Two Mountain Weekend Bookends

The worst week of my blogging career to date was definitely the last one. In my non-virtual life I spent the entire five days scrambling at work and feeling guilty at home. Blog friends were neglected, notifications dried up and statistics bottomed out. But it was kind of worth it – as you will soon see . . .

The reason for my absence is that I spent two weekends in a row – before and after Scramble Week – in the mountains.  The first trip was all the way to Innsbruck in Tyrol for a cousin’s wedding. Unfortunately, lots of traffic jams turned our trip there into a 7-hour drive rather than the 5-hour one Chantall originally promised us.  (Chantall is the name we have given to the GPS Navigator voice in my husband’s car – there will surely be some future blog post about her.) The longer than expected drive ended with me to changing into wedding clothes in the passenger seat at 90 miles per hour while my husband purposely pulled up next to trucks whose drivers had a great vantage point from which to watch me doing so. (#33 on the Grounds for Divorce List). We arrived just in time to catch the last five minutes of the ceremony.

wedding02As far as weddings go, though, this one made it into my Top Five. Not only were the bride and groom a happy, easy-going and convincing match, but the view from the venue overlooking the city and surrounding mountains was stunning. There were a lot of great reunions with far-flung, humorous relatives, some spontaneous performance art in which I actually partook, and I got almost 4 hours of sleep before getting back in the car to head home again.

wedding01

So those were the mountains at the starting end of Scramble Week. The mountains constituting the other bookend were the chosen destination for a long planned siblings+partners hiking weekend. We rented a little vacation lodge in a place called Tauplitz in beautiful surroundings:

I had agreed to these plans in a weak moment months earlier, but was kind of dreading it. As the only flatlander-by-birth in the crowd, I worried they would pick some strenuous updownupdown-pant-pant-updown-heartpumping-updown-kneecaving-updown route – in other words, something normal for the average Austrian and potentially nightmarish for the average Wisconsinite. Instead, it turned out to be a beautiful “Seven Alpine Lakes” tour with a bearable amount of updown – sort of the best of both worlds combined.

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There were some extra treats along the way. We chanced upon an outdoor church service which was really moving. Music and singing work their magic even more strongly way up in the mountains, reverberating over such majestic displays of nature. It was almost enough to evoke religiosity-like feelings, even in a heathen like me.

mountains07  mountains08

After the fourth lake, there was a long strenuous stretch that made the sight of our mountain “restaurant” stop such a treat. You’d be amazed at how comforting a hard wooden bench or how tasty pig lard spread on brown bread can be.

mountains10 mountains11

mountains12On the return stretch, we crossed paths with some hunters wheeling their bounty down the mountain – an “18 pronged buck”, they told us. We had to take their word for it because the poor creature’s head was missing. (It had been cut off with the antlers by another hunter and transported away separately.) I found it amusing that they had so modestly covered the decapitated buck’s other prized parts.

   mountains13On the home stretch, I found myself hiking alone for about an hour, doing the updownupdown and feeling increasingly sulky. The sportier among us had raced farther and farther ahead (my husband included – Grounds for Divorce #34), while the slower hikers kept lagging farther behind me. mountains14As I passed such beautiful sights, I began to formulate my devastatingly rebuking remarks to the husband about leaving me in the lurch. When I finally caught up to him, though, the wind was immediately taken from my sails. There he was, holding a tray of Swiss/Arolla/Stone Pine Schnapps for all of us (It is such a local delicacy that there is no real English name for it.) mountains15Basically, it is distilled pine or pinecone sap – proving that, in a pinch, you can turn anything into alcohol. Austrians swear that it is good for your health. I’m not sure I swallow that line, but swallowing the schnapps was certainly good for the health of my marriage. It got him halfway to redemption. From there it was another half hour till we were back at the mountains16parking lot where he went right into the tourist office and bought me a pin for my hiking stick (which is a very touristy and therefore slightly humiliating thing for a real Austrian to do.) My husband was now fully redeemed.

On returning to the lodge, I took stock of the day. We had had about seven hours of updownupdown. As the only flatlander and contrary to everyone’s expectations, I had not come in last place when it came to: tempo, pain, number of blisters, moaning, aching, or injury. I call that success. And I have a new metal pin on my hiking stick to commemorate it all. So here’s how I will remember the weekend:

mountains09

‘Pologies to Peeps

Hey Ly-Sara-Nara-42-Kate-Blair-Smirk-Alison-Quirky-Susanne-Lucy-Bronte-Linley-Posh-Stealing-Chris-Ben-Indah-MPB– and the many I have forgotten here (‘pologies again!) – and the newbies . . .

Sorry for neglect. Too damn busy. Tunnel end in sight. Will make amends. Next week. Miss you.

Goats of America, Unite!

I confess. I have overdosed a bit lately on Rachel and Chris and Steve and Joy. I even mixed a bit of Lawrence and Mika into my news cocktails. And then I had a few NPR chasers. So, like the rest of politically junkied Americans, I keep experiencing this cycle of trumpin’ stupors and hillarish hangovers. The one saving grace: there is a clear end in sight for this destructive spiral: November 9th.

The most aggravating part of the 2016 election is the constant drumbeat of false equivalencies. The media in their state of perpetual drooling cannot stop themselves from gnawing on each and every bone Trump throws them. After amplifying his message by endlessly rebroadcasting videos of his most outrageous statements, some commentators rage and emote, others joke and smirk, and they all analyze far too long in front of cameras, until they realize – wait! – we are supposed to be fair and balanced! Let’s go find something about Hillary that we can cast into doubt for an equal amount of time. So we hear about emails and Benghazi and “appearances” for the 100th  or 200th time. So what if there’s no there there? – it sure doesn’t look good!

The last time I got this obsessed over an election was 8 years ago. But back then everything was different. Hope was hopeful, not desperate. Change was also grounded in ideas, not only feelings, and it had an identifiable direction. 2008 was not like this year’s bizarre and degrading spectacle with all the trappings of a reality show except for the reality part. The media was just as hysterical, but at the very least, their attention span for today’s outrage lasted beyond tomorrow’s new soundbite. Sometimes they even discussed things like policies and platforms. And then there was Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to do the “turd mining”, highlight the hypocrisies and provide the entertainment while the candidates stayed fairly earnest.

I miss those two guys desperately this time around and can’t help but feel that they might have made a difference.

But it is an entirely different comedic writer I have been thinking about even more.

Douglas Adams.

last-chance-to-see

Most people know him from the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, but I once heard him say in an interview, that “Last Chance to See” was his own personal favorite among all his works. I have to agree. And in that book, my own favorite chapter was about the Komodo “dragons” (lizards, actually). All day long I have been thinking about this election while envisioning it as a scene from that chapter: Dragon Trump devouring Goat Clinton.

 

The background: Adams and his co-author, biologist Mark Carwardine, traveled around the world looking for the last few specimens of animal species that were on the verge of extinction. In the Komodo dragons chapter (titled “Here Be Chickens”) they go to the island expecting a dangerous jungle adventure. Instead they are led by a guide pulling an uncooperative goat on a rope down a well-trodden path with a group of tourists. They are brought to a sort of arena and watch while the goat is slaughtered right in front of them and fed to the fat, lazy and lethargic dragons in a pen for the entertainment of the group. Douglas Adams describes the scene in the minutest and goriest of detail.

Later in the day, he reflects on the scene with a lot of remorse and self-incrimination.

I was feeling pretty raw about my own species because we presume to draw a distinction between what we call good and what we call evil. We find our images of what we call evil in things outside ourselves, in creatures that know nothing of such matters, so that we can feel revolted by them, and, by contrast, good about ourselves. And if they won’t be revolting enough of their own accord, we stoke them up with a goat. They don’t want the goat, they don’t need it. If they wanted one, they’d find it themselves. The only truly revolting thing that happens to the goat is in fact done by us.
So why didn’t we say something? Like: ‘Don’t kill the goat’!
Well, there are a number of possible reasons:
– If the goat hadn’t been killed for us it would have been killed for someone else – for the party of American tourists, for instance.
-We didn’t really realise what was going to happen till it was too late to stop it.
-The goat didn’t lead a particularly nice life, anyway. Particularly not today.
-Another dragon would probably have got it later.
– If it hadn’t been the goat the dragons would have got something else, like a deer or something.
-We were reporting the incident for this book and for the BBC. It was important that we went through the whole experience so that people would know about it in detail. That’s well worth a goat.
– We felt too polite to say, ‘Please don’t kill the goat on our account.’
-We were a bunch of lily-livered rationalising turds.
The great thing about being the only species that makes a distinction between right and wrong is that we can make up the rules for ourselves as we go along.

 

I see almost every aspect of the 2016 election and its coverage in this scene. Every rationalization of the American public and the news media coverage for why we have collectively let it come this far. I am in awe of Hillary Clinton for being willing to go through this awful process day after day for more than a year now. She is our goat.

But she is not the only one.

I have asked students to read this chapter many times over the years. One question that always generates a lot of discussion is “What does the goat symbolize?” What follows is a long litany of all the groups of people or the things that are in some way victimized in our system – the list has included everything from minimum wage workers to the rain forest, from refugees to polar bears. We know these things are going on, we see them. And then we shrug our shoulders and ask “What can be done?”  We say “If I had to care about and suffer along with every single goat on this planet, I would lose my mind.” So we block out the African children working in mines and replace our cell phones with a newer model. We try not to think about oil pipelines running through Native American lands as we fill our gas tanks with lovely cheap gas. We lament on how corporate power can disappear one small independent business or farm after another and then stop at Starbucks for a latte on our way home from Walmart. With the money saved by buying the cheaper brands of coffee and chocolate, we write a check to a charity that feeds starving Ethiopians. I could go on like this for a long long LONG time.

We do all this because we, too, are goats. Donald Trump has been pointing this out to us one grouping at a time. Mexicans, undocumented immigrants, Muslims . . . all goats. Black people, people with disabilities, people with ovaries . . . goats. Moderate Republicans, military generals, attorneys general, judges, journalists not employed by FOX . . . goats! goats! and more goats!

I keep telling people that “There is no math” that gets Trump to the White House. You can’t possibly alienate such huge swaths of the electorate and still win. Then I ponder the latest swing state polls and my confidence wanes. Logic and Truth are now goats too. The dragon ate them along with Fairness and Balance.

– – – – – – – –

I listened to some election news reports while filling out my new application for an absentee ballot today. After the third such comment fell, I became aware that the reporters seemed to be doing something new. They were finally questioning their own culpability in Trump’s ascension. It caught my attention. Could it be that they were having a Douglas Adams moment? Will our tour guide journalists stop bleating for a second and recognize the ropes around their own necks? Will I one day turn on the evening news to hear something like this:

“The Republican presidential candidate said something uninformed and untruthful again today about X which is not worth repeating. So let’s turn to the Democratic candidate’s detailed policy position which has been on her website for over a year now . . .”

Okay, that’s not likely to happen. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll decide to stop feeding the lizard. Find a different path that leads away from its mouth.

Rachel, Chris, Steve, Joy, Mika . . . all of you – please don’t kill the goat.

 

 

 

 

“Do Over!” Again. But Better This Time – (MYoM – Part 32)

 

Note: To understand this post, it might help to travel back in time first: (Little Treasures, Game Planning Update, Defenders of the Holy Potato Peeler)

 

Almost exactly a year ago today, I wrote a series of posts about our annual school year kick-off outing where we drag the two older groups (this year: 27 kids, ages 10-14) out into the wilderness and make them fend for themselves.

Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration. There is lot of toting of boxes and bags and food and water and tents and sleeping bags and stuffed animals and tools and inner tubes and life jackets and tables and benches and pots and dishware and marshmallows and general supplies – including a package of toilet paper to put in the one nearby “WC” (which sometimes even flushes!) . . . .

So we weren’t exactly roughing it.

This was the fifth time doing this little camping trip and each previous time, we four teachers had learned from whatever unexpected drama occurred. Bit by bit, we got better at preemptive problem avoiding.

For instance the whole “who sleeps with whom in which tent and when do we set them up?” gets arranged two days in advance. Once at the campsite, the subject of bedtime is simply not uttered until 15 minutes before it arrives thereby sparing us endless discussions, negotiations and exclamations of “Unfair!” Also, it is now fully and generally accepted that potato peelers don’t have to wash dishes and dishwashers don’t have to peel potatoes, firewood haulers don’t have to carry tables and table carriers don’t have to haul wood.

Of course, we never manage to think of every eventuality. And not everything is under our control.

This year’s drama erupted over a game of “Spin the Bottle”.

I’m not sure there is anything we could have done to prevent that one.

raft-camp

 

In case I am making this all seem awful, I’ll add some photographic evidence that – despite all the work – the two unplugged days were also filled with a lot of nice moments.

And this year, we didn’t forget the beer.

Driver’s Education

drivers-edA good friend scared the crap out of me over coffee today. She was telling me about her 16 year old daughter’s first attempts behind the wheel. In itself, the tale was not shocking, but I immediately had to think of my own 16 year old, who is exactly two days older than hers. (In fact, it was us both having new babies that kicked off our friendship.) Mitzi driving? No way! I only got used to her riding a Vespa about . . . 15 minutes ago. And that only happened as a direct result of (briefly) contemplating the alternative. Why oh why do things keep changing? And so fast!

When I first arrived in Graz at the ripe old age of 22, I thought it was strange that the drinking age was 16 and the driving age was 18 (the exact reverse of the Wisconsin laws at that time). How did Austrian high school students get to their keg parties? It made no sense.

As I grew older, I found my opinions shifting. I started appreciating the fact that there were no 16 and 17 year olds sharing the roads with me. Back in Wisconsin, when the drinking age went up to 21, I found it kind of nice that bars were devoid of college freshmen and sophomores. Now if we could only get Austria to raise its drinking age to at least 18, that would be progress!

In reality, the opposite happened. Driver’s Ed can be started at 15 here now. At age 16, kids with compliant parents can put an “L17” sign in their cars and start practicing with an experienced driver in the passenger seat. On their 17th birthdays and after clocking in 3000 practice kilometers, they can get their license. (And alcohol? It seems there is no problem whatsoever for 14 year olds to get served in bars here. The profits for bar owners far outweigh those pesky fines they periodically pay.)

So when Mitzi returns from the States in two weeks, I assume one of our earliest discussions is going to include the term “L17”. I also assume I will have no ally in my husband while working this out and that “Driving School” will be added to her long list of extracurricular activities.

What a horrendous thought! But I am not saying this because I don’t want her driving. That is going to happen whether I like it or not. I’m saying it because I, too, once had to go to Austrian Driving School.

In my first four years here, I lived in a city and never really needed to drive. But then my husband and I moved out to the country and I faced the prospect of commuting two or three times a week to work. Suddenly the fact that my Wisconsin license was not valid here became an issue. I looked for ways to get an international license and came up blank. So, despite having driven for 11 years, I had to go through the entire Austrian program – an expensive 8 week course and so-and-so many hours of driving lessons.

It was an eye-opening experience.

On the bright side, we were never shown any gruesome movies with names like “Highway to Death” or “Tragedy on Wheels”. But we were also not taught to drive defensively or keep a safe distance from the car ahead of us, or really anything of practical value. No, instead I learned all about how motors work and the German words for car parts I couldn’t name in English and insurance regulations and the history of the Autobahn . . .

The really educational part of it, though, was being on the other side of the classroom for once and living the Austrian school experience through the eyes of a student.

Our teacher-drone sat at the front desk and lethargically mumbled his text in some strange dialect for ages and then suddenly dropped his payload. A surprise question shot out of his mouth followed quickly by the second round – the name of a student who was expected to shoot back an answer in the same tempo. The teacher returned fire with – at best – sarcasm, at worst with an insult. Periodically I was startled awake by the sound of my name and had no idea what I was supposed to say. He finally asked me if I was having trouble understanding his accent, to which I stupidly answered “No, it’s okay” – even though I truly was. But it was more than that. I was having trouble understanding his entire reason for existing.

On the last evening, we had a mock oral exam. The same unintelligible questions were shot at us again and after two hours of this, the teacher-drone called out the names of the students who were to return again the following morning at 8:00 am for a second practice test. Mine was the first name he said.

I dutifully appeared the next morning along with the five other imbeciles and we each took one of the six seats facing a desk. I had the chair at the end of the row. The teacher walked in and sat down. He fired a question at the poor slob at the other end of the row who promptly got it wrong. The teacher told him the right answer. Then he asked the SAME question to the miniskirt in Chair #2. She got it wrong. He told her the right answer – again. Then he asked the poor slob in Chair #1 – again. He got it right! So did the miniskirt! The teacher then asked the severely hungover boy in Chair #3 the SAME question. Unfortunately he got it wrong. The teacher told him the right answer – again – then returned to the poor slob and – you guessed it – asked the SAME question.

Things continued this way until the question was answered correctly six times in a row. Then the teacher started the process again with Question #2.

This went on all day long.

By the time the questions got to me (Chair #6) I could have answered them in my sleep. A few times when the deer-in-the-headlights in Chair #4 or the boy-I-wish-you-had taken-a shower in Chair #5 answered incorrectly I think I groaned audibly. By mid-afternoon I started getting a little punchy and contemplated answering wrong on purpose – just to see if he would return to the poor slob and start over.

Sometime around 5:00 pm, the teacher announced that Hangover Guy, Deer in Headlights girl and I were done and could go sign up for the test now. Poor slob, Mini-skirt, and the Unshowered would have to return the next week for practice test #3. We were then all released back into the wild.

 

The following week, I went confidently into my real driving test and was asked to name all the lights on the dashboard. That, unfortunately, had NOT been one of the questions during Imbecile Day. So I winged it. I ended up passing mostly because the examiner was amused by my misnomers and cute accent. Disappointment came a few days later, though, during the practical test. The examiner spent the entire time peppering me with questions about “America”. I don’t think he even noticed my driving skills. Which is too bad. It was, I think, the only time in my life when I did a perfect parallel park in one gorgeous, smooth swing. He never actually uttered the words “You passed” but he did ask me to relay his greetings to his best buddy who just happened to be taking tennis lessons from my husband that very same week.

I can’t say for sure, but there is a slightly possibility that, unbeknownst to me, a call had been made.

Despite all the aggravation and wasted effort and expense, I will never regret having gone through Austrian Driving School.

In fall, I walked into my own lecture hall for the first class of the new academic year. I looked at the rows of students facing me and thought “I understand you better now.” They returned my looks passively. With feigned docility. Ready to flinch. Expecting little.

 

“Do Over!”

 

Cringe-worthy – Part 2

Here’s hoping childhood Journal #2 represents the low point (– actually I should say “high point”) of my latest project. Covering approximately ¾’s of my time as a 15 year old, it continues the series of “Best Day of My Life!!” entries including the name of some boy I had to search for in an old yearbook to remember. These “relationships” had an average duration of three weeks, two of which I spent either worrying about “being used” or pining after some other, better (unattainable) option. (Do I need to point out the irony here?)

The obnoxiousness of this journal must have become apparent to me as I was writing it – although I never state that directly. All I know is that the notebook is only half-full and ends with a To Do list:

journals 2 and 3

Journal #3 (underneath) begins on the same date upon returning from the store. Based on the handwriting, the content, the writing style and the absence of exclamation points and heart-shaped doodles, it seems I matured about two years during that walk to Drew’s.

I’ve only read the first few entries of Journal #3, but am already hopeful that I have successfully passed the Point of Peak Cringe. Keeping my fingers crossed.