He’s Back

 

Gingerbread Man left home for the first time in decades. After overhearing me talk to a colleague about my cosmetic plans for him, he had high hopes of returning a new man – fully restored to his former glory. Things turned out somewhat differently.

At first he was thrilled to finally reach a pillow in a new place, but then one day passed, and then another, and nothing happened. His euphoria waned as he heard all the kids playing and laughing just outside his window. He listened to a bunch of them spending hours and hours doing stupid soapstone carving instead of needlework. He began to doubt his time would ever come.

So on Day Three, still in his sorry, tattered, one-eyed state, he cautiously ventured out into the open air. He chose an empty chair by the campfire and sat there for a while, lonely and friendless.

But then something wonderful happened. A few girls expressed interest in him – wanted to know who he was. They weren’t at all repelled by his appearance, in fact, one of them even called him “cute”! They invited him to sit with them and later he joined them in a ball game.

      

The spiffying finally began on Day Four, but there was only time for some jacket trim repair and a preliminary procedure to restore his right eye, before it was time for everyone to head down to the pier. In the meantime, he returned to his pillow to recuperate.

      

On Departure Day, he was thrilled to be asked along on a final walk to the pier. He sat with his new friends and contemplated the beautiful lake. This was quite possibly the greatest day of his life. The water was so enticing – he couldn’t resist:

    

All too soon, it was time to get back on the bus. Gingerbread Man did so in a physical condition only slightly better than the one he arrived in. Still, he spent the ride home basking in the sunlight of poignant memories and renewed hopes for a brighter future.

Gingerbread Man. On The Road Again. Unplugged.

As some of you know, my Gingerbread Man spent many years in darkness and solitary confinement before his release from the nightstand last year. Since then he has been lying on various shelves or the bedroom floor collecting even more dust. He doesn’t understand the world anymore or what he did wrong. He misses his old life of international travel and new pillows in exotic places. He misses sunlight. He misses his right eye.

So I have decided to take him with me on my school trip. Five days at a lake in Carinthia with 27 kids (one of whom – as his mother informed us – can’t sleep without his favorite stuffed animal and he’s very afraid the others will make fun of him.) I have also decided that I am going to devote my arts and crafts time to him this week. (But he doesn’t know this – it’s a surprise, so “Ssshhhh!”) He’s going to get his eye restored and his little jacket trimming replaced. That hole in his neck will be fixed and maybe a little scarf crocheted to hide the scar. There will be general nipping and tucking and spiffying.

 

So you’ve got the “Before” picture here. The “After” one will be coming in about 6 days. In the meantime we two will be offline at our cell-free camp – so have a nice week! We’ll miss you!

 

Blackthumb’s Annual Garden Report

 

I recently noticed that among my blogging homies – the reciprocal ones – there are a lot of avid and competent gardeners. This probably has something to do with Ly. It certainly doesn’t come from the content of my blog or my own interests. Over the years, my gardening activity has slowly been reduced to about once every 365 days. In fact, I now recognize the official beginning of spring as that one day in April or May when I suddenly get the urge to venture out into the mysterious world of green things and take a few whacks at stuff. For the year 2017, today was that day.

Here’s the blow-by-blow.

I set out shortly after noon with trowel in hand and the best of intentions. First task: sumac removal from my flower beds. Unfortunately, one of the sprouts – now tree-sized and requiring the use of a saw – was growing up in the middle of thorny and uncooperative rosebush. Before going at it, I donned a jacket, put the hood up and tied it tight around my hair. For some reason, doing this always makes me want to bop my head around and sing “It’s raisins that make Post Raisin Bran so wonderful . . .” – so I did that for a while first. I then crawled into the rosebush and got sawed by thorns as I sawed the sumac. After it toppled, I got my revenge on the bush by whacking off one dead branch after another from the bottom up. About halfway through on one side, I realized I probably should have done that first – before tackling the sumac. I surveyed the bush, which was now sort of lopsided, but somehow, viewed from a certain angle, reminded me of a 1960s hairstyle. The theme song of “The Brady Bunch” started playing in my head. I decided to leave the rest of the pruning for later. It was time for a break and some regrouping.

 

 

I joined Cat Five on the screen porch and we watched the husband and Hayez working on the dream coop. I yelled down that it looked slanted, prompting my affronted husband to immediately prove me wrong with the level and then gesture his superiority in Usain Bolt style. Then I headed back to the flower bed for more sumac removal, getting sidetracked along the way by some moth porn going on right outside my front door:

After the second sumac was toppled and second rose half-pruned, it suddenly seemed like a good time to inspect our cherry tree. I wanted to see if it had suffered the same fate as our walnuts in the early April freeze. But first I needed my camera because, firstly, a new blog post was starting to take form in my mind which I would need some graphics for and secondly, because my husband refuses to believe that a single cherry has ever grown on this tree which is why he refuses to help me hang old CDs on the tree to scare away the birds who are obviously eating all of our cherries. It has been a two decade long debate and after the level incident earlier, I wanted to win an argument. I needed photographic proof. So I went inside to get the camera. While I was at it, I checked MSNBC to see if anything had been happening while I was away.

 

About a half hour later, I found a total of about 10 cherries on the entire tree.  Here is a challenge for you – can you find three of them in this picture?

 

 

Seeing as how I had my camera in hand, I also decided to document the progress of my husband’s other new garden project – a straw bale vegetable patch. He had heard about this somewhere and promptly decided to try it out. Supposedly, the straw starts to ferment, creating heat which makes the plants grow better.

“Doesn’t that stink?” I asked.

“We’ll find out,” he answered.

I suddenly wished he had set it up a bit farther away from the house and not right below my sacred screen porch where I spend half my time in summer.

By the time I reached the flower bed for the third time, I could feel that my enthusiasm for gardening was waning. I halfheartedly raked some dead leaves out of it here and there and pulled up a few green things which I hope were weeds. My stomach started grumbling and I remembered that there was a package of chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen cabinet. I dropped my garden tools and went back inside only to discover that SOMEONE had gotten to them before me. I wandered out onto the porch and saw my husband just standing down there in the garden, contemplating his coop. He was dreaming of the poodle chickens in his future, I assumed.

 

If only that were true.

I called down to him, asking where the fencing would go once he was done with the coop. He pointed to various dead-blossomed trees as the general boundary markers of our future free range. It was only about a third of the area he was tired of mowing (the original impetus for the whole keeping of chickens idea). I pointed that fact out to him.

“What we really need,” he said, “is a sheep.”

 

And thus ended my gardening fervor for 2017.

I’ll go out sometime next week and pick up the gardening tools. The rosebushes can spend the year in Florence Henderson style. Any flowers too wimpy to push their way up through those remaining dead leaves and weeds don’t deserve any special attention. And who likes cherries anyway?

 

All in a Sensibelchen’s Day’s Work

I’ve said it a few times before – I really love my job. And yesterday’s event was one of my favorites in the school year. Hummingbird Day. When all the parents come to see what their kids have been learning and doing and creating in displays and interactive stations set up all over the school. There is also usually a short show and a wonderful totally organic buffet. My contribution each year is the slideshow, i.e. pictures from the entire school year set to music. Following tradition, I finished it at 2:00 am the night before, leaving me about 5 hours to spare (read: “sleep”) before I had to go to school.

So I was a little tired and bleary-eyed yesterday and not thrilled by the news that there would be an extra meeting at the end of Hummingbird Day. It was about a recent problem with a bill for almost €1000 that had arrived in the mail. A series of subsequent discussions revealed that we had fallen prey to an email scam. Our point man for the EU project had filled out a form and mailed it off, thinking it was part of that process. The fine print, read only after the bill came, as well as a tiny bit of internet research (“Fraud alert!!”) made it clear that this had nothing to do with our project. Now we were supposed to pay some guy in Romania a thousand bucks to type our school’s name into a list of companies on his BS website. My first instinct was to simply ignore the bill, but I am not the decision maker in such situations. Hence, the meeting.

13 people were in attendance. One was a three-year old who was clearly not having any fun. To cut to the chase – we ended up writing a two-sentence letter telling this “company” why we were returning their invoice unpaid.

It took us two hours to achieve this. We were slowed down somewhat by the dredging up and rehashing of ancient misunderstandings and the necessity of each participant, in turn, having the chance to tell the group what inner turbulence he or she was experiencing. Another cycle of comments later had each person stating whether the situation was resolved on an emotional level in his/her eyes. This was followed by a 15 minute discussion of whether this situation would negatively impact our future cooperation with one another. Everyone insisted sincerely that no one was assigning blame to anyone. That, apparently, was important.

I spent the two hours alternately pining for my bed and being somewhat morbidly fascinated by this convoluted process of dealing with a single fraudulent bill. It all reminded me, once again, that I work with a whole lot of delicate-flower people (in German: “Sensibelchen”) and that my emotional detachment in such situations can make me to the school what the bull is to the china shop.

One half hour into the discussion, it first dawned on me that this might take a long time. I thought “If I pay the €1000, will you let me go home now?”  At half time, I calculated that with 12 adults in the room, we had cumulatively devoted 12 hours of our free time to this problem and that every five minutes, I could another hour to that total. (I like doing math problems in my head when I am bored.) Three hours later, I had started formulating reasons in my mind for why I had to leave, but was thwarted by the news that the letter we would eventually write had to be in English, so I would be needed. I started scratching the floor with a fingernail to pass the time, musing that, eventually, I would have a Shawshank Redemption style hole to escape through.

Then at hour 21, all of the sudden, a strategy was proposed! A consensus was reached. A laptop appeared! The two sentences were written! The letter was printed, signed, stuffed, sealed and addressed! Free at last!

Or . . . not quite. The moderator/chairman closed the meeting by expressing her feeling that there were still a few loose ends that worried her. She asked us all to reflect on what was said in those two hours and suggested we all meet again to share our thoughts after some time had passed.

I don’t know when this second meeting will take place, but I am pretty sure that I have a scheduling conflict.

No Poodle Chickens Please

When it comes to people, I am eternally vigilant about racism and especially my own subconscious biases. But when it comes to other species – in particular, dogs – I’m a self-proclaimed bigot. Big friendly mutts from the animal shelter are superior. Plain and simple. Pure breeds are either wimps or hypochondriacs and hardly worth the expense of the brand name. Anything smaller than a breadbox is not a dog at all, but a barking rat. And don’t get me started on poodles.

My veterinarian has a doggie hairdresser who shares space in her practice. I once had to sit for quite a while in the waiting room several times over a period of two days. I watched perfectly respectable looking dogs (collies, retrievers, labradors, etc.) being dragged into the hairdresser’s room and, one by one, emerging as poodles. With puffy heads and tuft balls around their paws. People claim dogs don’t have feelings, but these animals were clearly mortified. After the fourth time, I had to get up and leave the waiting room to hide my laughter.

I tried googling for pictures to give a sense of what I am talking about here. I tried different search terms but found nothing. And then I tried something that ended with me laughing hysterically for about 20 minutes. Try it if you need some comic relief. Search google images for “dogs with bad haircuts”. Here’s a little taste:

 

How did I get on this subject? Well, it is my husband’s birthday. He’s been hinting a lot that he wants to jump on the chicken bandwagon. It has become fashionable in our circle of acquaintances to keep one’s own chickens and brag about how many eggs one gets each week. Now that his brother is doing it, the argument has come to a head. Right up to yesterday, my stance was “Read my lips. No chickens.” But then his birthday rolled around and I had no idea what to get him. I panicked.

Today he got a chicken feeder, water contraption, fake eggs,  a soft-boiled egg cooker, and the implicit permission to start building his dream coop.

There was one condition, though. He’s not allowed to have any Silkies – a particularly popular breed right now that lays pastel colored eggs. I think this picture will make it clear where this objection comes from:

 

The Lemonade Stand

Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.

Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance?  What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?

In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.

One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.

 

 

      

Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.

 

The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”

 

They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.

“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.

“Sure,” I answered.

And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS.  We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.

 

The Pompitous of 1973

It all started back in the 5th Grade with Secret Valentines. Two weeks after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, I started finding little Sweetheart candies on my school desk. Then on February 14th,  the big reveal came. MC had drawn my name out of the hat and he handed my present off to me in an embarrassed walk-by. It was a 45 – “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. That record set off a month-long unrequited crush and an awakening to music’s power to incite and amplify emotions. I played that single to death while somewhere in the background, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were finished – making them briefly the world’s tallest buildings – and the Watergate hearings began. Only that third one really registered with me because it upset Grandpa so much. It also vindicated me after losing the class debate on the ’72 Presidential Election earlier in the fall. My attention was much more attuned to “Maurice” ‘cause  he spoke “of the pompitous of love” (whatever that meant). That was the first record in what would become a fairly large collection of vinyl.

If memory serves, I played my 45 on a portable record player in my own room. I don’t remember exactly how it looked, but while googling, this picture seemed most familiar to me, closest to my fuzzy recollections – especially those two white knobs on the front. Meanwhile, an exploration of our house had added two LP’s to my collection – the only two I found that weren’t classical music: “The Best of the Monkees” and the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I played them to death. Secretariat won the Triple Crown and the Lakota people gave up their occupation of Wounded Knee with the government promising to investigate broken treaties, but I barely noticed. I wanted more. I wanted the stuff I was hearing on WKTI FM – the “non-stop stereo rock” station.

I had started the 6th Grade and the Vice-President had resigned, when I saw an ad on TV for “24 Golden Hits of 1973” and it was perfect. It had “Monster Mash” and “Superfly” and “Crocodile Rock” on it!! Amazingly my mother let me order it. (Possibly she was tired of hearing “The Joker” and Davey Jones?) When it arrived in the mail, I was so excited and then immediately deeply, deeply disappointed. Somehow I had missed the fact in the commercial that these weren’t the original songs. They were all covers done by a group called “The Sound Effects”. (To use my non-PC 1973 vocabulary): “What a gyp!”

 

I played that record to death.

And I began “appropriating” records from my brothers to grow my collection. Goodbye Pop Top 40, hello Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.

By the time I was 13 or 14, Nixon was long gone, the world population had passed the 4 billion mark and Lucy’s discovery in Ethiopia had set its starting date back about 3 million years. I started to have a little mad money from babysitting, raking leaves, shoveling snow, etc. I had also stopped spending all of my allowance on Wacky Packages stickers and Bazooka bubble gum. One day, I finally did it. I entered a record store with the intention of actually buying something. The decision was excruciating, but I finally went for Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and the brand new Queen album – “A Night at the Opera”.  (“Hhmmm. Pretty good choices!” my later self would think 40 years in the future.)

From then on, music was a constant and continually changing companion. It helped me feel the world and helps me now to remember it. Every relationship got its theme song. Styx’s “Come Sail Away” will always evoke the basement of my high school house and the first boyfriend who lasted more than a few weeks, (now shrouded with an extra layer of sadness since the news of his suicide a few years ago.)  Toto’s “Hold the Line” still throws me back to my first real date – as in boy picks up girl in his dad’s car and gets grilled by the girl’s stepfather (who only looks mean) before driving her to a family restaurant with popcorn on the floor. Journey, Kansas, Genesis, Foreigner, The Cars, Kinks, Kings and Doors were some of my guides through the wild but romantically lean college years during which I scared away a succession of potential suitors by pointing out how their love of Bruce Springsteen contradicted their support for President Trickledown.  Later, a certain nameless artist’s now unmentionable song about violet precipitation remains the soundtrack to my one and only broken heart and still, 30 years later, makes me change the radio station went it comes on.

 

But it is not only romances I remember. Country music conjures the smell of the pine trees up in northern Wisconsin. Neue Deutsche Welle tastes like German wheat beer and pungent French filter-less cigarettes. Punk makes my shoes stick to the floor in an illegally occupied tenement turned even more illegal dancing bar. The sound of the accordion has me sitting in a cozy warm mountain lodge on a cold night sipping tea with schnapps. R.E.M. puts my first baby back in my arms. The fiddle wakes up ancestral memories stored in my DNA. Fusion Jazz tells me that my childhood is officially over. But never fear – a Davey Jones song can bring it back for a while if I ever need it to.

As I wrote a while back, my birthday present this year was the resurrection of long lost feelings and memories, raised from near-oblivion by the power of music – “the records of my past” in both meanings of the phrase. Something tells me this going-back-to-vinyl thing will be more than just a passing fancy. Last week I was in Graz and had some time on my hands before I had to catch my train. I googled record stores and actually found one. Here’s what my smile and I came home with:

Listening to these sometimes scratchy sounds takes me out of the present for a while, but while helping me with a dose of nostalgia, I also sense a faint and haunting echo.As the disc spins, it seems to me, here in 2017, that the world of 1973 has circled back on me – only now with its population doubled and its history slightly warped. There are big holes in the ground where the twin towers used to be, and yet, we are still living under their shadows. There’s another space cowboy/joker in the White House planning new onslaughts on Roe and the Lakota. There’s an old conflict in Southeast Asia ramping up just as the hearings on Watergate 2.0 begin. There is pompitous galore and the same old song being played to death.