Founding Fathers 2.0

“C! Come here quick! You gotta see this!”

It was my husband yelling out to me from the kitchen and, of course, I immediately came. That was how my own personal experience of January 6th, 2021 began. I stared at the images on the TV screen in confusion for a while as my husband filled me in on whatever sketchy information he knew. After a long silence, the first thought popped out of my mouth.

“This is going to backfire.”

Over the next few days, like most Americans, I assume, I underestimated the seriousness and violence of the event. The fact that the Congresspeople were able to reconvene and finish their business gave me a false impression of what they had all just gone through. More videos began to emerge with some of them including almost comical elements. In particular, the scene of some rioters entering the Senate chamber included this little gem when you can hear one of them saying:

“While we’re here we might as well set up a government.”

I confess, I laughed out loud. So much that I had to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. I allowed my imagination to embark on an absurd whimsical journey. I pictured these clowns attempting to hammer out the finer points of their new constitution on the fly, while their maskless moron compatriots in other parts of the building were sharing helpful clues for the FBI and evidence for their future criminal trials to social media. I imagined these drafters of America 2.0 pulling it off and how someday, far off into the future, history books would replace that stuffy old painting of men in their silly wigs with this image of our new Founding Fathers:

The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

While watching those first videos, I discovered something else within the swirl of my emotions. What was it about this crowd that disturbed me most? It was not their rage or frustration, their willingness to commit acts of violence or their bent for conspiracy theories. It was the fact that they all seem so . . . DUMB. Anyone can fall prey to extreme emotions or manipulation at times in their lives. Those are universal human weaknesses. But something can always be done about dumb.

Now, after watching the first two days of the Impeachment Managers’ presentation, laughter is no longer possible. They have been doing their very best to provide some education, but it is not clear that the walls of the Capitol breaching brains are penetrable. I can imagine that as these people watch the very same, very disturbing videos, their reactions are the polar opposite of my own: where I feel sadness, they feel exhilaration, my fears are their empowerment, my humiliation is their pride.

Happy Times

It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.

While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues  – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.

In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:

I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.

So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.

The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.

A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.

It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:

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The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.

The high level of early voting has led Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who administers the U.S. Elections Project, to predict a record U.S. voter turnout of about 150 million, representing 65% of those eligible to vote, the highest rate since 1908.

By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since  . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.

It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.

Election Night in Loopyville

Let me start by saying that my daughters were NOT taking me seriously in my efforts to do absentee voting by the book. Thanks to Daughter 1’s boyfriend, I have dozens of pictures of each stage of the procedure to back me up.

There was the showing of the empty ballots
There was the anonymous filling out of ballots
There was the inserting into and sealing of the (naked) envelope
There was the signing of the certification form
There was the witness signing of the certification form
There was the affixing of the certification form to the naked envelope
There was the inserting of the naked envelope affixed with voter-signed and witness-signed certification form into a second envelope and addressing it
There was a Happy End

I mailed off our ballots two days ago. I can already say with certainty, even though I didn’t look, that the Loopyville contingent of Milwaukee’s Ward 132 went 0% for the current pwesident. I can also say that I feel different. Like maybe there is a proverbial light at the end of this crappy four-year-long tunnel. Like maybe it is no longer my civic responsibility to follow every outrageous or scandalous twist and every shitshow turn between now and November 3rd.

I have my final golf lesson tomorrow. After that I might do some gardening.

– – – – – – – – –

Postscript

I really should know better by now than to make predictions. After writing the above yesterday, I was too tired to post it and decided to wait until morning. The first thing I see after firing up my laptop is the news about the pwesident’s positive Covid test . . . .

Damals war ich vierzehn

 

When I was 14, it was the year 1976. The year of the American Bicentennial. A celebration of 200 years of freedom and democracy. In commemoration, I baked a cake and decorated it with an approximation of the original American flag. (Please don’t count the number of stars or stripes. I wasn’t a perfectionist back then.) The only reason I still know this is because there is a picture in my childhood photo album. I stare at it now and feel that it represents the peak of my patriotism, not to mention my baking skills.

The reason I have dredged up this particular memory is that I have just finished reading this book: “Damals war ich vierzehn”. In English, the title would be something like “I Was Fourteen Back Then: Youth in the Third Reich”. It’s a collection of short stories/essays/memoirs of Austrian writers who were children of various ages during the reign of Hitler. The experiences and perspectives were wildly different, but all of them moving. There was the boy whose torment by his fellow aspiring Hitler youth only made him want to belong more. There was the man piecing together memory fragments from his four-year old self who emerged as an orphan from the rubble of a bombed-out air raid shelter and somehow managed to travel all alone to his grandmother hundreds of miles away. There was the little girl who started singing a song while waiting in line at the butcher’s, only to be slapped viciously and repeatedly by her beloved Grandma. (She didn’t know it was an anti-Hitler song. It was just something her dad sang.) There was the young Jewish girl whose family (or what was left of it) returned to Austria right after the war – “now that it was all over” – only to learn painfully over and over again that it was all far from being over.

The one that got to me most, for some reason, was the story of two neighbor kids who were ordered by the Führer to bring their pet dogs to a sort of army physical to see if they were fit for service on the front lines. The kids proceeded to “train” (= torment) their dogs with loud bangs, sirens, and pain to make sure they cowered and ran off during the test (and were therefore rejected and spared). While reading this story, a realization washed over me of just how far-reaching and deeply implanted the tentacles of the Nazis had become by that point, interfering in daily family life even down to the relationships between little kids and their dogs.

This book is one of two perennial favorites of teachers in Austria who have to teach about the Second World War*. The other is called “The Wave” and it tells the story of a Californian teacher who conducted an experiment on his students after they rejected the idea that fascism could take hold in America. He began a movement in his class based on principles of “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”** He then added in symbols, and slogans and salutes. His experiment took on a life of its own, spread throughout the school and quickly got out of his control. Brutality and torment ensued.***

 

“How could they?!” I remember thinking the exact same thing as my German teacher in high school taught us about that historical period, including her own youthful experiences. She told us how at some point a critical mass of followers was reached, after which dissent became life-threatening.  She told us how parents eventually became afraid of their own children and could no longer speak freely in front of them. (Think about the song in the butcher’s shop – that grandma surely acted not out of political conviction, but out of fear.) My teacher let us know the whole story, including all the ultimate atrocities. I still thought “How could they??! That could never happen here!”

I must have been about 14 at the time, maybe a little older, but in any case, still near the peak of my patriotism and baking skills.

 

And here I sit, about 44 years later and 45 days before the next election, wondering not only if it could happen, but if it will happen. Fascism in America. Or if our institutions (or what is left of them), our Constitution (or what is left of it), our Free Press (or whatever that is now), and our liberty loving people (who is that exactly? which liberties do they care about? whose liberties do they care about?) may pull off a last-minute reversal.

The American people beating back fascism would go a long way in restoring the entire world’s faith in our country, not to mention my own. Will it happen?

Or will more brutality and torment ensue?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

*One principle in the Austrian curriculum in History is called “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, meaning “coming to terms with the past”. The idea behind this policy is fairly straightforward and Santayana-ish . . . “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Austrian students are confronted with the events and the atrocities of the time of their grandparents (or maybe now great-grandparents). In their Junior or Senior years, they all take a class trip to Mauthausen, which was the one major concentration camp in Austria.
We have no real concept of dealing with the past in the United States. On the contrary. As Gore Vidal wrote (about the issue of legalizing marijuana) in the New York Times: “It is a lucky thing for the American moralist that our country has always existed in a kind of time‐vacuum: we have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” He wrote that in September 1970 – a half century ago. It still seems true today. Maybe more so than ever.
 ** In other words, “Law and Order, Build the Wall, America First, Make America Great Again”.
***Strangely enough, there was a scandal here in Austria just last year. A teacher was using this book to teach about WWII and, for some reason, his/her students started role-playing the same dynamics extra-curricularly. It got bad. Things are not perfect here either.
 

The Masque of the Orange Death

(Kur Report – Part 8)

 

My brother’s nickname for Austria is “Clean World”. It’s his way of contrasting what he hears from me about the Covid and political situations here to what he is experiencing in the States. Well, if my home is in Clean World, where I am right now is . . . I don’t know . . . Prospero’s Castle?

As announced in my last posts, I left for my third cure week at the health resort on Wednesday at the crack of dawn. After about 4 hours of travel, I arrived, got my room key and was instructed to isolate there. Twenty minutes later, someone from the Red Cross came to my room and stuck a Q-Tip up my nose. An hour after that, someone bought me a plate of food. Five hours after that, my phone rang. My test was negative. I could leave my room. My cure week had begun.

This place is almost hermetically sealed. Everyone here has been tested, some of them more than once (if they are employees or patients who come from hotspot areas). No one else is allowed in and we have strict rules to follow if we go out. We get our temperatures checked daily before lunch. We have to wear masks outside of our rooms and sanitize our hands when entering and leaving any of the seven therapy areas. Everything imaginable is being done to keep the plague out of this place.

So, I guess it is no wonder that Edgar Allen Poe and his “Masque of the Red Death” keeps infiltrating my thoughts. What are we, if not a bunch of oblivious and merry guests concentrating only on having a pleasant time while a sickness rages outside our doors? Like the rest of the guests here, I considered tuning out the world for a week. But, unfortunately, the CNN breaking news on my TV and my list of political podcasts keep me informed about events outside, and I can’t seem to let them go. Twump’s clearly deteriorating mental state and increasingly demented actions have enabled him to sneak into this Castle of Clean World like an uninvited guest to wreak the same mental havoc here. But, of course, only for me. The rest of the people around me seem to be quite happy and fully enjoying the temporary good life.

I had free time yesterday and spent it in my room watching part of John Lewis’s funeral, including Obama’s powerful eulogy which really moved me. Afterwards, on the way down to the café terrace, I was deeply into thoughts about all the things he had said. Slowly, they got drowned out by the conversation of a group at a nearby table. It was the shallow talk of virtual strangers socializing out of necessity – complaints about the Covid restrictions and tips on how to get around them, a lengthy discussion about whether or not Hansi Hinterseer (an Austrian skier-turned-B-Grade-folk-singer) was gay, a mock feud between an Upper and a Lower Austrian, a debate about which receptionist is the rudest . . . It all struck me as so banal and meaningless. John Lewis is dead! Americans are dying and our democracy is on life support!! The “leader” is insane!

Which brings me back to Poe and another one of his stories. I remember some college professor telling us how Sigmund Freud was a Poe fan and that especially “The Fall of the House of Usher” was inspirational to him. It helped him to develop the theory of the subconscious. The upper floors house conscious, rational minds dealing – however feebly – with the world as it is. The crazy is buried in the basement – a place full of fear, obsession, and the irrationality of animalistic drives. Depending on how you see it, the protagonist either descends into madness or the crazy he tries to keep down resurfaces to destroy him. The whole house collapses in on itself.

Twump dwells in the basement of his mind. Years ago, I decided that he wakes up each morning with one thought in his head: “What dickish thing can I do today?” That has remained true up to and including today. It will be true tomorrow. It will be true on November 4th and on January 20th.

But! she says, with a budding, ever-so-slight sense of hope and change, Americans do seem to be waking up. Where locked doors fail to keep the orange menace from crashing the party and bringing the house down, the locked hands of various resisters just might: young BLM protesters shielded by a wall of moms, protected by leaf-blower dads, guarded by vets. Backing them up are the whistle-blowers, the Bulwark and Lincoln Project, the Squad, the leakers, the media monitors, the experts, the front-line doctors and nurses, the podcasters, the artists, the postal workers, the vote protectors, the voters . . .

Together they may finally pull off the orange one’s masque, revealing for once and for all that underneath, there is absolutely nothing.

 

The Karens

 (A White Mother of Black Children Reflects on Privilege)

 

It has become nearly impossible for any informed American to ignore the subject of white privilege in these turbulent times.

But for many, I suspect, the question has remained distant, intellectual, or abstract. In my case, it has been intensely personal. I have discovered myself to be completely and utterly ambivalent about it.

Two realizations keep recycling through my brain and confusing me. The first came after watching a few seconds of the video of the murder of George Floyd (which was all I could take) and then thinking, with utter abhorrence, “In this scenario, I am not the neck. I am the knee.”

The second realization was that I have spent the last 20 years ferociously wielding my white privilege like a shield for the sole purpose of protecting my black daughters. But my ability to do that is now coming to an end. The older one has begun her new life in an apartment in Graz and the younger will be moving out and joining her in about six weeks. They will have to go on living without my shield.

I won’t be there to silence passers-by.

I won`t be there to make the train conductor think twice about asking for their tickets in a suddenly different tone.

I won’t be there to stop strangers from touching their hair.

I won’t be there when the neighbor downstairs tells them that they walk too loudly.

I won’t be there when the policeman asks them for their identification.

 

No, they are going to have to go through this world mostly on their own now. And what a world it is.

– – – – – – – –

My learning curve about racism here and in the United States has been a long one. I look back at some of the statements I made in lecture halls and can only shake my head. I remember discussing a “groundbreaking” article about how economic success in life has as much to do with luck as with talent or drive. I felt at the time that it was important to challenge the prevailing myths about self-reliance and “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” and dishwasher-to-millionaire American success stories. It didn`t occur to me at the time that access to “luck” had racial preconditions. That was about the time when we were planning to start a family.

Years later, when the anti-foreigner movement was underway here in Austria, I argued that “foreigner” was just code for non-white races. I said that, in contrast to Austrians, Americans had dealt directly with the topic of racism and were starting to come out of the other end of the tunnel. I thought. That was about the time when we were considering international/interracial adoption and wondering if it would be fair to the child.

From there, I had the revelation that the concept of “race” was merely a social construct and not a real thing. After all, if you go back far enough, we are all Africans. While raising my children, however, I discovered that race was only a construct for white people. For others experiencing the consequences of race-related belief systems, it is a real thing. And a danger.

And now, after George Floyd, I have finally realized that true equality means this: As long as the construct of race remains real for some of the people, it remains real for all of them.

I am the knee. I am the white woman calling the cops on a Central Park birdwatcher. I am the person who saw a suspect in twelve-year-old Tamir at the playground. I am a Karen.

 

This very morning, I discovered that new slang term (“the Karens”) in a New Yorker article. I told my husband about it and he found it a bit too amusing. He immediately googled for more information. Later, during breakfast, I asked my daughters if they had ever heard of the term. There was an uncomfortable silence and a meaningful look passed between them. Then the elder daughter answered.

“Yeah . . . we didn’t want to tell you about it. We were afraid it would upset you.”

 

The Anarchy of the Chicken

 

I brought my morning coffee out onto the screen porch today only to look down and see the door to the chicken yard wide open. About half the flock had gone through it and were milling around and looting the vegetable and flower patches – places they had no business being. Still in my bathrobe, I quickly donned my rubber boots and left the house to quell the insurrection. As I came down the garden steps, all the chickens, including the ones who had stayed inside all came running toward me with their sharp beaks and superior numbers. It freaked me out a bit, but I told myself “All they want is their equal rights to food and water.” I had been slow to wake up and was the source of their current hunger. And I could fix it.

They milled around me as I filled a pitcher full of corn kernels and then scattered it inside their yard. Half of the chickens had the sense to run back inside through the open door. I corralled the rest of them in with some careful blocking and quiet shoo-shooing. Once order had been re-established, I surveyed the flock to make sure they were all present and accounted for and that none had been harmed. I was especially happy to see all four chicks doing well.

Of course, I had other options. I could have sicced the cats on them. I could have furiously nabbed the wayward chickens one by one and tossed them back inside. I could have decided to build a bigger, nastier fence to keep them penned in (or out, as the case may be). I could have cowered in the basement in case they made it all the way to the front door of the house while hysterically phoning friends and telling them to reassert my dominance. I could have tweeted angrily, calling them “thugs”. I could have had someone else clear them out brutally and then walked to the henhouse with a copy of “The Backyard Chicken Bible” held upside-down and posed for a picture. I could have proclaimed myself the Law-and-Order Chicken Queen.

 

But it turned out the way of understanding, kindness, and sharing was the better one. I gathered four eggs today and there are surely a lot more to come.

 

 

 

Don’t Treadle On Me

 

I think it is important that the world knows something. I own one of these now:

It is called a treadle hammer (or so google tells me) and the husband surreptitiously acquired it yesterday while professing to be out on a foray for bear’s garlic with our neighbor. I wondered briefly why they needed his horse trailer for this excursion. Now I know. When they got back, the husband sheepishly confessed the truth and then showed me our new possession. I stared at the thing and in that moment, it finally dawned on me: I am married to a serial hobbyist.

This realization really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. While organizing the basement storerooms last month, most of the work involved schlepping all of the husband’s (former) hobby paraphernalia from one place to another. Evidential remnants of his ever-shifting interests are everywhere in this house: the grape press and still acquired during his wine- and schnapps-making days, the kayaks and windsurfing sail and parachute left over from his various flirtations with extreme sports, shelves and shelves full of books on the perfect golf swing, cicada fish aquariums, woodworking, knife-making, bread baking, photography, mineral collecting, magic tricks, gardening, Asian cooking, etc. etc. etc. There is a self-made meat smoker on our front porch, a collection of old post-WWII bicycles under our back porch, a pile of Vespa parts in the basement along with enough fishing tackle and rods to equip an entire Boy Scout troop. I could go on . . .

But back to the treadle hammer. This new acquisition resulted from the husband’s latest interest, which I foolishly encouraged by gifting him a weekend seminar in blacksmithing where he made his first knife. He has been designing and building his own forge for the past few weeks, and now, with his new machine, he is planning where in our garden to set up shop. I assume there is an anvil somewhere in my future, too. (Sigh.)

After inspecting the machine, I went back to my laptop and was immediately confronted by this image, followed by a second sudden realization:

They’ve done it. I had begun to doubt the existence of the proverbial “rock bottom” (there seemed to be an unending supply of new lows), but these Twumpian Tea-Party-Offshoot protesters have finally managed to hit it.

 

If it were possible for fingers on a keyboard to sputter and stammer, mine would be doing it as I struggle to express my utter disgust. Is this woman ignorant of the Nazi sadism that led to these words being cast in wrought iron and hung over the entrances to concentration camps? Or worse, is she aware of that brutal history and nevertheless displaying her “clever” twisted word play and American flag-muzzle for the world to see? Either option is shameful.

Unfortunately, her stupid cardboard sign and my husband’s new toy are now inextricably connected in my brain. There is really no reason for it other than the timing of my seeing them. Or maybe it’s the similarity of the words tread and treadle, the first of which was on the Gadsden flags that Tea Party Old waved around.

One thing is clear, though. This woman and her compatriots are in dire need of a new hobby.

 

Remotely Reconnected

After marrying a foreigner 30 years ago, I stayed in a state of denial about my emigration for another six or seven years. Eventually I had to face the fact that I had settled 4,635 miles away from my family. This was made somewhat harder by the fact that we all seem to share a hermit gene and are pretty pathetic in the pen pal department. Years could go by without a peep from any of us. But then, every so often, some excuse for a reunion would arise, flights were booked and free days were arranged. We would all congregate on my sister’s porch and simply pick up from the point where we left off – be that three or five or ten years earlier. No recriminations for previous periods of silence. No “So you ARE still alive!” remarks. Just great conversation and laughter and enjoying the precious moments together.

I’m betting most people have some remorse over neglected relationships in this time of forced distancing. I’ve found myself calling up this or that old friend almost daily – just to check in or catch up. And people have been doing the same to me. I’ve had messages from high school friends back home, calls from students and in-law family members, emails from former colleagues, and yesterday, this text message from my bff:

Well, Ly, I have to confess that a certain evil penguin is not the only culprit to blame for my blog silence. I’ve also been preoccupied with this motley crew:

At some point in the late evening, one of these guys plants a meme bomblet in a sibling(+) WhatsApp group and we are off to the races. Some subset of us begins to chatter engage in witty repartee sprinkled with slightly painful punning and obscure movie quotes. Time zones are a recurring theme. Childhood nicknames are debated. Moments of trek-iness pop up leaving at least one of the sisters in the dark. Sometimes one brother writes in what he thinks is German. The other brother finally discovers John Oliver and gets immediately hooked. One hilarious thread creates a sketch about Twump captaining the Titanic. (“Only I can avoid hitting the iceberg. I am not responsible for hitting the iceberg. Now where’s that presidential lifeboat, Marine 1?”) We talk Wisconsin politics, the pros and cons of Biden, and the cons of brown sugar lima beans. Just last night, one brother and I philosophized till 3:00 o’clock in the morning about the triple-whammy of current catastrophes (corona virus, economic collapse, and the twump pwesidency) and compared them to “that old chestnut of nuclear annihilation”. Aaaahh! The good old days when calamities were simpler!

The exhausted Essentials among us worry about the state of the world. The Retirees among us worry about the Essentials. The Recently Unemployed among us just worries in general. But for an hour or two each day all of that ebbs while the messages flow. 4,635 miles shrink down to about a foot and a half – the distance between my eyes and the screen, my ears and the “Ding!”’s, my heart and the messengers.