Shock and Awe

For the first time in ages, I simply woke up this morning. No chiming alarm made it happen. No doorbell and subsequent dog barking. No telephone ringing. I just . . . woke up.


I came downstairs and greeted my Hungarian cleaning lady, who had arrived an hour earlier, let herself in with the key, taken the dogs for a short walk and fed them. She had also already finished most of the kitchen and the two buckets full of decaying food stood ready to be taken to the compost pile. As we chatted and I made my coffee, I told her that she should not do the master bedroom today – it was so full of piles of laundry in various stages of cleanliness, she wouldn’t have been able to do much anyway. (So . . . no “Yes, yes” followed by a little laugh – this time I made sure she really got the message.) While the coffeemaker worked its magic, I went and turned on my laptop and checked my calendar. Second shock of the day:

shock and awe 1

I can’t even remember the last time my calendar told me that I had the day off.

After going around the house, collecting all the little piles of clothes my family had deposited everywhere and dragging three baskets-full down to the basement, sorting them, and starting the first load, I returned to my laptop to enjoy my first coffee of the day while catching up on the news. Instead of the dreaded stories of Orlando carnage, the first report of the day turned out to be about Mr. Smith Going to Washington. To be honest, I was quite moved – even hopeful by what I heard, and awed by the thought of those 15 hours Senator Murphy stood and spoke through. I got downright nostalgic for the days when immigrant directors made unapologetically patriotic movies about America. I downloaded some graphics of the fictional and real speeches for a possible blog post. Then I reconsidered (or maybe, “woke up” again) after comparing the number of listeners in the backgrounds of these scenes:

shock and awe 2 shock and awe 3

Still, I fully enjoyed two hours of alternate surfing and dabbling at housecleaning. I started really getting into this new day-off feeling . . .

And then came the onslaught.

It started inauspiciously with an email from my boss reminding me to arrange two parent/teacher meetings for next Thursday. I whipped off two text messages and settled back into my surfing.

DING! DING! Mother Number One says Thursday’s not okay. As she had informed us of that already! RING! RING! Panicked mother Number 2 wants to know what is wrong and why we need a meeting. She happens to be one of our more erratic and emotional mothers – lovely in the same way most rollercoasters are. (She is fully aware of it and attributes it to the Egyptian half of her heritage.) Today she was in particularly good form, talking a mile a minute – so about 15 miles in all – while I only managed to get two or three sentences in edgewise. In the midst of this “conversation”, my neighbor showed up at the front door and we gestured back and forth to each other as I held the cell to my ear and rolled my eyes. I let Dog Four out to play with her Collie and we all walked a ways down the road together as Egyptian mom talked about the Cyber Generation and how we all don’t get enough sleep and she doesn’t interfere with her son’s education and he is clearly not being challenged enough, etc. etc. My neighbor gestured to me that she had to get back home and we somehow managed to sign language plans to meet up again in the afternoon for a proper dog walk. I waved goodbye and concentrated on finding a way to calm my Egyptian friend and end the call just as a truck drove up to the house. That’s when I remembered that someone was coming today to buy my husband’s old car. I had been given strict instructions to take the cash and get a signature on the contract before handing over the papers – no more negotiating on price!!

The men got out of the truck and proceeded to complain about how my husband had given them the wrong phone number and that they had been driving around for 20 minutes trying to find the house. As I tried to identify their accents, they asked for the key so that they could check out the car. They seemed nervous. Then one of them asked me to stay and watch them. They asked various questions about certain discoveries, like the fact that the electronic locking system only worked on the front doors. They commented on my accent and asked me where I was from. My response brought the first smiles. Milwaukee and Harley Davidson were both familiar to them. I asked them where they were from and they said Serbia. (Oops. Luckily they were too young to remember the bombs and soldiers the US sent to former Yugoslavia – mostly to stop Serbian aggression.) They discovered the paint stain on the floor by the back seat and said my husband had failed to mention it and then added how they both dreamed of going to the States – mostly New York, but maybe California, too. “And Las Vegas!” one added with a big smile. They hooked up a computer to the car to do a diagnosis of the engine. They each lit a cigarette and then offered me one. I accepted. We talked some more about America. They asked me which was better – America or Austria? They looked at the computer readings. The particle filter needed replacing they said. That would be expensive. The chief negotiator then offered me $600 less than had been agreed on. But he did it . . . uncomfortably. The smiles we had been sharing were gone again.

Suddenly, I was back in London, negotiating about breakfasts.

I knew my husband was supervising graduation exams in the school and probably wouldn’t answer his phone, but I tried anyway. He actually picked up and I quickly explained the situation. I passed the phone to one of the men and watched in fascination as his voice returned to the original hard-ass tone I had heard at the start – before the first shared smile. He complained about the unpleasant discoveries, he argued about how much it would cost to do unexpected repairs, he listened, and then he passed the phone back to me.

My husband began by apologizing for putting me in this situation. Then he said no price reductions. The particle filter was fine; the light meant that they just needed to do an oil change. The paint stain had been mentioned and shown in the announcement. He had not given them any phone number, much less the wrong one. I should say “Take it or Leave It.” And now he had to go. We hung up and I immediately chose a different negotiation tactic. “I’m sorry,” I said, but it is “Out of My Hands”.

There was a short silence. Then the chief negotiator dropped his arrogant tone and raised his offer. We were now just $100 apart. I countered with a $50  discount on the condition that we kept it our secret. I would add the $50 dollars to the cash they gave me. They could consider it my personal donation to their future trip to New York. That made them smile again.

We had a deal.

As we finished up the paperwork, my phone rang. My Cuban friend (N³) needed to talk about our daughters’ plans for the weekend. As we talked, my cleaning lady tapped me on the shoulder and signaled that she was done. I took the cash from my car buyers and gave a part of it to her while working out the plans for our daughters on the phone and watching the new car owner sign the contract. As I handed over the papers, I noticed the time and realized that I had to pick up my daughter from school in 15 minutes. I said goodbye to my Cuban, waved goodbye to my Hungarian, made a formal farewell to my Serbs, texted “Car sold” to my Austrian, and then raced off to pick up my Ethiopian.

shock and awe 4


A half hour later, sitting in the fitting rooms of H&M and waiting for my daughter, I realized once again how much I hate shopping. I took a second picture to commemorate the moment.

After that came cooking a late lunch, several more loads of laundry, the arranged dog walk with my neighbor, dealing with the clothes piles in my bedroom, and extended negotiations via phone with my elder daughter throughout her shopping trip to Graz about not missing her piano lesson in the evening. Approximately 9 calls were necessary in all. In between, a barrage of organizational work emails came in which went largely ignored. I also made a To Do list for the rest of the weekend.

Starting tomorrow, of course, because today was my free day.

My husband came home around 10 in the evening and we talked through the events of the day. He told me that right before my call that morning, a former student came to see him. She had been the girlfriend of yet another former student who committed suicide two days ago. My husband, she said, had always been a father figure to her. And then she spilled out her heart and all her questions. How could she get the awful images out of her head? Should she go look at his corpse? Should she have known? Was she to blame? He had written a letter saying it was work stress and a sense of hopelessness that drove him to his decision . . . At some point my husband and I realized that we both had spent the very same half-hour giving amateur therapy to distressed people. We talked it through until he couldn’t anymore. He said good night and went to bed. I returned to my laptop.

My mind went backward through the day. My momentarily overworked husband, over-extended and exhausted daughter, all the mundane domestic work that never ends, the wheeling and dealing done to save or make a few bucks, the social obligations that fill up every empty space, my Arabic-speaking mom/interpreter who went from unemployment to a 70 hour work week overnight when the refugees started coming, the fact that part of our jobs as teachers now apparently includes being an amateur psychologist, that the Washington current Mr. Smith goes to is an empty room, the fact that waking up naturally in the morning is now a disquieting experience . . .

. . .that the system is making us sick and our world is in a sorry state.

But there are people who are willing to stand up for 15 hours and shout some small part of that fact to anyone who will listen or no one at all.

That is something. And I will take it.

3 thoughts on “Shock and Awe

  1. Funny how those “free” days get hijacked. Hopefully summer vacation is better. They do have summer vacation in Austria, right? Loved the story about the used car buyers–so, so true how they operate. Best let you get your laundry sorted and washed. 🙂


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