“Mary, help!” This was the not-so-subtle name of the hospital in Hamburg where, in March 1979, a baby boy fought his way through to the harsh light of the outer world. Whether with or without Mary’s help, his struggles brought the desired result. The boy opened his tiny mouth, gasped for air, and the first communication attempts proceeded from his tongue.
And then, swift as a shadow, these attempts matured and a few years later he wrote his first book …. Um, no, unfortunately not. I met with considerable difficulty in my development as a communicator. A principle challenge came in the form of my older brother, who was a chatterbox if ever there was one, and who considered it his duty to give me constant verbal assistance instead of allowing me to finish speaking. This, it seems, was part of the cause for my slight stutter, and generally molded me into a rather silent type. I was like Moses with the speech impediment who relied on his brother to speak on his behalf.
I was not, however, to be bogged down so easily. When it came to realizing my dreams, I showed a determination (call it stubbornness, if you will) that far outdid my hampered words and unimpressive body size. Initiative. Persistence. No mountain too high and no valley too deep. That was me.
Just picture me as a six-year old hopping on my bicycle and riding more than five miles to a neighboring town in order to buy a toy drum. Only after the mission was completed did I inform my mother about the new purchase, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world for a small boy to ride to another town without asking. Motherly worries belonged to a realm beyond my comprehension. By the way, the mission had long-lasting effects: I still like playing drums.
So I had determination. Which did not, however, equal speed. Except when it came to soccer, I was as slow as molasses in Siberia. I talked slowly, I ate slowly—such as licking (rather than eating) a single chocolate bar for ages and thereby dragging out my Eupicurian pleasure—and dressed slowly. I don’t know how many hours I spent lying on the floor and attempting to throw my underwear and socks on the slippery lampshade underneath the ceiling. It must have been many, because throwing clothes on the lampshade was an art that took a lot of patience. It was also much more entertaining than getting in my gear and proceeding to the order of the day.
Speaking of patience—one of my favorite games as a child was a wooden labyrinth punctured with sixty holes. You were meant to wangle a metal ball past the holes by moving the surface via two knobs. As soon as I’d made it for the first time all the way from start to finish, I set out to maneuver the metal ball back to the start. And then promptly back to the end, and once more to the beginning. This I did over and over again. My record: more than 1400 holes.
The same kind of patience was evident in my artsy endeavors, which were probably my most distinct gift as a child. When my family and I returned from a visit to the zoo or harbor, I would immediately sit down at my desk and draw the animals or ships I’d seen.
Then I started school and turned out to be a genius at languages …. No, wrong again. German was my least favorite subject. Art—loved it. P.E.—belonged to the top three of the class. Math—the best. But German? It bored me out of my tiny little mind. Learning letters, copying texts, enduring dictations. A horrible ordeal. The special classes for particularly weak students didn’t help either. Far from improving over time, my spelling got increasingly worse. I wonder now if I actually put in spelling mistakes on purpose when copying a boring text. Was it my stubbornness again? A defiant “I’ll show you that these stupid exercises are no good”?
Was this perhaps the reason, too, why I read so little? Was this why my favorite literature consisted of Asterix & Obelix, Tintin, Spirou & Fantasio, and other books in which words seldom ventured outside of speech balloons? Perhaps.
The fifth grade finally brought my longed-for redemption. I switched schools and went to a then-customary “Orientation Level,” which comprised the fifth and sixth grade. My class teacher, Herr Frauendorf (=”Mr. Womanvillage”) did not only have a funny name, but was a lovable comedian through and through. I responded like a flower to the sun. Suddenly I was an intelligent and lively student. Even the girls had a thing for me, very likely because I was such a tiny cutie (the girls usually towered a head above me).
Having hit such a positive academic note, I was promoted to the highest level in the German school system: the “Gymnasium.” Little did I know that a dragon was waiting for me there. I’m speaking of my English teacher. I can still hear her sarcastic smoker’s voice. I still have the fear of her etched into my skin. Maybe it was all my fault that I didn’t get along with her, but the result was a straight F at the end of the eighth grade. My choices: either repeat the grade or go down a level.
I chose the latter, which opened up two wonderful years in which I was able to be bone-idle and the top of the class at the same time. Balm on my dragon-inflicted wounds.
If you had told the dragon teacher (who, in all fairness, might have been a nice lady in private), that I would
- do foreign civil service four years later,
- begin studying at an American university five and a half years later,
- marry an American eight years later,
- travel to every continent as a speaker,
- translate English books
- and raise bilingual children,
well, she might just have laughed out loud. Or perhaps not. I don’t actually recall her ever laughing. In any case, it’s unlikely she would have believed you.
The last two years before my civil service in Israel I spent at a technical high school of graphic design. A one-year internship at an advertising agency, which was part of the school program, laid the foundation for my later work as a freelance graphic designer. Still: I tolerated the school rather than enjoyed it.
Whoopee! My school days came to end, and off I went to Israel. The Promised Land.
The choice of country had something to do with my religious background. My parents are serious Christians who provided me with a happy and sheltered, though not too strict, childhood. I must add that in my teenage years, strictness was hardly necessary, as I spent my time between sixteen and eighteen mostly alone in my room. Voluntary confinement, so to speak. I strummed on my guitar, bellowed out songs of praise to God, read the Bible, and sought escape from my carnal nature.
I like to think that I’ve found a bit more balance in my spiritual pursuits by now, or, one could also say, a degree of agnosticism. I am certainly still on a journey, and I don’t know how my pilgrimage is going to end. But whether I’ll go to the grave as a—God forbid!—Bible-thumping televangelist or a disciple of Richard Dawkins, the rest of my life will probably be marked by spiritual and philosophical issues. They will occupy, nourish, and frustrate me. And as we all know: There is nothing more important in life than something to get worked up about. (For an allegorization of my spiritual journey, see my book Job's Wager.)
Now how did I discover my love for books? Apart from the Bible and comics, that is.
Well, my father often read to us out loud, which I retain as a special childhood memory. Occasionally I read by myself, too, and even divulged a whole novel in one night. But those were exceptions. The fact remains that I wasn’t a reader as a child. I much preferred climbing trees, building whole Lego cities, and drawing pictures.
It seems like the compulsory feeling of school had to be first lifted off my shoulders before I could discover my natural inclination toward reading and learning. Was it my headstrongness again that prevented me from reading while being in school? According to the principle “I’ll only do what I don’t have to”? Possibly.
Be that as it may, at nineteen it was all the more rapidly that I plunged into the wonderful world of books. Driven by the strong desire to catch up, I read everything I was able to lay my hands on: from Homer to James Joyce, Confucius to Nietzsche, Augustine to C. S. Lewis, Herodotus to modern historians, mythologies to Harry Potter, Jane Austen to Nora Roberts.
If you combine this intense literary input of my early twenties with my strong tendency toward creativity, you have the recipe for writing. I couldn’t help but start hammering a few of my own ideas into a computer. It began with explanations for some of my more surreal paintings, followed by essays and theses for my studies, and finally stories and novels.
In this way I amassed a bunch of manuscripts, which I have started throwing out to the public—meaning to you.