10 posts categorized "Great Interview Experiment"

Grinch Relents

My personal feelings toward Christmas can be summed up in two words: bah and humbug.  But sometimes, even the biggest pshaw has to catch the spirit.  Blogging pal Neil Kramer is hosting his annual multi-belief holiday concert at Citizen of the Month.  He asks readers to record a short video in which they sing their favourite holiday song, or post a picture or two from whichever religious tradition tradition takes their fancy.  My personal religious tradition this year is Heterosexual Soft Core Erotica.  Happy holidays, and remember to be naughty!


Tokyu Hands, Shinjuku, 2003


Nymphenberg Porcelain, Odeonsplatz, 2008


The Beef Market, Munich, 2010

Be Gay About It. And Be Quick About It.

Erika is a thoughtful lesbian blogger, who shares stories of her life and marriage.  Her blog sports the snappy title Be Gay About It.

The BGAI Together instruction pageErika has begun a project designed to show gay women and men living lives of dignity and grace.  Such stories, she hopes, will inspire those coming out, questioning, or who struggle with their orientation.

"Too often we hear stories about LGBT people being rejected because of their sexual orientation or gender identity through bullying, hate crimes and discrimination," she writes. "BGAI Together is a grassroots storytelling project where LGBTQ persons and their allies unite to counter this adversity with positive stories of love and affirmation."

Erika wants your stories—published or unpublished—from your blog, clip sheet,  hard drive or bottom drawer.  It doesn't matter if you're gay, or a straight ally.  She wants to hear the everyday tales of acceptance and celebration.

But hurry.  She needs your submission by stumps on Thursday, January 14.  Click on the picture for more details.

And while you're on her blog, read it.  You'll be glad you did.

Interview 2009: Surfing to Serenity

Neil Kramer takes blogging seriously. And he wants you to take it seriously, too.

That's why he used his blog to create the Great Interview Experiment, in which he invites his readers to interview each other. Last year's Experiment was so successful, that A Free Man ripped it off paid tribute. Neil has repeated the Experiment this year.

As readers of this blog will know, I share their belief that the stories we write online are a new form of folk wisdom.  The oral tradition has become a digital one.  Social historians wish they had such rich material from the past. That's why I participate.

This year, Neil's blog revealed an intriguing writer, who calls herself Long Story Longer.  An astonishing woman. 

If you zip over to her blog, you'll that her current preoccupation is learning to surf, as an adult.  She writes about it with calm and poise. 

She writes about surfing with such thoughtfulness, that any question I might ask about it would seem superficial.  So I checked her back catalogue. 

I'm glad I did. It turns out she and I were both expats in Japan at about the same time.

In my experience, there are some expats who "get" Japan, and love it.  Others find it a frustration and a misery.  I asked her what makes a successful expat in Japan.

"Hmmmm. I think the thing that makes a successful expat in Japan is close to the same thing that makes a good international traveler in general - an openness, a curiosity, an appreciation for things that are different from what you know," she began.

"Having said that, Japan is pretty weird! I've done quite a bit of traveling, and Japan is one of the weirder cultures I've explored. I think it can take an extra bit of openness. I think there's some discrimination and misogyny that runs pretty deep in Japanese culture (for many reasons), and you just have to be really open to the "different, not wrong" idea.

"I adore, adore, ADORE Japan. It's an easy place to visit and to live as an expat, and after almost four years I felt like I could have explored and enjoyed it for a dozen more years without it getting old. It was very hard to leave. I've always said it's an easy place to feel peaceful. I miss it often."

It changed her life so much, that she actually felt some reverse culture shock. 

"My transition back to the States from Japan was difficult in so many ways," she replied.  "I just felt lost. I remember not being able to figure out the credit card machines here (Japan is a cash-based society; I basically went 4 years without using my credit cards), the ubiquity of advertising almost gave me panic attacks, cell phones suck here; just so much.

There were logistical issues - driving on the opposite side of the road (this still gets me—it makes so much more sense to drive on the left!).

More important than the practical side, LSL felt some ennui on returning to normal on her return.

And then the emotional issues—feeling displaced and lost. I'd figured out how to "do" life in Japan. It took me a long time to figure out again how to do life here. I could go on and on. I think the toughest part is that no one in the US knows what you've gone through. I didn't talk or blog very much about my transition because you don't even know where to start. Repatriating was a lonely process. Therapy helped me a great deal."

If the feelings were so strong, why not work abroad again?

I would LOVE to work overseas again and hope very much that I get to do so at some point. I have a feeling I will. I'm particularly drawn to service in the Peace Corps.

However, I was overseas for almost 4 years before, and there is a degree to which it can really put your life on hold. I didn't date while in Japan, and I missed my family a great deal. It can also be difficult in small but irritating ways. I've been back for 3 years and I'm still regularly thankful for the conveniences of living in the States and for being in close proximity to my family.

Every westerner who lives in Japan has a tale of karaoke triumph, or of karaoke disgrace. I asked her about her greatest moments in front of the "Ghost Orchestra".

"Unfortunately, I don't have many fun karaoke stories. I ADORE karaoke, but I was such a sick workaholic in Japan that I only went a handful of times.

Each time, each song involved both triumph and disgrace. Isn't that part of the fun? I do remember singing Leaving on a Jet Plane with a group of Americans once. I remember thinking about the transitory nature of our lives in Japan and getting a little choked up. And I do remember bombing enthusiastically on a Backstreet Boys song. Man, I stunk. But I love karaoke. I miss those private rooms, and the phone that brings you more beer."

Though not a uniformed soldier, LSL's job in Japan was on a military base.   I suggested that Americans hold the profession of "soldier" in greater respect than many other nations around the world.  It is almost assumed that one becomes a soldier as a moral calling, rather than just another highly dangerous job.  I asked for her take on the subject.  Do people become soldiers for the wrong reasons? 

"This is such an interesting subject to me. I knew very little about the military before taking this job...managing banking offices on multiple US military bases. I learned a lot about the military, and the people in it through my position.

My guess is that people join the military for a lot of different reasons, and probably few do it to fulfill a moral calling. However, once they're in, I have a feeling it all changes. I don't know if it was the Vietnam experience or something else, but I think Americans do hold military members in high respect in general. I feel that way. It's such a tough, tough job. I couldn't do it. I take issue with a great deal about the military, but I do have deep respect for those that volunteer."

Since she knows  so many of the US bases in Japan, I asked why the ones on Okinawa have such trouble getting along with the locals, in a way that, say, Yokosuka (near Yokohama) and others don't?

"Regarding the bases issue, I think some of it has to do with the type of base (Marine, Navy, etc.) and the age of the military members.

I had some young, tough bases and those kids were getting in all kinds of trouble. It's understandably very tough on the local population."

LSL takes a strong stance against homophobia.  I asked her if it was a stance she took on principle, or is there a personal connection?

"I have personal connections to equality issues and the gay community, but I guess you could call it a stance on principle. I don't know if I'll ever understand the discrimination that goes on against GLBT people. The short answer is this: I like to hope that if I had been alive during the civil rights movement in the 50's and 60's, I would have been on the right side of that fight.

I try to take an active role in decreasing homophobia and supporting equal rights for gay and lesbian sisters and brothers because I believe it's the right side of this fight. If I say more, I won't stop for pages and pages! This is a hot button for me."

This positive and principled attitude pervades LSL's blog.  It led me to suspect she might be part of a programme like Al-Anon—she confirmed this in her About pages.  It was obvious from her subject matter: the serenity about life, the pleasure in the moment, the heartfelt gratitude for experiences both good and bad.  It's against Al-Anon traditions to tout, and against the fundamental principle of anonymity to reveal too much about yourself or qualifier.  But I was curious to hear about her personal response to the programme.  What was step one, where she decided that trying to control the uncontrollable (like your relative's drinking) was futile?

"Thanks for saying these nice things. I've been going to Al-Anon off and on (mostly off lately - I need to get back) for at least 15 years. I love step one! However, I never had a single step one experience. I have step ones over and over, sometimes multiple times a day. For some reason, admitting that I'm powerless over something and that my life has become unmanageable is so easy for me. I don't have to look very far to see evidence of that. It keeps me humble and reminds me that I can't do it alone, which is a core belief of mine - no one can do it alone. That's part of the challenge and the fun."

Learning to surf in middle age?  I asked LSL if this were a response to a mid-life crisis.   Lots has been written about mid-life crises for men, but little about the mid-life for women, lest it merely concern biological clocks and such.  Is there a difference?  Will it perhaps result in changing career?

"You know, I would say that I'm going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, but it's pretty normal for me. I've been going through a mid-life crisis since around age 8; it's just how my brain works. I'm constantly (daily!) evaluating and reevaluating my personal happiness, my beliefs, my ability to bring meaning to my life and the lives of others. It's just who I am. I'm walking mid-life crisis."

If you haven't clicked the link already, I urge you to visit Long Story Longer.  When you're feeling down, or troubled, or just jaded, her optimism is a tonic.  And to LSL, a hearty どうも有り難とう.  Long live The Phone that Brings You Beer.

Interview 2009. In Which the Author Almost Answers a Meme.


The famous mirror scene from Duck Soup

In homage to Neil Kramer at Citizen of the Month, A Free Man began his own Interview Experiment back in February of this year.   

The gracious lady who compiled a list of questions for me has been very patient.  She is the Strange, Dark Gypsy Girl, whose blog you should visit and admire.  I've taken a while to answer her questions, but I'm sure she appreciates how lazy thoughtful I've been. 

The Gypsy-question I have chosen for today is one that sounds suspiciously like a meme.  Until today, the Deutschland über Elvis has pursued a strict no-meme policy, out of general grumpiness and irascibility.  So officially, this is not a meme; it is a personal question. (OK, Ian in Hamburg?)  And a deceptively challenging one, at that.

Recommend three books, movies or periodicals.

What, only three? 

Books?  I give up from the start.  There are just too many; favourites for different reasons, at different times. 


Look to the sidebar for a good selection, or click on my LibraryThing profile for the high rating books. 

(By the way, I recommend LT for anyone who has a personal library; it is incredibly cool.  Check out their “I See Dead People’s Books” page.)

However, in the spirit of this almost-meme, let me share the last three books I read.  

  • The Leopard, by Guiseppi de Lampedusa.  A melodrama of love tinged with cynicism.   The author gives an historical account of the last Prince of Salina, his grandfather, as Sicily fell under the rule of a unified Italy.   The prince's description of the character of his fellow Sicilians is breathtakingly cruel. A gift from my pal Cash McBuck.  Many, many thanks.

  • And Then There's This, by Bill Wasik.   Boy, have I had it with Tipping Points, Flat Worlds, and anything 2.0.  But, y'know, I gotta read that shit for work. So imagine my delight when one of these so-called business books turns out to be a gem.  Wasik is a gentleman adventurer in the world of new media.  An amateur pundit with a day job as a rock journalist, he dips a toe in the water of viral culture every so often, and manages to beat the pros.  He was, after all, the man who invented the flash-mob.  Name one other writer on cyberculture who starts his book by quoting John Stuart Mill.  That's class.

  • Pre-Code Hollywood, by Thomas Doherty. It was six years between the birth of the talkies and the enactment of the draconian MPAA Production Code in 1934.   But in those few short years, Hollywood relased some of the most subversive, racy and cynical movies it would ever make.  Precode HollywoodThe parallels with our own time, as the forces of censorship stir again, are frightening.

    To the right we see the cover, depicting ten items which the Production Code would never allow.  Among them, an inner thigh, wickedness unpunished, drug use, consumption of alcohol that is not essential to the plot and the mockery of religion.

Which brings us to the subject of Movies.  Again, too many.  But I do have some faves.

  • Heathers.  Mean, bitchy, cruel, and cynical.  Now that’s my kinda movie.
  • Beetlejuice.  Gloriously Kafkaesque.  BTW, can somebody explain the joke about Miss Argentina slitting her wrists?  I tried googling it, to no avail.
  • Brazil.  Quite simply, a masterpiece.  Michael Palin and Katherine Helmond as supporting actors do some of their best work.  Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay.  Terry Gilliam directs. Plus, it has Jim Broadbent in it, always a hallmark of quality cinema.


Jim Broadbent makes over Katherine Helmond in
  • Mon Oncle. Jacques Tati was a one-gag comic.  Mon Oncle is the gag.  But it’s a brilliant gag.

    The set design for Mon Oncle was supposed to send up the pretentousness of so-called mid-century modern.  Over the years, though, it became an icon of the style.   So much so, that a recent Paris exhibition re-created the set indoors. 
    The joke's on Jacques, I guess. 



Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and George Sanders in
All About Eve.

"Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

Periodicals?  In this age, more online ‘zines than 3D. 

  • CurrentCover160-1The Economist teaches the rest of the publishing world the true meaning of fairness and balance.  When the Economist takes an editorial stance, it says so.  The writing glistens with clarity and insight.  Quaintly still calls itself a newspaper. 
  • Vanity Fair and Esquire.  Both champion long-form feature journalism.  Prefer British Esquire and US Vanity Fair.  
  • Queerty.  An online ‘zine that bills itself as “free from an agenda, except that gay one.”   Queerty maintains a new, fresh and smart outlook on all matters gay.  But it should really be Qweerty to get the joke, no?
  • Mother Jones.  A nonprofit magazine devoted to investigative journalism, but also raises issues that have surfaced in the mainstream and deserve more attention.  Pulls no punches. Superb.Autobild5seriescover
  • Oh, and I check out The New York Times online every day.  A lot of people bag the Gray Lady, but there is simply no alternative.   The Guardian runs a distant second. 

That just about does it, Gypsy.  Remember, though, we still have one question to go.

(I can hear AFM now: "HH, are you still dragging this out...")


Interview 2009: The Challenge of Love

Comptons gay pub london

As part of A Free Man's Interview Project for 2009, the Strange, Dark Gypsy Girl asked me quite a few questions about being gay.  These two put me in a reflective mood.

How do you feel about having come out relatively late in life? Do you feel like you missed out on anything as an outed youth, like you had to make up for lost time?

Coming out late is my biggest single regret.

Taking pleasure, and giving it, feels utterly natural to most people.  But to do this well, and unselfconsciously, means that you’ve mastered a complex skill.  You learn it best when young.  Youth and love go together. 

Learning to love, as an adult, is harder.  For me, love is still a conscious act, not an instinct.

Love teaches us many things; charity, compassion, compromise, wisdom.   It took me a long time to appreciate these values.  And more than most, I struggle to live up to them. 

The heterosexual charade stopped fifteen years ago.  I quickly made up for the lost sex, but haven’t made up for the lost love.  Perhaps I never shall.

Gay bar duke wellington soho  
When you came out to family and friends, whose response surprised you the most?

Nobody and everybody.  When I came out, all my friends and family were supportive.   Everyone noticed a calm settle over me, and delighted at my new-found peace of mind.  They spoke with warm and encouraging words. 

So it shocked me when I walked into a glass wall.

For example, a very good, very supportive friend—whom I love very much, and who has many gay and lesbian business colleagues and friends—gave Master Right and I strict instructions when we visited the family beach house.  “I hate to have to ask this, but I want to make it clear.," he said.  "Please, no overt homosexuality in front of the children.”

“OK,” I replied, “But please instruct your son and daughter that there should be no overt childishness in front of the homosexuals.”

“You know what I mean,” he muttered.

Naturally, I reassured him that I knew what he meant.  But I wonder what he expected, exactly.   Enema bags on the clothesline?  Dildoes left among the bath toys?  Fellatio while waiting for the toast to pop?  Doggie–style on the coffee-table? 

Maybe he imagined something more matter-of-fact.   A gentle peck on the cheek to say good morning.  A touch on the shoulder as one spouse asks the other if he wants a cup of coffee.  One man placing his hand on the other’s forearm, as he stops his husband in mid-anecdote, to correct his memory of events.  Or maybe it’s as simple as, in conversation, two men talking about each other as “we”.

This is not an isolated case.

Generally, such concerns evaporate quickly.  My good friend, and other friends like him, came around.  Much as people bandy about the phrase “overt homosexualty”, most sex, straight or gay, is a private affair. 

In the course of a normal life, you can’t hide love.  I was surprised how many friends expected it of me, at least at first.  The idea of homosexual love challenges people far more than the idea of homosexual sex.

Gay bars soho

The photos in this post show a quiet evening last February, in and around Old Compton Street, London's gay neighbourhood.

Interview 2009. Hag seeks fag, but fags flake out.

The marvellous Strange, Dark Gypsy Girl continues her interrogation as part of the Interview 2009 Project. She was interested in my personal take on gay life. There are more such questions to come.

Gay dogs 1

 Do gay men have anything resembling lesbian bed death? My gut instinct is hell no.

I may need to ask for a lifeline here. Lesbian readers: is lesbian bed death a myth?    Many straight men will argue that they, too, catch a dose of lesbian bed death from time to time. 

Shaw wrote that marriage will remain popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.  Remember that Shaw went to his grave a virgin, and so had no fucking clue what he was talking about.  

The answer is yes, all cohabiting couples eventually taper off, no matter how ruddy their libidos, or obliging their natures.  

Master Right put a hand down his pants the other day, and confirmed what we both suspected. It had fallen off.

I leapt in to  the helpful-spouse drill.  "Well, where do you remember last having it out?"

“If I recall, it was at the candy counter in the Karstadt.” he replied. “Perhaps we should phone their lost-and-found?”

“Nah. It’s probably been sucked up some vacuum cleaner hose by now.” I observed, mildly aroused at the thought.

 As for my own todge, I regularly remind the hub that like anything else in cold storage, if he doesn’t eat it soon, it’ll go off.

 That said, no man is lonely if he has a free hand and a little imagination.  Broadband helps, too.

How do I go about finding a new gay best friend (I've got the lesbian best friend covered)? I haven't had one since college, and I'm feeling the fag hag lack. Fair warning, though: I live in the benighted South, where football is king, everything is fried, and people wear trucker hats without irony.

Gosh, do they wear trucker hats without irony?  You mean wrinkled, straight off the clothesline?

Enough joking.  One of the terrible things about the Honourable Husband's inability to meet a deadline, is that the answer I would have given your question, when you asked it, may be interpreted completely differently under current conditions.  Gypsy, if these comments grate a bit, given your state of mind and heart, forgive me.

I suspect you don’t really want a fag to hag.

Before I moved from New York to Munich, and changed its name to Deutschland über Elvis, I called my blog High Maintenance Hags.  

High Maintenance Hags 2a2 
It reflected the outlook of a middle aged gay male.  As I got older, the genuine female friends had begun to sort themselves from the hags.   And the hags had become insufferable. 

Maybe it was a New York thing. Sex and the City made a certain kind of shallow, label-chasing, sexually-demanding loveless single woman flavour of the month.  And one of her must-have accessories was a fag.

As I grew older and wiser, the role of handbag became less rewarding.  Especially when handbag turned into suitcase turned into steamer trunk.   Frankly, if I wanted a woman with whom I had no sex, but who demanded the intimacy and emotional support of a lover, I’d just turn straight and get married.

Shopping with them was torture. Shoes?  What is it with women and shoes?   

I wrote a post on this before, which speculated that a woman’s peak hag years are under 25.   Perhaps a fag and his hag are lovers who are too immature for an adult sexual relationship? 

Am I being unfair?  Maybe.  But experience shows boys make extremely bad girlfriends, in the long haul.

Most of the hagships in my life have matured into proper friendships between equals, which involve two complete, fulfulled lives that intersect.  Gypsy, perhaps one of the reasons you don’t currently have a fag to hag, is simply because you’ve outgrown it.  If you actually did hold a light-loafered lad on a leash, you’d soon grow tired of him.  And he’d grow tired of the leash, fo’ shizzle.

My advice is to make ten new male friends.  Statistically, at least one of them will be gay.  And as a bonus, the other nine will be eligible.  It works, even in the South.

Interview 2009. The Barfhof.

Here's the third installment of Interview 2009.   Gypsy asked a question dear to my heart.  

When I arrived in Munich for Oktoberfest, oh, 13 years ago, the train station (Hauptbahnhof) was pristine. When I left, three days later, there was vomit everywhere and drunken sailors pissing on the tracks. Does this happen every year, and who are the worst culprits of drunken idiocy? I blame the Italians. Alice? Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?

Ah, so you read my post, Octoverfest.

I have no idea who the fuck Alice isZurika once explained it to me, so I’ll throw her a lifeline on that one.  Whenever an Oktoberfest band plays Living Next door to Alice (which, regrettably, they do), spak twats in the audience wait for the end of the title line to shout, in English, who the fuck is Alice?  Drinking songs don’t have to make sense, but who-the-fuck-is-Alice reaches a new low in bone-headed quatsch.   Short answer: Alice can fuck off.

The vomiting people probably aren’t sailors.  And I don’t think they’re Italians, either.  Nor Brits, who vomit their way across Europe every summer, as you know.   

Bahnhof drunks bewareDrunks.  Sometimes you have to remind them.

Look at it this way.  You’re a young man.   You live in Dullsdorf, in rural Bavaria.  You work the family farm, or maybe assemble gearboxes at the local Bosch factory.  Presto!  The world’s biggest beer festival lands on your doorstep.  Whatcha gonna do?   Since you’re German, you can’t smile until the third drink.  Hey hey hey.  Pukestadt.

Bavaria is the Texas of Germany.  A bit too big.  A bit too loud.  A bit too religious.  A bit too rich, and much too vulgar.  The Oktoberfest Ralphs are the local good ol' boys.  Or to use Australian expressions, they're yobbos, boguns or larrikins.  

(Australians have a gift for terms that describe drunken misbehaviour.  Like Eskimos need 20 words for snow, Australians invent endless terms for vomitRalph, spit, yak, spew, maut, chunder, sick, barf,  pavement pizza, liquid laugh, curbside quiche, and my favourite,  technicolour yawn.)

So the Oktobarfesters are not Italians.  They’re Erdingers, Rosenheimers, Kissingers, Feldmocheners, Laimers, Unterschließheimers, Friesingers, Füsseners, Augsburgers, Ulmers, or Bad Tölzers.  Though inner-city Giesingers always win the blue-ribbon in puking events.

By the way, I think it’s a stretch to call Munich Hauptbahnhof  pristine, even at the best of times.   Among the first structures rebuilt after the war were train stations, and many, like Munich’s, were done in haste.  The place seems to wear a coat of permanent shabbiness.  Nonetheless, it stays busy this time of year, with armies of ski-bunnies on the way to catch some last-minute spring snow on the Zugspitze.

Bahnhof smoke free

Smoke-free.  But alas, not puke-free.

Interview 2009, Part Two. Excronomics.

As part of A Free Man's Interview 2009, the Strange, Dark Gypsy Girl asked questions about Munich.  She visited some years ago during Oktoberfest, and saw the city at its most strained.  Her questions raised two issues I'd been pondering for a long time, and this post addresses the first.  Neither the Gypsy Girl nor The Honourable Husband respect taboos, so prepare yourself.

Munich rotating toilet

In Munich, are there still any of those toilets where the seats lift up and automatically spin around and clean themselves? That was the best $.25 I've ever spent for a piss.

Cool, aren’t they?  Just look at that fine German* engineering!

For those who've never used a Robo-Can, here's how it works.  After you flush, the blue arm (pictured) extends from the cistern, and the seat rotates underneath.  It doesn't actually clean the pan, though.  For that, the Chef des Toilettes often employs an actual, brush-wielding human.

Nowadays, Gypsy, a trip to the can costs a good deal more than you paid.  For example, the McClean® Lavatory at Munich Hauptbahnhof used to charge  € 0.60 for the pissoir and a whopping € 0.90 for the bog.  Remember, this is Euro cents we’re talking.  Not the lousy marks and pfennig you tossed in the slot a dozen years ago.   

Munich McClean 010

Munich pissoir 008

The McClean® Lavatory complex, and its Premium Pissoir.
Many people thought me a pervert, or at least a flake, to take pictures of a public convenience.
But I braved their scorn, Gypsy, in order to illustrate this important discussion.

Let's see.  Brand-name plus differential pricing structure?  I smell marketing. 

And as a marketing kinda guy, it intrigued me.  It intrigued me more to discover that the pissing had recently changed hands, so to speak.  McClean, a Swiss enterprise with lavatories across three countries, including a flagship toilet in Paris, seems to have surrendered its contract. 

The lavs at Munich station are now branded WC-Center, with sub-branding to Hering AG, a major construction firm.


Hering builds, among other things, space-age public conveniences.  It astonished me to learn how many German firms compete in this arena.  My fave is Wall AG, which not only makes toilets, but also won a German design prize for its Dogpile Disposal Unit.

A Public Function

Out of curiosity, I typed WC-Center.de into my URL window.  It led me straight to the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) homepage. 

Has this toilet reverted to public ownership?  It wouldn't surprise me. Here's why.

In Europe, many businesses outsource the management of their lavatory.  Often, a woman who acts as an independent contractor keeps your facility clean.  In exchange, she earns the right to place a tip jar at the door, and to scowl at misers who try to pee for free.

Munich mom-and-pop

The entrance to a mom-and-pop pissoir in Austria, near the Italian border.
Don't forget to tip, children!  

Most people would call it a fair arrangement.  Simple, and beneficial to all concerned.  Others, however,  lust  over the highly stable cash-flow. That's why many German public toilets are now corporatised.

I witnessed the great corporatisation extravaganza which occurred in the state of Victoria, Australia, in the 1990s.  Pretty much every public body was turned into a corporation, so it could function as a business.  Electricity, gas, water, highways, public transport, tourism promotion...even, at a federal level, public broadcasting. Some were split up into several businesses, so they could compete with each other.  Many were sold. 

I thought that Victoria had corporatised every possible public function.  But I was wrong.  On my first trip down a German Autobahn, I encountered Sanifair.   The Refreshingly Different WC.

Munich Refreshingly Different WC 015

Sanifair is part of Autobahn Tank & Rast, itself a corporatisation of the rest areas on Autobahns.

T&R installed a turnstile with a coin slot, to make sure no shirkers pee on the sly.   The turnstile issues you with a receipt.  A Douglas Adams-style joke, perhaps?  Not quite.

At first, I thought this might be a used by travelling salesmen, who can claim a visit to the john as a business expense.  ("Herr Schmidt, your lavatory bill seems rather high this month.  Are your sure you weren't entertaining someone?")

But the document has another purpose.  The reciept is, in fact, a bon, or voucher which you can spend in the shop or cafe.  The Sanifair website imakes their business strategy quite explicit; the tidiness of a rest-stop lav affects your decision to use the restaurant.  A big, automated squeaky-clean loo makes a good impression, which invites you to grab a coffee or Cola Light.  That's where they make the Big Kina.  In marketing terms, your visit to the loo is a loss leader.

Can a toilet stand on its own?

Now, here's where the toilet in the main railway station comes unstuck.  It's a toilet qua toilet.  The station loo won't entice you to catch more trains.  Are such toilets a viable business in their own right? 

Once you've established a cash-flow and set a price, it's very difficult to grow the business.  At least not by standard commercial means. 

Munich Frequent Toilet Giveaway 012You can't hold a sale.  ("Today only! Stalls half price!")   You can't make promotional offers easily. ("Special All-Day Family Ticket!")

There are seldom two or three competing brands of lavatory from whom you can steal customers.  The capital investment needed to build the other competitive lavs would eat up any overall gains. 

You can't offer Frequent Dumper Points to encourage people to choose your bog more often. Like many loyalty programmes, you would only reward people for doing what they already do. 

Perhaps the owners can build revenue through added-value services?  I have seen men's rooms where one can shower, enjoy a shave, shine one's shoes, or find oral sex.  Problem is, most railway stations yield many acceptable non-toilet venues for such things. .

No matter how good you make a toilet, you only visit when you gotta go.  Gee, honey, I don't really have to pee, but this toilet is so nice I'll pay an extra call!  I don't think so. 

That leaves two options to increase revenue.  Raise prices, or cut corners.  Neither, really, is acceptable.   At the end of the day, it's a public service which must be provided fairly.  One of the first things to change when the Hauptbahnhof loo  reverted to Bahn control, is that they scrapped differential pricing.  Now, you pay € 0.70 for whichever bodily function you need perform.

Essentials, Inc.

In the 1990s, Australians discovered that the private companies which had bought their water, gas and electricity faced the same dilemma.  Simply being in private hands generates few efficiencies, but adds the burden of shareholder demand for growth.  With few savings for the consumer, little boost in capital investment, and some high profile failures in supply.

One might make the same observation of health care when it rests in private hands.  Health offers few opportunities for businesses to grow, using conventional marketing techniques.  Look, honey, Kaiser-Permanente is having a sale on colonoscopies this week.  I think I'll stop by for a quick poke up the wazoo.  Unlikely. 

Call McKinsey.  They'll figure it out.

So, Gypsy.  Your innocent question about toilets leads me to two conclusions.  Peeing should stay in public hands.  And for sheer satisfaction, nothing beats a high-tech tinkle.

*EDIT:  It turns out that they're not German at all.  they're Swiss, like the McCleans.  I learned this yesterday from an ad at Munich Airport.  Exactly what marketing purpose does it serve, I wonder?
Swiss bathroom ad

Interview 2009. The Strange, Dark Gypsy Girl bangs on my head.

As mentioned in a previous post, A Free Man has asked his readers to interview each other.   (And to answer your accusation, Ian in Hamburg.  No, this is NOT a meme. So there.)

Some time ago, the Strange Dark Gypsy Girl sent me a list of very thoughtful questions.  Quite a lot of them; she grilled me good.   Here is the first lot of answers. 

Bewitched03As an ad man, are you watching Trust Me, or is it even available in your corner of the world? How about Mad Men?

No, I'm not watching Trust Me.   I don't watch The Gruen Transfer.   I gave up on Bewitched when they switched Darrens.  Shows about ad agencies make me cringe.

I ordered the first season of Mad Men on DVD, and have just finished watching it.  Brilliant series, but it's not about advertising.  It's about lies.  About how the lives Americans constructed for themselves in the sixties denied their true natures.  The main character, Don Draper, is a lie on two legs.  A show about lies?  Hey, let's set it in an ad agency!   *sigh*

Anything which appears as an ad in the mainstream media, almost an ywhere in the world, must meet strict standards for truthfulness.  Once, a woman sitting next to me at a dinner party asked whether I was responsible for “that sneaky subliminal advertising.”  I replied that first, what people call subliminal advertising doesn’t actually work; and second, anything which even smells like subliminal advertising is illegal.  “I bet they tell you to say that,” she sneered.   *sigh*

As an atheist, how do you feel about paganism and new age woo-woo-ism?

I'm an apostate Catholic.  Let me assure you, the line between paganism and Catholicism is a thin one. 

Look at it this way.

The sun does good things.  It raises my crops, keeps me warm, and lets me see my enemy as he approaches. 

Maybe, naively, I want to offer something to the sun. Either as a bribe, so the star continues to rise every morning.  Or as a thank-you, to make sure the sun knows how important it is to us.

Since the sun is so important, it makes me feel better to think that I can actually make a difference to whether the sun will rise. That the sun-god demands to be pleased, and there are things I can do to please him.  That the people who please the sun-god are morally better than the people who don’t, since these sun worshippers ensure that we all suvive and prosper.

Since science tells us that dancing in a circle and sacrificing virgins make no difference to whether the sun rises, modern man is at a loss.  Is the universe actually indifferent to us?  Are we really that powerless? 

Mayors frauenkirche 197 Ah, homo sapiens' inventiveness has rescued him.   There is no sun-god who ensures the star rises in the morning.  There is, though, a god-god who ensures the sun will appear, and has made a liveable, if dangerous, planet for us.  It seems we still have to stay sweet with Him, or else…or…um, well, He works in mysterious ways.

So-called new-age and pagan religions function exactly like more evolved religions.  They create the illusion that our behaviour can give us power over our fate in an indifferent universe.

Is paganism and new-age barf less harmful than religion proper?  Maybe, maybe not.  Being grateful for what the universe provides, and worshipping a putative provider of those blessings, are two different things.  

The author of Drink-Soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War put it beautifully when he composed a title for this link.

Leader of delusional cult that thinks it’s drinking the blood of a bloke who probably never existed — and if he did, died 2000 years ago — warns against ‘witchcraft’.

The Great Interview Experiment. Here's Liz, Juan and family.

Liz's Year in Socks, 2007

Neil Kramer, Los Angeles-based freelance writer had a brilliant idea. It's called The Great Interview Experiment.

He's a blogger commited to the ideal of blogging; to its inherent open-ness and democracy. The moment you hit the Publish Post button, you're a writer, a someone, a documented life. Those lives make fascinating interview subjects, as much as any writer's life and outlook does. So he has been matching up bloggers to read each other's work, and interview one another on what they read.

I got lucky. My first interview subject was Liz, a mom from Richmond, Virginia, in the good-ol' US of A. Just about the coolest mom I've ever met.

It took a bit of coaxing to reveal exactly how cool she is. My first question, I admit, was a little blunt. Your life and my life are about as different as it is possible to be. Discuss.

She pulled me up on that one. Liz has sure earned her gay cred. She acted as a social worker in NYC in the late eighties, dealing specifically with AIDS patients. Remember, this was back in the days when no-one knew how HIV was transmitted, or, indeed, what HIV was. To associate with gay men...well, no-one quite knew if it was safe. Liz didn't let this daunt her, and she writes of the warmth she shared with the gay men she came to know. Bravo, Liz.

She also writes that the chaps gave her a very, very gay baby shower when she became pregnant with her first son, Alex, now 16. I can't really imagine what a gay baby shower might have looked like, except the pacifiers would have been interesting. I hope that both Alex and his sister Monica have a brace of gay pretend-uncles who continue to provide them with different perspectives on life.

Speaking of the kids, they have been on a smile moratorium since they became teens, and that kind of irritates their mom. I probed for a family-dynamics explanation of this, and sure enough, Liz confessed up front. She's the "family papparazzi" (should that be papparazza?). She loves to take pictures of her kids whenever they do something that delights her, which is pretty much all the time. The go-slow campaign on the smiles is designed, she thinks, to discourage her guerilla snapshots.

Now, Alex and Monica, listen up. Here's how real celebrities deal with the papparazzi. You surrender yourself for a photo-op every so often, smile for the camera, and then they leave you alone for a while. Try it.

Liz has a racy story about how she fell in love with her husband, Juan. Oh, and she's a master at all the puns on the name Juan, too. So don't try to get Juan up on her.

We discussed how, from time to time, she prepares Elvis-style fried bologna sandwiches for her family. Living in Europe, ironically, one cannot find bologna luncheon meat. Not even in Bologna. I asked if I might not substitute, say, mortadella? I shall never ask that question again. She is an Elvis gourmet purist.

But after her family, her passion is knitting socks. Now, this is obvoiously more than just a hobby for her; she's a real sock savant. Her 2007 output is recorded above, minus those lost in the tragic kittens-in-the-knitting-basket-catastrophe.

Personally, I think that she should turn this into a business. I can see it now. Elizabeth of Richmond. Bespoke Knitter. Quality Undergarments for the Feet. Remember not to underprice yourself, Liz.

You'll find the full answers on Liz and Juan's LiveJournal here. Lots of love to you all.