for the outdoors and tends to live frugally. Such generalizations fit more with the outskirt Cantons of Slat and Pacfyst than with the densely populated canton of Phoebe. Though inhabitants of Southwest are perceived as genial and friendly, they’re also known for their rampant idealism—which, from time to time, gets in the way of friendships and commitments.
Northeast truly is a tale of two Cantons as far as stereotypes are concerned. On the western side lies Graupel, an area without much money and excitement but known for its committed, passionate citizens who just never seem to pick up much luck. Graupel is the only part of Albeit that has a working industrial sector, adding the factory worker stereotype to the bag. A trip East, however, takes residents into the most stereotyped (and most accurately stereotyped) Canton of all: Em. Sadly, the popular image of drug-riddled, bullet-plugged Dry Street tends to hold true for most of the residents. This is an area that the police more or less gave up on by the turn of the millennium; as a result, the Canton managed to suck up all the crime from the rest of the city and dispose of it on Em streets. By 2005, eight out of ten residents had at least some involvement in crime.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Northwest, a one-Canton Quadrant that has somehow managed to irk almost all residents outside its borders. Residents of NW are labeled as cosmopolitan, fashion-loving, white-collar citizens who don’t care for the city’s traditions of independence and creative fraternity. True for all residents? No, especially those who moved specifically to “win back” the Canton for Albeit proper. Nevertheless, Northwest proves a relatively simple Canton to caricature.
Once nothing but an aid for postal workers, the Quadrant system has since led to stereotypes and generalizations about each section of the city. It’s never easy to make blanket statements in Albeit, but the preconceptions people have about each Quadrant—at the very least—shed some light on the social differences among Albeit’s residents.
(A revised version. Enjoy!)
The sun took its time rising over the Ammersee. It peeked over the water, letting the residents of Utting see its blazing orange head, but then seemed to duck back into the night. By the time it got itself off the ground, most of the townspeople were already up.
Markus Becker and Christopher Jung decided to feed the ducks that morning. Their beaks were gold with sunlight. Each floated from the east dock to the west dock in a solemn procession. Christopher tossed a chunk of his mother’s bread into the water. Markus chided him for wasting such a large piece of sourdough, but Christopher remarked that his mom always made a special loaf for the waterfowl.
In time, Frau Weber came out to join them by the dock. She asked how their summer reading was coming along. Both Marcus and Christopher had read books that could have gotten them arrested, had they lived 300 kilometers to the north. Here, though, they were free to read. Free to learn.
Outside his window, indifferent flakes of white floated to the ground. These were not Christmastime flurries or Ski Chalet squalls; this was Dresden snow, the kind that loved to mix with pools of gasoline and collect near the steps of the apartment. The thermometer held steady at eight degrees; he didn’t have quite enough oil to get to nine. Heinz adjusted its position on the sill.
The telephone buzzed out, but the line went dead before he could get the phone to his ear. The light above him sputtered furiously. Heinz reached up, pulled the twine cord and looked back at the typewriter. His graduation gift typewriter, now almost as useless as the Dr. phil. pinned to his wall.
Markus’ mother and Christopher’s mother watched their children play along the Ammersee. Frau Becker remarked at how strong Christopher’s little legs looked; Frau Jung blushed, saying that Markus’ swimming lessons had been invaluable for him. Imagine that, she said: an eight-year-old child teaching his friend to swim. They both laughed at their children and took sips of Bremen tea.
Herr Jung opened the door with a crate of milk in his hand. The milkman was offering his weekly three-for-the-price-of-two deal, and knowing how much his little Christopher liked milk, the father couldn’t resist buying a dozen. Frau Jung suggested putting a little milk in the teapot to give the drink some extra flavor. A beautiful teapot; all the way from the United States. They placed the order and collected the shipment as if it were no big deal to be allowed to purchase American. Herr Becker carried a packet of American gum in his hand: a packet he would never have to hide from searching eyes.
A few blocks away, the mayor—the residents nicknamed him Hahn—came across a group of schoolchildren. He addressed all of them by their first names and remarked at how tall all of them had grown. Indeed, the mayor thought to himself: a dozen years’ time, and he would be the shortest resident in all of—
The buzzing telephone interrupted his typing. Only one person ever took the time to dial his number.
“Hello, Udo,” he said, fumbling for a gum packet with his other hand. His chewing habit made the typewriter keys smell like mint.
“Heinz? Why do you always hang up on me?”
“It’s the phone line,” he said.
“That would be a dozen broken phone lines. In three days.” Udo’s voice was flat.
“You know what the infrastructure is like. You have to pray these days just to reach Leipzig, and you’re calling all the way from Neubrandenburg.”
“I blame the barracks that you’re living in. Then again, better an empty house than an empty pantry.”
Udo’s voice sounded a little off. Perhaps it was the phone line.
“The Republik’s offering me a three bedroom in Potsdam if I’m approved as a screenwriter for the DFF,” Heinz said. I have an interview with them tomorrow.”
“I hope…it’s not over the phone.”
“What’s wrong, Udo?”
“Nothing,” his friend replied. “Just checking in. To see how everything is.”
Heinz held the phone closer to his ear. There was something different in his voice.
“Is the safe still under the floor panel?” his friend asked.
“The one you installed? Yes.”
“And you still have to push the tulip and the daisy at the same time?”
This was an arbitrary line of questioning, even from Udo.
“I was just curious,” Udo said flatly. “I’m glad to hear it’s security—I mean, secure.”
The receiver clicked from 300 kilometers away.
A few intrepid flakes of snow managed to get through the crack in the window and onto the table. He watched the flakes melt on their own, then, impatient, snuffed each out with his thumb.
That safe gave him more warmth than the heating oil. All 160 pages inside had been conceived from his typewriter keys. Heinz was almost done with the final draft.
He turned back from the windowsill. A beam of streetlight broke through the window and landed on the wall, casting light on the brick that poked through the wallpaper. Which would decay first? he wondered. The crumbling brick or the yellow print covering it? Or might the State outrace both of them?
He looked at the rusted keys, sighed and dropped his fingers onto the home row.
A notch past ten in the morning, but the milkman already had five Marks jingling in his pocket. Sadie would be so proud to see him spill all the Pfennigs and Groschens on the table. Maybe they could take a few of those coins and head over to Porter’s for dinner.
Better yet, nobody would force him to turn the coins over to some man in a gray jacket with a bright red badge. It was a luxury they considered pedestrian, a liberty overshadowed by so many other freedoms.
The sun looked its usual mid-morning cheery self. The milkman wondered what the sun drank to get so much energy.
An hour later, and 83 words to show for it.
Heinz bit off the end of a gum wrapper and spat it into the trash can. “Wintergreen,” “Juicy Fruit,” “Spearmint:” the Stasi would get suspicious if it saw foreign brands on his shelf, but he couldn’t stand the State’s version. Nor did he like Big Red; the taste just didn’t agree with him. He hid each box inside a black vase. The snow had now encroached onto his keyboard, taking the P and Ü keys hostage with just one flake. No telling how many more inches remained in the Dresden skies.
What he would have given to spend his childhood with the people down south, unstained by the checkpoints and the security barriers and the rifles. The DDR wouldn’t let him emigrate with his Trabant or through the Klotzsche airport, but he had an escape plan that would work just as well. With a vain smile, he moved his hands back to the typewriter.
At noontime, just as the two families were getting ready for their picnic at the Ammersee’s shores, Herr Jung heard a knock at the door.
He turned the mahogany knob to find a hastily dressed man with gray-brown hair. He had never seen him before; in a town like Utting, that meant something.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“I’d just like to take a look around,” he said. “Is that all right?”
Herr Jung paused for a second, then nodded. The man at the door looked relieved, as if it were a dream of his to explore their little cottage.
“Christopher. Get our guest something to drink.” Herr Jung invited the man to sit down at the table. He obliged.
“You look as if you’ve traveled some distance.” It was a polite way of calling him a foreigner
“387 kilometers,” the guest replied.
“My goodness! And just to see this house! Did you travel by plane?”
“By my hands, really.” He thanked Christopher for the milk and took a sip. There was no snow intruding on the kitchen table; no police sirens to distract him.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“A packet of Wintergreen gum. If you have any.” The guest turned to face the window. “What is it like, Herr Becker, to live here?”
“Oh, good sir, I don’t live—”
“In Utting, I mean. By the Ammersee. It must be a dream come true for you.”
Herr Becker laughed. “If one values peace over excitement, yes. The children love to swim in the lake, and we enjoy the local produce.”
“You’ve never seen your closest friends interrogated, then.”
Herr Becker was taken aback.
“You’ve never had your uncle thrown into jail because he tried to cross into Gattendorf?” the stranger continued. “Your friend never had to explain why she had a BRD license plate in her briefcase?”
“My goodness, no! I don’t understand what you are getting at.”
He pointed out the bay window. “Your car, Herr Jung. The government let you buy it without having to wait? Even though you already had an earlier model?”
“That’s how things go around here, sir. I don’t know what your government has to say about purchasing a second Volkswagen.”
The guest smiled. “Yes: I made sure of that. I might have introduced you to a character from Dresden or an officer from Leipzig, but thought against it. I didn’t want my government to have an ounce of influence over you.”
Neither the Jungs nor the Beckers managed to respond to that. It didn’t bother him. The guest sipped his glass of milk and looked out at the Ammersee. No police cars in sight.
The sirens were especially active that night. Like buzzing mosquitoes, the Stasi had landed at his neighbor’s apartment, his friend’s apartment… but never his own.
Nor was he unprotected against their bite. He had three hidden safes in his house; two were decoys. The other was painted to look like a floor panel and opened only when one pressed the tulip and the daisy at the same time.
He peered out the window to watch, knocking the thermometer (6 degrees, now) to the floor. One car’s siren turned off. It came to a halt near the apartment entrance, leaving tire tracks in the grey-white snow.
He needn’t worry, Heinz thought. Two decoy safes. Camouflage that would impress the KGB. Even so, he started to type a little faster.
“And the surrounding area?” the guest asked. “How is it?”
“Lovely, lovely,” Frau Becker replied. “The Ammersee is the most beautiful lake in Europe, for all I know.”
“And it’s good to climb the trees,” Markus interjected.
The stranger nodded. “May I look inside the refrigerator?”
Herr Jung shrugged and opened it. There were more brands in that little white box than in the entire Dresden supermarket. Foods and juices he had never heard of. “Coke?” What was this Coke, and this “Sprite” and this “Hershey’s Pudding?” What was this “Grey Poupon” with a French flag on the cap?
“Are you hungry, sir?”
The man shook his head. “It is a wonderful refrigerator.”
Heavy footsteps echoed into his room from five floors below. Four floors below. Three floors below. A pair of sirens joined the first car at the apartment.
Two floors below.
Heinz popped another stick of gum in his mouth, chewed furiously and spat the whole ball out. If they smelled Wintergreen, they would get suspicious—goodness, if they smelled him, they would get suspicious.
“Do you realize how lucky you are?” the guest said. “Your lives—I have never seen such peaceful people. Perhaps my own country is at fault for that.”
They were back by the front entrance. Markus and Christopher had decided to go swimming after lunch. They both sported bright red bathing suits with German flags on the pockets.
“We are not rich, sir. We get by, but… it is still a stretch to take our yearly trip to Switzerland. The Volkswagen was quite a hassle to purchase.”
“No,” the man said. “You do not know how hard it can be to go to Switzerland. You do not know the process I must go through to buy even a second-rate car. Do not worry, however. I will not let you find out. I have fifty pages to go, but I will not let you find out.”
The stranger’s voice had become more and more rushed since he stepped inside. Just as Herr Jung opened his mouth, a knock sounded at the door.
A knock sounded at the door, loud enough to rattle his typewriter keys.
“Open up, Herr Schreiber. We will not ask again.”
Heinz stood up from his chair, walked over and turned the knob. Half a dozen men in grey uniforms met him at the entrance. Their red lapels showed a pair of wheat surrounding a hammer and compass.
“We happened to overhear a very interesting conversation between you and a comrade,” the man by the knob said. “Something about a safe with a floral theme.”
No wonder Udo’s voice sounded off. Heinz had two decoy lockboxes, but hadn’t even thought about a wiretap.
Before he could protest, the Stasi had their fingers pressed to the floorboards in search of the right flowers. The safe popped up in seconds.
“170 pages of foolish drivel about the quality of life in drunken, capitalist Bayern, from what comrade Udo said. It seems that you have a soft spot for the BDR.” The head of the group stuffed the papers into a bag. “Guards?”
In Heinz’s mind, the Jungs and Beckers were enjoying the Utting countryside. In his mind, his own handcuffed arms were paddling across the Ammersee. Red bathing suit in tow.
Wikipraise for Wikipedia
Ever since its conception, Wikipedia has been singled out as the antagonist of academics. Teachers who grew up with libraries and print encyclopedias often regard it as an intellectual cesspool, serving only to confuse and misinform unsuspecting readers. Having relied on Wikipedia for much of my crystallized knowledge base, I can only say that the site deserves another look.
The concept of “Wikis,” sites that allow guests to edit and create new pages, lies at the very center of the internet’s soul. Boundaries to publication are broken into binary code and thrown away; users can tap into an ever-growing pool of knowledge without having to pay a cent. Sites like Wikipedia embody the free nature—mentally and financially—of the internet.
What’s the problem with “The Free Encyclopedia,” then? Simple, say professors and the general public alike. If anyone can make edits to a page, how in the world can one trust a single sentence of a Wikipedia article? Haven’t there been piles of news stories about misinformation and outright bias in the program? Such questions are enough to fuel deep suspicion about the site, not to mention outright dismissal.
I’ll start by acknowledging such statements. Yes, non-factual information exists on the site, either maliciously or by accident. (I myself have made a few less-than-academic edits.) There’s also bias, too, though much of it comes from corporations who want their company’s page to read like an advertisement. However, what most Wiki-Skeptics don’t understand is that the encyclopedia’s site is safeguarded by a host of editors, automated programs and an “Arbitration Committee” that work to keep false information off the pages. Four minutes after I made my aforementioned changes to a chemical page, an editor had already removed the content and sent me a warning message. Lack of editorial oversight? I think not.
Indeed, the “anyone can contribute” status works in Wikipedia’s favor. I know of no other encyclopedia that devotes an entire article, complete with graphics and a respectable amount of copy, to the West Falls Church station of the Washington Metro. Nor can any print encyclopedia compare either to Wikipedia’s girth and update schedule.
A quick comparison to the Encyclopedia Britannica makes the latter look almost embarrassing. Wikipedia’s English-language section has over 2.5 million articles; the E.B, about 250,000—less than both the Portuguese and Polish sections of Wikipedia, to name a few. Even if one ignores scope, the pages on the internet’s favorite encyclopedia are updated with an admirable speed. Wikipedia’s Moldova article was updated 24 times on the 10th of July by seven different users; articles in the print version of the E.B., on the other hand, can go years without significant updates. (Source: you guessed it.)
My final point in favor of Wikipedia might be the most significant of all: footnotes. Even if one doesn’t trust Wikipedia as a research and study tool, they can find a plethora of sources for a topic in the “footnotes” section of the topic’s article. Let us suppose that someone wants to learn more about Christianity, but isn’t sure about the validity of the 8,700 word overview that Wikipedia offers. They need only scroll down to the bottom of the article, where 194 citations and 12 suggestions for “Further Reading” await them. This is one area where the website shines; even of one disregards the article, most of Wikipedia’s main articles have a series of footnotes and links that can transmit readers to professional overviews. The site might not be the end-all source for in-depth study, but it certainly makes an excellent research portal.
The mere mention of the “W-word” in educational circles is enough to make many teachers cringe. And yet, if one sees Wikipedia for what it is: a massive knowledge portal that offers updates, citations and reading suggestions, they might be willing to give the site another chance.
The idea behind Slow Writing
The wonderful thing about our modern would is that it has produced countless things that require absolutely no thought at all. Microwaves, television, the presidential elections—all one has to do is push a button, sit back and watch the chicken, channels or candidates go by.
Needless to say, we have become accustomed to the idea that no pursuit—be it a steak dinner or a short story—need take longer than a minute or two. If one can catch up on the news in ten minutes, why should a sonnet take any longer? Thus, as life’s pace increases, we tend to compose stories faster and faster. It’s simply a reaction to the times.
In Europe, there has sprung up what is called a “Slow Food” movement, the idea being to spend more time enjoying a meal and less time stuffing it between the tonsils. Such an idea would be jarring to many of my fellow Americans, no doubt; our country tends to make eating an “in-between” pursuit, if we give our plates undivided attention at all. International views aside, the idea has won enough followers to change the state of dining in Europe.
The thought occurred to me that I’m in great need of such a movement, if not in a gastronomic sense. I’m on the New York subway as I write this, hastily moving the pen across the paper as the train hurtles towards 2nd street. I have little time to think about my choices as I go; there are only a few more stops left on the route. Admittedly, I often treat the written word like the microwave industry treats a chunk of breaded fish: spend as little time preparing the thing as possible. If they’re slowing down the eating process in Europe, I may as well slow my pen down back here.
Enter the Slow Writing Movement. Like the European version, it’s built off a simple premise: do not write so fast that your words fail to soak into the paper, so fast that sentences skip off the page without leaving an impression. I might wish to conquer the 8 ½ by 11 kingdom with phalanxes of frantic text, but winning control of the reader’s mind is a game of quality. (Forgive my hypocrisy, if you would: I’m now writing this on an uptown-bound train at 2 in the morning, hoping to reach the end of the draft before 116th street arrives.)
Writing is not, and never will be the mental equivalent of a microwave dinner or a cable program. It is pesky enough to demand the attention of the composer, not to mention their time. “Slow Writing” as a term is simply the reaction to that perpetual truth. If one gives the idea in their head the same attention as a plate of filet mignon, they might just find a real satisfaction in those words on the page.
There’s another dimension to the slow writing movement that transcends, well, the slowness. Writing, to make a shoddy attempt at one of those percentage sayings, is eighty percent experiencing and twenty percent typing. If all one does is hammer out copy, they’ll soon find their wonds turning dry for want of original substance. That eighty percent includes experiences garnered through fiction and nonfiction reading; the twenty percent, likewise, encompasses both writing and editing.
“Slow Writing” shouldn’t be seen as a radical movement, but as a return to the days when it was perfectly fine to spend an entire day on a single paragraph. If I can approach the keyboard like a European diner might a three-course dinner, the writing process may take on a more enjoyable and fulfilling dimension.
It is a green-walled room: not Kelly green or yellow-green, but the type of green found on military uniforms and garbage trucks. The interior consists of nothing but a card table and two chairs—one of which is dented and chipped in spots, as if its occupant were fighting against it.
A man enters the room in handcuffs; the guard who led them there is never seen. The door shuts with a click, allowing only a line of light into the room. A dim bulb hangs from above, flickering. He sits down at the dented chair to face a clean-shaven man in blue.
Officer Andrews: My name is Desmond Andrews. My job here is to make sure you are comfortable and prepared to answer the questions before you.
Falc: You may call me Falc.
OA: We know your name, Evan Smith.
Falc: I’m flattered to hear that.
Officer Andrews reaches for a stack of papers in silence. He deposits them on the card table; a few of them hang over the edge.
OA: You have been at the Albeit Central Prison for three months.
Falc: Three months, seven days, 17 minutes and… checks his watch… 43 seconds. Factor in daylight savings time and that jumps to 77 minutes, but I wouldn’t know. My cell doesn’t get much sun.
OA: I’m sure you’ve had enough time to reflect on why you might be here.
Falc: I don’t think so. Give me another month or two, and I’ll get back to—
OA: We do not award parole on the basis of sarcasm, Mr. Smith.
Falc reclines in his seat.
OA: Three months ago, you shot a child in the head.
Falc: Is that so?
OA: They still haven’t been able to clean the blood of the sidewalk. If you walk down 17th street in the morning, you can see bits of red reflected in the sun.
Falc: Maybe you could take me sometime.
Officer Andrews stares at Falc for about five seconds, allowing the prisoner to hear the ticking sound of the clock behind him.
OA: The only reason you are not locked into a maximum security cell right now, Mr. Smith, is because of the second gunman.
Falc: I suppose I’m indebted to him, no?
OA: On the evening of October 25th, 1994, you and another man stepped out of a car. Three seconds later, the child died. That man went back into the car. You were caught and arrested by county police.
Falc: Found by the curb, you mean.
Officer Andrews looks up from the briefing.
Falc: If I remember correctly, I was slumped on the curb. That was when you tackled me.
OA: We know that you have connections to that man. We know that he’s in the Albeit region. Lead us to him, and you might be spared the death sentence.
Falc: We’ve all been granted a death sentence, Mr. Andrews.
Officer Andrews reaches under the desk and picks up an egg timer. It is wrought of black-painted steel and clicks rather loudly.
OA: There is a reason I bought a second timer into the room. Every second your mouth refuses to open, another child in Albeit is at risk of losing his internal organs. Every tick brings you a step closer to the death sentence.
Falc: And every second in this room sucks you further, further from the truth.
OA: I’m tired of playing the sweetheart. You will deliver us the information.
Falc: Hard to give you the truth when I can’t even move my hands.
OA: We’ve talked to your attorney. He admits you don’t have a chance.
Falc: Ever the optimist, no?
Officer Andrews leans back in his chair himself. He does his best to put on a face of steel; and yet, there seems to be something leaking through.
OA (Tired): I want the truth. That’s what you’re in this room for; that’s what will let you escape with your life. Nothing less.
Falc closes his eyes, feigning sleep. Very slowly, he opens his left eyelid, then his right. A smile develops above his chin.
Falc: I know, Andrews.
OA: That sounds promising. Tell me what you know.
Falc shakes his head. He stares intently at Andrews’ face.
Falc: I’m sorry to tell you, but I finally do know. You didn’t hit quite hard enough.
Officer Andrews’ face turns a wallpaper shade pale.
OA: Let me get out a sheet of paper. (Coughs.) If the judge likes what he reads, you might just make it through the trial. I wouldn’t be an optimist.
Falc: I don’t need to say a thing. You know all of it.
OA: Stall tactics aren’t going to work. I’m happy to work overtime.
Falc: Oh, trust me: you’re going to need all the overtime you can get.
There is a light blue pen sitting at the center of the table. Falc reaches over with handcuffed arms, grabs it with his left hand and pulls it back. He has enough mobility to tap it against the table.
Falc: Tell me, Andrews. Where were you on October 25, 1994?
OA: This is my interrogation.
Falc: Ah, but it’s my story, and there’s no one better than you to tell it. You made sure of that.
A little more color dissipates from the policeman’s face.
OA: I was a traffic cop back then. Working rounds up in Chiyoda.
Falc: That’s funny. (Points to a metal badge on Officer Andrews’ left shoulder.) Your medallion there reads “Five years of crime fighting.” I can’t really see you battling criminals as a traffic cop.
OA: That came earlier. I worked as a policeman from 1984 to 1989.
Falc: Which explains why there’s a “1993″ etched into the badge.
Officer Andrews opens his mouth, shuts it and opens it again.
OA: I happened to be working traffic duties that afternoon.
Falc: Fair enough. What were you wearing?
OA: Typical ATC uniform. Black shorts, black shoes, yellow shirt.
Falc: On the coldest October day in a decade? I wouldn’t think so.
OA (hesitatingly): I don’t see where these questions are going.
Falc: That’s because you don’t want to look. Another question, if you don’t mind. The report on my murder says that the shot was fired at 4:17 in the morning, yet the policeman on the scene took 8 minutes to call for backup. Why the delay? What was that policeman doing? What did he want to make sure of?
OA: We always tend to the victim fir—
Falc: Which victim?
Officer Andrews reaches under the table for the clock and stops it. He places it on the table with a not-so-gentle hand.
OA: Enough with the conjecture. I want truth.
Falc shakes his head and smiles.
Falc: No. You wanted a bonus that night; you wanted a “Badge of Honor” on your lapel for arresting me. The last thing you want is reality, but I’m going to feed it to you. And you’ll find the truth to prove far more restraining than these handcuffs.
Falc stands up from the table and turns to face the door, revealing the thinnest hint of a scab on his neck. Just as Officer Andrews rises, Falc says—quite loudly:
Falc: October 25, 1994. Four fifteen in the morning. A bullet pierces your squad car’s windshield. You step out to find a group of three—no, maybe four gang members in a shootout. One of them starts shooting at you. (He bangs the pen on the table for every bullet). But for whatever reason, your first shot misses horribly. So horribly that the slug headed for a gang member’s chest ends up…
Officer Andrews is still.
Falc: You knew well enough where it hit. What you needed were someone else’s fingerprints on the gun; a readily accessible scapegoat. Lucky for you, there was an all-night bar just down the block. Lucky for you, there was a 20-something man slumped on the curb, barely unconscious. The perfect substitute.
Officer Andrews’ right hand twitches a little bit. There seems to be a lump in his throat. It expands downward with every swallow.
Falc (Flipping the pen):Being the cautious, safety-minded officer, you wanted to make sure the man would never remember the details of his night. That explains why you let his neck hit the back of the curb as you tackled him. Out go the lights. (Falc flicks an imaginary switch with his pen-free hand.) But isn’t it ironic? That seemingly foolproof defense mechanism left a little reminder on the drunkard’s body, a little spark to clear the alcohol from his memory.
Falc, still facing the door, strokes a thin red scar on his neck. Officer Andrew’s hand gives another twitch.
OA: It’s impossible that you could have remembered a thing.
Falc: For two months, it was. But the strangest visions of October 24th began to flicker in my head. (He flips the pen in the air, letting it brush against the ceiling before falling into his palms.) I saw myself holding a beer can, not a gun. Bullets flashed in my head, but they were never directed towards me—or from me. I remember a cop car with a shattered windshield, a policeman racing for the street, a pistol fired thrice—and then, the silence. I remember the silence.
Officer Andrew’s entire right arm is now convulsing. The lump right below his chin pulses with every heartbeat. An unmistakable drop of sweat passes in between his eyes.
Falc: It was painstaking work, threading the puzzle pieces together. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Officer Andrew bolts up from his chair and slams the seat into the card table. His lips contort into a grin.
OA: I still have that gun, you know. It’s almost a keepsake for me. I clean it every morning—rubbing alcohol, mind you. Its barrel can look so smooth when the sun’s out.
Falc takes a few steps backward.
OA: Bullets, too. Steel-tipped, just like my shoes. Just like the trigger.
Falc: You wouldn’t dare make the same mistake again.
OA: Cleaning up after mistakes is easy, Mr. Smith. You need only eliminate the people who know just what you did. He advances forward for every backwards step Falc takes.
Falc: There’s a surveillance camera. There are microphones. They’ll find out.
OA: I don’t see any cameras. All I see is… (he tilts his head) a 20-something hysterical killer who reached across the interrogation table, grabbed my pistol and put it to his head. If that doesn’t quite fit, I’ll say that you tried to choke me with your handcuffs. Yes, that’s a novel—
Falc: Do you hear that?
Footsteps sound out from behind the interrogation room door. Only then does Officer Andrews notice the double mirror to his left.
OA: The footsteps could be directed anywhere.
Falc: You’re seeing double, Andrews. There’s only one interrogation room down here.
The footsteps get louder and louder to the point where even the card table starts to vibrate. The policeman’s arm seems to twitch with every step, but the pen in Falc’s hand is triumphantly still.
Falc (breathing heavily): the truth always did love a good witness.
The footsteps only get louder and louder. Officer Andrews’ head snaps to the left, to the right and back at Falc’s, who has begun to smile.
The sound of a bullet from Officer Andrews’ gun draws the curtains together. The audience is welcome to interpret its path as they wish.
The Basics of Backing Up
There’s an unassuming black box a few feet away from me, ornamented with nothing but a white light that flashes from time to time. It doesn’t play music; it doesn’t tell me the weather; if I’m lucky, I’ll never have to use it.
The box is a little something called an External Hard Drive. It may very well be the most dull piece of computer equipment one can ever imagine; the most excitement it gives you comes as you try to wrench the thing out of its bulletproof plastic casing. It’s not in the entertainment business, no doubt. But when your internal drive decides to go to a better place, taking all of your hard-earned files and documents with it, you could care less about how many lights or accessories it has. What matters is that you’ve got a dull little square that can resuscitate your computer.
“Backing Up” a computer has nothing to do with the reverse gear or dance moves. It only requires two things: an external hard drive and a backup program. Think of the first as the same hard disk that sits inside your desktop or laptop, only with an exoskeleton that helps it survive the brutal conditions of the outside world. The nifty thing about these drives is, with no real limit to physical size, you have a cornucopia of storage volumes from which to choose—anywhere from 40 Gigabytes to over 2000. The average user will find 160 Gigabytes of space more than enough, but then again, there really is no “average user” as far as technology is concerned. Anyone with a sizeable video or music folder should probably purchase 250 Gigabytes at the least.
Sizing up your storage needs is but the first part of the buying process. The second is the simple choice between portable and desktop sizes. The former tends to be more expensive, but they make it easy for you to carry an impressive amount of data with you in your briefcase—or pocket, for that matter. Desktop drives sacrifice portability for a cheaper cost; they also tend to rank on the high-volume side of the memory storage chart, seeing as even 250 Gigabytes can easily be fit into a palm-sized device.
These are the two main factors to look at in purchasing a drive, but reliability and transfer rate might also carry weight in your final decision. Thoroughly investigate your drive of choice to make sure it’s not going to call it quits after two months of usage. (User opinion sites are invaluable resources for such research.)
Until Western Digital or Lacie develops a drive that can suck files out of your computer on its own, however, you’ll also need some sort of backup program. Like the hard disks themselves, these come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, some of which are easier to manage than most.
Your best bet is to go with an automatic program: one that can transfer and back up files on its own. Find a piece of software that allows you to decide what folders and files you want to transfer, where you want to transfer them and when. It would also be wise to find a program that allows you to establish more than one backup schedule: e.g. one setting for your business documents and another for all of your music. Backing up your entire computer can take hours on end, making it preferable to do the job piecemeal.
Is any of this fun? Absolutely not. Exciting? A complete and utter bore; I’ll be the first to admit it. Nevertheless, it’s far less fun to wake up one morning and find smoke coming out of your internal hard drive, with all your prized documents effectively trashed. And so, that drab black box remains in my room—quietly waiting to save the day.