It’s March 31st, 2017. I want to remember this date.
In March 2016, two things were set into motion that have kept me internally rocking and reeling ever since. In March 2016, I enrolled my daughter officially in the Milwaukee Public School System for her high school exchange year and in March 2016, my school team officially applied to take part in a two-year European Union project in partnership with institutes in Portugal and Italy. Had both “projects” gone smoothly, I would be heading for Vienna on Monday to take part in a big Kick-off Meeting. I would also probably be skyping daily with my distant daughter from my very quiet household.
Things didn’t go smoothly. In either case.
The first enrollment set off a series of visa nightmares and disappointments, but then – as a silver lining – a year+ long quest through the bowels of bureaucracy to get dual citizenship for my (adopted) daughters. The second application set off a yearlong series of frustrations and added stress that had my idealistic and hard-working colleagues nearing the burn-out point. (Did I mention that the EU project aimed to find good practices for preventing Burn-out?) Both issues have kept the back of my mind working on overdrive for most of the year.
Today, within a span of 3 hours, both issues resolved themselves abruptly and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon and six months (!) after our original application, the mailman arrived with a registered letter from the Austrian government granting my daughters permission for dual citizenship. Two hours later, I left a meeting at the school in which we had extricated ourselves successfully from the EU project – with no bad feelings, no lingering resentments and no danger of tanking the project as a whole.
My inner worrywart doesn’t know what hit her. It’s like she suddenly has no reason to exist. She’s dazed and confused and I almost feel sorry for her.
We have an ancient refrigerator that is too small and badly designed. With the freezer part on top, we often have to crouch down or even get on our knees to reach foods at the back of the bottom shelves. A few months ago, my husband decided he wanted to get a new one and, for some reason, he became enamored with the idea of a side-by-side design – and the bigger the better. My daughters and I got on board when he agreed to a model with an automatic ice-cube dispenser in the door.
But where to put it? Our narrow, over-stuffed kitchen has a lot of window and little wall space. We contemplated ways to rearrange, but the only viable options were either to take down part of the wall cabinets and shorten our one and only, already small counter space, or to put the fridge in the adjoining living room. Of course, that would mean no ice.
“I don’t want a living room with a grand piano and a fridge in it,” I said. “That would look stupid.”
“Maybe we should just redo the whole kitchen,” my husband suggested. “And while we are at this, we really should replace that picture window.” (We’d had it made 20 years earlier by a cheap Slovenian carpenter. It warped over the years and now, when a strong wind blows, we hear it whistling through the cracks.) “Of course, then we would have to replace the other kitchen window at the same time,” he added.
Who was I to argue?
Enter my husband’s frat pal, who happens to be an architect and then his running buddy who happens to sell kitchens, and then our neighbor’s brother, who happens to own a local window-making factory. The running buddy came up with a great plan, which unfortunately will require us to replace ALL of our other appliances – stovetop, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and, I assume, the TV which will have to be mounted on a wall. We also will need an electrician to relocate all the outlets and a plumber to move the water lines and radiator.
All this for easy access to ice cubes.
I looked around my kitchen today. My old antique hutch will be relocated, but all the rest of the furnishings will be tossed, (probably ending up in some Hungarian or Romanian kitchen). Of the appliances, I saw only two items that will stay in there: the coffeemaker and the toaster.
That’s when it hit me. This guy is going to have to go. This . . . treasure. This old friend, so chock-full of sentimental value that I once wrote a whole post about it. (Well, actually, I wrote the post to get some payback after Ly dissed me in her blog . . . ) If this guy goes, her ugly coffee mug will win!
Maybe I don’t need a new fridge after all.
Too late. It’s a done deal. Orders have been signed and the dates of different project stages are already entered into our calendar. Three months from now, I will press my glass into the dispenser and listen to the clink of my first ice cubes dropping into it. If each cube gives me, let’s say, one Euro worth of satisfaction, and if I use, maybe, five cubes a day, then this fridge will have paid for itself in about 15 years.
It is 8 pm Austrian time. If new reports are correct, about one hour from now, the House of Representatives will vote on their health care insurance accessibility plan.
As I have occasionally mentioned on this blog, our messed up free(d) enterprise(r) system, tweaked into dysfunction by years of corporate lobbying and legislation written at Round Tables and then conveyed by the hand of some bought and paid for politician to the floor of Congress and voted unread into law (pause . . to take a breath), has made sure that American money now acts like a gas floating upwards rather than a liquid trickling down. Not that I ever really bought into that particular theory either. But Republicans clearly cling to it with an almost religious conviction. In order to sell it to their minions, they coin neat phrases like “job creators” or “makers and takers” or conjure up economic evil-doers like “welfare queens” or “deadbeat dads”. They opine incessantly that “Obamacare” is merely a “disaster” in a “death spiral”, a weapon in the big hand of government wielded to enslave the once-free . . . And now they have their chance – the new tiny hand of government will be more than happy to sign a law designed to bring back the invisible hand. Supply and Demand. Those market forces will make everything healthcare great again.
Except that we all know they won’t. Because as we saw before the ACA, with a health insurance industry orientated toward profit, the demand was universal (we ALL get sick and need care) and the supply was based on ability to pay. These companies did not magically rise up to meet the needs of the consumers. They found ways to avoid paying the bills of the sick (e.g. “pre-existing conditions”) in order to keep the premiums of the wealthier and healthier lower.
Maybe, just maybe, the health care concerns of our nation cannot be addressed only through insurance industry products being bought and sold. Maybe, this is one of those economic sectors where cooperation is just as necessary – or more so – than competition. Maybe, merely “everyone having access” to health care isn’t enough. I mean, I “have access” to a Rolls Royce. That doesn’t mean I can afford to buy one.
I am in no danger of being financially ruined because I don’t own a Rolls Royce.
Not having a Rolls Royce does not put me at risk of dying or losing a loved one earlier than necessary.
While defending the proposed budget, Twump’s spokesperson feigned social consciousness by asking “can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” He wasn’t talking about the ACA specifically, but about all larger government actions. My answer to him: “YES! Yes, we can!”
It is certainly better than asking that coal miner or single mom to contribute to the next insurance company CEO’s obscene bonus.
Is this all really so hard to understand?
It is now 9 pm Austrian time. I just checked the news and heard that the vote will not happen after all.
Movie Night was a mixed success in the end. Despite the lovely afternoon, it seems that the later it got, the more bad ideas the kids had and the more they acted on them. Cell phones reappeared and then after midnight, without my (sleeping) colleague’s knowledge, a third movie (not rated for their age group) was watched. For four of my five fellow teachers – this incident was the proverbial last straw. Time to take action against the increasing number of – and increasingly dishonest – provocations before our trust in them disappeared altogether. Cell phones would now be banned from the school.
I got tasked with letting them know. Right then and there. I trudged up the stairwell toward the classroom, thinking this is going to suck.
I called the whole class to the carpet and they sat in a circle. They were eerily quiet and uncharacteristically attentive. I think they knew what was coming.
“I have something to tell you all. It’s about the cell phone situation. We teachers have decided it is time to disappear them completely.”
The room was silent. There were no objections or groans or complaining noises. No one whined “But whyyy??” So I continued . . .
“We decided this because our original agreement on how and when cells can be used is not being kept to. So . . . from now on, they should stay in your schoolbags, turned off or in flight mode, for the entire school day. Basically from when you get out of the bus in the morning to when you get back in after school. And . . . I guess . . . that is all. Does anyone want to say something?”
Tommy raised his hand and asked “Why does this have to apply to everyone in the group? The girls didn’t do anything wrong.”
I was stunned. All eyes were on me and all mouths remained shut. I surveyed the other boys’ faces and they were all looking back at me expectantly. Where was the protest? Tommy had essentially expressed a group confession, a collective acceptance of the consequences, and then tossed in a fine, fair, and socially mindful proposal to protect the innocent. I didn’t know how to respond. So I said,
“I don’t really know how to respond to that.”
A few of the girls quietly added that they would still like to listen to music during the break, and that it was true they had always stuck to the rules.
“Well, I can’t change the Team’s decision on my own. But if you all have an idea for a better solution in this situation, you can bring it to us and we will consider it.”
One girl then said, “I think we all agree with Tommy’s suggestion.”
“One set of rules for the girls and another for the boys? Is that true? Who of you thinks Tommy’s suggestion is a good way to go?”
All fifteen hands immediately shot up into the air.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll bring it to the team and let you know. Until that happens, the new rules apply to everyone. Does anyone have anything to add?”
Another boy raised his hand.
“Should we go put our cells in our school bags right away?” He seemed eager, as if hoping to hear a “Yes”.
“How can it be,” I asked myself as I left the room, “that they all seem . . . relieved?!”
I later came to believe that the kids had talked among themselves before this circle discussion ever happened. I think they knew the hammer was going to come down and came up with their own solution – as a group – that everyone could live with when it did. If so, that was a great sign. They were on their way to becoming unified again. I thought it would be a positive development to respect their unanimous proposal.
My fellow teachers, unfortunately, didn’t tend to agree. Especially my Movie Night friend wanted us to take the hardest line possible and saw all of this as just the next attempt to bend rules. I had to argue for 45 minutes till we came to an agreement.
Today, I sat with the kids in a circle again and had each individual one say in turn if they still felt the same, still agreed to Tommy’s proposal. No one had changed their mind. So I told them that we teachers see this as their decision, not ours, but that we will respect it because it was unanimous and had its own kind of fairness. Still, I asked the girls if they would think about alternative ways to listen to music as a show of solidarity and they all nodded yes. Then we wrote up the new arrangements and everyone signed:
I spent five hours of my normally free Friday with my Secondary class. They were having their annual “Movie Night”/ sleepover at the school. It was very good timing, too, because the once good atmosphere in the group has been slipping away. And for one major reason: cell phones.
We have a general agreement that we teachers don’t take their cells away from them during the school day. They should be on flight mode and only used for listening to music during the break. I don’t know exactly when it started, but it is now the school’s worst kept secret that the five boys huddled on the couch for the entire 40 minute break are NOT listening to music. They are stealthily clan clashing or mine-crafting or subway surfing or Pokémon going. (I assume I revealed my ignorance about these games with that last sentence.) The non-gamers in the classroom are increasingly bothered about it – not only because of the dishonesty, but because these boys are no longer available to them. They are missed on the soccer field and in the rounds of Werewolf or Activity. They are missed in simple conversation. As they sit there staring into their screens, thumbs waving, they are unresponsive and inaccessible to everyone else. And they resent being asked to stop by their classmates, then compensate for their tinges of guilt by being extra snippy or sullen. As these cell phone games draw them in, they also draw them away from their friends, isolating them in a sort of self-inflicted solitary confinement.
So as I wrote at the start, it was a very good time for a class event like the Movie Night. Just like last year, I agreed to chaperone until 5 pm, when my younger and more idealistic colleague arrived to take over for the night shift. And just like last year, I agreed to do this on the condition that my Dog 4 came along and that we ALL went for a walk together.
When I arrived, most of the kids were cooking lunch already. The missing five were up in the classroom, on the couch, staring into screens with thumbs flashing. I sat down next to one of them and asked him to show me the game. Technically the school day was over and they had the right to do this openly, but my presence seemed to take the fun out of it. They broke off and, one after another, meandered down to the kitchen where all the laughter was. The one last holdout could not be talked into joining the rest, so I left him there alone. He finally showed up for lunch when the remainder of the spaghetti was cold and sticky.
We cleared the table and immediately set out for our walk. The girls set off at an enthusiastic pace, singing songs, while the boys lagged behind in a demonstration of their reluctance. Our destination was a sort of natural playground next to a stream that had been recently restored to its original course as part of a regional conservation project. It’s a beautiful area that now attracts more bikers and hikers than tractors or pesticides. Part of the project was planting hundreds of trees and special plants in an effort to bring back the bees. The restoration of the original river will hopefully bring back the native fish.
About halfway along, one of the girls blurted out: “Could we maybe forbid cell phones in the school?” That set off a flurry of discussion and revelations about what was going on in their classroom and how they felt about it. I mostly just listened and learned. The discussion continued all the way to the playground where we sat down and waited for the stragglers to show up.
They (the stragglers) eventually arrived and plopped themselves down at a distance from us, apparently exhausted after their 30 minute trail of tears.
But then something happened. The playground started to work its magic. They slowly, one by one, got up and moved toward some piece of equipment. They started playing. And competing. And laughing. Cell phones appeared – but only to take pictures. As we all soaked up the sun, some of their adolescent lethargy melted away and the factions started intermingling.
The walk home happened in different constellations and unhurriedly as we stopped along the way for more games by the river.
Two hours after taking off, we returned to the school and . . .
. . . the five went directly to their classroom couch, dove into their cells, and were once again lost to the others.
But not for long. Protests from their classmates pried the first two out and back to group games. They went outside to play soccer, leaving just three. After five minutes, I said to them “Everyone else is outside playing – why don’t you join them?” I pointed to a cell phone. “You can do that anytime.” It was enough to get another one to move. Three down, two more holdouts: the biggest gamer of them all and a recent convert who I guessed was only doing it to fit in with the others. I set my sights on him.
“You know, I don’t think you realize what that device in your hand is doing to you. Those 12 kids outside are your friends and their feelings are hurt. You all only have about three more months together. They want to spend time with you. And you are up here doing something you can do alone in your room.”
The convert paused for a second, put the cell down, sighed an “Okay” and went to join the others. That left one. The leader of the lost pack.
“Are you coming too?” I asked him.
It took no more than a few minutes before the convert was running around whooping after scoring his first goal. Another five minutes after that, the final holdout appeared at the side of the soccer field. The others noticed him and squealed out his name, letting him know how glad they were to see him. He smiled.
I don’t know why we keep our landline telephone. It hardly ever rings, and nine times out of ten when it does, somebody aggressively tries to sell me something, or tries to trick me into subscribing to something, or asks me to participate in a marketing survey. In that last case, they begin by lying about how long it will take.
Back when I was teaching Business English, I used to say yes to these survey takers and even found it sort of fun. But then, one day, the Grocery Store Jingle Guy called. He said he would either play snippets or say slogans, and I should tell him what chain it was for. Why not? I thought. I don’t watch Austrian TV, but I do go shopping occasionally . . .
“I’m going to be really bad at this,” I warned Survey Guy nevertheless.
After answering “Not sure” to the first three questions, I interrupted him. “Would it be better if I just guessed when I’m not sure?” He said yes.
For the rest of the questions I just said whatever popped into my mind and then immediately thought “No. Wait . . . that wasn’t right.” Survey Guy’s pauses after each of my answers got a tiny bit longer . . .
Near the end, he asked if I lived in a village or town, and then if my village had a store, and then which one.
“Adeg,” I answered, and then thought “No. Wait . . . that’s not right.”
As always, the survey ended with a few questions about me – sex, age range, income range, education level . . .
I told him I had two university degrees.
“OH!” he said, unable to hide the surprise in his voice.
Despite this embarrassing performance, marketers kept calling regularly. I was clearly on some kind of list that gets passed around. It got annoying – all the more because I had only myself to blame for getting on such a list.
I should have known better.
Back in my college days, I once got on a very different sort of list – or at least my telephone number did – but that time it wasn’t my fault. Out of the blue, the phone in my apartment started ringing off the hook – I mean 10 or more times an hour – all men asking to speak to my roommate. A few of the dejected or confused callers mentioned the words “Hot Lips” (or something close to that – it was a long time ago). It turned out that one of my roommate’s friends pranked her by placing an ad offering telephone sex in the classified section (“Hot Lips”) of a men’s magazine, using her real first name and our shared telephone number. Nice. We had to put up with these calls for a month, until the next issue of the magazine came out. In the meantime, the phone stayed off the hook overnight and for long periods during the day.
I confess we did have some fun with the situation. Sometimes when the phone rang, we would ask unsuspecting visitors “Could you get that please?” Some of our friends . . . “engaged” with this or that caller for a while. Sometimes we passed the phone on to the Gingerbread Man and let him deal with it. (For more on this little guy’s escapades, see “My Velveteen Rabbit”.) And my roommate’s prankster friend? When she came over, she always had to answer the phone as a condition of her forgiveness and continued visiting privileges. (By the way, in case you read the post linked to above, Prankster Friend and Lampshade Lady are one and the same.) Despite some fun, the constantly ringing phone and subsequent – short! – conversations got very, very annoying, just like the marketing calls now.
This morning our landline phone rang and I just stood there listening to the sound for a while. Experience has taught me to blow it off, but there was that little fleeting thought that it might be important. I started to slowly climb the stairs. The ringing stopped when I was halfway up.
We really should lose that device.
And it is not the only communication port around here that has lost its usefulness. I used to love checking the mailbox. There were times when I even waited impatiently for the mailman to come. But now that I have cancelled my last subscription and no one writes letters anymore, the mailbox has become nothing more than a depository for bills, advertisements and donation requests. Here is yesterday’s dump:
That’s all from just one day!
For a while, 99% of the contents of our mailbox never made it into the house. (Our paper recycling can is conveniently located halfway between.) But then my husband protested – he likes looking at this stuff. So now there are little piles of it all over the house requiring constant removal.
“Dealing with mail” and “answering the telephone” became two new additions to our household chores list. The first one has slowly shifted over to my husband’s column and the second to my daughter’s. She is getting really good at filtering. Now, when the phone rings, nine times out of ten I hear this:
(the sound of my daughter walking)
“Um. I’m sorry, but my mom and dad aren’t here right now . . .”
A few years ago I joked about putting “Chauffeur” on my résumé. Now I am thinking about adding “Hairdresser” – maybe with an added note: “specializing in African hair and styles”. Last weekend I spent 7 hours learning how to braid in extensions. Today it was the younger daughter’s turn and she decided on twists. That was a relief because they only take about 3 hours, whereas braids can mean anywhere from 8 to 12 hours of work.
As always, we began by negotiating about which series on Netflix we would watch – she vetoed Star Trek Voyager and I vetoed Orange is the New Black. We both know enough by now not to even bother suggesting Pride and Prejudice or Vampire Diaries. We decided on Gilmore Girls. That was a nice mother/daughter thing to do.
And it was like looking in the mirror!
Except that I didn’t give birth to my daughter at 16, I adopted her at age 40. And that our conversations aren’t all fast-paced, witty and sparkly – we tend to have quiet, serious talks interspersed with a lot of not uncomfortable silences. And we don’t talk about boys or dating or my relationship with my own mother – which by the way, is not at all complicated. And we don’t act like girlfriends or lend each other clothes and jewelry . . but sometimes I do catch her wearing my socks.
And sometimes I give up a whole weekend just to see how she smiles at herself in the mirror when we are done.