Here’s What I Think

I went to a nice family celebration today. I caught up with the in-laws and nieces and nephews. Being the token American, I had a lot of conversations about Donald Trump and (en-)countered the same three comments I seem to hear from everyone:

  1. Americans don’t like or trust either of the candidates this year.
  2. Trump could win.
  3. This is a close election.

These are all things you hear over and over in the media – a slow drumbeat of supposed truths that gradually numb your mind. You’ve heard them so often that they seem true and you give up questioning them. You might even end up repeating them yourself . . .

“Stop it!” I tell myself. “Wake up, C. and smell the manipulation!” I add, and then “Shake it off and do the Math!”

 

So here’s what I think:

about 1.)

If poll after poll asks “Is this person trustworthy?” it will make people stop and wonder “Is this person trustworthy?” Suddenly the person has a trustworthiness issue. It’s the same with “likeability” or any other emotion-based question.

The vast majority of Americans don’t know either of the candidates, have never met them, and will never meet them. How they hear the words of these candidates – which tidbits they pick up on and which they overhear – will depend on their own selective perception, what they want to hear, which station they tune into and what other people they know repeat.

about 2.)

Trump could win in the same way Mickey Mouse could win.

(Or maybe I should use “Joe Camel” rather than Mickey. Joe was famously the more recognizable cartoon character to children and more dangerous for them. Joe is now gone because of it.)

about 3.)

It is in everyone’s interest to maintain the premise that this is a close election. For the media it keeps talking heads talking and more viewers tuning in. For Trump it helps to sustain the illusion he has worked so hard to conjure. For Clinton, it helps to prevent people from getting complacent and staying home on Election Day.

But is it really true?

A great website (http://www.electoral-vote.com/) collects numbers from various State polls (arguing that it is not a national election, but 50+ State elections and therefore national polls have little meaning.) It crunches the numbers – always with an eye on the Electoral College and the magic number of 270. The website provides graphic depictions of the results, updating almost daily.

Here’s 2004 – a truly and famously close election:

 

election 2004

 

Here’s 2008 – one that shifted around a lot until the housing crash:

 

election 2008

 

And here’s 2016 so far. Now someone please explain to me how this is a “close election”.

 

election 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Binders Full of Women

All my encounters with government officials over recent weeks have gotten me reminiscing about various run-ins I’ve had with the Austrian police over the years. There really have been quite a lot of them, starting with my first registration with the “Fremdenpolizei” (the “foreigner police”) when I first came here as a Fulbright assistant over thirty years ago. Even though the process only took about ten minutes, I was appalled by the whole incident – and even more so when I learned that ALL Austrian citizens have to register their place of residence at some “central reporting office”. This was Big Brother big time!

When I returned to Austria after a yearlong jaunt through Southeast Asia, I decided to stay a while and look for work. (There is a past blog post about this somewhere, but I am too lazy to look for the link.) I dutifully went to the Foreigner Police only to find out that, without the backing of the prestigious(-sounding) Fulbright program, I couldn’t just declare that I was staying. In order to register a place of residence, I would need a work permit first. And in order to get a work permit, I would need a job. And in order to get a job, I would need an official residence. I asked them directly what I should do about this Catch 22. What I understood of their answer was “la la la la la la la la.” I thanked them and left.

Enter the university. Basically due to a misunderstanding, I managed to get two courses at the university on my first day of job searching. While filling out the forms, no one asked to see my registration. I went back to the Foreigner Police and they immediately registered me. Apparently the university was exempt from the whole work permit requirement thing. Interesting.

A few years went by and I got engaged. A week before our wedding, my husband and I moved into a crappy little house outside what was then a crappy little village in the countryside at the edge of the world. Time for a new registration with the local Foreigner Police in a nearby town.  It turned out that they didn’t need a whole building of their own and I could go register at the same place Austrians did (though in a special room). I walked in there and saw a somewhat harried looking young woman with a tall stack of files on her desk. I explained to her why I was there and we began a conversation. With each question and answer she became more relaxed and friendly. I was an American! I was married to an Austrian! I spoke fluent German! I worked at the university! I had all the paperwork she needed! She got right down to business and completed the processing right then and there. She offered me a coffee while I was waiting. She left me alone in the room while she went to make photocopies and I passed the time by looking around.

bindersThat was when I noticed the binders. Three very thick ones on the shelf behind her desk, each labelled with the name of a local brothel. I particularly noticed the name of one which was located smack-dab in the center of my village. It became clear to me why she seemed so elated to be working on my file.

 

I dutifully visited this woman once a year and we became friendly. Eventually, it got to the point where I felt I could ask her about those binders.

“I can’t help but notice those,” I said, pointing to the shelf behind her. “Do those women represent the majority of your work here?”

She was taken a bit by surprise at first, but then she opened up – at least as much as she could ethically do – and we had an amazing conversation. Thinking of the forms I had to fill out, I wondered what those women wrote as their “Profession”. (Prostitution is legal here, but obviously they didn’t write “prostitute” – it was “dancer” or “entertainer” or “escort”). I wondered what countries they came from and learned that “right then” it was mostly the Dominican Republic. Apparently, the home country of the majority comes in waves and changes every so often. I wondered if they were filling out the same forms I was and heard “Well . .. not exactly. For one thing, we don’t ask you for the results of your yearly AIDS test.” I wondered if they had been “invited” to come here, tricked into it under false pretenses, or something worse – but I knew enough not to ask that question directly. So I just looked at her intently, made a waving gesture with my hand toward the binders, and asked . . . “Are these women . . . are they . . . OK?”  Her eyes dropped and her head tilted. She answered, with some hesitation, “Yeah”. It came out like a qualified sigh.

 

One year I showed up as usual and my official friend was nervous and a little upset. She apologized to me and then explained that I would have to go to Graz to renew my residence permit this year. There had been changes to the law and the whole system was different now. (I assumed this had something to do with an anti-foreigner referendum that had taken place a year or two earlier.) She took some time in telling me exactly where I had to go and what I should bring with me. I really wondered about how bad she obviously felt. I looked up at the shelf behind her and noticed that the binders weren’t there anymore.

And then I drove to Graz.

I entered the building and was immediately confused. There was no information board or reception desk. No one around to ask where I should go. I eventually spotted a piece of paper taped to wall with the words “Residence Permits” and an arrow pointing to a long hallway.

I walked down the hallway with all sorts of unmarked doors left and right, heading toward a row of about ten chairs – all taken – at the very end of the hall in front of the last door. I stood beside the last chair in the row and took in the multi-cultural mix of people occupying them. They were all very quiet. I stood there for almost a half hour before the door opened and someone came out of the room. The door closed again and we all continued to wait for another 10 minutes. Then the door opened and a man appeared. He asked loudly “Where is Number 27?!” We, the waiting, all looked at one another in confusion.

“Didn’t you all take a number when you came in?! You have to take a number!” He pointed back down the hall. Then he went back into the room and closed the door.

We the Waiting all rushed down the hall and into the entrance foyer and looked around. Someone spotted what looked like a little metal squirt gun attached to the wall holding a roll of number tickets. Sure enough, the ticket sticking out had “27” on it. There were no signs or instructions near this device saying what we should do or where we should proceed to. We all aligned ourselves in the order we had been sitting (or in my case, standing) and, one by one, we each ripped a number ticket off the reel. Then we returned down the hall and to our places. A short discussion ensued in which the first woman in line was urged – or I should say, encouraged – to knock on the door, which she finally did.

Everyone moved up a seat and I could finally sit down. I cooled my heels. I looked at the row of people and was impressed by their quiet patience. I tried to figure out which country each one came from. I thought that they all looked small, but as they came out of the door, one after another, they mostly looked even smaller.

It was more than an hour before I was finally first in line. The door opened and I entered. There were three people in the room. One of them asked me arrogantly without looking at me what my name was and I told them. They began the search for my file. Unsuccessfully. A second man told me I was probably in the wrong place. They started asking me questions. With each answer, the three officials got more attentive and polite. One of them then made a phone call and the other two started addressing me with name and title. It was “Frau Magister” this and “Frau Magister” that. They apologized for the mix up – it seemed I should go back to the usual, local office to take care of my permit. And then the final insult: one of them said “I’m so sorry you had to wait. You didn’t have to wait. You should have just come right in!”

I couldn’t stand these people. I thanked them (for nothing) and left. I gave sympathetic and encouraging looks to the foreigners outside who had filled the seats behind me – any one of whom I would rather spend time with than those three people behind the door.

So I returned to my customary residence permit friend a few days later and told her about my experience in Graz. She truly commiserated with me and then apologized. I made it clear to her that SHE had NOTHING to apologize for.

During my visit to her the following year, I was so happy to see that the binders had reappeared on the shelf behind her. I can’t remember exactly what name was on my village’s binder that particular time – I drove past that place at least 10 times a week and noticed that the name and sign changed in fairly regular intervals. Was it Cloud Seven? Or The Witches’ Cauldron? Or Why Not?? Or Blue Rose’s? I assumed the nationality of its workforce changed with similar frequency. But, otherwise, the ugly cruddy little house looked the same. And the lovely woman, who watched out for the employees in that house as best she could within the limitations of her position, remained the same.

 

Visits to my foreign police lady came to an end a year or two later when she informed me with a happy smile that I now qualified for a permanent residence permit. I guess I had stayed in my marriage long enough to prove that it wasn’t all a ruse, perpetrated solely to gain me access to the Austrian social welfare system. From now on, I would only have to renew it each time I got a new passport. Unfortunately, pretty much at the same time, the Americans decided to reduce the validity period of their passports from 10 years to only 5.

 

Fast forward a decade. Another wave of anti-foreigner politics came and went in Austria with seemingly little effect on my personal situation, until one day when I got a call at work. It was my daughter, who had stayed home from school that day. She told me frantically that the police were at the door and she didn’t know what to do. I said she should stay on the line with me as she opened the door and talked to them. I heard the murmurs of a conversation, goodbyes, the sound of the door closing, and then she came back to the phone.

“They said you should come to the police station this afternoon and bring your ‘papers’ with you.”

She clearly didn’t understand what they had meant with “papers”. And she was upset. I assured her that it was probably nothing and not to worry about it. I would be home in two hours. We hung up. Then I got upset and worried about it.

At the police station in the afternoon, the mood was weird. I finally got invited into a room where it was explained to me that there were some new regulations. All foreigners had to be visited by the police at their homes once a year. The two officers who were talking to me seemed really uncomfortable – even embarrassed – about it all. I said as little as possible.

That was about four years ago. I haven’t seen them since and there have been no more visits. To be completely honest, I wasn’t really expecting any. But I still told the story many times and complained loudly about it all to anyone who was interested.

And I wondered again about all the women in those binders.

 

Last year, Austrian administration was streamlined and the small government offices scattered across the country were consolidated. Also last year, my passport expired so I needed to get a new permit as well. I discovered rudely that I could no longer go to my usual foreigner police friend. No, I had to drive 40 minutes to a different town.

They were perfectly nice and friendly there. Things went smoothly. An elderly gentleman explained to me with a straight face that, not only had the fees tripled, but it was no longer possible to process my file immediately or to send me my permit by mail. I had to come again in two weeks to pick it up in person. And then I would have to pay an additional 50 Euro “picking up” fee (for picking it up in person) before he could hand it over. He left the room to go make a few photocopies.

I looked over his entire office. There were no binders to be seen.

Meanwhile, one of the three local brothels has closed down. It was the most audacious one: a bright red building with a huge sphinx on the roof and two Egyptian statues on either side of the front door. Its closing might have something to do with the fact that it was located on a well-travelled road with no barriers around its parking lot to shield the license plate numbers from view of the many passing cars. All that survives from this enterprise is the name and the two statues which have found their way to the cruddy little house in the center of my village. Maybe a few of its employees have found their way too. The move probably required some official paperwork.

gogo3

Ducks Fleetingly in a Row

Lately I have scared off most of my readers with the continuing, nightmarish and convoluted saga of my quest to save my daughter’s high school exchange year. Yea, though I have walked through the shadow of the valley of the bureaucrats, I will get no visa. That ship has sailed.

And yet the odyssey continues. I am now on the path toward citizenship for both my daughters and the goalpost is slowly coming into focus. Today we formally requested dual nationality by the Austrian government – i.e. so that they keep their Austrian citizenship while adding the American one. (This requires forking over 1000 Euros up front.) Then I set up two tables on the screen porch and ordered all the documents – originals, copies, originals plus certified translations into either German or English, copies of the same . . . I made a little spreadsheet listing all of them and them making little checks indicating which ones I will need at which office or appointment . . .

And then I saw it: three document translations with no certification – about seven pages in all.

I do freelance translating and there are three things that really suck about the work. One is that people always want work done this instant. Preferably by yesterday, but by tomorrow at the latest. The second is that they refer to some mutual acquaintance when they call and hope it will grease the wheels. Thirdly, they always lie about how long the text is – if they say 4 pages, then you can assume it is at least 10. It’s a pain.

So what did I do? I called a translation agency in Graz owned by a former coworker whom I haven’t talked to in about 8 years. I then called that same coworker on her vacation – I assume she was lying on a beach somewhere in Croatia while we talked. Then I called the secretary back and made arrangements. I told her it was three 1 or 2 page documents (which, if you do the math, doesn’t add up to seven). And by the way, could it be done by Friday?

I did get to yes, but it seems I have to fork over 120 Euros before they will throw their stamp on those papers. Whatever. I will take it.

Our appointment at the immigration services will be eleven days from now. As far as paperwork goes, I think I am now all set. Of course before submitting it all, I’ll have to fork over about 1200 dollars in application fees first. That seems to be the way the world works now.

I’m down to two concerns. One is minor and easy: getting passport photos for the younger daughter. The second one will stick around and haunt me a bit longer.

While translating the adoption decree for my elder daughter, I discovered a factual error: it identifies me as an Austrian citizen. So that is going to be really helpful when I have to prove my American citizenship in order to claim it for my adopted daughter.

Help me out here. Government officials don’t actually read all those papers before pushing them, do they?

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/wallpaper/animals/photos/national-geographic-mallard-ducks/mallard-ducks-swimming-row/
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/wallpaper/animals/photos/national-geographic-mallard-ducks/mallard-ducks-swimming-row/

Feelin’ Super Duper

Attitude is everything. Your glass is half empty? All you gotta do is turn it upside-down. Wah lah! Half full!
(Don’t mind that fresh stain on your carpet – just read on while I prove my point.)

 

Whoever said “you can’t teach an old dog a new trick” never met my old Dog Three.

First, I managed to train her to poop in the house. In recent weeks I noticed that she usually does it about 10 minutes after returning from a walk. When this happens I make big frustrated gestures and scold her loudly; then I feel guilty about it – she is after all about 105 people-years old – so I usually then pet her, kiss her on the snout and tell her it is alright. Being blind and deaf, she doesn’t catch the scolding part, just the petting and attention afterward.

In return, she has really helped me to perfect my turd-removal technique. I now know exactly which brand of TP has the right thickness and adhesive qualities for a good, no leakage hold. Through experimentation I also know the exact amount of pressure to exert and the angle at which to lift the . . . “package” in order to leave the least amount of residue on the floor. That is followed by the perfect floor cleaning solution to rid the house of any aromatic or bacterial traces of the incident.

super duperAnd in case it isn’t clear – I am quite proud of my newly-acquired skill. I’m a poop scoopin’ machine! And a damn good one.

Thank You, NPR

I am fairly sure that I owe my sanity to National Public Radio.

Whenever I overindulge in corporate media and feel myself winding up tighter and tighter till I’m ready to snap (and here “snap” usually means going on a blog rant), I switch to public radio and television for a while. It’s like therapy. News of the world is discussed calmly and in depth by people who actually have expertise in the subjects they are talking about. Commentary (opinion) and news (fact) are clearly delineated. Podcasts and shows cover a wide range of topics beyond the sensationalized flavor-of-the-month personality or the most recent act of violent insanity heralding the End of Days.

I like the science shows the best. Interesting and nice people enthusiastically researching cool things out of sheer curiosity or for the advancement of their chosen field. Sure, some of them may secretly dream of attaining fame and fortune for curing cancer. But isn’t that still better than merely fantasizing about fame and fortune for their own sakes?

An Aside:
The whole fame thing has been a constant question in my life. Honestly, what is the appeal? So you get your picture in the paper a lot, but the tradeoff from that point onward is never knowing who your true friends are. In case you aren’t convinced and you still want to live forever, here are my recipes for success:
For:
15 minutes of fame:               Audition for a casting show
15 months of fame:                Become a Trump campaign spokesperson
15 years of fame:                    Compose a one-hit wonder song
15 decades of fame:               Take over Germany
15 centuries of fame:             Start a religion
15 millennia of fame:             Fossilize
Eternal fame:                          Start a blog on WordPress
Where was I? Oh right. NPR.

cyberkrank1Today I indulged in a bunch of podcasts all dealing with parenting and technology, the first being an interview with the author of “How to Raise a Wild Child”. It started with statistics that the average American child spends less than 10 minutes a day outside and up to 10 hours a day at some device with a screen. (First question: do I believe that? Not really. But even if it were one hour outside and 5 hours with a screen, I would still be alarmed.)  It intrigued me and got me linking to all sorts of related stories. I heard great discussions about helicopter versus free range parenting including a story about some Americans who got into trouble (or maybe even arrested?) for allowing their kids to walk home from the playground alone. It seems that not only are kids rarely outside, they are basically never unsupervised.

When I was young, my mom didn’t know exactly where I was every second of the day. I spent a lot of my afternoons “bombing around” the neighborhood with the other kids on the block, riding bikes, playing games, taking walks to the Dime Store or 31 Flavors . . . It was understood that I would show up back home around dinnertime.

My own girls have grown up in the country in a house built into the side of a hill. Behind us, up a steep climb is a major road leading to the local spa, but spread out in front of us are rolling hills, fields, trails, streams and small forests. We can walk for a half hour in that direction before coming to a road. My daughters didn’t have the benefit of a neighborhood gang, but they had friends over  or sometimes struck up short-lived friendships with young guests at the three B&B’s near our house. I can still remember the first time the two of them told me they were “going outside to play” and then took off. Over the next 4 or five hours, I heard their voices sporadically, but in between I wasn’t really sure what they were up to. I fought the impulse to go looking for them and reminded myself of the importance of trust. By early evening they had returned to the trampoline in my neighbor’s yard and I finally shouted down to them “Time to come home, girls. It’s getting dark.” And then a monstrous wave of nostalgia washed over me. How often had I heard that sentence in my own childhood?

Where was I? Oh right. NPR.

The next show I listened to was about a study finding that American parents were less happy than non-parents (mostly due to financial and work-related pressures).  After the report above, this didn’t surprise me at all. With so few family-friendly policies, affordable daycare options, live-in grandparents and the fact that children apparently need to be supervised 24/7, I wonder how Americans ever succeed in combining careers and kids. It must be exhausting. I can imagine such harried parents being grateful for an hour or two of peace and quiet as their kids are glued to TV sets or playing some game online in their rooms with the doors closed . . .

cyberkrank2The end of that show got me thinking about a local lecture I had missed (due to work) and so I found the link to the video and watched the entire 2 hours. Manfred Spitzer – a German expert on brain development – gave a talk about the dangers of introducing children to the digital world too soon. He has written two books (“Digital Dementia” and “Cybersick” – unfortunately neither of which has been translated into English) in which he explains very clearly why we should keep our children away from screens and their mindless, habit-forming instant gratification for as long as humanly possible. His prescriptions for good brain development of your children: 1) bilingualism, 2) music, 3) sports.

That all made me feel pretty good.  By way of happy accident, my kids grew up speaking two languages, they were always encouraged to do sports by their gym teacher father, and they were both born with musical talent in their genes. They don’t like video games and watch very little TV – never during the day. I live in a country with family-friendly policies and in a marriage with a 50/50 dad. Very little of the above is of my own doing, beyond making a fortuitous decision here or there. I fully realize that I have been lucky.

Where was I?

I also fully realize the irony of confessing to hours and hours of internet consumption while writing on the topic of digital dementia – but all that surfing today did me a world of good. My mind finally detached from all the sensationalized reporting of creepy convention frenzy and found its way back to my real life, here and now, past and present. The corporate media had been sending me multiple messages that the world is falling apart and that my kids are in danger. NPR tells me that they are doing fine and have bright futures. I can now go to bed with a mind at ease.

 

Hey Kids! Go Outside, Already    http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/07/20/children-nature-parenting-outside
Why Are American Parents So Unhappy? http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/07/11/unhappy-american-parents
Prof. Dr. Dr. Manfred Spitzer – Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens (Stadtgemeinde Feldbach)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IAsvyadSvQ

Overkill

It’s Day Three of the Republican National Convention and, once again, I feel like I need to take a shower.

The realization came a bit too late that the RNC presented the perfect opportunity to unplug and go offline for four days. Instead, by force of habit, I let the news reports slosh over me each morning. Even diluted by N(eutral) Public Radio or put through the filter of lefty cable news, I felt my faith in humanity slowly dissolving or eroding away as I watched and listened. I became fixated by a morbid fascination. How bad would this get?

Day One was hope dashing as the Trump stoppers were stopped and the conscience clausers were closeted, thereby setting up the scenario for Day Three when Ted “Call me Custer” Cruz (of all people!) could take his last stand by telling the hostile crowd to consult their consciences.

But it was Day Two that really freaked me out. First there was Chris Christie holding medieval court before the frenzied folk. It reminded me of my students yelling “GUILTY!” and “CUT OFF HER TONGUE!” during our Middle Ages project last April. I was expecting the pitchforks to come out at any moment. Later, when Trump’s face appeared large in the middle of the three-part split screen, some deep-seated past image floated up into my consciousness. I started searching for where I had seen something like that before.

It took me a while to unravel the tangled mess that Orwell (1984), Huxley (Brave New World) and Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) had become in my mind over the years, but eventually I found the thing I was vaguely remembering. The opening scenes of the film “1984” show a convention-like setting featuring its “Two Minutes of Hate” for the Enemy of the State followed by the comforting image in the center of the three-part split screen – the face of Big Brother watching over you. Hence – yesterday’s post. Orwell set his futuristic vision 16 years before the Millennium rather than 16 years after it, but could he be right? Is it possible that Hate can still become a unifying force?

Whatever all this is, I don’t think it has much to do with the average Republican anymore. I know hundreds of Americans and the majority of those people I would guess tend to vote R rather than D. They are all good people who care about others and fairness and justice. A lot of them see self-reliance as a social good: “I will take care of myself so that others don’t have to.”  They don’t demonize people with different views. They aren’t averse to helping those in need. I can’t imagine a single one of them with a pitchfork in their hands, believing that Hillary is the cause of their problems or that putting her behind bars would make their futures brighter.

But I do wonder . . . what, specifically, do they want the government to do?

I can’t think of a single concrete policy proposal that has come from the right lately. There has been “repeal and replace” thing, but the “replace with (what?)” has been conspicuously absent. There is the promise to “defeat ISIS”, but the means to do so have been kept a secret. There have been multiple promises of fiscal responsibility and simultaneous tax breaks, as if those two things were synonymous rather than contradictory.

Whether R or D, I think the candidates should have to tell us plainly and specifically what they plan to do. Emotions aside. Just the facts.  But we aren’t really getting that comparison to evaluate. From one side there are proposals, from the other, there are emotions.

So let’s be emotional:

Now that a “future to believe in” has been eliminated, here are our choices:

A Past to Believe In (D)

or

A Mythical Past to Believe In (R)

 

I am going to come straight out here and say “No” to Trump’s formula for making America great again. Whatever it is that binds the huge and diverse population of the United States together, it certainly isn’t hate. We have our problems but we are not a nation of warring tribes. We do not have to let things fall completely apart before finding the will for truth and reconciliation.