The South African Gardener

 

Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.

Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.

So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:

According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. http://theconversation.com/you-say-morals-i-say-ethics-whats-the-difference-30913

 

Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.

I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.

This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.

So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.

But I really really wanted to see how it ended.

So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’

‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but the fact that everyone does something doesn’t make it okay. Saying ‘Everyone does it’ is basically the antithesis of having ethics.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’

 

At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing.  (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)

 

In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.

There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!

One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.

‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.

I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.

Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’  Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.

And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.

————————————————————

*(And, yes, you read right. Austrian students have Religion as one of their school subjects. If you want to hear my thoughts on that disturbing reality, you can read ‘Heathen Talk’ or ‘Scene of the Crime’.)
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Test of Nerves

Friday. 9:15 am. I leave work early to go to my appointment with the neurologist. I’m nervous because I have no idea what to expect, having never been to this particular type of specialist before. At the moment I start the engine,

my daughter is at her school and just beginning her oral graduation exam in the subject of Sports Science. She is summoned by a teacher and has to push a button to generate two random numbers which will determine the two topics she can choose from. 4 and 8 come up, which means either “Endurance Tests” or “Sports Injuries”. She chooses the first one and then has 45 minutes to prepare –

the same amount of time I have to get to the doctor’s office.

While driving, my mind runs through the litany of tests and pricks and probes and irradiations I have gone through in recent weeks. I would soon be adding hammer taps and zaps and god knows what else to that list. And then there were the possible diagnoses, running from bursitis to Lyme’s disease to rheumatism to sclerosis. Somewhere in these ponderings, fleeting thoughts about how my daughter is doing wander in and out. While “taking it easy” for the past weeks,

I often listened in on my daughter’s tutoring sessions with her father, who had taught the subject himself for years. As is common when parents try to teach their own children, those sessions could become pedagogically questionable tests of endurance for both of them.

10:00 am. I enter the doctor’s office and am immediately sent on into an examination room – no waiting at all. The neurologist is sitting at his desk, puzzling over my various lab results. He openly admits that he doesn’t understand why my regular doctor sent me here. There is no sign anywhere of serious health issues. But he would do a quick test anyway, if for no other reason than to rule out neurological problems he already knows aren’t there. He proceeds to attach electrodes to various spots on my ankles and lower legs and then send little jolts of electricity through my body. It is a creepy feeling each time, but as with many things, the expectation of each zap is worse than the thing itself. The memory of the sensations fades quickly.

At the same time my daughter is getting pelleted with questions from a panel of teachers and supervisors in her exam. She would tell me later that she was incredibly nervous and could not even remember what the questions were.

When my own test is over, I pepper the doctor with a bunch of questions about various flags on my lab results and what, if any, he thinks my next steps should be. What further examinations should I undergo? Basically none. Why two such bouts of bursitis in two different joints in such a short time? Coincidence. What can I do to prevent further attacks? Not much. It is probably just normal wear and tear and a bit of bad luck. So there may be more of these little endurance tests in my future. Or not.

11:01 am. I decide to stop at the car wash on my way home. While waiting, I start texting my daughter to ask how the exam went. Three words into the message, my cell rings

and it is her. She is done and she isn’t sure how it went, but her favorite teacher gave her a little thumbs-up signal as she was leaving and she thinks she answered every question and she said everything she knew and she hoped it was enough and now she just has to wait one more hour for the results . . .

I tell her to call me as soon as she knows. I then drive home and proceed to stand confusedly in my kitchen for a while. I have nothing to do. Then it hits me that I haven’t swallowed any pain pills yet today. I decide to stop taking the medication altogether and see how it goes.

12:48 pm. My cell rings and

my daughter informs me that she got an “A” on her exam. Her last hurdle has been mastered. (She still has one more exam in English on Monday, but everyone knows she will sail through that one.) It’s now official: High school is over and her life can begin.

And mine can resume.

 

The World is Theirs

 

My three yearlong (!) quest to get the American citizenship for my adopted daughters reached its finale today. This last act began when we took a mini-mother/daughter trip to Vienna. Our first stop: the American Embassy where we had appointments to hand in their passport applications along with a bunch of documents and photos (no glasses!) and self-addressed stamped envelopes and . . .

The extremely friendly security guards greeted us with big smiles and asked us each in turn to put our bags in the scanner. When mine went in, a picture sort of like one this (taken from the internet) popped up on the screen:

I stared at it in horror. A string of theories about how a gun could be in my bag – all of them ludicrous – began spinning around in my head. The guard began to laugh and said “Don’t worry! That is a fake picture. It’s put there to test me – to make sure I am paying attention.” He handed me my bag.

I remained in a state of mild shock as we made our way to Window 1, which was probably a good thing, because it temporarily supplanted my nervousness. Almost three years earlier I had visited this place and it turned out to be an awful experience. I was scared that something would go wrong again – maybe I had filled out the wrong form? Should I have brought the birth certificates and adoption decrees? The girls’ baby teeth?

But the woman at the counter was both officious and friendly. She stayed patient as I confusedly fumbled through the documents and then handed one over for the wrong daughter. When she learned what our situation was, she peered at me knowingly and said “You must have had to do a mountain of paperwork!”

“You have no idea!” I replied. “I think when these passports arrive, I’m going break out in tears.”

“Please don’t cry in here!” she half-whispered to me and then glanced quickly back over her shoulder.

As the woman checked the application and all the documents, I pulled out one of the girls’ decrees granting them the right to dual citizenship and asked her if she needed that too. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of it and she asked “How did you manage to get that?!” Apparently, it is becoming nearly impossible to be granted such permission from the Austrian government. She said that she had had to deal with Austrians who became naturalized American citizens and were then rudely informed that their Austrian citizenship was being revoked. It was possibly the one saving grace of my last horrible visit to this embassy that someone made me aware of the need to apply for dual citizenship permission before taking the next step. I don’t remember this information showing up anywhere else in process and I am sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own.

Once the paperwork was all handed over, we were sent off to Window 3 to fork over the cash and then it was back to Window 1. The girls signed their passport applications in front of the new official and he told us we could expect them in the mail in about 10 days. We were done. The whole thing had taken about 15 minutes. I was almost sorry to have to leave.

As we walked back toward the security guards and exit, I noticed for the first time that the place was entirely empty except for us. I had been at this embassy many times over the years and the waiting room was always packed. I wondered what that was about. The last thing we did before exiting was to pass by the pictures of Twump and Pence and Pompeo. I felt sorry for the guard sitting at the desk across from them – just imagine having to look at those three all day long every day!

My daughters and I had a nice day of shopping, had lunch, went to the movies (“The Green Book”) and stayed in a nice hotel. The next day we caught the train back home. That was seven days ago.

I confess I continued to worry that something could still go wrong.

But today, the world is mine again.

 

 

Good News

I finished our wreath yesterday, just in time for the First Sunday in Advent celebration – which this year consisted of lighting a candle. My 16 and 18 year old daughters dutifully complimented my work, made 95 seconds of small talk and then retreated back to their rooms.

In earlier years, we would have had a longer ritual including aromatic tea, cookies, the sound of Bing or Dean or Frank softly singing Christmas carols in the background, and a reading of some short, moralistic, Christmas-themed story. That last part, to be honest, was never my daughters’ favorite and might explain their speedy departures now.

So . . . seeing as how I missed telling them a sappy story, I will force one on my blog audience . . .

A week ago, we just had friends visiting and we took them to the Christmas market that had enchanted us so much the first time we were there  (when I bought my “alternative” crèche.) While we were there, I unhopefully walked up to the cashier and asked if anyone had found a missing Baby Jesus made of felt about the size of my thumb. I wasn’t expecting much as we traipsed over to the next room. In the corner where my crèche had been displayed there was now a bucket of stuffed sheep and cows. We took a closer look and . . .

 

. . . there he was.

 

A little Christmas miracle.

 

Absentee

 

I’ve been gone for quite a while.

About 34 years, all told.

But I never gave up my citizenship, so I now fall into the category of “Permanent Overseas Voter”. As I can only vote in federal elections, my ballot this year listed only the Senate and House races of my home State and district.

My elder daughter who became a citizen in July of 2017 and turned 18 in July of 2018 also voted. It was her first time (in a US election) and I think she found the whole process exciting, but also a bit . . . hinky.

We registered her online though a website called “VoteFromAbroad.Org where she had to supply surprisingly little information and no actual proof of identity or citizenship. Only two options were listed – a Social Security number or a State ID – and she has neither of those. But her registration went through even with those lines blank and the next day her Voter Certification arrived by email.  We printed that, she signed it, I witnessed it, we attached a photocopy of her certificate of citizenship to it and mailed it off to the Election Commission in our home State. Apparently, that worked, because a week later, her new Voter Certificate and her absentee ballot arrived by email along with four pages of instructions.

We printed everything out, got four envelopes, black ink pens, and Scotch tape and laid it all out on the kitchen table.

First step: fill out the ballots.

“Wait!” my daughter said. “First tell me about these candidates so I can decide who to vote for.”

I sat back. I didn’t want to discourage her instinct to be an informed voter and independent thinker. On the other hand . . . if she ended up voting for a Republican candidate at this particular moment in history, I would take it as proof that I had failed as a mother.

“Honey, you understand that this is not a normal year or a normal election, don’t you? I mean  . . .  can I assume that you don’t want to support anyone who supports Trump? That you want people elected who will be a check on his power?” She nodded. “Then in this particular election we should both simply vote straight Democratic.” She understood the logic of that.

We filled in the circles by the name of the first openly lesbian U.S. Senator, now running for reelection. Then we filled in the circle by the name of lovely African American women who represents my (sister’s) district and will reliably vote against anything the Pwesident is for and vice versa. It is fairly clear that both of these women will win – with or without our votes. It was still nice to add our voices to the Resistance Choir. My only regret was that our voting status didn’t allow us to chime in on State government positions. So we couldn’t also fill in the circle by What’s His Name – the guy who hopefully will be taking down our current ridiculous Republican governor.

The whole time we were doing this, I did not look at her ballot or what she was doing. The instructions had been explicit about this being a no-no.

 

Steps Two through Eight:

We each signed and dated our Voter Certifications. We exchanged them and each signed and dated the Witness Statement for one another. We traded back and then each taped our certificates onto one of the envelopes. We put our ballots inside and sealed them. Then we put these envelopes into another envelope and addressed it to the Executive Director of the Election Commission. And then we mailed them off.

I have no idea when – or even if – these votes will be opened and counted. (And, no,  I didn’t mention this fact to my daughter.)

BUT! . . .

If control of the House of Representatives ends up coming down to two absentee overseas votes from a certain district of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, well, then, I’ll just say . . .

“You’re welcome”.

My Baby’s Gone n’ Done It

Continuing with the Bible citing from my last post, I will add . . .

King James Version – Genesis 2:2-3:

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

 

All this repetition makes me think God really, really (!) wanted to make a point about all the work he had made and how he needed a rest.

Suddenly we two are back in sync. I needed a rest too! Of course, me living 6000 years later in a more modern period after the Great Flood and the invention of weekends, I took both the sixth and the seventh day off to rest. And then I added on the eighth for good measure, because . . . heck! Why not? It’s summer!

On the Ninth Day, however, I was fully back with The Plan – the one exception was the blogging part.

And my elder daughter was to blame for that.

It pains me to say this but she . . . but she . . . she had the AUDACITY  to . . . to . . . TURN 18!!  And to add insult to injury, she is . . . she is . . . TAKING HER DRIVING TEST TOMORROW!!

There. I have said it.

I hope you will all understand why, when it comes to blogging, I am just phoning it in today. All I will add are the links to earlier posts which should suffice to explain everything about my state of mind:

Fritz the Sheep  and Driver’s Education.

 

P.S. My daughter loved the box of treasures I had been saving since her babyhood (mentioned in the post above). At the end of the evening she asked me where I thought she should keep it. I offered to keep storing it in my closet for her and she immediately thought that was a good idea. She may be 18 now, but she still likes the idea that Mom will take care of certain things for her. That was a gift from her to me today.

 

Schwarzfahren

 

Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.