Playtime

It’’s Easter vacation and I have been eagerly and sometimes desperately awaiting this break for weeks now. I made a long list of house projects that I would finally get around to. I fantasized about being able to clean and repaint the front porch, do some mountaintop removal of my ironing basket, launch an apology tour to all of my distant and neglected friends . . . I was going to finally organize all my financial papers, teaching materials, computer files and kitchen cabinets. It is now Day 4 and none of the above has been started. But, yesterday I spent the entire afternoon playing with my dollhouse. At least that home is looking pretty spiffy again.

My mother-in-law found the dollhouse at a flea market about 10 years ago and bought it for my daughters. I took one look at it and immediately saw my chance to fulfill my own childhood fantasy. I cleaned the house up, painted it, put in window frames, wooden flooring and carpeting. I tiled the roof with (really expensive!) clay shingles and the bathroom with mosaic pieces. I made little curtains and picture frames. I started buying furniture and tiny accessories to put inside. All the while, my daughters looked on with interest and anticipation. Finally it was done and they were allowed to play with it. They started to pick up things and move them around, as I hovered over them saying “”Be careful! Be careful! No, I think that should stay in the kitchen . . .”” It was absolutely no fun. They wandered away after only 10 minutes or so. Once they were out of the room, I quickly put everything back where it belonged and sighed with relief.

A year later, my husband tried something similar (by which I mean fulfilling his own childhood fantasy) when he decided to make a teepee for the yard. He went into the woods to find suitably long and thin trees. He chopped them down, dragged them home one-by-one, and debarked them. He researched in the internet, ordered a canvass and a teepee building book to learn how to set it up. My daughters looked on with interest and anticipation. Finally it was done and they were allowed to play in it. The first thing they did was to bring in a little table and chairs. Then a vase with flowers. Then pink plastic tea cups and a teapot full of water. My husband looked on and said “”No that’s not right! Flower vases don’t belong in teepees. You are supposed to be building a campfire and whittling things with a pocket knife, making bows and arrows – that kind of stuff!”” The teepee tea party continued for a short while but then got relocated to the sandbox. The next morning, the girls went into the teepee only to discover that a bunch of slugs had moved in overnight. That was pretty much the end of the powwow. For the next nine years, the teepee poles lay in a pile cluttering the yard and slowly decaying while the canvass molded away in the shed.

Meanwhile, the dollhouse increasingly resembled our real house -– dusty, cluttered, disorganized, lots of slightly broken furniture. Our cat had discovered the carpeted living room as the perfect place to sleep, so that part had a “Godzilla was here” décor. The bathroom fixtures were in the attic and the porch furniture in the kitchen. The roof was missing a lot of tiles. The little dolls were all lying in a sloppy pile in the corner of one room, some face down. It was positively post-apocalyptic -– like a scene from a Stephen King movie. But, yesterday, I restored it all to something near its former grandeur and had a lot of fun in the process. My younger daughter wandered into the room, watched me playing for a few minutes and even feigned a little interest in the project. That was really nice of her.

In the evening I returned as usual to my library and laptop. I checked emails and did some blogging. Then I played some Snood while listening to NPR. As coincidence would have it, they were streaming a TED Radio Hour about the importance of playing. One scientist after another stressed how necessary it is for the social development of animals and kids as well as the mental health of adults. They assured the listeners that they needn’’t feel guilty about “wasted time”. Meanwhile, in one of my Snood games, I broke through that elusive 30,000 point barrier. Later, I shut down the laptop and headed upstairs, stopping on the way to admire my dollhouse for a few minutes. I went to bed with a sense of accomplishment.

Citizen Cheeto

Now that I can have crunchy Cheetos delivered to my house within 3 or 4 days and my life is complete, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. Over the years I have often been asked why I haven’’t become a citizen of this country (as if that were such a self-evident step everyone would naturally want to take.) My stock response is now gone. Cheetos have arrived and I need a new answer.

To be honest, I have never once even considered getting citizenship here. And it is not that I am so patriotic. Like most Europeans, I find the whole concept of patriotism somewhat suspicious -– people being proud of an accident of their birth. When the American flags came out in front of what seemed like all the houses on September 12th, 2001, I understood the sentiment -– the desire to show sympathy and connectedness -– but I still found it just a little bit creepy. I also dread election season when it seems that every candidate is required to declare the USA “the greatest nation on Earth!” I wonder how the 6 billion and 700 million other Earthlings feel about that statement and it makes me cringe.

I’’m not exactly a fan of the American economic and political systems or the government -– at least not in the way they have been working in the past few decades. The original blueprint was fabulous, but its implementation has never really lived up to the vision. I hear the stories of what various family members on the American side experience or deal with and often think ““Life doesn’’t have to be that hard!”” Here in this country, I have grown fond of our little social welfare market economy and the sense of security -– the soft landings – it brings.

It wasn’’t always that way. In the beginning of my life in this country, I still had a sense of superiority. We Americans were freer than the people here, where the government still controlled so many industries and made its presence felt in many aspects of life. Nowhere was this more evident than in the grocery store. I had been used to having a wide selection of every product to choose from. Take milk, for example: Not only were there 10 different brands, each one had different varieties (1%, 2%, Skimmed, Vitamin D . . .) Here, in this country, there was just one brand of milk. And the bottle was labelled, simply, “”Milk””. Your choice was that you could either 1) buy ““the milk”” or 2) not buy ““the milk””. It was the same with “the butter”” and “the yogurt”” (though here you had two flavors to choose from) and “the mayonnaise”” (with “80% FAT” written large on the tube as if that were a selling point). It was similar with the meats, the sugar, the flour, the salt . . . There were no fresh strawberries in winter. No limes at all. Ever. And the junk food? I won’t even go there. The memory is too painful.

I found over time that I could get used to most of this, – but I couldn’’t adjust to the opening hours of stores. Basically every business shut down at noon on Saturday for the rest of the weekend. I couldn’’t even guess how many times I opened up my fridge on the weekend, pondered its glaring emptiness, and then had it dawn on me that the next opportunity for restocking was 36 hours away. “”This is barbaric!”” I thought, ““What is wrong with these people?!””

Television was another shocker. Two stations total –- both government-run. One of them went from early morning to midnight and the other from about noon till 10 pm. A third station popped up on Sundays only for a few hours and there was always an old movie broadcast in the original language. Usually in English, sometimes French. If you owned a TV, you had to register it and pay a monthly fee, whether you watched or not. (This is still true today!)

The postal service was state-run, as were the railroad, the trams and bus lines, the telephone system, the radio stations, the electricity, the water supply, the oil, gas and steel companies, the lottery and the casinos, the tobacco industry, the airline and airports, lots of the food sectors . . .

Over the years, this changed of course. Liberalization and privatization and globalization all made their way here. Technical developments changed the media landscape so that pretty much every American TV series can be watched here now. And a supermarket here looks quite similar to its American equivalent (except for the Cheetos, of course). I buy the Stainzer dairy products because they are local and known for quality and good treatment of animals. I buy Schirnhofer meats because they have great policies for their workers. I appreciate lazy Sundays, knowing that I couldn’’t go shopping even if I wanted to and that almost no one else has to work either.

It seems I have learned that having more consumer products to choose from and more TV stations to watch and more junk food to gorge on doesn’’t equate to “freedom”. There is a deeper sense of freedom that many Americans don’’t experience. The freedom to take a day off of work when you are sick and still be paid. The freedom to go to the doctor when you are sick without first calculating whether or not you can afford it. The freedom of mandatory maternity leave and five weeks of paid vacation time. The freedom of knowing that in hard times and elderly years, you will be taken care of and that you will never be a bag lady or homeless. The freedom of knowing that your kids can go to college for free and that you don’’t have to save up a half million dollars. The freedom to leave your front door or car unlocked. The freedom to walk after dark without a whistle in one hand and a bunch of keys clenched in the other. The freedom that comes with not being anxious about what is lying in wait around life’’s next corner.

I am not going to become a citizen of this country. But a few days from now I will be washing the orange out from under my fingernails with deep satisfaction and not worrying existentially about what the next day will bring.

First Clown in the Car . . .

. . . and we are off to 2016!!

I adore Ted Cruz. He is the absolute embodiment of everything that fascinates political junkies about the current pack of Republican partiers. Hypocritical to a T for hypocrisy’’s sake. He’’s . . .

  • an anti-elitist, everyman Ivy Leaguer,
  • an anti-immigration son of a Cuban exile, fast-tracked to amnesty,
  • an anti-Obamacare zealot now enrolling in the program while simultaneously promising to “fight “tooth and nail”” to tear it all down,
  • a professedly “brilliant” politician reading “”Green Eggs and Ham”” on C-Span and not understanding it,
  • a one-time birther, born in a foreign country, now reinterpreting the term ““natural-born” citizen”,
  • a proficianado of self-aggrandizement in humble tones and self-humbling in grand tones,
  • a minority candidate chasing the votes of another anti-minority minority.

What’’s not to love?

Except, maybe, that he and his fellow faux candidates perpetuate the idea of politics as a game or a sports event. It’’s a means to an end, such as securing one’’s relevance and/or future gig on Fox. And now this attitude extends to governing itself, with citizens being the losers of the game. 6 or 56 (depending on what news source you read) attempts to repeal Obamacare and the rest of the time spent trying to ban family planning choices. Oops. No time left for any other legislation – we’’ve got to quick pen a sassy letter to the Ayatollah and then dress for Bibi. There’’s a storm coming and we have planes to catch, but there is just enough time left to throw a snowball at the President and tell him: “WE DO NOT NEGOTIATE WITH CARBON DIOXIDE!!”

Because, Math – (MYoM – Part 4)

My older daughter came home from school in a horrible mood today and it took me while to get the reason for it out of her. It was the “Kangaroo Test”. For the uninitiated, this is one of the many standardized tests that students of this country are given in school -– although this one is couched as a “Math Competition”. Right. A competition in which the contestants (including the eventual “losers”) are forced to take part . . . I remembered how this same daughter had come home in tears a year earlier, after the results of the last Kangaroo Test were announced. They had been hung up on the wall of her classroom so that everyone could see her name very near the bottom, the lowest score. What a great idea! Let’’s top off our kids’ sense of failure and incompetence with a little public shaming! Who thought this all would be a good idea and why?

My daughter is not the most logical thinker which means Math is her toughest subject. Everywhere else she gets by well, thanks to her wonderful social skills and her phenomenal memory. I noticed years ago that she only needs to hear a song twice to know all the lyrics by heart. At school, she uses that talent to stuff loads of information into her short term memory without really understanding it. She proceeds to spit it all out on the test and then promptly forgets it. This strategy has kept her on the honor roll for 7 years, for whatever that is worth.

Once again I am even more convinced that my little school is on the right and better track – – no tests, no grades, no rewards for good work, even very little praise (although I find that last one a bit difficult to abide by).

Three years ago it just so happened that my daughter was learning about Ancient Egypt at the same time I was teaching the subject in my school. We did it as a part of a longer project on early high cultures that included not only learning facts, but things like designing togas and making papyrus, cooking Egyptian style, building miniature pyramids and painting hieroglyphs, mummifying one lucky student in toilet paper and acting out stories from mythology. We plastered an entire wall with huge timelines and then plastered these with pictures and homemade information posters.

On one evening during all of this, I heard my husband quizzing my daughter in preparation for her history test the next day. She spat out one fact after another:– the years some obscure pharaoh ruled, the number of stones in a pyramid, lists of Egyptian agricultural products, geographic features and place names . . . it went on and on. I got a bit unnerved and thought ““Geez, my school kids don’t know half of this information!””

One year later, my younger daughter began to learn about Egypt and I said to her “”You can ask Mitzi –- she did all of this last year.”” Mitzi looked at me strangely and asked “”What are you talking about? We never learned about Egypt.”” A short time after that, I handed out a fun worksheet to my own students and they immediately said “”We did this one already.””

““Really? When?”” I asked.

““Last year -– during the Egypt project.””

““Oh. I forgot about that. Well . . . do you want to do it again?””

“”No.””

““Okay. Well . . . then . . . let’s do something else . . .” ” And we did.

I can hardly imagine how my students would react (not to mention their parents!) if I came to class one day and said ““Hey kids – guess what? Today we are going to take a 75 minute Math test and next week I will tell you all who the winners and who the losers are. Doesn’’t that sound like fun?””

The thing is, though, . . . Math is fun! I loved Math as a kid. It was all puzzles and riddles and patterns. I remember learning the multiplication table and discovering the beautiful pattern of the 9 row. All of the products -– 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81 -– consisted of two digits and when you added the two digits together, they equaled 9 (1+8=9, 2+7=9, 3+6=9, . . .). That set me off on a search for the hidden patterns of the other rows. I was about 8 or 9 years old and I spent hours staring at that multiplication table trying to discover what I knew was there. I finally gave up and decided to ask for help.

The next lesson, I excitedly went to my teacher and asked about the patterns.

““Patterns? What are you talking about?””

““I mean like the 5 row that always ends in 5 or 0, or the 9 row where all the numbers equal 9 when you add them up.””

““What do you mean they equal 9?””

So I showed her what I meant. She looked surprised and asked,

““Who taught you this?””

I answered no one. I had just seen it.

“”That can’’t be true. Someone must have shown you this!””

I can still remember how angry and offended I was. And what is worse, I gave up looking for those patterns.

Over forty years later, I was attending the third day of an ““Introduction to the Montessori Method”” seminar. So far it had been interesting, if not convincing. Over the span of those three days, I had tried with varying success to suspend skepticism and keep an open mind. The last session I attended was a Math demonstration and I went into it unenthusiastically, knowing I would never be teaching Math in my school.

The seminar leader demonstrated one of the many Montessori materials for learning Math. It involved beads or strings of beads in different lengths and colors and she used a logical system to lay them out in a line, representing the 7 row of the multiplication table. And there it was -– a repeating color pattern. I stared at it with the wonder of an 8 year old. I asked her if every row resulted in a pattern of colors and she answered yes.

I was floored. There it was. Something I had been looking for since my early childhood. And it was beautiful.

Blue Envelopes

Ever since my husband got sentenced to prison for violating Section 31, Point 4 lit. e.i.V.m. Section 18 Para 3 Law Governing Association Affairs 2002, I have been having a lot of fun with it. When he teases me about one of my peccadilloes, I answer ““Hey -– at least I am not a convicted criminal!”” There have been a lot of jokes about my husband “being sent to the Big House”, in the slammer, and “doing time”. I told him that he is somehow a little sexier now that he’’s got a rap sheet. I asked him if he ever considered wearing something striped -– or maybe a jumpsuit . . . ?

Yesterday the humor fizzled when the postman left a yellow notice at our door instructing my husband to come pick up yet another official registered letter -– this time from the Provincial Courts. ““What now?”” we thought and immediately wracked our brains for any potential crimes we may have inadvertently committed. For the next 24 hours we were slightly anxious and irritated by thoughts usually foreign to us. Big Brother was watching us. Big Government was once again intruding into our private lives. Why couldn’’t the government govern a little less? For the first time, Ronald Reagan’’s “nine most terrifying words” rang a tiny bit true: “I’’m from the government and I’m here to . . .” What?

My husband had to work today so I went to the Post Office to pick up the letter. As the clerk handed me the official blue envelope, I was a bit relieved to see a whole box full of them. Whatever trouble we were in, it concerned half the village. I texted my husband about that and asked if I should open the letter. Ten seconds later, my cell phone chimed and I saw the one word answer: ““Yes””. I nervously tore open the envelope . . .

I called my husband and he uncharacteristically picked up after just one ring. “”What is it?”” he asked instead of the usual ““Hi””.

“”Jury duty,” ” I answered. I actually heard his muscles relaxing.

He asked for details about when and where and I gave him whatever information I could find in the letter. I could see him on the other end of the line, mentally checking his calendar and trying to figure out how to fit this in.

““I suppose there is a way for you to get out of it.””

““Yeah, well, we’ll see,”” he said and we ended the call.

I am fairly sure he will not try to get out of it. We share the same attitudes when it comes to stuff like this. It’’s an important civic duty, just like voting and protesting and educating (and paying taxes, by the way). The more people there are who do these things -– i.e. the work of governing – the better democracy functions. I love the concept of civil disobedience where it is righteous, and yet, I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, – “That government is best in which most govern.”

That means, I not only like big government, I like biggest government.

How blue can you get?

Fine Tuning

I am completely disoriented. Being the ultimate creature of habit, there is a certain rhythm to my days. Usually at this time –- 9:33 – no, make that 9:34 pm -– on a weeknight like tonight, everyone in the house except me is already in bed sleeping. I am in the library staring at the empty space between me and my laptop screen and breathing in the silence. The issues and stresses of the day are evaporating and then reforming in the shape of my next blog entry.

Tonight is different. It is 9:37 pm now and the post-bedtime procrastination activities of my elder daughter are still audible upstairs. The dogs are locked out on the porch and whining up a storm. A piano tuner is in the living room, hitting and adjusting one key at a time -– 16 down, 72 to go. Meanwhile, my husband is distracting him with questions about optimal room temperature and humidity, perfect pitch and how exactly one becomes a piano tuner.

It is now 9:39 pm and I am mentally calculating how long I will have to hold out before my beloved evening silence returns to me. I hear that my husband is now just preparing a loaf of bread to be put into the oven, so I have to recalculate. Difficult, since I have no idea how long bread dough needs to rise and then bake. For the first time in my life, I wish for that little nugget of wisdom.

– – – – –

It is now 9:48 pm. I couldn’’t help myself. I went into the kitchen and feigned interested in the art of baking bread. (30 minutes baking time,– but he hasn’’t started preheating yet – so I guess I have to add another 15 at least.) I generously offered to stay up and take the bread out of the oven if he wants to go to bed, but he said – “”that’’s okay, it is no problem””. Cruel man. On the way back to the library, I peeked at the piano tuner who was done with the fourth highest key. But he started at middle C and still has to work his way down from there, so I guess he is going to need a while too. Best case scenario: ETA of silence and solitude is 10:30 pm. It is now 9:53 pm.

My daughter upstairs just came out of her room again. Normally I would go up there and loudly express my dissatisfaction about her bedtime procrastination games, but the piano tuner with his good ear would hear it. The dogs outside have begun to scratch at the porch door and I can’t scold them either. It is 9:58 pm.

10:04 pm. Just heard the first bass tone, my daughter’’s bedroom door closing and the oven being turned on. Hope is returning.

– – – – –

Just took another tour around the house and ended up distracting the piano tuner myself with a discussion about home schooling and alternative teaching methods. Meanwhile my husband was in the kitchen researching children’’s literature during the Third Reich -– a subject mentioned in one of the student presentations he heard today that really piqued his interest. He actually found a video of one of the books described: – “”The Poisonous Mushroom””. We both wondered if watching that video didn’’t break the laws of this country against fascist expression. It is now 10:18 pm. The bread is almost ready to go into the oven and I am hearing deep bass tones. It can’’t be that much longer now. In the meantime, I guess this is as good a time as any to write that long overdue email to my students’’ parents.

– – – – –

10:49 pm. The piano tuner is done, paid and gone. The dogs have been released from the porch and taken out. The bread needs just 10 more minutes. Also, to kill time, we started searching for our flights to the States this summer using two laptops simultaneously to make sure we all got on the same flight home. (My daughters and I are flying over there two weeks earlier.) A discussion ensued about whether or not we would fly with Turkish Airlines. We decided to wait one more day to book – but swore to each other that it would be done by the end this week – for sure! We are getting really good at making that particular promise to each other. I am now back at my laptop, impatiently waiting for the oven timer to go off. Any second now . . .

– – – – –

11:21 pm. Despite the fact that the bread is long out of the oven and almost cool already, my husband is still in the kitchen. I can hear a soccer game on the TV. I’’m losing hope again. At least I was able to change into my pajamas -– something I would have normally done two hours ago. And I put a load of laundry into the machine. On the way, I peeked into the kitchen to see what the heck he was still doing in there that was keeping him up so late. Amazon.com. He informed me that he wanted to order a special vaporizer for the piano.

– – – – –

11:35 pm. That’’s all I really have to say at the moment. 11:35 pm.

– – – – –

It is now 11:52 pm. My husband has said goodnight and that the vaporizer is on the way. The washing machine is spinning and the dogs are back in the library snoring, but otherwise . . . silence. Finally, finally, things are back to the way they should be . . . except that now I am too tired to write. I guess there will be no blog entry today.