Letter to 2020

Based on all the videos and memes being bounced around the internet, all the cards and Christmas letters and text messages I have gotten, there seems to be an absolutely universal agreement that the year 2020 was the worst. thing. ever. and can only be despised. “Good Riddance!” is attitude of the whole world. I was on that wavelength, too, beginning my own Christmas New Year`s letter with a note to 2020 that no one will miss it (except maybe that one guy, whom no one will miss either).

But then something happened.

On the very last day of the year, December 31st, 2020, I got some very good news. I’m talking life-changing news. Suddenly, my heart began to soften. I started feeling sorry for the year. I mean, Coronavirus is not 2020’s fault! The pwesident was not 2020’s fault – in fact it was the year we got rid of him! It was time break with the herd and find something nice to say. I added an epilogue to my letter:

 Dear 2020,

As much as you sucked, you WERE a year of spectacular sunsets. I still won’t miss you, but I am thankful that you – in contrast to that other guy – clearly know how to make a beautiful exit.

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The Ghost of Christmas Present

I am late in sending out my customary blogworld Christmas greetings this year due to an unexpected family emergency. Gingerbread Man (of “My Velveteen Rabbit” fame) had to go to the hospital.

One week beforehand a problem had been discovered and all thoughts of work or Christmas preparations or Covid lockdowns dissipated. The focus turned entirely to health issues.

Last Wednesday, Gingerbread Man arrived at the clinic and was admitted. A whirlwind ensued. Two procedures were done on Thursday and Friday, the doped-up recovery began on Saturday. On Sunday, he was already allowed to go home – with a list of medications and a little less stuffing.  He’s a bit blurry about the whole experience but remembers A LOT of needles and that the food there really sucked.

The early release was lucky, because it gave us all enough time to do any neglected preparations and pull off – somewhat contrary to earlier expectations – a wonderful Christmas Eve.

I’m happy to be able to tell you that Gingerbread Man is feeling a little better each day. He spends a lot of his time now in the new recliner with his new electric blanket. Here he is,  staring at the Christmas tree lights, basking in nice memories and hopeful feelings for the future.

Pride Goeth

It was a Saturday three weeks ago, when I finally reserved the whole afternoon to start catching up on blog reading. I started, of course, with Ly and was horrified to discover that I had to scroll all the way back to early September to find where I had left off. (Yes, I am a terrible friend.) I spent an enjoyable few hours until being interrupted by a press conference. All schools were closing till the second week of December. I switched immediately into work mode and basically stayed there till . . . well . . . till yesterday. My cushy, reduced-to-two-days work week, now extended to seven days. For non-educators out there, I can tell you that distance-teaching is about three times as time intensive. It is also relentless and exhausting.

So, everyone was happy to hear that the schools were reopening next week. To celebrate our final online English lesson, I made a special quiz game for my class that they seemed to really enjoy. After gathering on the learning platform, all the kids turned on the “Chat” function. I asked a question and they all typed in their answers as quickly as they could. I awarded points to the first three correct ones. Minor spelling mistakes were allowed.

For the final question in the quiz, I decided to ask something really simple. I said, “Question Number 20. Ready? What is today’s date?”  The answers started rolling in:

After the first 10 or so tries, the shock and horror began bubbling up inside of me. I started giving them little tips about ordinal numbers and capitalization. They kept trying.

At this point I was holding my head in my hands. Tiny whimpering noises were escaping from me. Finally, one girl wrote an answer that I could technically accept. I ended the response period and typed in a few possible correct variations. Two more guesses straggled in as I was doing so.

After 39 years of teaching English, my memory houses a fairly large collection of meaningful moments, nice memories, special experiences, highlights . . .

December 3rd, 2020 will not be one of them.

Confessions of an Incompetent IT Administrator

It is Friday the 13th the 2nd in the 2020. Somehow, I don’t think those numbers can possibly portend anything good. The first lockdown in this country began on a Friday the 13th in March – a date I will never forget – and lasted into May. Summer was pretty chill but in Fall, signs started popping up that the predicted second wave was coming. After foolishly bragging just two weeks ago on this blog that I was in the only green spot on Austria’s Covid Map, things here immediately exploded, and we are now considered a hotspot. I fully expect that a new lockdown will be decided on today, Friday, November 13th, and that it may very well include the country-wide switch to distance learning for all age groups.

Good thing our Hummingbird School has a crack IT team (me) and a nearly functioning virtual learning platform almost set up with nearly all the kids now registered on it and a teaching team who have agreed to find time to learn how to use it – eventually.

I had been banging on this particular drum – our school’s need to have a functioning learning platform ready in case of closure – since the very beginning of the year. Being generally considered the most computer-savvy member of the team (which, believe me, says nothing good about our collective skills), I suddenly found myself in the unofficial/official role of “IT Designee”. I sighed for a week and then got down to work.

The team agreed to using the free platform provided by the Ministry of Education and the core set of teachers all registered. I learned my way around the program and then wrote up simple step-by-step instructions for the parents to register their kids (a ten-minute activity) and presented it to them at our kick-off weekend. I impressed upon them our need for their cooperation. From the serious nodding in the audience, I figured we would have all the kids signed up by early October.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t realize then:

  1. Most parents don’t read their emails.
  2. Many parents who read their emails don’t understand them.
  3. When parents don’t read or understand an email, they simply delete or forget about it.
  4. Of those who actually reacted to the emails, many had difficulty following simple instructions.
  5. Of those who succeeded in signing their kids up, a significant percentage could not log in again later because:
    • they couldn’t find the website again
    • they had registered themselves instead of their kids
    • they typed in the wrong username
    • they forgot their password

The upshot of my experiences over the past three months as IT Administrator is that I am having serious doubts about the . . . “thoughtfulness” . . . of mankind in general. I continually regather my patience as I individually talk someone through the process, explain to them where their problem lies, or send out the fifth or sixth reminder to someone. I sigh a lot.

In hindsight, I think it would have saved me a lot of time and nerves if I had just registered and signed in all 38 kids myself (although, I am not sure if this would have been possible, technically speaking.) Whatever.

It’s now Saturday the 14th and a press conference is scheduled for 5:00 pm, when government officials will announce yesterday’s decisions. Serious media outlets have already reported that all schools will be closing, but other in-the-know people say it is not true. In any case, that gives me about 9 more hours to get the last two stragglers on board before we (potentially) launch. I should probably drop the patient approach and try some good old-fashioned harassing.

Sigh.

Happy Times

It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.

While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues  – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.

In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:

I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.

So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.

The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.

A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.

It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:

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The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.

The high level of early voting has led Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who administers the U.S. Elections Project, to predict a record U.S. voter turnout of about 150 million, representing 65% of those eligible to vote, the highest rate since 1908.

By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since  . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.

It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.

Ugly Chicken Update

As readers will know, I wrote a while back about my slightly deformed and unfeathered chick, Quasi the Second. At the time, I showed the pictures to expert chicken keepers, among whom the general consensus was that this bird would not be long for this world.

But she kept bopping along despite being ostracized and banned from the henhouse. Despite almost drowning in the duck pond. Despite the massive second wave of red fowl mites that had the husband cleaning out the henhouse in a Hazmat suit wielding a blowtorch.

Take a look at her now:

Okay, so not exactly a beautiful swan, but also no longer the world’s ugliest chicken. And more importantly, still hanging in there.

Speaking of loners and survivors, check out the latest “New infections in the past 14 days” map of Austria.

See the little green speck in the bottom right corner of the country? The only district in the entire country with no new infections? That’s where we are.

Our ears are filled with the crashing sounds of second waves all around us, but, apparently, we’re still hanging in there.

Ten Ten Twenty Twenty

 

I like today’s date. I like the sound and the numerical symmetry of it. Seems like a day to do something with. Something memorable. Maybe start something new or end something that has gotten old. Or both.

To get some inspiration, I turned to the Google and quickly arrived at the NationalDayCalendar.com website. Here’s what I found:

Apparently, angel food cake, handbags and costume-swapping all have their own holidays. I wasn’t aware of that, maybe because none of these things particularly interest me. I also don’t decorate cakes, play chess or ride motorcycles. All that leaves is yarn and mental health, but, fortunately, there is currently no crisis in my life for me to crochet my way through.

I would like to know, though, why there is a coffee stain on the calendar. And why is it circling the 11th instead of the 10th? And why do the week rows on this calendar start on Tuesdays and end on Mondays? These are mysteries I would like to get to the bottom of.

Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.

 

Election Night in Loopyville

Let me start by saying that my daughters were NOT taking me seriously in my efforts to do absentee voting by the book. Thanks to Daughter 1’s boyfriend, I have dozens of pictures of each stage of the procedure to back me up.

There was the showing of the empty ballots
There was the anonymous filling out of ballots
There was the inserting into and sealing of the (naked) envelope
There was the signing of the certification form
There was the witness signing of the certification form
There was the affixing of the certification form to the naked envelope
There was the inserting of the naked envelope affixed with voter-signed and witness-signed certification form into a second envelope and addressing it
There was a Happy End

I mailed off our ballots two days ago. I can already say with certainty, even though I didn’t look, that the Loopyville contingent of Milwaukee’s Ward 132 went 0% for the current pwesident. I can also say that I feel different. Like maybe there is a proverbial light at the end of this crappy four-year-long tunnel. Like maybe it is no longer my civic responsibility to follow every outrageous or scandalous twist and every shitshow turn between now and November 3rd.

I have my final golf lesson tomorrow. After that I might do some gardening.

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Postscript

I really should know better by now than to make predictions. After writing the above yesterday, I was too tired to post it and decided to wait until morning. The first thing I see after firing up my laptop is the news about the pwesident’s positive Covid test . . . .

Damals war ich vierzehn

 

When I was 14, it was the year 1976. The year of the American Bicentennial. A celebration of 200 years of freedom and democracy. In commemoration, I baked a cake and decorated it with an approximation of the original American flag. (Please don’t count the number of stars or stripes. I wasn’t a perfectionist back then.) The only reason I still know this is because there is a picture in my childhood photo album. I stare at it now and feel that it represents the peak of my patriotism, not to mention my baking skills.

The reason I have dredged up this particular memory is that I have just finished reading this book: “Damals war ich vierzehn”. In English, the title would be something like “I Was Fourteen Back Then: Youth in the Third Reich”. It’s a collection of short stories/essays/memoirs of Austrian writers who were children of various ages during the reign of Hitler. The experiences and perspectives were wildly different, but all of them moving. There was the boy whose torment by his fellow aspiring Hitler youth only made him want to belong more. There was the man piecing together memory fragments from his four-year old self who emerged as an orphan from the rubble of a bombed-out air raid shelter and somehow managed to travel all alone to his grandmother hundreds of miles away. There was the little girl who started singing a song while waiting in line at the butcher’s, only to be slapped viciously and repeatedly by her beloved Grandma. (She didn’t know it was an anti-Hitler song. It was just something her dad sang.) There was the young Jewish girl whose family (or what was left of it) returned to Austria right after the war – “now that it was all over” – only to learn painfully over and over again that it was all far from being over.

The one that got to me most, for some reason, was the story of two neighbor kids who were ordered by the Führer to bring their pet dogs to a sort of army physical to see if they were fit for service on the front lines. The kids proceeded to “train” (= torment) their dogs with loud bangs, sirens, and pain to make sure they cowered and ran off during the test (and were therefore rejected and spared). While reading this story, a realization washed over me of just how far-reaching and deeply implanted the tentacles of the Nazis had become by that point, interfering in daily family life even down to the relationships between little kids and their dogs.

This book is one of two perennial favorites of teachers in Austria who have to teach about the Second World War*. The other is called “The Wave” and it tells the story of a Californian teacher who conducted an experiment on his students after they rejected the idea that fascism could take hold in America. He began a movement in his class based on principles of “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”** He then added in symbols, and slogans and salutes. His experiment took on a life of its own, spread throughout the school and quickly got out of his control. Brutality and torment ensued.***

 

“How could they?!” I remember thinking the exact same thing as my German teacher in high school taught us about that historical period, including her own youthful experiences. She told us how at some point a critical mass of followers was reached, after which dissent became life-threatening.  She told us how parents eventually became afraid of their own children and could no longer speak freely in front of them. (Think about the song in the butcher’s shop – that grandma surely acted not out of political conviction, but out of fear.) My teacher let us know the whole story, including all the ultimate atrocities. I still thought “How could they??! That could never happen here!”

I must have been about 14 at the time, maybe a little older, but in any case, still near the peak of my patriotism and baking skills.

 

And here I sit, about 44 years later and 45 days before the next election, wondering not only if it could happen, but if it will happen. Fascism in America. Or if our institutions (or what is left of them), our Constitution (or what is left of it), our Free Press (or whatever that is now), and our liberty loving people (who is that exactly? which liberties do they care about? whose liberties do they care about?) may pull off a last-minute reversal.

The American people beating back fascism would go a long way in restoring the entire world’s faith in our country, not to mention my own. Will it happen?

Or will more brutality and torment ensue?

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*One principle in the Austrian curriculum in History is called “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, meaning “coming to terms with the past”. The idea behind this policy is fairly straightforward and Santayana-ish . . . “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Austrian students are confronted with the events and the atrocities of the time of their grandparents (or maybe now great-grandparents). In their Junior or Senior years, they all take a class trip to Mauthausen, which was the one major concentration camp in Austria.
We have no real concept of dealing with the past in the United States. On the contrary. As Gore Vidal wrote (about the issue of legalizing marijuana) in the New York Times: “It is a lucky thing for the American moralist that our country has always existed in a kind of time‐vacuum: we have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” He wrote that in September 1970 – a half century ago. It still seems true today. Maybe more so than ever.
 ** In other words, “Law and Order, Build the Wall, America First, Make America Great Again”.
***Strangely enough, there was a scandal here in Austria just last year. A teacher was using this book to teach about WWII and, for some reason, his/her students started role-playing the same dynamics extra-curricularly. It got bad. Things are not perfect here either.