All about the site known as Eyeshot


click kleist's suicidal eyes (or his ear lobes) to submit
“My dear, how kind. Soup’s just the thing but could you put it in the”—cough, cough—“refrigerator? Not very hungry. I’ll save it for later.” 

After a week of persistent bronchitis, my friend Mrs. Podolski was not looking tip-top and it seemed to me her customary ursine vitality had shrunk to a sparrow’s. After letting me in, she tottered into the living room and to her favorite chair, a colossal thing of brown leather with arms like planks and a table-sized ottoman. She dropped into it like a lump of lead into a lake of molasses and there were three more coughs. On the chair’s left arm a thin paperback lay splayed on top of the black remotes. She noticed my alarm and made a joke—her kind of joke. 

“Illnesses are a bit like vacations, my dear. As a rule, it’s just the last one you don’t come back from.”

Mrs. Podolski often ripped off these impromptu epigrams. Since I couldn’t think how to respond to this one, and it didn’t call for a reply anyway, I fell back on convention.

“What’s the doctor say?”

She fluttered her hand. “Oh, what do they always say? Be patient and take your medicine. Words to live by. . . . But tell me, what’s new with you? How are things at work?”

I sighed. “Trying.”


“New software,” I whined.

“You don’t like it?”

“Everybody hates it. It’s a catastrophe. More glitches than—” Unable to come up with a decent simile I trailed off, “Too many glitches. You know.”

Mrs. Podolski coughed, smiled, nodded, coughed. “Schlimmbesserung,” she said, finally.

For a moment I thought she might be clearing her throat. “Pardon?”

“Quite a useful German word.”

“But a mouthful.”

“My friend Gerhard used to say, ‘We Teutons don’t have long words, just small ones we like to smash together.’ Take Freundschaftsbezeigungen, for instance, which nicely describes that soup you toted all the way over here.”

“It doesn’t mean chicken soup, does it?”

“Not even close,” she chortled. Mrs. P. laughed a lot, yet never in the way you expect a seventy-nine year-old widow to do, not even when she has bronchitis. “No, my dear. I’m pretty sure that would be Hühnersuppe. Freundschaftbezeigungen means something like a demonstration of friendship.”

“How about that other word? The Schlimm thingee.”

Schlimmbesserung. As I say, it fits your office’s new software. Fits rather perfectly, in fact.” She picked up the paperback and showed me the cover. The Marquise of O—by Heinrich von Kleist.

“I don’t know it.”

“Kleist was good, a genius, poor fellow. Couldn’t get settled in life. He kept trying to make his life better until he blew his brains out at thirty-four. It’s because of him that I thought of Schlimmbesserung.”

“Which means?”

Schlimm means worse and besserung improvement. See? Smash. Think about it.”

I did. “Oh. Got it. It means improving things in a way that makes them worse, right?”

“Worse, yes.”

“So Kleist’s improvements to his life led to suicide?”

“I suppose you could say so. The Kleists were an old Prussian military family and went on being one. A Kleist led the panzers into France. Heinrich renounced his commission when he was a teenager then enrolled in a university to study science and turn himself into a man of the Enlightenment. Then he read Kant and, for some reason, that changed his mind. He dumped math for writing—journalism, stories, and especially plays. Lebensplan nach lebensplan. One of his ideas was to get married and another to assassinate Napoleon. . . . But it wasn’t Kleist’s restless, unhappy life that made me think of Schlimmbesserung. In fact, I only just saw how well it suits him personally. No, according to the pedant who wrote the introduction to this book of stories, the word was dreamed up by a wit who wanted to describe what a clutzy editor had done to one of Kleist’s plays. The moron thought he’d improve Kleist’s language and, well—Schlimmbesserung. Look, my dear, talking to you seems to have given me an appetite.” Cough, cough. “I think I might do with a bit of that soup, after all.”


I leapt from the couch and bounded into the kitchen. While I was heating up the soup Mrs. Podolski called in to me, suggesting a game. Mrs. P. is fond of games.

“We’ll call it the Schlimmbesserung Game. I name something new that’s worse than what it’s supposed to be better than. Then you do the same. First one to run out of ideas loses—unless we’re still going when the soup’s ready; then it’s a dead heat.”

I was glad to hear that her voice sounder stronger. “You’re on. You lead off.”

“Well, I can’t use new software, of course. How about the new management? You know, the kind that’s going to centralize everything so as to be much more efficient.”

“Spot on. Okay, my turn. Let’s see. How about the new diet?”

“Good one, my dear. Soy milk and rice cakes. Red meat and raw kale.”

“For instance.”

“All right.  The new husband.”

“New husbands aren’t always worse than old ones, are they?”

“True. But often enough. Take it from me, dear.”

“Okay. The new constitution. Like when there’s a military coup or a bunch of theocrats win an election?”

“I’ll accept it. How about the new prayer book—no, the new Bible!”

“As in see in a mirror dimly rather than through a glass darkly?”

“And so on.”

“New prices.”

“Yup. Always higher. The new music.”

“The new supermarket.”

“The new doctor.”

“The new bridgework.”

“The new traffic pattern.”

“How about the new skyline?”

“Thinking of that hideous pile that looks like it survived Hiroshima?”

“That’s the one.” 

“Righto. Okay, the new blue jeans.”

“Those really tight ones I can’t get into?”

“Yep. Those.”

“Okay. The new hairstyle.”

“The new reality show.”

“The whole new television season!”

“The new journalism.”

“The New Left—and the New Right, for that matter.”

By now we were giggling like teenagers. “The new math!” I shouted.

“The new New Wave!”

“New Coke!”

Mrs. P. paused but I encouraged her, “Come on. You’re not stumped, are you?” 

“Just thinking, my dear. Okay, the new thinking.”

“Ha! The new tax code.”

“The new grammar.”

“The new black.”

“The new little black dress.”

Mrs. Podolski hesitated and I shouted, “Bingo! Soup’s on. Let’s call it a tie.” 

She groaned as she pulled herself out of her chair and coughed deeply three times before grimly grumbling, “The new normal.”

[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/wexelblatt.html]


About - Archive - Reviews

Gold Stars - Submissions - Random Past


Access the Endless Archive

What is Up These Days at Eyeshot