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.

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.

 

A Piteous “Pentafecta” Impedes Posting

I’ve been a bad blogger. Very very bad.

In the lead up to the glorious outbreak of Easter vacation, a whole slew of life circumstances intensified and all came to a head simultaneously. I realize “pentafecta” is not a real word – and if it were, it wouldn’t really mean what I am forcing it to here. But I can’t think of another way to express five sets of circumstances colliding at once.

Starting with the outermost realm of my reality – so external, in fact, that it is more of an alternative reality – is my ongoing, time-consuming obsession with American politics. Like most people, I too am guilty of letting the news of the world flow to me through a filter. In my case the filter is NPR and left-leaning cable news and websites. What they present me is a badly cast reality-show-presidency, flailing and mindlessly counter-punching. And that is it.  All un-pwecedented twump, all the time. As a consequence, I have not heard of a single positive political development since January 20th that wasn’t steeped in Schadenfreude.  (Goodbye and Good Riddance to Flynn and Sessions and Ryancare, to Bannon and now Nunes and the Muslim ban  . . . and whichever of the Best People or Beautiful Promises is next to go. My only regret is that your departures were not more spectacular and categorical.)  The increasing intensity of the daily outrages combined with my self-imposed limits on political content often left me with nothing to write about. I could either sigh once again that “Twump is ruining my blog” and leave WordPress without posting, or I could take the bait and add my two cents for the 50th time – like I just did in this paragraph here. That makes $1 dollar so far. If and when I hit the two dollar mark, I will change the name of this site to “Rant*”  –  (*Resisting American Nutcase with Tirades”).

Luckily, I was regularly forced to leave Alternativeworld and go to work.

Work was wonderfully distracting in its way, but the load kept getting heavier.  Also, I have had trouble explaining to my Austrian colleagues how insane the outside world is and why I was more tired than usual. The American daily outrages do not flow all the way to them. They are concentrating on their own problems and the daily school issues, local politics and why various trees and plants are blooming way too early this year. With them, I debated the effect of cell phones on kids and how to deal with adolescent protest. I defended my “homeroom” kids with a protective passion while still mentally carrying my fellow teachers’ concerns home, along with a new stack of homework assignments to add to the existing ones on my chaotic office desk. Occasionally, I considered bringing order to the Home Division of Workworld, but then this tidied space would no longer go with the rest of the house. As usual, the (mental) energy-sucking powers of my work led me towards procrastination.

But! Procrastination actually did have its benefits when it came to other aspects of Homeworld. My permanent mountain of ironing was all done by my mother-in-law (best birthday present ever!!) and my longtime plans to turn the basement pit into a guest room was mostly accomplished by my daughter (as a condition of being able to invite a friend here for two weeks.) Still, the list of household jobs awaiting me was a daunting one, made worse by the addition of a hundred little details to be accomplished (tax returns to file, bills to pay, prescriptions to fill, emails to answer, phone calls to make, flights to book,  . . .

. . . blogs to read, comments to make, posts to write . . .

And then came the fourth sphere of my realities: The issues going on around me in my home, or my friend’s and relatives’ lives. All of them occupying my mind but all of them OPS* and/or NSFB**. So with rare exceptions, my writing experience of the last few weeks was sitting down to the laptop way too late in the day, mentally mucking around in the swirling brain, finding nothing to inspire a first sentence, giving up and clicking on MSNBC.

* other peoples’ secrets
** not suitable for blogging  

 

That was then. This is now.

It is Day Five of Glorious Easter Vacation and here is the state of things:

House picked up. (Check!) Basement cleaned. (Check!)  Translation done and certification arranged. (Check! Check!) Also – Reports for Ethiopia written and sent. Garden weeded. Laundry done. Office tidied. CDs organized. Flights booked. Mail sorted. Documents filed. Application readied. Easter decorations put up. School photos organized. Book finished. Emails answered. And now . . .

Blog post written.

Women’s Work

It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.

It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!

Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.

(Am I being unfair?)

This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man.  At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,

“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”

“No. My mom does it.”

I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.

“What is so funny?” he asked.

“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”

My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:

“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”

 

That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.

What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”

Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.

At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:

“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”

My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2.  I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked

“Why?”

“Why do you think?”

In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?

What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.

So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:

“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”

That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.

 

People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or  government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.

I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.

I tell myself.

 

 

Schokolade Tante

My husband knows a gazillion people. It has been hard for me at times to keep up with them all.

Take the day, let’s say, 25 years ago when I came home from work to find three light blond, virtually interchangeable little boys tearing around my house. I was then introduced to their father – a white-haired man who was there to discuss starting up a basketball program/team in our neighboring city. The first three players were currently exploring all the nooks and crannies of other rooms. There were occasional loud crashing noises.

Many friendships were born that evening. My husband became a basketball coach. I embarked on a 15 year odyssey of learning to tell those three little boys apart. It would be too embarrassing to admit how many times I called one of them by the wrong name, even after their father – that white-haired man – became the godfather of my first daughter. He then got so much support from his partner in his godparenting “duties” that she, too, became a part of my life. Through her, I met her sister who became a second co-godparent – my daughters called her their “Schokolade Tante” (“Auntie Chocolate”).

She had the most unusual gravelly voice which she didn’t use much. Unlike her more loquacious sister, Auntie Chocolate was a listener. She was a peaceful island in turbulent waters – whether at celebrations or during trying periods in her own family life. She was constant. I didn’t see her all that often – and then, mostly at big parties, but I always liked sitting next to her and not feeling obligated to make small talk.

She died this week. Totally unexpectedly. Complications from a seemingly normal operation ended her life. She was 62 years old.

Today was her funeral and there were hundreds of people there. Among them were her nephews – those three little blond boys who are now young men. I can tell them apart now and use the right names.

I watched them literally propping up their wailing grandmother at graveside and supporting all the other family members so stricken by their sudden and shocking loss of a grandma, a wife, a sister, a sister-in-law, a daughter . . . They will take on their lost aunt’s role and become the dependable constants. They will gather the shattered pieces of their family and glue them back together.

They will do it as a team.

Fifty-five

fifty-five

I reached 55 today. It’s a good time to ease off life’s gas pedal and switch on the cruise control.

 

fifty-five-2

According to Merriam-Webster, today I also reached the status of “senior citizen” (synonyms: ancient, elder, geriatric, golden-ager, oldster, old-timer, senior). At least that’s the definition “for English language learners”. When I think of my very young students, it is probably true. My own Grade School teachers were a lot younger than I am now, but to me back then, they were all like Grandma. Sigh.

vinyl

 

So today was also an especially good day to resurrect the vinyl with my new excellent birthday present/toy! For a few hours this afternoon I soaked in the sounds of my two-six-pack basement parties during high school, my college dorm rooms, my very first apartment . . .  In the vernacular of my newly rediscovered inner 15 year old, I was really rowdy and had a blast!