Devil Cat is Disrespecting the Stay-in-Basket / Social Distancing Policy

 

Question: Have you noticed a change in your pets since the Stay at Home policy began? I ask because my four-legged cohabitants are displaying unusual behaviors. Dog Four runs much farther away than usual on our daily walks. She has also gotten much more aggressive (and successful) in hunting out moles and voles and other disgusting things to eat and then throw up later somewhere in the house. Conversely, the chickens are running right up to us, in between and around our feet, as if begging “Pick me up! Pick me up!” They have also suddenly gone to war with the ducks. The goats are cool.

And then there is Devil Cat. Whenever I am at the laptop, he usually makes two or three attempts to get in my face before resigning himself to the basket. Now it is ten times or more before we eventually reach a compromise:

When cats and chickens want to be nearer to you and dogs want to be farther away – well then something is upside-down in the world.

I suspect they are all jockeying for a better position in the “Who will be eaten first?” list. Dog Four is feeling pretty safe. The chickens? Not so much. But how does this theory explain the cat’s behavior? Name me one civilization in the history of the world that eats/ate cats?

It’s a mystery.

Unneedful Things

 

I had this whole list.

All the projects I was going to get to during the Social Distancing weeks. It even included an exercise plan. But, instead, for a person who was technically going to be fired along with her entire team because “they have nothing to do”, the past two weeks have been the most work-intensive ones in all of our years at the school.

First, we all became IT specialists on the fly and out of necessity. Teleconferencing began almost immediately with various constellations of team members and parents. The team spent hours and hours on the phone, trying to keep the school alive, while parents bickered and raised old grievances among them. “Really? Is this all necessary? Can’t it wait?” I thought to myself. It quickly became clear that the crisis in the school had existed long before the virus arrived. Corona just let it all come bubbling to the surface.

Meanwhile the team was trying to figure out how to set up learning platforms for the kids and creating a schedule for who will man the empty school on which days – as ordered by Ministry of Education.

Meanwhile, hundreds of emails were flying to and fro, most of them requiring attention.

Meanwhile, new WhatsApp groups were popping up like mushrooms, setting my cell constantly a-dinging.

Meanwhile, the website I used to post all of my assignments for the school kids came crashing down, adding an extra dose of stress that I seriously did not need.

 

Meanwhile, I began noticing again and again how the comfortingly familiar – the taken-for-granted stuff – can suddenly get hinky and . . . eerie. Take this, for example – I go daily to the MSNBC website for updates, but one day this week, the big red banner at the top for breaking news looked like this:

I spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to decode “Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE”. Was it some kind of secret code? Hackers? A Russian bot? Subliminal messaging? A warning? I confess it unnerved me a bit. It was creepy.

I need my normal things in life to remain normal.

I have been finding excuses to go to the neighborhood store every other day. I’ve discovered that seeing the fully stocked shelves puts my mind at ease. I then buy things I don’t need to justify my visit there. Yesterday, I really did need a particular thing though. The husband was making spaghetti carbonara and we realized we didn’t have enough noodles. I zipped down to the store and . . . they didn’t have any. “OMG! THEY DON’T HAVE SPAGHETTI!!” I thought. Now let me add that there were about 15 other types of pasta in plentiful amounts, but . . . “OMG! NO SPAGHETTI!!” Creepy!

And then there was the stranger. He walked past the house and then stopped to ask which direction he should go to get to a certain wine tavern in a nearby village. It was a situation I have had a thousand times, living in a resort area and right on one of the major hiking paths. But this time it was weird. “Where did this tourist find a room when all the hotels are closed?” I asked myself. “And why is he heading toward a closed restaurant?” Creepy.

And then there is the constant low-grade anxiety. “Do I have it?” one thinks by every tiny ache or pain. I mentally run through the litany of virus symptoms on a regular basis. If I cough, I think “Was that a dry cough?” And then I go sanitize my hands and try to tune my body out. I tell myself that we are all suffering from activeimaginationitus. It’s creepy.

I used to have a rhythm. There were workdays and there were free days. Now, every day, I have about an hour for my morning rituals before the emails and text messages and WhatsApp messages and the conference calls start coming in. And even that hour is disorienting. A week ago it was sunny T-shirt weather. Three days ago I was woken up by a frigging earthquake (!!) Yesterday, I woke up to a white wintery world covered in new fallen snow. Mother Nature is now sending me disorienting messages too. I raised my hands toward the sky and, looking up, I asked her “Really? Is this all necessary? Can’t it wait? It`s creepy!”

These are all unneedful things.

So, what makes all this bearable? The fact that Corona isolation causes creativity.

There has been a veritable explosion of it everywhere I look. My backward, alternative school has gone high-tech in the space of a week. The gym teachers in my husband’s school started posting funny “Sports at Home” videos and within 24 hours the students started spontaneously contributing videos of their own. My team and I had a WhatsApp cocktail party, sending one another pictures of our gin and tonics while chatting. A creative writing group of parents found a way to meet online and created a wonderful collection of “Life under Corona” pieces along with new, deeper connections among the participants. I’ve just been invited to join an online needlepoint circle who will collectively make blankets for a homeless shelter. Yoga teachers have found a way to keep their classes going through live streaming. My daughter had her first piano lesson by Skype. Musicians are finding ways to collaborate from balconies and basements to make completely new forms of music. As I write this, my other daughter is upstairs taking part in an open mic session with a group of jazz singers. And in the offline outdoor world, long-time laconic neighbors are meeting and talking (from a safe distance) for the first time.

It’s all communicative. It’s all collaborative. It’s all free. It’s all needed.

 

I try to be wary of romanticizing a pandemic. But there are things happening that I hope we will be able to take with us into the post-Corona world. As much as I crave normalcy – I would love to see a new normal emerge. A new school rising out of the ashes of the one being burned down now. An economic system with longer-term thinking and contingency plans. A new consciousness that a health care system based on profit and with gaping holes impoverishes and endangers everyone. A realization that we had become isolated long before this sickness began to spread. And when that isolation became a physical reality, we discovered that reaching out to others was the only way to return to sanity.

 

 

Dog Four Loves Corona

This is the way Dog Four looks when she suspects a walk might be imminent. Alert. Questioning, Waiting for a clear sign and trying hard not to get her hopes up too much. The poor thing gets way too little outside time and exercise – especially for a border collie. And normally she has a lot of alone time while everyone is off at work or school.

But not right now. There are five humans in this house, only one of whom has to leave it five days a week to wander alone through his big empty school. Two others spend the mornings at home in front of computers attending virtual classes. One does a lot of singing upstairs.

The fifth one is often typing on a laptop or taking a lot of pictures to document her life and experiences in these extraordinary, historic days. Pictures of newspaper headlines blaring out bad news: an order to hunker down inside the house or the unbearable stress being put on the social welfare system as thousands of people become suddenly unemployed – herself possibly included. She takes pictures of her hand sanitizer collection and a pile of ads that, curiously, were stuffed in her mailbox that day, despite the fact that the stores holding all these wonderful products have locked their doors. And she takes pictures of today’s egg haul and shares it to her husband in the empty school with the caption “The ducks were in the henhouse again”.  She thinks to herself “What eggy thing can I cook today?”

Lately she has been pacing around the house, cell phone in hand, listening to seven different panicky voices discussing the future of the school. What will we do if the school doesn’t reopen after Easter, or May, or June, or at all? Should we just shut it down right now while there are still unemployment benefits to be had? She doesn’t say much in these discussions. She keeps a running tally going of the number of times someone says “Ich habe Angst . . .”

At some point each day, cabin fever strikes one or the other of these five people. They grab the leash, call Dog Four’s name and take off on a solitary walk, glad they don’t live in a city where a policeman might stop them and ask where they are going or why they are outside.

Dog Four can’t believe her luck. If she could talk, she’d tell you that corona is the best thing since sliced bread and that she’s been sleeping better lately too.

What she doesn’t know is that discussions have been going on in blogworld – if things got really bad, would you or would you not eat your dog? She can rest easy, though. In her case there are twenty chickens, four ducks and three goats ahead of her in line.

Babysitting Till Easter

 

Here’s a sort of continuation of my previous post. A lockdown update, so to speak. It is not every day that you get to experience a country going dark. Ripple after ripple of what this all means have been washing over me for the past three days.

As we suspected, the directive from the Ministry of Education to start preparing distance-learning materials for our students was a prelude to school closings here in Austria. Our 17-year-old Chancellor held a press conference on Wednesday to announce the government’s decisions. High schools will be closed starting Monday and stay that way till the Easter vacation begins. That means for three weeks. For elementary and middle schools, a compromise was found. Those kids who can stay home, should. The schools will stay open only for the kids who have no day care options. We teachers should not teach anything new to these kids, just take care of them and maybe review past lessons. One point stressed was that kids should not be cared for by grandmas and grandpas – if that is the only option, they should go to school instead. As a near-grandma-aged teacher, I’m not sure how I feel about that. But, in general, the decisions seem measured and sound to me.

Unfortunately, I fear there will be parents who don’t grasp the concept of social distancing. We have already gotten the first notice of a child who can’t stay at home. In his email, the father wrote that “it will be fine because [the child]’s immune system is very strong”. The email was sent to every family in the school and it got me wondering how many other parents would follow suit. Sure enough, a second email arrived on Thursday. In this case, the child’s parents both work from home, but apparently, they still need us to take of him during school hours. I’m not sure how this one will be handled, but in any case, it seems my team and I may be glorified babysitters for the coming three weeks.

Or . . . maybe not! On Friday, one of the parents sent an email suggesting we teachers be fired for the duration of the corona closings – with a guarantee of being rehired again. That way, the social welfare system can pay us and the school can save a few bucks.

I have no words.

Yes I do.

Firstly, we will all still be working. Secondly, in my entire life, I have never applied for or received unemployment benefits and I don’t plan to do it now. What is this woman thinking?? I told my team members that they can quote me if they want: if the parents go through with this crappy idea and fire us for a month, in my case they can spare themselves the rehiring part.

This was just one of the many many ripples on Friday. Despite it being my day off, a frantic phone call from a colleague had me jumping in my car and driving to the school. It seems most of the parents had decided not to wait till Wednesday. They would keep their kids at home starting right away. We had four hours to prepare them all for a month of distance learning and home schooling. We threw together materials and documentation sheets, we compiled email address lists, we helped them pack up all their books and assignments, meanwhile, the photocopier was running constantly, and the emails kept coming in. New information about the closings from the school board, the youth hostel cancelling our week in Carinthia in May, the big Montessori conference also cancelled, announcements from grocery store chains telling people there is no reason for panic buying – the warehouses are full and more food is on the way. There was a notice from the health resort that my third cure week is cancelled, news that the huge health spa near my house as well as all the hotels around it are closing and that the upcoming local elections were postponed, that the chancellor would be holding a press conference at 2:00 pm to announce the closing of all stores except food stores and pharmacies, and then the email mentioned above about the team being temporarily fired.

The news kept dribbling in all afternoon and evening – facility closings, border closings, cancellations of all kinds. My daughter sent me pictures of empty store shelves in Graz and asked, “What’s going on?” Amid all this, another dispute-by-email broke out among parents from the school. “Really??” I thought. “Is this really what you are worrying about at this moment of national emergency?” The exchange ended abruptly when the upcoming General Assembly was cancelled.

To be fair, though, these parents are not the only ones who are slow to realize the gravity of the place we are in or what “social distancing” or solidarity really mean. My younger daughter asked if she could sleep over at a friend’s house. My older one keeps talking about going to work on Monday despite her cough and cold and the fact that she isn’t really required to do so. Some of her band members don’t see why they shouldn’t get together and practice. We also had to track down our refugee son. He was by friends and planned to stay over. I had to text him in a pretty harsh tone that if he thought he could be going out with friends and still come in and out of this house, then we had a problem. My daughter then went to pick him up and bring him back. He gets it now too.

Somewhere during all of this, I had to get away for a while, so I took my dog for a walk. I ran into Mean Neighbor Lady by the mailboxes and, of course, we talked about Corona measures. There is no other topic right now. She wasn’t worked up at all about the shutdown in progress.  She even saw the bright side of it. “People can act so dumb,” she said. “They have way too much of everything and it makes them crazy. Years ago, we didn’t have all this stuff, but, you know what? No one went hungry. It was the same when all the refugees came. Everyone got so worked up about it, but, look – they are here now, and everyone still has enough food. And you know what else? If people here don’t want refugees from other countries coming, then maybe they should stop selling them weapons.”

It was the first time I had ever heard her political views and it floored me. For thirty years I have been assuming she would have xenophobic tendencies or be somewhat ignorant of the world. I guess that was pretty unfair of me. This short conversation turned out to be the bright spot of my day.

 

Love in the Time of Corona

People occasionally ask me how Europeans see the whole political mess in America, so when this newspaper arrived at my doorstep on Super Wednesday, I put it aside to use in my blog. There is a reason I am finally posting it today – a week later and at a time when the corona virus and crashing economy have completely shoved political topics aside in the news.  Add to that the crescendo-ing crisis at my workplace and it is almost a wonder that I have any room left in my brain for the primaries. But as I said, there is a reason – and it has mostly to do with cat puke.

The three topics mentioned above have been intermingling constants in my consciousness and I keep feeling that they are all somehow connected. I’m going to try to get to the bottom of that here. Starting with politics . . .

The article above is a pretty accurate assessment of the state of the Democratic primary race, except that it pronounces Sanders to still be the clear front runner and it predicts a contested convention. Well, either things change quickly, or I have missed something in the coverage of the race.

In my own assessment, after watching all the more attractive candidates drop like flies one after another, I find myself imagining the fall debates with either of the two remaining contenders against Twump. Will it be two septuagenarians tossing word salad or two septuagenarians flinging invective poop at one another while bemoaning all that is disgraceful and disastrous in America. I can’t help seeing Bernie as the flip-side of Twump’s coin, with a different set of issues, but also banking on grievance and fear. Two men completely locked into their world views. I don’t like the idea of having to choose between revolution and devolution. I don’t want to vote based on fear or any other negative emotion. I think I prefer Biden’s kinder senility.

Because that is a second constant theme in my thoughts lately. How Twump has succeeded in putting the “coarse” back in “discourse” and then spreading it around the globe like a . . . well, like a virus. I’ve been noticing signs all over in all different contexts how communication is becoming ruder, more aggressive, more profane.  Swearing politicians. Stories of increasingly vicious trolling in the internet. Group mobbing on social media. Nasty movie reviews of perfectly nice films like “Emma”. (You see? It has even infected me!) I’ve watched little seven- and eight-year-olds in our school calling one another “wankers” while giving them the finger. Older kids speaking with the crassest words, hurling insensitive insults, and being either oblivious to or unbothered about their reception. “That’s just how young people talk today,” they tell me. (Nonsense!) The number of 15-18 year-old students who stop attending because they can’t handle the school day is increasing and a lot of their stress is social. It has prompted my husband to send out a letter to all the parents in his school, asking them to talk to their kids about the way they communicate in the classroom. I hope it will help, but when I observe how the parents themselves behave in discussions, it seems pretty clear to me where the kids might be getting it from.

There has been one meeting after another in my school and I see the different factions getting more and more rigid in their views – more certain that their assessment of the problems and solutions is the only right one. No room for compromise. The tone can be aggressive, threatening, fear-inducing, insensitive, impolite, even crass. One group says it’s simple: close the kindergarten and fire those two teachers. Problem solved. The other says it’s simpler: raise the tuition by one hundred percent. If this or that family can’t afford it – well, too bad! They can go somewhere else.

These recent developments have gotten the teaching team worried about the continuing existence of the school. It prompted my boss, who is not a sentimental person by nature, to send us an atypically cutesy meme – something I would have found sappy in the past:

Love . . . should be the virus that all people on Earth are infected with , , ,

 

Which brings me to Topic Number Three. Which is really Number One. Today’s news included the biggest drop in the world’s stock market in history as well as the shutting down of an entire country (Italy. Our neighbour.) Closer to home all the universities are now closed in Austria for the coming week (or weeks?) Even closer to home, the theater in Graz we were planning to take the kids to next week has cancelled all performances until April. And at home, I got an email today from the Department of Education. It was a directive to all teachers to start preparing materials that students can do at home. We think that all schools might be closing down starting Monday.

Everything seems connected.

My students need a time-out and a course correction. My school needs them too. So do the politics of my home country, the economy, and the world. The Corona virus seems to be forcing us all into one. And yes, I realize that is an insane way of looking at things.

But my cat agrees with me.

He jumped onto my desk this afternoon and started retching. The only thing within reach was the newspaper I had been saving to blog about. I quickly removed the first few pages, spread out the rest in front of him and let him empty his stomach onto it. I then carefully folded up the paper and tossed it in the garbage.

Later, I started reading the article for my blog post and discovered that the second half was in the part I had thrown away. I fished it out and gingerly opened it back up. There was the puke and, of course, it had landed right on the article I was looking for. Its stain smeared into two adjacent articles – a complimentary review of the movie “Emma” and a public service ad for the corona virus hotline.

 

Spoiled

My daughters announced that they wanted to treat me to movie matinee as a birthday present and they suggested “Emma” which just happened to be showing in the original English. The fact that my husband and I had passed the movie theater just two days earlier and that I had stopped in front of the poster and exclaimed happily “Oh! There’s a new version!” didn’t immediately raise any suspicions in me. “What a coincidence!” I thought.

Sometimes it takes me a while to figure stuff out.

Now I’ve read the novel “Emma” at least three times and have seen all the movie adaptations of it – a few of them a lot more than once. Being an Austen purist, I still like the old BBC version the best. But I’m always willing to give a new version a chance. So, this afternoon, my daughters and I bought our popcorn and sodas and took them to our expensive seats in the nearly empty theater. The lights dimmed . . .

(If you plan on seeing this movie, you should probably stop reading now. I’m going to have no qualms about spoiling the near spoiling of the story of the spoiled girl.)

The first scene reassured me that this adaptation was going to be true to the original novel. All of the dialogue was familiar to me and the settings showed faithfulness to early 19th century detail. But then we see Mr. Knightley for the first time. He’s being undressed by his manservants and proceeds to walk stark naked around a room. “What’s the point of this??” I wondered. On reflection, I later decided the message was: a man with such a nice butt can get away with marrying a woman 20 years younger than him and not be considered a pedophile. In Jane Austen’s time, that was a point not necessary to make.

After that scene, I was on edge for a while – what other liberties would this movie take? But, basically, it went back to being a standard retelling with a few exceptions. I noticed that the stories of minor characters were dealt with minimally and not really developed. Instead, a lot of attention was given to showing the houses and living standards of various classes, including some funny scenes involving servants’ reactions to their “masters’” antics. The major focus was on the emotions of the central couple. It made me start anticipating how the filmmakers would deal with the final marriage proposal. In true Jane Austen form, this is one scene where she leaves out critical dialogue for them to make use of. And, therefore, it’s the place where most movies screw up. In the original novel, this is what Emma says in response to Mr. Knightley’s declaration of love:

“She spoke, then, on being so entreated. What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair – and to invite him to say more himself.”

We were almost two hours into the film and the scene finally arrived. Mr. Knightley asks if he has any chance with her. The camera zooms in on Emma’s face, closer, closer, her nose now fills the screen . . . and . . . and then . . . blood starts streaming out of it.

“What in the HELL is THIS?!” I blurted out much too loudly, waving my hand in the air, setting off the laughter of my daughters and the couple in the row behind us. For a minute I worried the movie would now take some kind of absurd Tarantino-type turn. Zombies would appear. Or Mr. Elton would show up at the Woodhouse estate with an Uzi.

But no. With the exception of one completely fabricated scene between Emma and a farmer, the movie returns to form. There is a wedding in a church full of smiling faces. Happy End. The lights in the theater come back on.

Sometimes it takes me a while to figure stuff out. But this one decision of the filmmaker will remain a mystery to me forever. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen’s noses do not bleed.

 

Fifty-eight

A serenade from twenty-seven students. A wave of WhatsApp wishes. Facebook full of happy feelings. A birthday blog from a bff. Red roses refreshing my room. A delicious dinner date. And, finally, a last little gift of good news from the cosmos.