Books on Birds, Bees . . .

bird and bee

As I have mentioned before, I thought about a lot of weird stuff as a kid. In fact, I spent a good part of my childhood in strange thought experiments, pondering this and that, trying to work things out. Why were there so few colors and could I think up a new one if I really tried? How would Math work if humans had six fingers on each hand? How do they get the music on to those vinyl records? But when it came to where babies came from – I was only ever-so-slightly intrigued. Not enough to really spend time pondering it all. Men and women got married and spent a lot of time in each other’s company. Babies happened. No storks were necessary ( – that story was so lame). There were no questions.

That made it all the more shocking to me when all my non-existent questions were answered late one winter night in a cabin full of girl scouts at Camp Minikani. (See, Bitter Ben – once again it is those darn scouts! They are to blame!) Our hippie counselor had snuck out to join the other adults and the bunk-bed discussions began. An older girl started explaining the . . . production process . . . to a younger one and I listened in. Basically I had no choice.

Like many young kids (I assume) my first reaction was “Eewww!” Then came the realization – like a tidal wave rolling over me – “My parents did THAT!?!” Then the third wave crashed: “And they did it FIVE times!” While I was dealing with the undertow, the younger girl was made to repeat it all (to make sure she really understood, they said. Right. There was no sadistic pleasure happening here – this was all purely educational.) Then one of the good Samaritans said it was my turn to repeat the information. I pretended to be asleep.

It was only after this camp experience that I noticed the books. They were casually placed around our house for any of us kids to find. Masters and Johnson, David Reuben’s “Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex* (*but was afraid to ask)” . . . there might have been more. The first time I took one off a shelf to look at, I saw that it had been read a lot before. If I stood it on its back and let it go, it would always fall open to pages with interesting illustrations. My mom saw me looking at one of them once and said “If you have any questions, you can ask me.” I thanked her politely and she left the room. That was sex education in the early 70s.

Fast forward nearly 40 years and I was now the mom. But, once again, I was confronted with the topic a bit too early. My daughter was only in the 3rd grade when a letter came from her school. They wanted to offer a program with a team of social workers who would come to the school and talk to the kids about various topics. The title was something like “My Body Belongs to Me – Sexual Abuse Prevention” – who doesn’t want that for their kids? The first stage was a mandatory parent’s evening during which they ran through the entire program with us first. It was exceptionally well done. And yet . . .

At the end, the parents were encouraged to ask questions, make objections, . . . whatever. The silence was deafening. Slowly, a hand started going up and it surprised me to realize it was my own. I thought “Oh, shit!” when they noticed and called on me. Slightly panicked, I fell back on my training in negotiation: Begin with a compliment.

“I think it is very important what you are doing here. But . . . I am fairly sure my daughter doesn’t know about sex yet. And I’m worried about her learning about sexual abuse before she even knows what sex is.”

There was a murmur in the crowd. Then came the response.

“I understand your concerns. You should have the talk with her before we begin.”

The murmurs got louder. I responded.

“I don’t have a problem talking to her about this subject. But I have always gone with the principle of waiting till the question is asked and then answering it honestly. She hasn’t shown any curiosity about this yet. And if she had, she would ask me, I know that.”

It was a strong argument I thought. I had used this same approach to deal with all the questions my kids had about their adoptions and birth parents. So far it had gone really well. The social worker, however, was not convinced.

“Because of internet and cell phones today, it can happen so fast that your child is shown a porn video or confronted with something trashy from YouTube. It’s better they hear it from you than be introduced to sex in that way. You should have the talk with her before we begin.”

(Fast Forward: Years later, this exact thing happened to a very young student of mine. The drawings he started making in art class set the alarm bells off. A parent/teacher conference ensued quickly and I observed the mother’s face going white as she looked at her son’s artistic renderings. I felt so bad for her . . . )

After that, one of the parents complained that one of the points in the program (sexual abuse committed by a mother) was completely unacceptable. A mother would never do such a thing! I watched the social workers carefully as they dealt with this subject. They were fantastically diplomatic as they stuck to their guns. I also felt they were right. (I had read “Sybil” in Junior High School. It got passed around from student to student and it was another one of those books that simply fell open to the most insidious chapter. The kitchen scene. It haunted me for years.) It was during this discussion that I decided – if they were right about this point, they were probably right in their advice to me.

I related the whole evening to my husband later and we ordered the books suggested in the parents’ evening. They arrived quickly and we placed them casually around the house for our daughters to discover. Days and days went by and, still, they didn’t take the bait. The day of the school program approached as the books lay untouched and gathering dust. We clearly needed a Plan B.

Two days before the program, my husband got the girls up and ready for school as usual. The bus was late. Suddenly my husband noticed that it was only 5:30 am, not 6:30. They had an hour to kill. “How about if we read a book?” he suggested.

He called me from work later in the morning to tell me about it. According to him, the girls were not particularly impressed. There were no questions.

I sat there, sipping my morning coffee, feeling just a little relieved. The Talk had happened. I thought about my girls on the school bus that morning and how they might have felt. I thought about my husband’s completely uncharacteristic clock reading “mistake”. I was ever-so-slightly intrigued. But not enough to really spend time pondering it all.

Freedom Egg

freedom egg

The top guy in our local chapter of the Freedom Party came by today and gave us this Easter egg. Of course it is blue – the party’s color. How nice. Maybe I’ll vote for them after all. Oh wait – I’m not allowed to vote. I’m a foreigner.

To be precise, they aren’t really the Freedom Party (“Freiheit”), but the Freedom-like or Freedom-ish Party (“freiheitlich”) – which always makes me think of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”. And like all political parties claiming to be freedomish, their definition of that term is hard to discern. It’s clear what they want freedom FROM: from government and regulation, from conservatives and socialists, from the EU and political correctness, and, of course, freedom from foreigners. The freedoms TO . . . do whatever  . . . are much less clear. What would actually be freer if they got into power – I mean, beyond cigarette lighters in election season and blue eggs in March?

The last election to happen while I was still teaching university students was for the European Union Parliament back in 2009. We discussed the platforms of all the parties, with the freedomish one providing some comic relief – literally! Part of their campaign came in the form of a comic book distributed throughout the country. It was all about the heroic acts of their national leader, HC Strache with his bluest of eyes. Here’s a little taste:

blue planet comic book
Translation: “We are only hospitable to guests who also behave like guests. Now get outta here!!”

 

More recently and locally, this same party got almost a third of the votes in my little village last year with their campaign slogans “Foreigner in your own country?” and “YOUR chance for REVENGE!” The posters shouting out these words also featured pictures of local party members, including the bearer of today’s blue egg. He is actually one of my nearest neighbors. He owned the gas station and restaurant at the bottom of our hill. Despite his retiring recently, this restaurant is still the favorite hangout of the village’s freedomish people.

And we all just got new neighbors. 100 meters uphill from the restaurant, an old Bed & Breakfast was renovated to house 30 refugees – all young men from various nations. Separated only by a meadow and a small stream, those two houses can now spend all day pondering one another. I wonder if the refugees – actually, we call them “migrants” now – got blue eggs today too?

Me and My Shadow

Whenever I am home and chance to look down at the floor – some version of this is what I usually see:

dogthree1My Dog Three. She is going on 15 years old which is really old for a dog her size. As I have mentioned before, she is deaf, almost blind and fairly senile. She’s also got some kind of doggie Parkinson’s, so she trembles a lot. Her back legs give out on her at times, and if I accidentally tug a little too hard on the leash, she topples over. But she can still chase the cat and make it all the way around the cornfield, even picking a little fight with an unimpressed cow along the way.

She’s always been a quivery, hypersensitive thing, but in the past half year, it has gotten more noticeable. If she is not sleeping in her bed, she is always within a meter or so of me – usually next to my desk. Whenever I get up to do something, I hear her sigh and drag herself up to follow.

 

dogthree2When I go get a glass of water from the kitchen, there she is. If I stay longer at the sink –doing dishes, for instance – then she comes up and stands directly behind me. I feel her leaning against the back of my knees.

 

dogthree3When I go out on the porch, there she sits. (She has trouble getting over the stoop and so usually waits inside.)

 

 

dogthree4

When I come up from the basement after doing laundry or something, there she stands at the top of the steps.

 

Even when I go to the bathroom, she comes and stands guard. If I don’t close the door completely, she pushes it open with her snout and I see this:

dogthree5

I fully realize that those of you out there who are not dog-people will probably find all this just a bit creepy. She has always looked scarier than my other dogs and old age has not exactly made her more attractive. But for me it has become normal – even comforting – to be stalked this way. It’s a little sad, and, somehow, so lovely.

A Love Song to My Spam Fans

I have recently discovered the fun of reading spam comments filtered out by Akismet. (If “kismet” means luck, then does “akismet” mean “no luck”feeder?) They are always so complimentary and contain such cute grammar mistakes. I like the fact that they all come from sites with running shoe brands in their names. I love how wonderfully inappropriate they are to the theme of whatever post attracted their algorithms. Take today’s example. It came attached to an earlier post about funny inventions my brothers drew as kids (“Grand Theft Notebook”). The comment specifically referred to “The Automatic Dog Feeder” invention (see picture) and said this:

Very efficiently written information. It will be supportive to anybody who usess it, including yours truly :).

I so wish I could reply!

Dear Mr. Spammer, Thank you for the compliment. I wish you the best of luck in building your dog feeding machine! And, if you don’t mind, please send me a picture of it when it is finished.

A Clash of Titans

clash1

I’ve had a wrestling match going on inside my body for the past two weeks. Or to be more accurate, I haven’t. But I should. Let me explain.

clash2Picture the ring.  In one corner is The Power of Pain making me dutifully swallow the pills, drink the tea and lie on the couch. In the other corner is The Force of Habit – and that particular force is strong with me – which keeps me gravitating to my laptop, sitting for too long, falling back into my slouchy posture, and forgetting to eat.  My recuperation has been a roller coaster ride as a result. After two sort of bad days in a row, I woke up this morning and just knew I didn’t want to take any more pills. Not only are they making me feel depressed, they are only treating the symptoms (pain) and not the cause (habits). It’s time to let these two have at each other.

Contestants on your marks! Blow the whistle!

clash3

Sorry Life Stories

My cleaning lady and I don’t talk a lot. Partly it’s because her German is quite limited, her English is nonexistent, and my Hungarian consists of hello, goodbye and “one coffee please thank you”. Usually when I say something to her, she just smiles, laughs a little and agrees. So we have conversations like this:

“How was your week?”

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh).

Or, today:

“J., you don’t have to do anything in Mitzi’s room today. It’s a disaster zone. Just shut the door and forget about it.”

“Yes, ok, yes.” (Little laugh.)

She then started on the upstairs bathroom while I did the kitchen – the other disaster zone she doesn’t have to deal with. As I was sorting through the vegetable and fruit baskets, removing all the things that were no longer edible, my cleaning lady came in with a huge collection of dirty, crusty dishes and glasses, cups lined in dried cocoa with the spoon cemented to the bottom, a bag full of used tissues, empty plastic bottles and potato chip bags, candy wrappers . . .

“Oh! Are those from Mitzi’s room?  You didn’t have to do that!”

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh)

 

food1Despite my troubles in communicating with my cleaning lady, this morning had no shortage of stories. That is because I decided, as long as I was at it, to rid all the kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator of expired foodstuffs too. In the process I discovered all sorts of new life forms residing in back recesses. Some had grown eyes. Some had grown hair. Some were all shriveled and discolored. Hard things had become flaccid and creamy things had hardened. Juicy things had dried up and once crispy things had become juicy. Some of the foods I simply couldn’t identify anymore. Some were wrapped in tin foil and I just tossed them out uninspected. Some of them had been there so long that they seemed close to achieving mobility or even sentience. And they all had stories to tell.

food2Take these pineapples for example:

Life started out so well for them. They blossomed and thrived somewhere in the Philippines in a region which I am pretty sure was NOT called “Sweet Valley”. They had decent lives until one day a few years ago when the machete showed up. Suddenly they were being rounded up and sent with 1000s of their kind to collection centers in Indonesia. Then the sorting began and these particular ones were not considered attractive or useful enough to be spared and left intact. They were handled roughly, stripped, sliced and diced, doused in acids and sugars, treated with chemicals, forced into metal containers and locked in airtight. Enter Otto Franck of Augsburg, (why is there so often a German in stories like these?), the wholesaler who said he would take them in. Thus began the pineapples’ long trek to a new home on the other side of the planet. After arriving in Europe, they were packed into a truck and dispatched in all directions – these particular ones to a small town in Austria, finally landing on a supermarket shelf. A middle aged man then chanced by, grabbed them and tossed them into a cart. They were destined to become part of a fruit salad – not a bad end for a pineapple, really – but then only half of them actually made it into the bowl. The rest were still stuck in the can, cooling their heels in our fridge. They kept getting shoved farther and farther back until they were completely forgotten. This went on for a long long LONG time. Well, today, they were finally released. On their short trip to the compost bin they saw the sun again (!!) if only for a few fleeting seconds. And then they reached their final resting place. They can now decompose in a mass heap together with thousands of other foodstuffs from all over the globe.

Once again, the sheer amount of (former) food I tossed out today made me feel ashamed. (It’s another reason I always do the kitchen myself instead of asking the cleaning lady to do it.) All of these foods – like my pineapples – probably traveled hundreds or thousands of miles before landing in my kitchen. They were grown, processed, packaged and distributed in a (fossil fuel) energy intensive way. Their various ingredients – like the high fructose corn syrup surrounding my pineapples – probably came from huge, corporate-owned mono-culture fields on land once dotted by now-defunct small farms. Fertilizers and pesticides were used liberally as well as chemical additives – the flavoring from New Jersey and the vitamins from China. Trees were felled to make the paper that the labels and advertisements were printed on. More gas guzzling trucks were used to distribute these. Maybe some of my food’s plastic wrapping ended up in the ocean and suffocated or strangled some poor sea creature.

But the worst part is that the sum total of what I threw away today was probably more than people in other parts of the world eat in an entire week – including some in my neighboring country of Hungary. I found myself thinking about the photo essay “Hungry Planet” by Peter Menzel, showing typically-sized families from countries around the world surrounded by the food they eat in one week. (http://menzelphoto.photoshelter.com/gallery/Hungry-Planet-Family-Food-Portraits/G0000zmgWvU6SiKM/C0000k7JgEHhEq0w ) Here are a few examples to give an impression:

What does it say about the world that the wasted and decomposing foods in my compost heap are more traveled than the average American? That – comparatively – they have impacted the environment more than many an African? That I am one of about 8 million residents in Austria, 7,940, 281 of whom regularly throw away food just like I do?

“Eat your vegetables, C. There are children in Ethiopia who are starving.”

I suppose I could buy all my meat and eggs from near neighbors. I could restrict myself to local, seasonal, organic, fair trade and vegan products. I could say ”No” to fruits from plantations in Spain in winter. I could say “No” to fair trade products from countries farther away than, let’s say, 500 kilometers. I could say “No” to the entire frozen food section in the store. Canned foods too.  I could say “No” to ever eating in a restaurant. I could say “No” to the next trip to the grocery store as long as all my kitchen cupboards are already filled with foodstuffs near or beyond their expiration dates. Or I could say . . .

Our entire food system is a disaster zone. Just shut the door and forget about it.

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh.)