The airport and the hawk

Last month I took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee to visit my sister. I was rolling my little green suitcase towards the security gate in Berlin when all of a sudden a woman swooped towards me, like a hawk.

She was wearing an airport security uniform.

“Excuse me,” she said.  (But I don’t think she meant it.)

“Yes?”

“A moment ago, you had a German passport. Then you switched.”

I paused. This was a rather odd accusation. I don’t have a German passport. And I certainly hadn’t taken anyone else’s.

“No, I didn’t,” I answered eventually, trying to avoid her piercing eyes.

She began firing questions at me. They weren’t hard but she phrased them oddly, so sometimes I had to think a moment before answering.

“With whom has your case been this morning?” she asked.

“With me” I said.

“Who packed it?”

“I did.”

“What items have you purchased at this airport?”

“None.”

“What did that man whisper to you?”

She turned to point at LSB. He was watching the scene from afar, looking rather puzzled.

“I’m sorry? I asked.

“Who is that man?”

“My boyfriend,” I replied. “But I don’t remember him whispering anything. Wait, let me ask him.”

I motioned for him to come over. “What did you whisper to me just now?” I asked, forcing LSB into the same position hawk lady had put me in.

“I think I said goodbye?” he said. “But I wasn’t whispering.”

Our confused expressions seemed to satisfy her. “Okay, fine. Off you go,” she said.

I toddled off, taking care that my farewell nod to LSB didn’t appear conspiratorial.

I’m not used to this kind of treatment.  It’s one of the unfair advantages of being non-descript, female and white.

I imagined the kind of terror I could prompt by browsing the airport shopping area sporting a long beard, turban or burqa.

When I set foot in the United States, a nice customs officer asked me some more questions about myself.

“Do you have food in your bag?”

I knew he only wanted to know if I was bringing  fruit, seeds or meat into his country. But I didn’t want to give him a single reason to send me back to the scary hawk lady in Berlin, so I confessed I was carrying some Puffreiss Schokolade for my sister.

He wasn’t interested in my snacks. But he did want to know how long I intended to stay.

“Only eight days?” he asked. “Do you not want to stay here forever?”

“No,” I said. “No, thank you.”

“Why not?”

I mumbled something about being content in Europe, which seemed to surprise him. But he handed me back my (not German) passport and wished me a pleasant stay.

How curators are thriving in the digital age

It might still conjure up an image of a spectacled, tweed-clad type rummaging through a dusty museum archive.

But in this age of digital saturation, the role of the humble curator is being reinvented.

With a multitude of literary offerings now appearing online every second, the need to separate the wheat from the chaff has become greater than ever.

In many ways, a curator’s work resembles that of a journalist: selecting what is important or remarkable out of an amorphous mass.

Many curators on the Internet labour out of love. In this way, they present an antidote to the journalist’s tendency to simply reinforce the consensus, by writing about subjects proven to generate clicks or the ideas closest to their editors’ hearts.

Curators can afford to be choosy about the work they promote; their selections don’t necessarily have to appeal to the masses.

One of my favourite curators of that kind is Ana Kinsella. She’s an Irish fashion journalist based in London who runs a Tumblr account called A Week’s Clicks. It features a wonderful selection of links to writing she’s enjoyed that week. Sometimes she teases readers with an arresting quote; other times she posts a short summary of what a piece is about. I always end up reading and enjoying writing I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon.

Maria Popova of  BrainPickings is a curator of a different kind. Some of you might remember she previously featured in my list of favourite female bloggers. She curates centuries of ideas within literature, science and philosophy in exquisitely written posts. Her curation is unique in linking the thoughts of people separated by time, geography and discipline. In her case in particular, curation is very much an act of creation.

Curation can serve a highly practical purpose too. Posts like this one, which lists the best Websites for getting a free education can save you hours of Googling.

Like all Internet crazes, curation has of course turned commercial too. And no site has better exploited the need to restore online order than BuzzFeed.

While its profit-driven curation is less noble than that of the beaver-like individuals who undertake -simply for the love of it  – the sifting so others don’t have to,  the site’s enormous success reflects the huge demand for curation in the digital age.

Admittedly, our need for someone to summarise the Internet has taken on absurd dimensions too.

At time of writing, BuzzFeed’s homepage features the following articles:  19 pictures that will change your mind about frizzy hair, 19 dogs that are prettier than the views they’re looking at  and my personal favourite: 15 hilarious tweets that accurately sum up working at a call Center.

Have you got any favorite curators? Let me know in the comments!

Goodbye Frau Bennett

She was beautiful and wisplike.  I passed her often in the hallway of the nursing home.  She would sit in her wheelchair beside the rabbit cage. When she didn’t know you could see her, she wore an expression full of sadness and longing.

But whenever she saw me pass, her eyes lit up and she smiled. Her hearing was very poor. But that didn’t stop us communicating. I would motion to the rabbit or gesture to the window to deliver my verdict on the weather. She would always nod warmly in agreement.  We were gentle with one another – a source of mutual appreciation. She carried her melancholia with grace.

Her name was Frau Bennett. If we had been contemporaries, I think we would have been friends.

The same couldn’t be said of Frau Bienkowsi though, who was quick to dismiss her.

“Her mind’s gone,” she declared a few times. “She never says a word.”

I knew the first part wasn’t true. Frau Bennett was frail but I knew her mind to be in tact. The second observation was more plausible though. The two sat at the same table at dinner and I found it easy to believe Frau Bennett had a hard time getting a word in. She didn’t seem like the type to want to battle for floor time.

Frau Bennett had a son and grandson who lived locally. They didn’t visit much but she once confided in me that she sat in the hallway in case they came by.

I met them both at the nursing home’s Christmas party last year. They arrived late. My heart was already beginning to ache as I watched Frau Bennett sit quietly with her eyes fixed on the door.

Her son, a tall and rather strapping man, probably in his 60s, discovered  I was Irish by chance and struck up a conversation. He told me his father had been part of the British government that ruled West Berlin after the war. It confirmed my suspicion about how Frau Bennett had got her name. Many British soldiers stationed in the country ended up staying to marry German women.

Frau Bennett’s son was keen to speak English to me. It was the language of his childhood before German began to dominate. I got the impression he missed it. He seemed to have inherited some of his mother’s wistfulness.

Frau Bennett would have known my face but not my name. She was aware I was a friend of Frau Bienkowski. To my astonishment, she once asked me if I liked her. I said I did and asked her back. Gently and politely, Frau Bennett indicated they weren’t the best of friends.

I could understand that stance though it sparked some cognitive dissonance. Frau Bienkowski and I get on because we are different. I appreciate her warmth, her openness – even her outrageousness. But she is dominant and headstrong too.  She is a talker, not a listener. She is enormously kind. But she is not especially tactful.

I can imagine that quiet and perceptive Frau Bennett disliked her dinner companion’s forthright and – at times- perhaps abrasive style.

A week or two ago, as I was pushing Frau Bienkowski into the dining hall for dinner, I noticed an empty seat next to her. I didn’t think too much of it.

But during my last visit, I asked her how Frau Bennett was doing.

“She’s dead,” Frau Bienkowski said. “She went into her room and didn’t come out again.”

The rabbit has gone too. The cage disappeared around the same time Frau Bennett did.

Five terms from social psychology that apply to Donald Trump

  1. Mere exposure effect

–          The more familiar you are with something, the more you prefer it. In other words, familiarity breeds content.

Trump started off as a joke candidate whose only redeeming feature was his entertainment value. In the months that followed, he was all the media talked about. Now he could become the next president.

  1. Fundamental Attribution Error

–          Failing to distinguish between situational and intrinsic causes.

Trump thinks being Muslim or Mexican makes you intrinsically dangerous. So he wants to ban immigration and build a wall. Other people believe lax gun laws, poverty and lack of opportunity create dangerous environments.

  1. Cognitive Dissonance

–          The tension you experience when you hold two conflicting opinions – or fail to act in line with your attitudes.

The Republican Party wants to appear unified. On the other hand, it’s keen not to go down in history as rallying behind a sociopathic, racist, misogynistic, egomaniac reality television star who unleashed a nuclear war. Otherwise known as: stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  1. Reciprocity norm

the assumption that you get back what you give     

Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon who tried and failed to become the Republican presidential candidate, is now one of Trump’s most vocal supporters. This is despite the fact that Trump compared him to a child molester. Carson is, presumably, working on the assumption that his support now will earn him a privileged position in a future Trump administration.

  1. Just-world phenomenon

believing that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve. Sometimes related to the fundamental attribution error.

Trump once boasted that he had created a real estate empire after receiving a “small loan” of a million dollars from his father. Rather than recognising the enormous privilege he was born into, he implied that his fortune was self-made. Those who didn’t get such a loan probably didn’t deserve one. In other words: the fallacy of the American dream.

The German town that dedicates an entire festival to asparagus

Before I moved to Germany, asparagus never played more than a supporting role on my dinner plate.

I regarded it as a bog-standard vegetable: average-tasting in a soup and appropriately assigned to side-dish status.

I soon realised this kind of indifference would turn me into a pariah here.

sparg

My relationship to asparagus has developed since I moved to Germany.

The German language has a term to describe the period when asparagus is in season: Spargelzeit.  It’s generally between mid-April and mid-June.

In Berlin, Beelitzer Spargel is celebrated as the most exquisite – and comes with the price tag to match.

Beelitz is a 30-minute train ride south of Berlin and home to around 12,000 people. Its official website defines it as a Spargelstadt – an asparagus town.

Every year, it devotes a festival to the asparagus and crowns a local woman Asparagus Queen. This year, in an attempt to complete our integration into German culture, LSB and I decided to attend the event.

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Bavaria’s most attractive all-women band (or so I’ve been told)

From Beelitz train station, you can catch the Spargel shuttle bus to the town center. LSB and I decided to walk. It wasn’t far and the streets were well sign-posted with arrows on every other lamppost directing you to the Spargelfest.

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Costumed asparagus and Asparagus Queen greet festival-goers

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The 2016 Spargel Queen

We arrived in time for the 11 am performance of a Bavarian band called The Midnight Ladies. They advertised themselves as Bavaria’s “most attractive all-women band” – a title I was not in a position to judge but that seemed plausible, given how dashing they looked in their glamorous traditional garb.

Milling around the town were two giant asparagus: one green, one white. The costumed vegetables flanked the Asparagus Queen as she shook the hands and kissed the babies of stall-holders and visitors alike.

The highlight of the performances was undoubtedly the dance of the Spargelfrauen (or Asparagus women). The group of a dozen women have been performing at the asparagus festival for 20 years and it certainly shows in their choreography.

At 2 o’clock, it was time for the asparagus parade. LSB and I had an enviable spot right next to the stage, where two anchors from a local TV station provided a running commentary on the floats.

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Members of the Asparagus Women dance troupe perform at the festival

Asparagus farmers drove through the crowds in their tractors, handing out baskets of the vegetables to lucky onlookers (myself included). Any local organisation you can imagine, from volunteer firefighters to a children’s rope-skipping group took part. Even an historical society marched through, with members proudly pulling two replica medieval cannon-shooters through the town.

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Costumed asparagus receives assistance getting in the door.

It went on for an hour. Tragically, I could only capture five minutes on film.

I did however manage to snap a rather comic moment earlier on, when one of the costumed asparagus had to be escorted to the bathroom and an assistant recruited to get his head through the door.

After the parade, LSB and I went for lunch. We dined on a classic: white asparagus, served with butter and potatoes on the side.

The festival concluded with a tearful expression of thanks from the mayor and the Asparagus Queen. The former told the crowd he had already confirmed the visiting acts for Spargelfest 2017.

Never again will I consider asparagus as anything but the main act.

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Beelitz town

My eureka moment among a herd of Kerry bulls

“Everyone here is so nice!” I said to LSB.

We were in Kerry for a friend’s wedding and I was rekindling my love for the island.

“That cashier was lovely!” I exclaimed after buying éclairs in a newsagent in Killarney.

“I can’t believe they made us pancakes!” I said after the staff in our B&B allowed us to customize our breakfast order.

“Oh, and the milk is excellent too!” I added after taking a gulp to wash my pancake down.

It wasn’t just the food and people I was waxing lyrical about either.

“Just look at this Landschaft!” I said, as we strolled through Killarney National Park.20160514_135004

It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the mountains looming ahead of us and swathes of green all around.

As we continued along the path, we passed some bulls.

They were grazing lethargically, indifferent to their paradisal surroundings.

“Don’t you know how lucky you are?” I asked them. “Don’t you realise that you counterparts in factory farms would kill  for this kind of outdoor, paleo lifestyle?”20160513_194023

But there was no reasoning with them.

They looked up briefly, before returning to their edible vegan carpet. One bull even rolled his eyes at me.

I recognized the display of disdain immediately. The kind reserved for outsiders with excessive enthusiasm for your native land.

I was taken aback.

After four years in Germany, had I really developed the unbridled exuberance of a foreigner? Had I become an Ausländer in my own country?

Desperate to stop the resurgence of an  identity crisis, I decided to fight back.

“You’re the ones with notions!” I said to the offending animals. “You’ve no idea what the real world is like. When was the last time you filled out a tax return? Or worried about your pension? Or wondered about your heritage?”

They shuffled awkwardly. Then one by one, they turned away to face the mountains, their tails lolling easily in the breeze.

Text Club!

I set up a ‘Text Club’ back in January. It’s similar to a book club except instead of reading novels, we focus on texts of 5000 words or fewer. I recruited people on a Berlin-focused Facebook group and was delighted with the response. So far, members have come from Algeria, Egypt, Spain, Sweden and, of course, Ireland!

We meet once a month in a lovely café in Schöneberg. The discussions are all the more interesting because the group is so multi-cultural.

In case any of you are interested in following Text Club vicariously, I’ll be posting links to the texts we discuss each month. If you’re Berlin-based and feel like coming along, just send me an e-mail and I’ll fill you in on the details. Here’s May’s selection. Enjoy and do let me know if you have any recommendations of your own! Anything goes, as long as it’s no more than 5000 words!

On Truth and Trumpism – Paul Krugman, The New York Times

Krugman predicts the ways the media will distort the probable race between Clinton and Trump. He says the contest will be portrayed as closer than it is, binary oppositions will be created where none exist and Trump’s supporters will be described as less racist than they really are.

Learning from Legacy – Steve Burrows, DesignIntelligence

Why is the Great Pyramid still standing? How was the construction of the Colosseum planned? Burrows explores what makes a building last and why contemporary architecture has lost its focus on longevity.

Inside the Assassination Complex – Edward Snowden, The Intercept

The most famous whistleblower of his generation describes how governments apply double standards in their response to data leaks. Change, he argues, comes from the bottom, not the top.

The Model American – Lauren Collins,   The New Yorker

Who is Melania Trump and what’s behind her quiet life in Trump Tower? According to Collins, the woman who could be America’s next First Lady has the perfect body on which to hang a brand.

‘I think I’m invincible,’said Frau B

Frau Bienkowski turned 97 last month. LSB and I were among the five guests at her birthday party. There were ham sandwiches for the others and a vegetarian omelet for LSB and me. Frau B even treated herself to a glass of red wine. After taking just one sip, she announced it had gone to her head. She simply can’t drink the way she used to. Join the club, I thought.

Shopping for a 97 year-old isn’t easy.  In the end I hit gold with a book about Charlottenburg. It features black and white photographs of the area as it once was. Frau B was delighted to encounter the streetscapes from decades past. Many of the places have since changed beyond recognition.

A few days later, I got a call from Frau B’s niece. We’d met for the first time at the party and had exchanged phone numbers. The news wasn’t good. Frau B had had another fall. Her leg was broken and she was in hospital.

I arrived with a bunch of tulips and a bag full of clothes. At the hospital reception, they asked me for Frau B’s date of birth.

“March 18th, 1919,*” I answered immediately.

She was lying in bed next to the window – her eyes shut.

I tiptoed towards her to check she was really asleep.

“Wer ist es denn?” she asked, barely opening her eyes.

“Das Katechen,” I answered. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”

Her eyes opened wide.

“I wasn’t asleep,” she said. “I was just resting my eyes.”

“How are you?”

“Oh, fine, considering. Oh my, would you look at those tulips! I was only thinking earlier how I hadn’t got any tulips for my birthday. And yellow too – my favorite.”

Over the next while, visiting the hospital became a bi-weekly routine. Frau B was very particular about her requirements. She wanted her own underwear, a couple of skirts, her dressing gown and some hairspray. The fact she was spending her entire days in a nightie and unable to leave bed was irrelevant.

During her time in hospital, Frau B shared her room with two ladies. The first was Polish and according to Frau B, didn’t speak a word of German. (I’m not so sure of this as Frau B is a talker and even at the best of times, it can be hard to get a word in.) The other woman came from Saxony and was taken into hospital on her 80th birthday with heart trouble. They both managed to maneuver to the side of their beds to eat meals facing each other.

Frau B’s appetite increased dramatically in hospital. She was most partial to the pork chops on offer. The nurses caught on and served her enormous portions. All this was heartening.

Meanwhile though, there was worrying talk of operating on the leg. At first Frau B said she’d prefer not to undergo surgery. But after a few days wearing a heavy boot she got restless and said she might consider it after all. This was despite the fact that the doctor had said: “If you were my granny, I’d advise you not to.”

When I voiced my concern about the risks of getting an operation at her age, Frau B said: “Well, Katechen, there are worse ways to go than during surgery..”

In the end though, she decided against it. In her own words, the prospect of “losing her reason” was worse.

Frau B was stoic, if frustrated, in hospital. She dealt well with the indignity of having to ring a bell every time she wanted to go to the toilet. (And having to ring again for a nurse to clean up once she’d done her business.)

But that wasn’t the end of it. One day when I came to visit, I found a sign on the door, asking all visitors to report to the nurses before entering the room.

The winter vomiting bug had broken out and both Frau B and the lady from Saxony had caught it.

I had to wear scrubs, gloves and a face mask to enter.

Frau B had been vomiting but today, her woes had been reduced to diarrhoea.

“Pity I can’t see your dress beneath the scrubs Katechen,” she said. “What are you wearing?”

I told her and she seemed to approve. “I was thinking actually,” she said. “I have a necklace I was going to throw out. But it would go well with your brown jumper. You can have it, if you like.”

Frau B returned to the nursing home a week ago. She’s now in a wheelchair and she can’t go anywhere without help. She’s still wearing her huge boot cast.

“Katechen,” she said from her new position by the window.

“I think I’m invincible. Nothing seems to kill me. Maybe God has decided He just doesn’t want me. Maybe all the other dead people asked Him not to let me in!”

I said I thought that was unlikely.

*the year is right but I changed the date to protect Frau B from potential unwanted attention from her… massive online following.

Remember all those headlines about Merkel making a refugee girl cry?

Last July, the world’s media directed its wrath towards Angela Merkel after an 11-year-old refugee girl burst into tears at a government-sponsored event in the northern city of Rostock.

The girl, whose family had fled from Lebanon, was outlining her situation to the chancellor. Smiling nervously and in perfect command of the German language, she explained what it was like to live in constant fear of deportation. Tentatively, she told Merkel she too had dreams.

Merkel listened, nodded and promptly committed PR suicide: she told the truth.

“Politics is hard,” she said. “And you’re an incredibly likeable person.. but there are thousands more living in camps in Lebanon.. we can’t take everyone in.”

Moments later, the girl had begun to cry.

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It was glorious headline fodder.

“Merkel makes refugee girl cry,”wrote the mass-circulation Bild. “Angela Merkel is ice cold,” other news outlets announced.“Merkel reduced girl to tears,” said Britain’s Daily Mail.

Merkel’s attempt to comfort the weeping refugee girl by patting her even gave way to the ironic and scathing hashtag, #Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes).

Oh, how things have changed.

Eight months after the encounter with 11-year-old Reem, Angela Merkel’s stance towards refugees is now widely considered the gold standard in moral leadership, setting her apart from all other world leaders. Those who support her open-door policy consider her a beacon of hope in an otherwise depraved world. Those who oppose it at least acknowledge the political sacrifice she is making in order to stick to her convictions.

The image of the ice-cold chancellor has been all but erased.

It’s worth pointing out that last July’s exchange took place against a backdrop of headlines about Germany’s tough-line approach to negotiations for a third Greek bailout.

Now even in this regard the narrative has flipped, as Merkel leads calls for more solidarity with countries like Greece that find themselves on the frontline of the refugee crisis.

Merkel’s encounter with Reem, the girl from Lebanon, was notable in two respects.

First, it was a departure from her usual careful media strategy, which is to say as little quotable as possible. The German chancellor is known to make hard work for journalists who have to sift through long sentences of little concrete substance in search of a suitable sound bite.

More than anything though, the intervening months have proven that when Angela Merkel “made a girl cry” last year, the media hung her for being artless, not heartless.

Try 90 minutes a week outside your comfort zone

I signed up to Biodanza on a whim. I was working too much and moving too little and this class promised all the fun of dancing with none of the tedium of learning steps.

I was immediately sold.

Biodanza, meaning ‘the dance of life,’ has its origins in the 1960’s. It was invented – for want of a better verb – by Chilean psychologist Rolando Torro who, working in a psychiatric ward, began using dance to treat his patients.

Torro was a firm believer in the importance of physicality. He pointed out that the most intense experiences; whether erotic, ecstatic or creative, have a distinctively corporal dimension. Free movement, he felt, was the ultimate form of self-expression. It was also the antidote to what he identified as the “broken gestures and empty and sterile structure of expression” to which our bodies had become confined.

I arrived to my first Biodanza class sweat-drenched and a quarter of an hour late, having taken a wrong turn after I got out of the subway station. Poking my head in the door, I encountered a circle of about 15 people – swaying, writhing and in some cases, sighing.

Unfazed by my arrival and without an apparent leader, I experienced a wave of panic as I wondered how to enter their midst. Eventually, one of them caught my eye. This, it turned out, was the teacher. She gestured for me to join the circle.

Before long I too was jiving to the music which, incidentally, came from a tinny laptop in the corner of the room.

With everyone around me giving it their all, there was no reason to hold back. Soon I was bopping along to the beats with the gusto and enthusiasm usually provided by a few drinks.

It felt good.

Biodanza is the physical equivalent to singing in the shower. A safe space for self expression – the embodiment of the multi-meme-inspiring mantra ‘dance like nobody’s looking.’

A typical class begins with the group sitting in a circle. (I managed to avoid this the first time by being late). It is my least favourite part. The idea is to share something – anything – with the group. I usually just say that I’m happy to be there. I like to keep it vague. After all, I’m here for the non-verbal expression.

That part only lasts a few minutes though. The rest of the class is devoted to improvised dancing – sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner or in a group.

One of the most interesting exercises I’ve done was with a partner. With just the tips of our forefingers touching, we closed our eyes and… danced. Slowly of course, since otherwise our fingertips would have lost contact. It was a remarkably intimate experience, requiring both concentration (to keep our movements in tune with one another) and letting go (so you didn’t feel weird and self-conscious about what you’re doing.) It is a form of meditation, transporting you to another plain while also grounding you in the here and now.

The music always dictates the movement. The selection is broad, ranging  from purely instrumental to sentimental pop. We are encouraged by the teacher to “let go” (it is her favourite phrase, which she utters in a thick German accent.) Sometimes, she lets out loud yawns as she is dancing, encouraging us to do the same to “einfach let go.”

There are occasions where the whole thing takes on a slightly evangelical quality and I wonder whether I may have stumbled into a self-help group. From time to time the ecstatic sighs of another woman (the class is all-female) or an unsolicited hug make me uncomfortable.

But if anything this only exposes my own beliefs about the acceptable boundaries of self-expression. It also gives me an insight into my own temperament. I am most comfortable dancing alone, while feeding off the energy of the group. I only feel at ease  when everyone is taking part.(Once for instance, we were split into two groups, with one watching as the other performed the exercises. The sense of being watched made me uncomfortable and inhibited my natural movement.)

I don’t mind dancing with others but there have been times when the level of physical intimacy has edged outside of my comfort zone. Once, during a dance, the teacher kissed me on the cheek. While I didn’t much like that, I found her impulse rather fascinating.

The best way to describe a session might be to say that it mirrors the experience of getting a little drunk. As your lose your inhibitions, you become increasingly well-disposed to your surroundings and those who inhabit them. You become more playful and flippant, less petty.

For me, it’s been a good way to “lätt go.” Cheaper, healthier and more efficient than a night on the town, it’s an ideal way to unwind after a stressful day. Plus, there’s no need to worry about a hangover. So whatever form it may take for you, why not try 90 minutes per week outside YOUR comfort Zone?