Potty Talk

We have had a strange recurring problem at school all year long. To put it as delicately as possible, it seems the parents of one of our kids have been a bit remiss in the potty training department. Once a week or so, a surprise of some form is left to be found by the next visitor to the boy’s’ bathroom and for the life of us, we can’’t figure out who is doing it. If a teacher or older student makes the discovery, they just sigh and flush or go get the mop. If a younger student is so unlucky, there are usually loud shrieks of “Eeeeewww!” and the drama spreads like wildfire through the school. The topic was even raised by kids at our last school assembly at which point I scanned the crowd looking for signs of embarrassment or shame. There were none. It seems our culprit is either: 1) oblivious to his crimes, 2) lacking in empathy or social consciousness and therefore not concerned about the outrage, or 3) purposely leaving his little turd droppings around to annoy others. In this third case, it is probably better just to ignore him.

Today I was watching my favorite news guy and one of his segments dealt with the latest outrageous statement from Rush Limbaugh. As his panel of guests began to discuss it, I sighed and clicked on the next video in the playlist – flushing away the rest of that discussion, so to speak. When it comes to Rush, it seems to me that he is either: 1) oblivious to his crimes, 2) lacking in empathy or social consciousness and therefore not concerned about the outrage, or 3) purposely leaving his little turd droppings around to annoy others. In this third case, it is probably better just to ignore him.


Nlyart has been going to a lot of funerals lately. Yesterday it was my turn. It was for a woman I met almost thirty years ago and still sporadically met for lunch about once a year on average. These meetings continued mostly because of her unending loyalty and her always forgiving me for never calling. She was not one to hold a grudge or dwell on the negative or make people feel guilty. She had a zest for life and style – something people here call “Pfiff”. So every year on my birthday or December 24th, the phone would ring. This year, I noticed that there was no call and it worried me a little. I knew she had been sick. But life distracted me.

Two days ago, the one person we knew in common called and told me she had died and that the funeral was the following day. Feelings of guilt for not checking up on her washed over me and I was thankful there was still time for me to come to her one last time. To give her some flowers as a small return for the dozens of beautiful arrangements she had given me over the years.

We met in 1987 in a Berlitz classroom of all places. I had taken on some work there to tide me over till my real job at the university would begin. The system of the place was very rigid -– it consisted of drilling the students one-on-one using a prescribed set of materials in an established order. In this way, the student could be trained intensively with constantly switching teachers. I would arrive at work, be handed a list of my students for that day including the last thing they had worked on. My job was to do the next thing in the manual –- no exceptions.

The method had a few advantages -– it got the students talking from the very first lesson and a certain kneejerk speaking ability developed, – but it still struck me as learning by firing squad. (And then, there was the student who answered everything perfectly in the first of two lessons. During the break in between, he asked me “”What were we talking about in there?””) Clearly, it was not the right method for everyone. Being a profit-oriented business, however, they were more than happy to sell an expensive course to three middle-aged women whose first priority was to have fun. A few weeks into their course, it was clear that they weren’’t having any fun. And they were getting pretty vocal about it. My boss asked me if I would teach their next lesson.

I walked into the classroom and introduced myself to the three students – whom I would later nickname “”The Housewives”” even though they were all working women. I let them vent their frustrations and then said I had no problem throwing away the book, doing something different. I ended up taking all the rest of their lessons in which I learned a lot of great recipes and cooking tips and they learned a little (kitchen) English. We laughed a lot.

When their Berlitz stint was over, I started giving them private lessons -– first as a group and then eventually, only my friend remained. We introduced white wine spritzers to our lessons, then we relocated them to her favorite restaurant, the Hirschenwirt, and finally we gave up any pretense that English teaching or learning was going on. She introduced me to “little bird lettuce” salad with warm potatoes, garlic and pumpkinseed oil and to another definition of the word ““Pfiff”” – a ridiculously small glass of beer. Every time she ordered one, I teased her, pointing out that the Pfiff really had no excuse for existing at all, being too big for sampling and too little for any other desired effect. She talked about her family and travels; I talked about my job and my daughters. We parted ways each time with some vague plans for a future pickling session – (she made the best pickles!) – and the promise not to let so much time pass before we met again.

After I moved away from the city our lunches got less frequent, but the birthday phone calls came faithfully every year and once or twice even from me. The last time we talked we made plans to meet the following day, but when I called her the next morning, she didn’’t answer. She was already in treatment at the time, so I sent her a text message saying she should call me when she felt better. From what I found out yesterday, she never really got better after that.

I was glad to see so many people at her funeral. And to hear the eulogy given by her nephew. It was actually just a long list of words that he associated with her. It included “birthday calls, Hirschenwirt, laughter, pickles, loyalty and Pfiff”.

Nine Months – (Reunions – Chapter 2)

I don’’t have a mystical bone in my body. I was raised in an almost mercilessly rational and logical household where the rules of debate applied at dinner table discussions. None of us believed in heaven or astrology or fortune tellers or homeopathy or reincarnation or any preordained destiny. The Ouija board was stupid game that no one played. Horoscopes were not even read, much less discussed. As a result, I never had that feeling that things happened for a greater reason or as a part of some master plan. With one major exception.

There is no way I can look at my daughters and not feel they – and we – were meant to be, however much my rational mind tells me that coincidence and timing were the only relevant factors in our coming together. Intellectually, I knew that had we postponed our original decision for another six months, Mitzi could be growing up in Portugal right now and Lily in Kansas. But I simply can’’t think that way and I can’’t explain why.

So as I write about our adoption process, I am writing about our roads to Mitzi and Lily – – exactly those two girls, who were meant to be sisters and meant to be our daughters. It is somehow fitting that those days and weeks were filled with blind trust and leaps of faith, with moments of near despair and resurrected hopes. With jumping through hoops and bending rules. Nine months of adoption labor pains.

Once you decide to adopt, labor immediately sets in. Its duration can be anywhere from months to years, but the bright side is that, as a couple, you share them. Our labor began in an office of a social worker in the district government building. For many couples, this is also where the process ends. Once they hear about the complexity and invasiveness of it all (the bureaucratic hurdles, the parenting courses and psychological tests, the home inspections, the waiting periods . . .) they already begin to think twice about starting the process. In some cases, the couples are discouraged from the get-go by the social worker. We were very lucky to have a wonderful woman assigned to our case who ended up doing everything in her power to help us and to expedite our process. This was especially important because I was already 38 years old at the time, and as we heard in that first interview, the average waiting time for domestic adoptions was 6 or 7 years. We immediately changed course toward foreign adoption.

At that time, Austria had not yet signed on to The Hague Convention regulating intercountry adoptions, which meant that no agencies were allowed to set up shop here. The only foreign adoptions allowed were those that went through diplomatic channels – i.e. India, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. And for us, that meant doing it all on our own. Now – years later – I am really happy about that fact (a topic for a later blog entry), but at the time it was a bit daunting. We ruled out Vietnam because of my citizenship (though that was probably unfair of us) and we ruled out India after hearing that there was a waiting list of more than 100 couples already. We called the Ethiopian Consulate and set up an appointment.

We found out there that there had been a flurry of Ethiopian adoptions in the 1980s during the famine, but then almost none in the 15 years since. But- just a month earlier, a family in Tirol had adopted a baby girl. The Consul showed us a picture of the baby and gave us the phone number of the family. He told us that we had to go through the whole process of certification for domestic adoptions and then do it again with the Ethiopian government offices -– with the help of a local representative whom we should hire and give our power of attorney. He showed us a list of Ethiopian attorneys and promised his help when we got to that stage.

On the drive home from that meeting, my husband and I decided finally that we were going to do this. We had our second meeting with the social worker to find out what we had to do and called the family in Tirol -– the first of what would be many many calls leading to a lasting friendship. This was the first link in what would become a large network of adopting families, with each one helping the next couple to come along. At this point, though, there were only three of us families – the one in Tirol and a second one in Vienna who was just a bit farther along in the process than we were.

The following months were filled with interviews and a four-weekend adoption and fostering course – half of which was devoted to reflecting on our motivations. There were about 10 other couples participating and a lot of them seemed to resent having to do so. And many of them were only feigning interest in fostering. Secretly they were hoping that this would be the quicker route to adopting. The psychologists giving the course were very skilled at revealing these couples and getting them to see that fostering is a whole different ballgame. It is social work, where adoption is not. The ultimate goal of fostering has to remain reuniting the child with his/her biological parents. Yet the couples talked about these (purely imagined) parents as if they were Enemy #1. I never found out how many of these couple actually got the official permission to foster, but I am guessing not many. For me the greatest gift of this course is that it got me and my husband talking again. The years of childlessness had made us silent on the subject, but in those 4 sessions, the dam broke.

And then there was the paper chase: resumés, birth and marriage certificates, proof of income statements, police record (or lack thereof, I should say), academic degrees, letters of recommendation, proof of citizenship, medical histories, statements of motivation, a home study written by the social worker . . . All of these had to be submitted along with certified translations into either English or German. Ka-ching!  (That is supposed to be the sound of cash register swallowing our money.) Then the whole package, including our freshly issued adoption permission had to notarized. Ka-ching!  Then the notary’’s seal had to be certified by the provincial courts – two of them. Ka-ching! Ka-ching!  Then the courts’’ seals of approval had to be certified by the foreign ministry. Ka-ching!  And finally, the foreign ministry stamp of approval had to be certified by the Ethiopian Consulate Ka-ching!  By this time, our file had 76 official stamps on it. We handed it back to the Consul who would send it to Addis Ababa to our representative along with our power of attorney and a down payment for her services. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!

And then . . . nothing.

Up to now, we had been kept busy. Not only with our jobs and house renovations, but with all of the paper chasing, stamp collecting and networking. Our constant efforts to see all this as theoretical were fairly successful. But once the file was in Addis, it became unbearable. The fears that something would go wrong or missing, some mistake had been made, some trap fallen into . . . they haunted us. Unlike pregnancy with its assured due date – adoption remains an iffy proposition up until the moment you have that baby in your arms and the court approved adoption contract in your hands. And before that happens, you don’t want to make any preparations, because . . . what if something goes wrong? So, no baby room is decorated, no baby clothes or bottles or diapers are bought, no baby shower planned. You don’’t want anyone even asking you about how it’s going. It’’s wait and see time. You hope. You trust blindly. You hang there in midair in your slow-motion leap of faith.

Land Art – (MYoM – Part 9)

I just spent four days at a sort of summer camp with twenty-three school kids and two colleagues. Although this is a yearly event in our school, it was my first time going along. They needed me because the group size had grown too large for one house and two teachers. I had no idea what to expect – I only knew we would sort of “take things as they came”. My only tasks beforehand were to go shopping for a crateful of the least offensive snack foods I could find and to bring art supplies for this year’’s craft project: carving and painting hiking sticks.

Monday morning the kids piled excitedly into the bus, ignoring the smiles and waves of their giddy parents who were obviously looking forward to the next four quiet evenings back home. Those parents, still smiling, wished me and my colleagues “a nice vacation” and we pretended not to hear them. And so began the first of four consecutive 24-hour work days.

The first half of the bus ride was surprisingly quiet, but after the rest stop where the kids had their first chance to shop, the volume in the bus rose in direct proportion to their blood-sugar levels. By the time we arrived at the camp, they were primed for the Battle of the Room Assignments. They needed almost half an hour to get themselves into groups of three or four and another half hour to state their cases for why they should have the rooms with balconies or not be relegated to the second “”Witch House””. They finally all agreed to let chance decide and each group pulled their room assignment out of a hat. There were some cheers and some tears, bags were thrown onto beds and we were all off to a late lunch in the dining hall. Swimming, exploring, and playing games filled the rest of the day. Bedtime ruckus was graciously short-lived.

Day Two went similarly to the first afternoon, with the addition of the arts and crafts project. When the kids had been told about it earlier, more than half had said they wanted to join in. When the time came to get started, only one boy showed up. But in our school, that is all you need. I showed him how to whittle the bark off and suggested some patterns and shapes he could try to carve in. We sat there with our sticks and knives, carving away, and two more kids came over to see what we were up to.

““Can I make one too?”” –

““Of, course! Go pick out a stick from the pile over there.”

” This pattern continued as kid after kid joined in and pretty soon, about half of them were in on the project. All I had to do was get them started; from then on they could work on their sticks whenever they wanted. Those who weren’’t interested were busy making bracelets, playing badminton or volleyball or board games. My colleagues joined in here or there, sometimes they just sunned themselves or watched the kids with smiles on their faces. There were no arguments or spats or tussles. The kids were grouped in ways I had never seen them before: older kids played with the younger ones, girls played with boys, usually sedentary kids were doing sports and the more hyperactive ones were sitting quietly with their complete attention focused on the stick in front of them . . . The whole scene was almost idyllic.

Day Three was my favorite, though. At breakfast, my colleague, Mark, announced that he wanted to do “Land Art” with the kids, something I had heard about but had never seen before. I asked him what I should do and was told to “just improvise”. He then traipsed off with his roll of red plastic ribbon.

When the kids and I got back to the main house, we saw that three large areas around it had been sectioned off with the red ribbon. One was the big grassy lawn in front of the house. The second was a wet and woody area between the house and the lake. The third was a section of the forest behind the house.

We gathered the kids and Mark told them that they would be randomly divided into three groups: the Prairie Tribe, the Swamp Tribe, and the Forest Tribe. He pointed out the lands of each tribe and said, ““As soon as you know which tribe you are in, you should go to your lands, meet up and decide together on your gathering place. Then you go out and explore your lands. You should gather the bounty of nature you find there and bring it back to your gathering place. Some of it you will keep and use to create a work of art -– a way of thanking nature for what it has given you. The rest of it you can bring to the trading post.””

“”What is a trading post?”” the kids asked.

“”That is a place where the different tribes come together to trade. The other tribes can get things from your lands that they don’’t have and you can get things from them that you don’’t have. And when you are done, you can go back and finish your artwork with the new things you traded for.””

The kids then pulled slips of paper from a bag to see which tribe they were in and they were off.

Fifteen minutes later, the Swamp Tribe -– who had renamed themselves the “”Swamp Gekkies”” got into a border skirmish with the Forest Gekkies about who was allowed to gather in a disputed region along the red ribbon. Meanwhile, the Prairie Tribe was complaining about there being “nothing there” until they started noticing the many different tiny flowers scattered around the lawn. The planned artwork suddenly took a different form in their minds. Two of the boys proclaimed they had no interest in flower arrangements. One of them left and established his own Tribe of One. The Last Moritzcan. The other boy was threatened that if he made any more trouble, they would trade him at the trading post. He said that was fine with him.

Meanwhile, the plants and flowers and branches and interestingly shaped pieces of bark and pine cones and rocks and moss and feathers started piling up at the three gathering places.

After a half hour or so, we called the Tribes to the Trading Post and they came – setting up their wares to trade as enticingly as they could. Then the bartering started. I was amazed at how seriously they went at it.

““I’’m sorry, but this pine cone is worth more than that swamp reed!””

““Well, what do you want for it?”

““At least three reeds.”

““We’ll give you two.””


Of course the most intense negotiation was over the exiled Prairie Tribe member who was on display along with the rest of their wares. The Swamp Gekkies and the Forest Gekkies had their second hot dispute, but the Forest Gekkies eventually won with their cool shaped piece of flat wood with a hole exactly in the center. The perfect vessel for flower arrangers. The Prairie Tribe delighted in their trade as their former tribe member traipsed off to become a part of the Forest Gekkies’’ artwork.

They went about constructing their works of art with a passion, completely okay with the fact that they were absolutely temporary. They were tributes to Nature and Nature would take them back. The sun would dry them out. The wind would blow them over. The rain would wash them away. Only the ex-Prairie Tribe member would be spared. After 15 minutes or so of playing along, he was forgiven and set free.




Over the years I have gotten wary of befriending English speaking people. It was always the same: an attachment developed and then they took off on me to distant places, leaving me behind. Nlyart was no different. Way back when, she was my neighbor and we saw each other every day. Now, a year can easily go by without a single phone call, and when one does happen, we find we have very little to say. But, to be honest, I am not sad about that fact.

It doesn’’t often happen that one can pinpoint the exact place and moment a friendship began, but with Nlyart and me it’’s absolutely clear. An hour beforehand we were still Mrs. Walking Someone’s Dog and Miss Current Golf Pro’s Current Girlfriend. An hour later we were both Ms. This is a Person I Can Talk To.

I still remember the table we were sitting at in the Theatercafé – a rectangular one along the back wall, with that wall to my left, me facing the stage and Nlyart to my right, facing the wall. I remember that our talk covered a huge number of topics past and present. In terms of upbringing, we had very little in common: religious versus non-religious, strong father versus absent father, rural versus urban (– well, okay, suburban), garden versus asphalt, homesteader versus wanderer . . . It took a while to find something important that we shared: we were both readers.

Sitting there talking in that café, we also discovered that two tiny incidents in our past had set off a chain of events leading us to that moment: ten years earlier, after some deliberation, I had checked a box next to the name of her country on an exchange program application and a month or two earlier, her future boyfriend had used a wrong preposition and ended up on the wrong train – her train. Life was strange and who knew where it would take us next?

Little did we know then that our future would include me watching her write an exam in English for three hours without a single cigarette break. Or us playing our thousandth game of Scrabble (with quite a few cigarette breaks) while the boys cooked dinner. Or us wearing Dirndls, taking shots of whiskey in a kilt-filled pub in Scotland (no breaks necessary). Or us taking silly pictures at Checkpoint Charlie just after the Berlin Wall fell.

Or that we would be there for one another when Nostalgia reared its ugly head and tried to muck around with the good things we had going.

Or, now, each of us reading up on the other’’s thoughts almost daily, encouraging her to go on writing.

We don’’t talk on the phone anymore. What is the point? No matter what we say, the other one replies, ““Yeah, I know. You wrote about that.”” So our friendship has gone silent. But not wordless.

In the 25 years since that day in the Theatercafé, I have learned that dogs and English speakers come and go. So do golf pros, for that matter. But people you can really talk to –- people who know you – they find a way of sticking around even after they leave.

Mistakes Were Made

In the entire school year, the most emotionally exhausting days are the two when the parents come for conferences. The vast majority of the talks are positive, but they still stay on my mind for days on end afterwards.


This week, I had another one of those talks, but this time in the opposite role – I was the parent and not the teacher. The original reason for the conference was that my daughter had failed a foreign language test and the teacher thought it would be a good idea for us to meet and talk about everything my daughter is doing wrong. We arranged to meet on Wednesday.

mise en scène

In the meantime, unfortunately, the situation got more complicated. The teacher had collected the kids’’ last five homework assignments, but didn’’t take my daughter’s because they were in a notebook and therefore too heavy to carry with her bad back. My daughter should photocopy them and hand them in the next lesson. The next two lessons were cancelled due to the teacher being sick, and when my daughter tried to give her the work the following week, she heard ““It’s too late.””


This set my husband off and he called the teacher (who just happens to be a former colleague of his.) It was not a pleasant conversation. By the end of it, the teacher decided she wanted the principal of her school to be present at the meeting. My daughter heard this and went into a state of panic.

en garde!

I got to the school on Wednesday and was lucky enough to run into the principal in the hall. He wasn’’t all that informed about the reason for this meeting or why he should take part. I said it wasn’’t my request and for my part, I didn’’t think there was a need for his presence. He ended up not coming. First problem solved.

mauvais quart d’heure

The very nervous teacher then appeared; we shook hands and went into the conference room. She began awkwardly by sort of asking me why I was there and what my problem was. ““Well . . . seeing as how you asked for this meeting, maybe it would be better if you began.”


““OK. . . . So . . . . Mitzi is sloppy. And she doesn’’t concentrate. Look here,”” the teacher said, turning to my daughter with her vocabulary book in hand and open to a particularly offensive page, ““this is wrong. And here’’s another mistake. And here -– here you translated this word wrong again. I mean, it is not technically wrong, but it is not the meaning that we learned in class.”” She turned a page. “”And here . . . here you did this totally wrong!””

enfant terrible

I looked at the page and saw a few red marks on it. Then I looked at my daughter to see how she was receiving all these messages. There was no defiance in her demeanor – only self-recrimination and confusion. Were those tears welling up in her eyes? The teacher continued: “”I explained this in class. Weren’’t you listening? Sometimes I think you don’t pay attention. You know, by the Matura you will have to know these things!””

This went on for a while until I had heard enough. It was time for me to intervene.


“”Okay, – we have established that Mitzi makes mistakes in her homework. My question is why she is hearing first about them now, after the test is over. Aren’’t these assignments collected and corrected before the test?””

“”No,” the teacher answered, “That is too much work.””


So basically, the teacher’’s advice to my daughter, so far, was to do the humanly impossible: to produce perfect assignments that need no correction and to hear every single word said in class. That wasn’’t going to work. We eventually got to proposals for how my daughter could get help and advice before the next test and one or two sensible new learning strategies. I asked my daughter if she understood and was okay with the ideas -– if they were helpful. She said yes, looking a bit more relaxed now.

pièce de résistance

““Okay,”” I said to her, ““I think you should get back to your class soon, but before you go,”” I turned and looked at the teacher, ““I would appreciate it if you told Mitzi what she is doing well and where she is good.””

The teacher looked at my daughter and launched into a long list of positive things –- her participation in class and in the extra afternoon lessons, her extra work and practice essays, all the extra work she does with her private tutor, her pronunciation and enthusiastic willingness to speak the language (which they rarely get the chance to do) . . . My daughter’’s eyes got bigger and bigger -– it was obvious that she had heard none of this before. Then came the best news. The teacher told her that if she kept up all the hard work for the last six weeks of the school year, she will pass the subject even if her next and last test goes badly. Mission half accomplished. My daughter actually smiled before she left us.

renverser les rôles

When the door closed behind her it was my turn to be The Steamroller.

c’est la vie!

““The major problem as I see it is that you have lost Mitzi’’s trust. She has gotten so confused and frustrated and scared,– so I appreciated you telling her those positive things -– I think it will help a lot in reestablishing her trust. It’’s really important that you continue doing that along with pointing out her mistakes. From what I heard at the start, the only message coming to her was all the things she does wrong. And not only that, the message is expressed so dramatically! You know, kids make mistakes. And Mitzi is going to make more mistakes. And sometimes she won’’t hear what you say in class. It’’s not the end of the world. But your evaluation of her has to consist of more than just how many mistakes she makes.””

The teacher tried to interrupt me and I think I heard the word ““Matura”” again, but I kept going.

coup de grâce

“”Her last vocabulary test was a perfect illustration of what I mean. This is how Mitzi described it to me. Four students came up to your desk with their vocabulary books to be quizzed. You looked down and said ‘‘I’’ll just use Mitzi’’s book because I assume it has the most mistakes in it.’’ And then you opened the book and started looking for those mistakes. You must see that it was the wrong moment to do something like that -– while she was being tested and graded.””

The teacher got very quiet and from the look on her face, I knew it really had happened that way and that I had her. I continued.

ça ne fait rien

““I watch Mitzi spending hours on her homework and Friday afternoons at tutoring and entire weekends studying for tests -– and I think “‘That’s enough!”’ – Sometimes even “‘It’s too much!’” Next year she will be starting over from scratch in her new school with a two year advantage over her beginning classmates. And it’’s not true that she will need to perfect all these things for the graduation exam, because this is an elective subject. She doesn’’t have to choose it at all if she doesn’’t want to.””

I was close to the finish line now. One more problem to resolve.


“”But like I said before, I think it helped a lot that you praised her and took the pressure off of her for the last test in June. She really was panicking before- – especially when you told her the school principal was coming to this meeting. ‘’Mama PLEEEAASE don’t say anything! I don’t want her to get even more mad at me!’’ Those were her words.””

The teacher leaned back and defensively crossed her arms in front of her.

déjà vu

““I asked the principal to come after the phone call with your husband. He was very heated and gave me the feeling that he thinks I am doing everything wrong.” (I couldn’’t help thinking: In other words, all he did was point out all your mistakes?)


““Well we were angry about the homework situation, but you have since admitted that it was your mistake and accepted the work –so that problem is over and forgotten. As for the rest of the talk, I think he sometimes forgets how people hear him now that he is a principal. I mean, you two used to be colleagues and he was talking to you as a colleague, but I can imagine you were hearing him as a boss – or something like a boss. I am sure he didn’’t mean to be authoritative or threatening. He was just a concerned father. I’’m sure he will be happy about the things we agreed to today.””


We ended the meeting on good terms, considering, with her thanking me for the productive discussion. Strangely enough, despite the steamrolling, she didn’’t seem flat-as-a-pancake. Au contraire. In fact, she seemed a little puffed up. Could it be that she hadn’’t listened carefully to every word I said?

Was this goodbye an Adieu? Or an Au revoir?

Happy Mother’s Next Day

For a holiday that was supposedly artificially created to sell greeting cards and flowers, I sure had a lot of serious thoughts on motherhood yesterday. For instance, when could I finally go visit my friend 2T who just had her second child? Or, should I wait for a few more days to write my High School friends about my upcoming visit? – One of them had lost her own mother this year, so maybe it wasn’’t the best day for upbeat emails. Or, a discussion that kept replaying itself in the back of my mind from a very sad parent-teacher conference the week before – with a single mother who was so clearly at her wit’s end and incapable of talking about her son rationally. The talk had set all my inner alarm bells off – it had all the signs of a crisis-in-the-making . . .

And then there was my own Mother’’s Day, which had started at our little breakfast celebration where only one of my daughters had a present for me. The other daughter -– as I found out later – had forgotten her present at school and couldn’’t get it until Monday, but she somehow felt she couldn’’t tell me that during our celebration. My husband tried to cover for her by saying the wisteria plant on the table was from her, – but she then blurted out ““and there is more coming”” without looking at me. I could tell how bad she felt and I really really didn’’t want her feeling that way. People forget stuff. It happens. I swooned about the wisteria and talked about where we could plant it.

In the evening, I wanted to Skype with my own mom, but she wasn’’t online – so I settled for an email. While writing it, I felt guilty about the fact that I STILL hadn’’t mailed off the long promised thumb drive with videos of her granddaughters’’ music performances. Inside, I was secretly hoping that she doesn’’t want me to feel guilty. People forget stuff. It happens.

Today, when I picked my daughter up from the music school, she had the present in her hand and gave it to me before she even got in the car. I had to open it right away, there in the car – that was important to her. It was a really nice picture she had painted of a flower and butterfly. On the ride home from the music school, we stopped at the post office and I mailed off the thumb drive.

Generation Pathetic – (Travels with Sam – Part 3)

My daughter casually mentioned yesterday that she had her last lesson with the “Native Speaker” in her school and I suddenly realized that Sam would probably be leaving soon too.

After our first two train rides together, I thought it might become a somewhat regular event in my week and a recurring part of this blog. It turned out -– unfortunately – that our train travel schedules went their separate ways and I didn’’t have the pleasure of any more of those trips into my own past. But a connection had been made and it was self-evident that I had to invite Sam over one last time before he leaves us for good. So I called and invited him to my daughter’’s confirmation party next week. Within 90 seconds, we established that: 1) we were both heathens, 2) we could give one another mutual support while traversing the completely foreign territory of the church, 3) a future meeting would be possible now that he had taken a job in Chicago, and 4) that it is really hard to deal with the thought that “the end is nigh”. . . . and then his cell phone battery ran out.

This morning I was in Facebook and saw his announcement of his new job, including a very special shout out to all those who had predicted his English degree would lead him to a life of flipping burgers. Some more Facebook surfing led me to a video from a series called “”The Newsroom”” with a delicious rant about America not being “the greatest nation”. (I might have to buy that show on DVD.) In that scene, however, the ranter pointed to the young rantees in the audience and accused them of being the “worst generation ever” (with some extraneous punctuation thrown in) – which I just don’t get. How can a guy my age tell the Sams of this world that they are responsible for its problems? Or worse than we were? I realize it is a fictional character, but still, someone should hand that guy a mirror.

My older sister was born long enough before me to just barely make it into baby-boomer-turned-hippie generation. I remember her tie-dyed clothes and her Fink Big sweatshirt. I watched her ironing her hair straight and marveled when she came home from the Brady Street Festival with a peacock feather. I coveted her “Flower Power” T-shirt -– all the more because I knew I wasn’’t a part of any counter-culture. By the time I came along, that ship had sailed. I, apparently, was a member of the “Me Generation””. God, I hated that term from the first time I heard it. Probably because, inside, I knew it was true. Instead of Woodstock, we had discos. We weren’’t on the road -– our journey to “discover ourselves” began and ended in the self-help aisle of the bookstore. We helped the devil move into the White House and then relaxed in a hot tub. And when we were handed the torch, we put it down and went shopping.

I remember saying all this to Sam on our second train ride -– how I thought my own generation was so pathetic. He sighed and said in a quiet voice “”Yeah. That’s true.””

Congratulations on your new job, Sam. I’’m not sure what kind of writing you will be doing – but something tells me it won’t be the kind that makes people dumber, more superficial, or more scared than they were before.

Indian Day – (MYoM – Part 8)

We have been doing a mini-project on Native Americans and today was the Big Event. A real Indian (!!) came to the school. He is from the Tsimshian Tribe -– so actually Canadian, and he has been living in this country for years – so actually a very modern and worldly person. But in the morning – when the littler kids were in attendance, – he pulled out all the kitsch and put on a great show. The drumming and dancing and chanting and feathers and masks and baby seal furs and bone necklaces and leather moccasins -– it was all there to both wonder and laugh at. We learned the moves of his tribe’s four clans and danced like ravens, eagles, wolves and orcas.

I enjoyed the “show” but still wondered how it must be for him. One part of him cares deeply about keeping his people’’s culture alive -– it was a severely threatened one. At one point in history there were fewer than 900 people of his clan left. The other part of him has to make a living here and the European fascination with Native Americans gives him an opportunity. I wondered how it felt to turn his own deepest treasure into a spectacle. At least, I thought, in the second half of the school day he would be with the older kids and have a chance to present us a more real version of his story and his tribe’’s – the past atrocities and the current issues they deal with . . .

After the break I went up to the classroom of 13 and 14 year olds. We sat in a circle on the carpet and waited for the arrival of our guest – who, by the way, was no longer an ““Indian”” now, but a ““Native Person”” or a “”First Nation Citizen””. The kids were very quiet for a change. Suddenly we heard a loud farting noise coming from the stairwell followed by a loud and long belching sound. Then our guest walked through the door and said, ““Ooops! I hope you all didn’’t hear me farting.!” Then he joined the circle. He leaned over to the boy next to him, grabbed the sleeve of his T-shirt and blew his nose into it. Then he spotted one boy’’s cell phone and launched into a tirade about kids-these-days and how the only body parts they use anymore are their thumbs. He looked straight at the boy and said ““You know, moving your thumbs like that isn’’t going to help you get any girls.””

He had their attention.

“”So when I was your age and in school on the reservation, we weren’’t allowed to speak our native tongue -– actually there were only two of us who even could speak it anymore -– we had to speak English. It was the law. If we got caught speaking our language we had to hold out our hands and they hit us with big sticks.””

Over the next hour he covered the wildest variety of subjects in no particular order: from building canoes to fixing old cell phones, from the many uses of baby pee to fracking, from burying the dead to politics . . .

At this point two boys started getting fidgety and were playing tug-o-war with a sweatshirt. Our guest reached over and grabbed it from them. He wiped his forehead with it, and then under his armpits. Then he wiped his butt with it and handed it back.

He talked about how hard it still is for the tribe to protect their land – even though they had been living continuously on it for 13,000 years. Then he moved to hunting, killing, gutting, and eating beaver (in gruesome detail). That got some of the girls to react loudly so he looked at them and said ““Well somebody has to kill the animals that you eat! How do you think they do that?””

““Actually,”” I said, ““a lot of these girls are vegetarians.””

“”We Indians have an old joke that a vegetarian is just a bad hunter.””

I asked him quickly how beaver meat tastes. He said it’s a little pungent and that dog meat is better. This brought another reaction from the kids. He asked them if they had dogs at home and one girl said yes. “Male or female?” he asked. She said female and added that her dog was really fat. Our guest responded ““Good! The females taste better.”And the fat makes them juicy.”

Unfortunately, he was talking to the one girl in the group least likely to understand his sense of humor. She looked like she was going to cry. I assured her that her pet was safe and quickly asked our guest another question to change the subject . . .

The presentation ended a while later and a bit abruptly. While our guest was talking about his “Urban Indian” grandchildren, we all were increasingly distracted by a ruckus outside. We finally all had to get up, go to the windows and see what was going on. It turned out that my colleague was trying to put up a teepee with the younger kids and it wasn’’t going well. Just as we looked out the window, the wobbly structure of poles and tarp started crashing down around them. They were all ducking and shielding their heads and running for cover. Our guest sighed and said ““Those people need an Indian.””

He left us and went down to help them.

Later, I thought about the whole presentation experience. “What in the hell was that all about??” Slowly it occurred to me that our guest had completely defied all my own expectations. In the second half, I had pictured a moving story of trials and tribulations and trails of tears. And maybe that would have been as much of a cliché as the costumed raven dance drumbeat chanting . . .

In the afternoon there was a totem pole carving workshop for adults and I got the chance to talk to our guest privately during a short coffee break.

““Can I ask you directly? That whole start -– the thing with the farting -– did you do that on purpose?””

He smiled and said, “”Yeah. You know. It’’s just human stuff. Puts ‘‘em at ease. Opens them up.””

I realized that after the morning’’s show, it must have felt really great to him to simply be himself. No tragic stories – though he certainly knows many. No inspirational tales of survival against all odds. Though that is not unimportant to him.

Turns out, my kids didn’’t meet “”an Indian”” today. They met a person. An unusual person of interesting descent.

The Decision – (Reunions – Chapter 1½)

Involuntary childlessness sucks. Believe me, I know what I am talking about. I went through it for 11 years.

Months before my wedding date, all medicinal means of family planning disappeared from my life and the chips were allowed to fall where they may. Destiny would decide when the first crib appeared in our household. Life went on. And on. And on. Little did we know when we left our life in the hands of fate that she was such a procrastinator.

Over the following decade, my friends and sister and sisters-in-law pressed out one baby after another while I let a thermometer and a calendar determine what I did and when. That got a bit old.

Enter the specialists.

The problem with them – beyond the yuckiness of those examinations for both of us – is not that they didn’’t find any reasons. They all found reasons -– after all, that is what we were paying them to do. They just found different reasons. At some point you start putting off the next appointment. At some point you completely stop talking about it. At some point you realize this medical way is not your way.

So where did that leave us? I have already written about the long time it took for my husband to even consider adoption. (“Color Blind“). A long time before that moment, I once asked him straight out if he still even wanted kids. He said he didn’’t know. I said I needed to know his answer in order to figure out how I felt. He said he needed time, so I gave that to him. Six months later, I brought it up again. Still no answer. Many more months went by, still nothing. In the end, the answer came a year and a half after the original question was asked, and it came as “”No”.”

The very next day he walked in the front door after work, a scrap of paper in his hand with a telephone number scribbled on it. He said it was of a couple who had just adopted a child from Romania. It seemed that once the words were out of his mouth, he realized they weren’’t true. He did want a family.

And we were off.

Nine months later -– almost to the day -– I was standing in the Missionaries of Charity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and a nun named Sister Mariska was placing a bundle into my arms.