Democracy – Lesson #1

My two step-fathers were both Republican and my mom married them anyway. They were both good people. With both of them, my mom shared the same Election Day ritual. They walked together down to the polling station holding hands. They cast their mutually negating votes, went to a nice restaurant for dinner, and then walked home again, holding hands.

Once, when I was a teenager, I asked mom and Stepfather #1 if they ever considered skipping the voting part, seeing as how they were simply cancelling one another’s vote out. Both of them looked at me with expressions of indignant horror. Not vote? What are you talking about? Voting is a privilege! And a duty! We would never not vote!

An Inconvenient Revolution

I find that I am not done with the subject of Flint. After posting declining crime statistics yesterday, I went rummaging through old files to find their companion graphic. Despite a positive 20+ year trend – here is how people perceive the state of affairs:

crime perception

After 25 years of teaching social issues, I am not at all surprised that almost 3/4ths of the population believes the world to be different than it is. And in this election season, when Republicans claim for the gazillionth time that Obama wrecked the country, I am sure that they sincerely believe it. We are all the products of selective perception, of the voices we choose to listen to.

More than Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or #BlackLivesMatter or this generally bizarre election season, Flint has gotten me thinking about the state of The States and the state of the world. It has thrown me back into my previous life when such topics were part of my daily fare. It is a conversation I will be having with myself for the coming months, right up to the moment when my absentee ballot arrives in the mail. Hillary or Bernie? Hillary or Bernie? Here’s Part One of that conversation.


All day long – as I was assisting my cleaning lady (doing the disgusting things like moldy-vegetable- and dog-accident-removal in a desperate attempt to keep her working for me – good household help is so hard to find!) my thoughts were wandering around aimlessly in my political and professional past, starting with the four years of undergrad studies that I spent debating god and the world with roommates and partying pals. Strangely enough, a lot of them were Republican and studying Business. And yet (!) – we stayed friends. I wonder if it is still okay to let the sparks fly and then agree to disagree so that the party can begin. Or . . . are college students now divided into separate but equally antagonistic camps? If so, that is too bad, because those years – those many debates – prepared me almost more than my Liberal Arts degree for the job I would eventually do for a quarter of a century, namely teaching English to Business and Sociology students at the university level.

After removing hair from the shower drain and shoveling the poop out of the kitty litter box, I took a break from household chores to surf through my old computer files and reread some of the materials I used in those university courses. I was actually searching for the unit on “Corporate Power” which included the film “Roger and Me” (mentioned in yesterday’s blog post) as part of the required preparation, but ended up getting lost among old familiar literary and social criticism friends. I was struck by the bizarre mix and high level of readings I had required my students to do. Everything was in there from Plato’s Cave to Mein Kampf, from Thomas Jefferson to Noam Chomsky, from Karl Marx to George Orwell to Joseph Stiglitz. From Gore Vidal to Malcolm X to Shakespeare to Douglas Adams to my sister’s parody children’s book. I had them reading poetry! Business students!

My cleaning lady cleared her throat a few times and it ripped me out of my post-intellectual nostalgia. Noticing that she had a feather duster and a rag in her hand, I ran through the house, quickly freeing all the flat surfaces of paper and garbage piles while collecting all the dirty clothes from floors and furniture into a laundry basket. “Social and Economic Issues” was the name I had finally decided on for my Business English 2 course. I wanted to discuss aspects of everyday life with the students – food, health, drugs, education, financial security, gender . . . – while investigating how both governments and (big) businesses affect our lives in these universal concerns. What role did each play and what purposes did each serve? When was it best to let the economic system freely do its thing and when should the government step in and regulate?

I openly admitted my intention to be subversive – to get my students to question the system they lived in. Or better, to discover the questions they had not yet asked – the things they had so far simply assumed to be true. Their professors were teaching them the tired old truisms that free enterprise leads to best prices and practices because the greatest economic force was demand and consumers made rational decisions in their own best interest. Then God said “Let there be money.” And money appeared. And God was pleased with it and let it make the world go round. . .” I threw out a question to my students. How about if we don’t simply accept these Truths to be self-evident, but investigate their veracity? I brought two loads of dirty laundry down to the basement. Through sheer luck I noticed the dead mouse in the bucket by the floor mop before the cleaning lady discovered it. I took the bucket to the basement door, tossed the corpse out onto the lawn, and returned the bucket back to its usual place. Whew! That was close!

ehrenreichI wondered what Barbara Ehrenreich (another of my required readings) would think of the power dynamic that existed between me and my cleaning lady. Her final argument about our system is in full –if somewhat distorted – display in my household. It is not the poor who depend on the “handouts” of the wealthy to survive, it is the wealthy who depend on the continuing existence of people willing (or desperate enough) to do all the hard and shitty work necessary for the wealthy to maintain their cushy lifestyles. It is probably my own awareness of this truth that keeps me shoveling the poop and removing the corpses to keep my cleaning lady happy. I started to tackle all the overflowing garbage cans, carrying bag after bag to the containers outside.

Over two decades of teaching the course, certain new truths became clear to me. The first was that no matter which issues the students chose to investigate, there were always a small number of huge corporations behind the curtain – or better, looming over the stage and holding the puppet strings. When we discussed drugs, the awful practices of the pharmaceutical industry came up. How their marketers dreamed up new uses for already existing drugs – suggesting new diseases to healthy people with the cure already available. Ask your doctor! When it came to food, we researched the rise of Monsanto, Round-up Ready, and processed foods. Factory farming and “The Meatrix”. We discovered how very little we knew about what we were putting into our bodies or where it came from. We looked at our clothing too and followed “The Travels of a T-Shirt” on its race to the bottom. We wondered which Asian or Central American factory our clothing came from and how old the seamstress was. Which reminded me, I had to start doing the laundry. While I was down in the basement, I might as well get the vacuum cleaner and carry it upstairs for my cleaning lady – she was almost ready to start the floors.

harpers cover 1In all of these investigations, the most astounding thing we learned is this: that what we think we know might be completely false. Or in any case, very incomplete. When everything periodically comes crashing down around us – like it did in 2008 – we act surprised and say “Who knew?” despite the fact that the whole mortgage crisis was described in detail two years in advance.

We are all busy, working hard with precious little time to really inform ourselves even on such basic things as “what’s in this water I’m drinking?” Instead, we choose which Kool-Aid we prefer (the one put through the lefty filter of MSNBC media conglomerate or the righty one of Fox) and we drink it.

I heard my cleaning lady turn on the faucet and fill up the empty pail with mopping water (no dead mouse here!). This is always the last thing she does, so I could finally return to my laptop to catch up on the news. Rachel updated me on the latest outrageous development in Flint and how Bernie Sanders is doing in the polls. Bernie is right in everything he says – but it is not only the big banks and Wall Street – corporations have gotten too big and consolidated too much power in every major industry of our economy, including the media. They have grown beyond or risen above the government’s sphere of influence. Politicians are reduced to puppets in the voters’ perception (and so they are drawn to the one who seems to be manipulating strings of his own.) It may not have been a big company that put lead into Flint’s water, but surely the perennial budget crises behind the decision to switch sources can be traced back to GM – the one corporation the entire city depended on – taking off for better havens. The people can organize and petition and protest all they want. The bag the government is left holding is empty.

I paid my cleaning lady – as usual about 15% more than she asked for – and tried to hide the hopeful tone of my voice as I said “See you next week!” It still came out sounding like a question. As she drove away, my mind returned to that other question: Bernie or Hillary?

I feel myself tending toward the woman with a plan – even if she is a part of a corrupted system. I truly like and admire Bernie Sanders, but until he explains exactly what he means by “We need a revolution”, I will not be voting for him. Do we need change on a revolutionary scale? Yes, of course. Fixing campaign finance and reigning in Wall Street are only the tip of the iceberg. And a lot of people are ready for change and willing to do their part. It’s just that we are going to be really busy in the coming months. It will be hard to find the time to revolutionize. In my case, I’m thinking Friday afternoons might work. Right after my cleaning lady leaves and before my daughter’s piano lesson.

Bad Neighborhood

Since moving to this country, I have been home in the States many times and have often taken this or that Austrian along for the trip. In 30 years, there has never been a single one who left with a negative impression of the country. Some experiences seem almost universal – like the way they all remarked with some degree of surprise on how open and friendly Americans are. How they didn’t see any one with a gun. How Americans are not generally obese after all. How normal and safe everything is compared to what they had expected from the movies or TV. Though, in this last point, something has definitely changed over the past three decades.

Before my husband came over with me the very first time – way back in the late 80s – I had had to reassure a bit him that my hometown was not the crime-ridden cesspool he might have imagined. After arriving at the seedy bus station in Milwaukee, we were waiting for my mom to pick us up when a very friendly black man walked up and asked us if we wanted to buy any drugs. I said no thanks. He wished us a nice day and walked on. We were picked up and arrived at my mom’s house a short time later, just in time for the evening news. It was reported that six people had been shot and killed in the city that day.

“Six?! That seems like a lot!” I said. I seem to remember my husband’s eyes widening and his face getting paler (but my memory might be making that up.)

“What?” asked my mom, somewhat distracted by the next news report. “Oh, yeah. Six. I don’t think it is usually that many.” She went on watching. Somehow, I don’t think her unemotional response made my husband feel any better.

Two or three years later we were back with one of my husband’s friends in tow. It turned out that the first new English phrase he picked up was “bad neighborhood”. My mom gets credit for that too. On our first day in town, she offered to drive us around the city – the place she has lived almost her entire life – and show us some interesting places. She was really enjoying herself and got uncharacteristically adventurous. She headed toward the north side. As block after block of street scene passed through our line of sight out the car windows, the grass, trees, stores, and people slowly decreased. “Closed” signs, vacant lots, bars, broken glass, storefront churches and garbage increased. The cars sharing the streets with us morphed into old rust buckets before our eyes. At some point my mom said, “Maybe you should lock your doors. This is a bad neighborhood.” The grand finale of this little tour was a drive-by of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building – he had just recently been arrested, if I remember right, and there were still tenants in that building that hadn’t moved out yet. My mom told us to duck down as we drove past. (I don’t know why, but something about that memory still makes me laugh.) The entire building was torn down a few years later.

I find myself wondering – sitting here now, far away and almost 30 years later – if things back then were really as bad as they seemed at the time. I know for a fact that crimes of all kinds peaked at that time and have been going down slowly and steadily ever since then. And not only in my hometown, but in the entire country. I’ve heard it said many times about New York – how much safer the city has become. I experienced it for myself last summer on our trip there. Walking around Harlem?! After dark?! That would have been unthinkable in the 80s and early 90s and yet, it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of town.

One of our hosts there was a biologist and worked in some area of (international) public health. I remember talking to him about this supposedly inexplicable drop in crime. He said that scientists and biologists in particular, had some intriguing theories about the causes. The major one had to do with lead. Once it became clear how badly it affected the human body – especially the brain development of kids – links were made between lead exposure and all sorts of behavioral problems, up to and including a propensity toward violence. All the efforts made to get lead out of gasoline and paint and pipes could be one big reason for the lower crime rates today nationwide.

crime rates 1 crime rates 2


Once again, I had to think of my mom. Around the same time as those early visits, she helped my brother move his family out of some run-down old rental to a nice little house in a better neighborhood. When I remarked on her generosity, she explained that she just couldn’t stand the idea of her young grandsons growing up in a place with chipping lead paint or barely maintained heating furnaces and plumbing. It was an investment in their futures and her own peace of mind.

Of course it is Flint Michigan that has gotten me going on this subject. All those children. In the absence of a whole army of my moms, they are trapped. And with no apparent relief in sight as the governor goes frantically in search of solutions, by which I mean more people and institutions to blame. Anyone who has seen “Roger and Me” must be thinking the same as me: how many hits can one city take? I wish Michael Moore would return to the scene of his first (and in my opinion, still best) movie and make the sequel – “Rick and Me”. He can document the next six months of his futile attempts to get a meeting with the Governor. All he will ask is that Mr. Snyder joins him on a trip to Flint where he can drink a tall cold glass of tap water.

rick and me

Wait a Sec!

Nara wrote something funny on the subject of waiting in her blog yesterday. Allow me to quote (or plagiarize?):

But we’re just… Waiting. As ever. I think there should be a guidebook called The Infertile’s Guide To Waiting. And in it, there would be lots of blank pages with “…” written on. And maybe every now and then there would be something like “Perhaps you ovulated!” and “Attend someone else’s baby shower/christening/etc”.

It got me thinking about the whole idea of (well meaning) advice for people dealing with waiting periods of unknown length for whatever reason (IVF, adoption, enlightenment, retirement, an apology, the Rapture, Mr. Right, a slow waiter, emergency surgery, rich Aunt Hester to die, Godot . . . the list is endless). As a skilled procrastinator, I think I could be really good at advising people on how to wait. I’m going to give it a try! Soon!

In the meantime, consider how much advice is already out there on the subject. The many sayings and proverbs and clichés and idioms . . .

Good things come to those who wait (because there’s no time like the present!)
Haste makes waste (when a stitch in time saves nine!)
Look before you leap! (Just do it!)

And then there is my favorite expression:

Wait a sec!

Really? Is it even possible to “wait” for just one second? Isn’t that the opposite of “waiting”?

(Random only tangentially related thought: In German, there is a word that is falsely translated in every dictionary there is. The word is “sofort” and if you look it up, good ol’ Collins or Langenscheidt will tell you it means “immediately”. But I have heard the word used a thousand times –by waiters in restaurants, or by my husband, to name just two examples – and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the word means a lot of things, but never “immediately”.)

And while I am on the subject of good things coming to those who procrastinate, I had Round Two of my complete physical today. Despite having almost all my lifeblood sucked out of me by Dr. Nosferatu three weeks ago and being on my death bed with multiple organ failures just last week, my doctor pronounced me to be “one healthy girl” and gave me an A- (which I can bring up to an A if I quit smoking.) My very active non-smoking, salad-eating, sports-doing, virtually teetotalling husband with his high cholesterol and persnickety liver doesn’t understand the world anymore. “Wait a sec!” he thinks, “How is that possible?”

Things are Gonna Change

I felt like writing this evening, but found myself a bit stumped. How exactly should I follow up on my last two posts about the mutual shaming of Dog Four and myself? In my desperation, I resorted to that tried and true cure for writer’s block: plagiarism. This, by the way, is also a debut – the first time I have posted any poetry. And after you read it, you will probably understand why. So here it goes:

things are gonna change

A poem consisting entirely of phrases from Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump

mr trump you’re right
look back there in the press box
heads are spinnin,
media heads are spinning
this is going to be so much fun

are you ready
to make america great again?
we all have a part in this
you hard-working Iowa families, you farm families
and teachers and teamsters and cops and cooks
you rockin’ rollers and holy rollers!
all of you who work so hard
you full-time moms
you with the hands that rock the cradle
you all make the world go round
and now our cause is one

you betcha

we’re watching our sailors suffer
humiliated on a world stage
at the hands of iranian captors
a weak-kneed, capitulator-in-chief
decided america will lead from behind
he, who would negotiate deals
maybe organizing a neighborhood tea
he deciding that, ‘no, america would apologize’
the enemy sends a message
to the rest of the world
and then we bend over
and say, ‘thank you, enemy.’

no more pussy footin’ around!
can I get a ‘hallelujah?’
you ready for a commander-in-chief
who will let our warriors do their job
and go kick isis ass?

not just that tragic
the ramifications
of that betrayal
of the transformation
of our country
but too, the complicity
on both sides of the aisle
that has enabled it

what he’s been able to do
really ticking people off
going rogue left and right, man
tear the veil off this idea of the system
the establishment
the troubles that we are in
in america

bust up that establishment
make things great again

we, you, a diverse dynamic
needed support base that they would attack
some of them even whispering
they’re ready to throw in
they can’t afford to see the status quo
slurping off the gravy train
feeding them all these years
they don’t want that to end.
well, and then, funny, ha ha,
not funny
but now, what they’re doing
is wailing
uh, uh, uh, trumpeters,
not conservative enough

how about the rest of us?
right wingin’, bitter, clingin’
proud clingers of our guns
our god and our religions and our constitution
tell us that we’re not red enough?

you know,
they stomp on our neck
and then they tell us
‘just chill, okay just yeah,
just relax.’

we’re not gonna to chill
it’s time to drill, baby, drill
the status quo has got to go
it can’t be salvaged
it must be savaged
are you ready for new?
you only go to war
if you’re determined to win
you quit footin’ the bill
for these nations who are oil rich
paying for some of their skirmishes
going on for centuries
where they’re fightin’ each other
and yellin’ ‘allah akbar’
calling jihad on each other’s heads
for ever and ever
let them duke it out
and let allah sort it out

things are gonna change

spent his life with the workin’ man
and he tells us joe six packs
‘you know, i’ve worked very, very hard
and i’ve succeeded
i’ve succeeded,’ he says

he builds big things, things that touch the sky
spent his life looking up
respecting the hard hats and the steel-toed boots
and the work ethic
i think you’re ready for that.

you’re ready to see our vets
treated better than illegal immigrants
you’re ready for the tax reform
to open up main street again.
you’re ready to stop the race-baiting
and the division based on color and zip code
to unify around the right issues
pro-second amendment
strict constitutionality
things that are unifying values
and their time-tested truths involved

now, finally friends,
picture this
exactly one year from tomorrow
former president barack obama
he packs up the teleprompters and the selfie-sticks
and the greek columns and all that hopey changey stuff
and he heads on back to chicago
where i’m sure he can find some community
there to organize again
there he can finally look up
and there over his head
he’ll be able to see that shining towering
trump tower
yes, barack, he built that
and that says a lot

Dog Four Puts Me to Shame

dog fourThis little girl had her ovaries removed this morning. I brought her home right after and she continued to sleep for another hour before getting up, taking her first few wobbly steps, and then half-falling, half-lying down again. By two hours later she had:

run around the house,
eaten some kibble,
run to the door to greet my husband,
run up the steps to look out the window at the landing,
gone outside for a pee,
jumped up on her favorite chair, and
made her first feeble attempt to get old Dog Three to play with her.

I, on the other hand, came home from work with a stomach ache two days ago and have spent most of the time since in a state of horizontal self-pity with no end in sight, self-diagnosing one organ failure after another, depending on where the aches and pains are/were currently located. Right now I believe it is either acute appendicitis or a brain tumor. Yesterday it was a bladder infection for a while and then turned into kidney disease. I also briefly considered ulcers, food poisoning and the flu – but not just any ol’ flu – some scary kind that makes headlines. Meanwhile, my obviously broken thermometer simply refused to go above the normal 36.8°.

By Sunday, Dog Four will be back to new and, with any luck, I will back to just plain old.


The first time I heard about “the Berlins” and the Wall (and actually understood a bit of it) was probably in German class in high school. This was only about 15 years after the Airlift and long before the declared end of the Cold War. My teacher told us then that, in her opinion, the two Germany’s (Germanies?) would never reunite. The Wall in Berlin would never come down. Based on her own experience, she simply couldn’t imagine it.

Five or six years later I was in college and doing an exchange year in Germany. Hitchhiking was a thing then and it was common knowledge that the easiest place to get a ride was at the border between East and West Germany. People were scared of the long straight stretch of highway connecting West Germany to West Berlin – with no exits and nothing to see but watchtowers the entire way. The drivers wanted as many people (or should I say “witnesses”?) as possible in the car. So, young people lined up at the border as if at a taxi stand, with every other car stopping to take a few of them along for the ride through communism.

(Now, Mom, please close your eyes for the next paragraph.)

On hearing this, two friends of mine decided to take the trip and asked me to come along. They were quite upfront about the fact that two young men were not likely to get picked up, but with a woman along, they would have a much better chance. In return, I could use them for a free stay in their friend’s apartment. I hesitated about the hitchhiking part, but finally couldn’t resist the chance. First I was low on funds, this being the only year of my post age 15 life during which I was not allowed to work. This was travel of the cheapest kind. Also I figured “What’s the worst that could happen? We stand for hours and don’t get a ride? (That happened) We get caught in the rain? (That happened too.) It takes us more than a day to get there and we end up having to find a place to sleep? Maybe at some stranger’s house? (Yep. That too.) We give up and buy a train ticket, like I wanted to anyway? “ (And yes, that’s what we did for the trip home). The only truly easy part of the journey was getting a ride through East Germany – it was exactly the taxi stand scenario we had heard about.


Once in Berlin, we hit all the obligatory sites:

  • the Gedächtniskirche – a bombed cathedral left in ruined condition as a reminder of the devastation of war
  • the Kurfürstendamm – the main drag and shopping street
  • the Kaufhaus des Westens – “the store of the West” with all the American junk food goodies we had been missing
  • the infamous Bahnhof Zoo as in “We Children of . . .”. It’s is a book about heroin addiction and a girl named Christiane F. – Germany’s version of “Go Ask Alice” (but with fewer lies).
  • the Brandenburg Gate – forlornly grand and just on the other side of the Wall
  • some club in Kreuzberg where David Bowie had supposedly played a lot (He didn’t show up.)
  • and, of course, Checkpoint Charlie where my more adventurous friends crossed into East Berlin just for the heck of it. As I remember it, western visitors had to exchange a certain amount of money into East German Marks – an amount that was practically impossible to spend in one afternoon and which could not be exchanged back. With my limited funds, I preferred to use them for the train ticket home. Little did I know that this country would cease to exist 8 short years later. It’s my only regret from the trip.

It would be another 15 years before I got back to Berlin. Once Lyart moved there I had a compelling reason to return – and have done so many times since. I am so glad now that I was able to see the city before, during, and after it’s re . . . –union / -creation / -vival / -sistance / -sillience / -furbishment / -conciliation / -discovery . . . . .

. . . . . its re-imagination.

Hot Film, Cold Fish, Warm Wine, Cool Day

How many times have I had the same conversation with avid travelers? (Countless!) They tell me how they always avoid the tourist traps and instead seek out the favorite haunts of the locals. That way they get the real flavor of a place, not the overhyped and over-priced attractions, but the experience of how the natives REALLY live.

berlin day 2Yesterday I spent the afternoon with two REAL Berliners, doing the REAL things REAL Berliners do. First we went shopping at a British bookstore and then saw an American blockbuster in the original. On the way home we stopped at a Japanese restaurant for some take-out sushi and sake. This was followed by a nightcap of Scottish whiskey and a round of English Scrabble.

All in all, another REALLY nice day in the German capital. Typical!