And It Didn’t Taste Good Either

My siblings and I have a running joke about Christmas presents that . . . how do I say it? . . sort of miss the mark. We call them the “Oh Mys” Being the youngest of five kids, I was the Princess of Oh My. Or maybe I shared the honor with my aunt and uncle, who seemed to give us girls the same frilly nightgowns year after year. My most infamous Oh My was a bag of combs that somehow failed to delight my 15 year old brother.

I have made a few unlucky choices for my husband’s present over the years – but this year was a good one. He is looking forward to his blacksmith workshop and visits to the fitness studio. I also found some locally produced rum (which he likes to sample with friends – it’s sort of a hobby) so I got him a bottle of that too.

Last night we had friends over for dinner and decided to try out the local rum. One guest (who had studied Political Science) looked at the bottle and almost gasped. “Who are these people?” he asked.

“I don’t know them. Why?”

My guest proceeded to point out all the fascist signal words and symbolism on the bottle’s label. The old German font, gold on the black background, was the print type used on old propaganda posters of the Third Reich. The use of the names “Valhalla” and “Nibelungenlied”– an old epic poem that was a favorite of Hitler’s and that he borrowed from heavily in his speeches on the glory of the Germanic people. A reference to “Heimat” (homeland). It was all there for the sensitized to recognize. Could it be true?

I gave my husband Nazi Rum for Christmas.

Oh my.

The Name of the Blog

My brother posted a nice piece of writing on Facebook which I am going to audaciously steal and post here in full without his permission. (And if you don’t like it, Bro, then, by all means, speak up! Notice the “Comments” section below. Or better yet, start a blog and publish your stuff yourself!)

So, here it is . . .

_________________________________________________

THE STATION

Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the Continent. We are traveling by train. Out the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we pull into the station. Bands will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering – waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

“When we reach the station, that will be it!” We cry. “When I’m 18.” “When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz!” “When I put the last kid through college.” “When I have paid off the mortgage!” “When I get a promotion.” “When I reach the age of retirement, I shall live happily ever after!”

Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the Trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.

“Relish the moment” is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24: “This is the day which the Lord had made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. It is the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who rob us of today.

So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more, cry less. Life must be lived as we go along.

The station will come soon enough.

_________________________________________________

Nice, isn’t it? The idea of life as a journey was the inspiration for the name of my blog. (And the little asterisk is not just a notation, it’s a shout out to all my fellow Trekkies, my brother being one of them.)

But his story also made me realize something for the first time. I had never thought about the irony in the idea of “life’s journey” before. A journey that begins with the arrival and ends with the departure.

No wonder we all spend a lot of it fighting against the passage of time and hoping there’s a heaven.

Too Early, Too Late

Traditionally, from early November to December 23rd, I become hopeless at answering the question “What do you want for Christmas?” I can never think of a single thing.

Today, on December 26th, an advertisement for this device traversed across my computer screen and I almost shouted “Eureka!” Even the description is perfectly in tune with my Christmas letter theme this year – that life seems to be going by too quickly. This is it. This is the thing I wanted and should have asked for.

barisieurThe Barisieur

The Barisieur is an alarm clock and coffee brewer. It eases the user into the day with the subtle movement of stainless steel ballbearings that boil the water through induction heating, accompanied by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. It encourages a ritual before going to sleep, signalling to the body and mind that it is time to unwind and relax. Living slow even when times are fast.

Don’t get me wrong – I got great presents this year. I love my fluffy bathrobe and cell phone upgrade. But this Barisieur . . . own this and you have a life. I want to wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee within my reach.

And while I am at it, I also want to wake up in a bedroom that opens up onto a sunny porch like the one in the picture. I assume the view from there is spectacular. Maybe rolling hills and distant mountains. Or a beautiful sandy beach and aquamarine colored water. I want to put on my fluffy new bathrobe, take the cup of aromatic coffee and my new cell phone and step out onto the porch, where I can leisurely check emails and blog and then read the news . . .

I also want to be able to set my coffeemaker/alarm clock for 7:00.

I checked out the website. Unfortunately this product is still in development. But some day, the perfect life will be available for the low estimated cost of £200-250.

Christmas Pageant Update – (MYoM – Part 21)

(Note: For the first half of this story, see “Click Clack Mooohmygod . . .”)

 

Tuesday was our last chance to rehearse “Click Clack Moo” and it was not going well. The acting and improvising had all been great the day before, but the kids were still mumbling or forgetting their lines. They rushed through the end so that the point got lost. They were all constantly looking at me to feed them their next moves or next lines. During the first run through, my mind was racing for ways to fix these problems in the next 45 minutes. When the kids had finished, a sudden inspiration struck.

“Okay, go put on your shoes and coats and meet me in the garden.”

I motioned to Dani to come with me and we got up and left the room. We went outside and waited. The ten kids slowly came out of the school and walked up to us with questioning looks on their faces. When all of them were present, I asked them to come with me to one of the goal posts on the soccer field. I pointed out a small area in front of the goal and said “See this area? This is the stage. Now Dani and I are going to walk over there to the tree. When we are there, you do the play so that we can hear you.”

And Dani and I left. The tree was a really long way off – at least 50 yards if not more. When we got there, the kids started arguing among themselves and eventually all found their places. They all looked at one another to figure out how to start. One of them finally said “Get going cows!” And they were off.

Once or twice, Dani and I yelled “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” or “SLOWER!” but then they got the point. They said their lines in loud and dramatic stage voices. When they got stuck, they worked it out among themselves instead of looking to me for directions.

We ran through the play twice and by the end, I knew they were as ready as they would ever be. I complimented them all and told them that those were the voices I wanted to hear the next day.

The play was a big hit. The parents loved it and were so pleased (as much with themselves as with their kids) that they had understood it all.

I felt like the Music Man. In my first foray into theater direction, I had used the “Think System” with the kids and it had all worked out just fine.

the music man

Virtual Christmas Greetings

xmasI’ve spent the past three days writing my annual Christmas letter. Yes, I am one of those obnoxious people who send out 8 page long year-in-review form letters near the end of December. This year it was really hard.

Blogging has changed my writing habits. I’ve become used to changing names and avoiding certain biographical and geographic details. Pictures are chosen on the basis of their facelessness. Insignificant details are changed to make the story work better. “Creative nonfiction” (or “embellished autobiography”) is the accepted norm.

And then I sit down to write a letter to people I know personally and who know me – people also spread out all over the globe. Some of them know of this blog and some don’t. For the former, they might recognize the “plagiarized” material. For the latter I am condensing an 800 word post down to two sentences.

In the end, I had to totally block out the world of WordPress and rediscover the spirit of the Christmas letter. So I have been absent from the platform for a while.

But this part of my life is important too. And I feel the desire to extend my Christmas greetings to all of you out there – you who have also become a part of my life in the past year. I love reading about your cakes and your waits, your unsolicited advice and shameful confessions, your poetic impressions and bitter complaints, your travels and travails, your patience and your passions. You are an enrichment and your friendly encouragement means something to me.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Scene of the Crime

A picture taken on October 31, 2012 shows empty chairs in a classroom of the University of Seville, in Sevilla. AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

My 13 year old daughter’s religion teacher walked into the classroom last week and asked the students a question.

“What is the most dangerous place in Austria?”

The students were confused about what she meant, so she clarified: she meant the place where a person was most likely to die, to lose their life, to be killed . . .

A few kids made guesses. The highway? A certain square in Vienna? Ski slopes? The hospital? They were all wrong. Imagine a little drum roll as the teacher revealed the correct answer. The most dangerous place in Austria for a person to be is . . . .

the uterus.

So began the first ocrime scene 1f two lessons on the topic of abortion. They had the second lesson yesterday. In those two hours, the teacher managed to impart the following “facts” to the impressionable young students (or, at least the few who were listening to her): that terminating a pregnancy is equal to killing a person, that the “embryonic baby” experiences pain in the process, that abortion is not legal and not a right, it is simply a crime that has been declared punishment-free. She didn’t use the word “murder” but when one of the boys in the class commented that it sounded like murder, her response was: “Well, you can see it that way.”

My daughter clearly wanted to talk about the lessons, but was a bit afraid to bring it up with me – and rightly so. She remembered my intense reaction a year earlier when my older daughter went through this same indoctrination. I was spitting mad and spoiling for a . . . calm and diplomatic parent-teacher conference. She basically had to beg me not to go through with it. This time, my younger daughter had the foresight to extract the same promise in advance. Only then would she tell me any details about the lessons.

crime scene 3Since I am now forbidden to talk to the teacher, I have no choice but to rant on the subject with anyone who will listen. I spew out my disgust over the obvious manipulation and the moralistic self-righteousness of this woman. How, during her protracted defense of all human life, she did not notice when one of the girls broke out in tears. (My daughter had to raise her hand and ask if she and this girl – her friend – could leave the classroom for a while.)

The saving grace of all this, is that my daughter proved to be thoughtful and difficult to influence through such obvious manipulation. What little respect she still had for this particular teacher has now been erased. She had some trouble with the idea of being “for abortion” but we managed to clear that up. (I used the prostitution example – how it is legal not because it is good, but because making it a crime causes so much more hardship for the women involved.) I was impressed by her ability to think the whole complex issue through and come to her own decisions. At the end of our debriefing session, she said she wished the class had more to do with ethics. In her case, it seems to me that no lasting harm was done.

And yet, I’m STILL irritated by my daughters – or any kids, really – having religion as a school subject (and have been for years – see “Heathen Talk”). This latest episode just adds to my frustration. I would so love to terminate my daughters’ religious “education”, but it’s now in the third trimester and too late to abort. I should have taken measures to prevent its conception.

Click Clack Mooohmygod! What Have I Gotten Myself Into? – (MYoM – Part 20)

A blogger I follow wrote a post recently about the importance of trying new things. The past five years in my little alternative school have been a perpetual exercise in doing just that. From the start I have just thrown myself into things without much forethought, thinking “Sure! Why not? I’ll give it a whirl.” That’s how I ended up singing in front of an audience as part of our little teachers’ choir. And how I ended up in London for five days with eight 13 year-olds. And how I became a History/Geography/Biology/Chemistry and Physics teacher along with English. In fact that was the attitude that got me to accept the job in the first place. I’d had very little experience teaching young kids at that time and . . . Montessori Who?? What’s that? But the Board seemed to want me (actually they wanted a native speaker, ANY native speaker) so I said yes. From that moment on it has just been one new thing after another. One jump into the deep end after another. My latest adventure has been in stage play writing and theater direction.

click clack mooIt started when three of my P2 kids badgered me into bringing English sketches for them to act out. I found a few in the internet and they eventually picked one based on the children’s book “Click Clack Moo – Cows that Type”. We started reading and then performing together and within minutes, other kids from the class started gravitating toward us. “What are you doing? Can I join?” Pretty soon I had ten kids participating and then one interrupted the fun to say “We should perform this in the Christmas show!” The others chimed in “Yeah!” and “Let’s do it!” and “Cool!” and then they all immediately started arguing over the parts. All of them wanted to have the starring roles. Unfortunately, the script was written in a way that the two narrators had 90% of the lines between them.

It occurred to me that most of the narrator stuff could be changed into lines spoken by the characters and offered to rewrite the script. That made everyone happy and we managed to decide who would be cows, hens, ducks, and the farmer. We arranged to start rehearsals two days later. That would give us plenty of time, I thought – almost a whole month. (heh heh, right.)

It turned out that writing a play was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I spent hours and hours on the rewrite, finally coming up with something that I thought would work on a stage and satisfy the kids (and their sense of fairness). I proudly presented the new script to them and, suddenly, seven of them became shy and started asking for less to say. Horse-trading in lines started as they informed me of their many ideas and changes (not all of them workable.) A half hour later, my copy of the script was full of scribbles and cross-outs and arrows and add-ins . . . I took it home and tried to decipher my notes as I did Rewrite #2.

I presented the new play in the next lesson with the information that this was the final version. Take it or leave it. And while I was at it, they had to say now if they were taking part – no backing out! All ten were still on board and we started our first real rehearsal. After two minutes, I started wondering what was wrong with them all. When we were just playing around a week earlier, they were all acting and improvising the movements of the animals and speaking the lines with ease. Now, all of the sudden, they were standing awkwardly with the papers in front of their faces, stuttering and tripping over the words, reading them badly in monotone voices and mispronouncing every third word. It seemed to me they didn’t even understand what they were saying. We only had three weeks left and there was a lot of work to do. The reading went painfully slowly as many of them got more and more fidgety, distracted and distracting. A few spats broke out. We weren’t even halfway through when little Emma interrupted me with a question.

“What’s my costume going to look like?”

They were suddenly all reanimated and flurry of discussions took off with ideas about what they could make and wear on stage. I realized I would need to call in some assistance. Dani, the Art teacher, to the rescue!

For most of the next two weeks, all of our rehearsal time was used for fashioning ears, painting cow blotches onto tunics, crafting tails and foam beaks, attaching eyes and bills to baseball caps, painting a big barn door and preparing the signs that would hang there. I managed to chase each player down separately to go over their lines with them, and each time I heard the same lifeless, monotone, unintelligible strings of mispronounced words. The more elaborate the costumes and staging got, the more nervous I became. I insisted on a pre-dress rehearsal – set for today – in advance of the final one next Monday. The first thing I heard when I got to school this morning was that four of the six kids with major speaking parts were absent. Another four had lost their scripts.

The curtain was going up in five days and this was going to be a total train wreck.

We decided to do a rehearsal anyway with me reading out the lines of our missing actresses. The kids put on their (fabulous!) costumes and we went to big room that serves as our auditorium. I gave them a minimum of stage directions (“Cows enter first, then hens, then ducks.”) And I added one more thing:

“Remember that a lot of your parents don’t speak English very well, so speak extra loudly, slowly and clearly, so that they can follow you.” Then I let them go.

It was like a little Christmas miracle.

They came out on stage with all their natural acting abilities in full force. They moved like the animals they were. Their moos and squawks and clucks sounded real. They improvised and gestured perfectly. They knew instinctively when and how to call attention to themselves and when to hang back so as not to be distracting. They knew their lines and said them clearly. They even caught me when I accidentally skipped a line. They were having fun and it showed.

Kids are so cool. They don’t worry about making everything perfect. They just give things a go and figure it will all work out somehow. I started the school day as a nervous wreck and ended it inspired.

Adé Blog.de

blogde

My old blog platform officially died today. I hate to admit it, but I have been looking forward to this event for a while now.

Ever since I moved from there to WordPress, I have been bothered by a conundrum with no clear answer. Why had the old blog continued for months to get more views than the new one, despite the fact that there were no new posts? The support at WordPress said there was no technical problem they could see and I should just be patient. The support at blog.de said the views happened because the site was “still active”. Right. As if all these people were clicking on stuff I wrote 6 months ago. In my experience, a post written before last Tuesday is lost and gone forever – never to be visited again (except, maybe, by Mom.)

An in-the-know friend of mine said that the statistics of my former home were probably not true and that the site was simply breaking down. That seemed like the most realistic explanation, but then, why did the views on the old platform spike a little each time I posted on the new one? I finally gave up and decided that once the old platform is gone for good, I might find out if some weird internet connections were recording views on the old rather than the new site.

I concentrated on my new home. Made a few blog friends. Reevaluated slowly the meaning of likes and follows. Decided that I had no desire to do the work necessary to build up a humongous readership. I commented only when something or someone connected with me in some personal way. Followed only when the writing was good or the person was interesting.

I thought A LOT about why I am doing this and for whom. I decided that as much as I like making the occasional connection with a like-minded blogger, I basically write for myself, for Ly, and for people I know. This isn’t an anonymous blog despite the weird name. People in my real life know about it, but none of them are under any obligation to read it. (That’s not true – my Mom has to.) I’m telling my stories and having fun. I’m writing my memoirs one vignette at a time and in no particular order. Someone else is going to have to take care of the Great American Novel.

In light of all this, putting too much emphasis on statistics (sometimes even obsessing about them) had the potential to suck all the enjoyment out of blogging. It was grain of salt time.

And yet.

My brain doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t like unsolved puzzles. Despite my hard won healthy attitude about the past 6 months of illogical numbers, my brain keeps working on the conundrum at an unconscious level, looking for an answer, as if it were one of life’s great mysteries.

The next few days will either shed some light or bury the question forever.

Rest in peace, blog.de.

From now on, I will too.

One-upmanship

I really should be preparing my lessons on the Paris Climate Conference tomorrow (“Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!”), but I first have to defend my coffee making skills which were severely maligned by Lyart today. Gone are the days when guests asked me how long I ground “the bean”. In fact, sometimes I brew it so strong that you can hardly make out the bottom of the cup. And speaking of cups, the defamation above served only as an introduction to her love song to a certain coffee mug whose beauty is most definitely in the eye of one single beholder and no more.

Despite the slight, I have to confess that I understand her sentimental attachment to a sturdy old inanimate object of daily use. I have a few of those around my house too. There is a cassette recorder I bought in the early 80s that still works while it’s four or five successors all landed in the trash. In my closet, I have a pair of jeans I wore in high school and could again if I lost a few pounds. We are talking the 1970s here. There is no way a pair of jeans bought today would still be wearable in 2050.

pailMy favorite example though is the garbage can in our kitchen. We bought it cheap when my (not yet) husband and I moved into our first apartment together – so the mid-80s. We brought it with us when we moved to a house in the country, which we eventually bought. In the 90s we briefly considered replacing the garbage can when we redid the kitchen, but it was still in okay shape and functional. In the Oughts, it finally broke, but by then I had gone quite green and was on a mission to minimize the amount of garbage I produced. I got much more satisfaction out of making an old thing useful again than in buying something new to replace it. A little duct tape fixed the garbage can right up. By the 2010s, my husband was also referring to it as “a classic” and I think I heard some fondness in his voice there.

Anyway, Ly, I think you should bring your old cup with you on your next visit. We can introduce it to our can.

Touché!

Floored by Susan Polis Schutz

sisters2I thought about my sister today as I listened to the distant sound of my daughters having a silly argument about whatever off in the kitchen. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tones were all familiar: the “you are mean and unfair” whine of the elder, the indignant “why do you care anyway?” snipe from the younger, the huffy “just forget it” pout from the elder, the sarcastic “okay if that’s what you want” retort from the younger, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on.

I’ve learned to stay far away from these discussions. If they are real and I do intervene, I quickly get accused of taking sides. In most cases, though, both of them start laughing as they inform me it is all an act. This has happened often enough for me to know that these fake arguments are a game they like to play with one another. I don’t get the point, really, but am also not about to ask them why they do it. It’s their thing. And I know in my heart that they are on the same track as my own sister and I were. We fought all the time right up to the moment she left for college. On that day I learned what it felt like to suddenly lose daily contact with a best friend. I can’t remember ever fighting with her again after that.

Watching my daughters interact always reminds me of my sister. We also share a particular sense of humor that literally no one else understands. How many times have my sister and I gotten nearly hysterical with laughter as the rest of the family sat around watching us with dubious looks on their faces? (Sigh. “There they go again.”)

susan p 1Once, during our college years, we actually caused a scene. It began harmlessly on an afternoon shopping tour. We found ourselves in a Hallmark-type store and started reading Susan Polis Schutz greeting cards to one another. (In case that name is unfamiliar, these are the sappiest of the sappy-type cards with really bad poetry expressing cheesy dime store emotions surrounded by slightly blurred, second rate pictures of hearts and flowers.) We read them out loud to one another in our serious voices as the effort of keeping a straight face brought tears to our eyes. We both got increasingly hysterical. I am proud to say I won that contest. It was my sister who had to collapse into an awkward sitting position on the floor of the store in a last ditch effort to stave off a more calamitous public embarrassment. I later bought one of these cards on the topic of sisterhood and mailed it to her. Inside I had pasted a close-up of me sticking a finger down my throat. She later self-reported that this card had her sitting awkwardly on the floor for a second time.

That was a great year.

Because my sister’s path from high school diploma to bachelor’s degree was not exactly the shortest distance between the two points, we had the luck to spend a year studying in Madison together. I was still in the dorms and she was living in an apartment with friends, but we met up fairly regularly for lunches at the salad bar and shopping tours like the one above. When she signed up for a computer programming course, our contact intensified. She was having trouble and needed my help – would I go to the computer lab with her while she did her assignments?

I thought she was asking for tutoring, but it turned out that my job was to sit like a lump at the computer next to hers till 2 or 3 in the morning, writing silly letters, checking out the other nerds, and twiddling my thumbs while my sister ran her program and debugged it, ran it and debugged it, ran it and debugged it – waving off my offers to help with the statement “I want to figure this out by myself.”

I should have brought some gumballs with me. That is what she used when we were kids to lure me and the other younger kids in the neighborhood into her play school. She and her friend had spent hours and hours setting up a classroom and preparing worksheets for us to do. I remember it being sort of cool. For about 10 minutes. Then it became clear that we weren’t going to be throwing spitballs and having recess or be sent to the principal’s office – no, my sister’s plan was to actually teach us something. We were supposed to sit at our desks and do work. It turned out she didn’t have enough gumballs and we bailed after the first assignment. Fifteen years later, she got her revenge at a computer lab in the middle of the night.

There are hundreds of other stories I could tell (our shortcut through Cabrini-Green in Chicago comes to mind, or my sister’s piloting skills on a certain houseboat trip down the Wolf River), and maybe some of these will come in time. But I have already used up more than the average attention span of blog readers and now have to find a way to end this. I need something a little special – something only my sister will truly understand and appreciate. Maybe Susan P. Schutz can help me out here . . .

 

susan p 2Sis, this is for you.

“One is here; one lives there. One is a little taller than the other . . . .” – Uncanny! It’s like she knows us!  I think this greeting card perfectly encapsulates who we are – how our uniqueness comes “in so many ways” that it is no longer particularly unique.

We are not only sisters, we are “sisters”. What a blessing!

That’s really what it’s all about.