I went to the kitchen to refill my coffee this morning and while I was there, I saw the leftovers of yesterday’s chili, still on the stove-top. I thought I should probably transfer it to a bowl and stick it in the fridge, which was what I proceeded to do. Of course, in the process, I forgot to take my coffee with me as I returned to the library.
So I went back to the kitchen to get it. The bowl of chili was curiously still sitting on the counter and my coffee cup was nowhere to be seen. I tried to focus and mentally retrace my steps. I opened the fridge door . . .
This is just the latest in a string of my recent actions falling somewhere on the spectrum from merely “Absent-minded” to downright “Moronic”. Just last week I booked and paid for a flight with the wrong return date. Then I accidentally claimed to be the sole caregiver of the family in my tax filing. Days later I got tricked into an internet scam which necessitated locking down my credit card and replacing it with a new one. Which in turn meant changing my payment method in places like Amazon and Spotify . . .
But before you start worrying about me, most of these things turned out to be fairly easy to deal with and filled with unexpected silver linings. Despite the mistake (or because of it??) this is first time I can remember that my taxes aren’t being audited – releasing me from the yearly half hour drive to the nearest Finance Ministry office, documents in hand. I also get an extra day in my upcoming trip to the States. And having upgraded to a Gold card last year, replacing it was free AND the fraudulent charge is going to be reimbursed. This episode alone more than covers the slightly higher credit card fees I have been paying.
Still! This series of brainless moments has gotten me thinking about mental and physical health. Rather than worrying about creeping dementia, I realized that a person can allow their brains go to seed in the same way they can neglect their physical bodies, and that I have been guilty of that. I’ve decided it’s time for me to give myself a kick in the mental butt.
It’s 6:00 pm on Sunday, December 1st and my Christmas decorations are up, my advent wreath is made, my courses are prepared for both Monday and Tuesday, all the laundry and ironing is done, the house is clean, and I just finished a project that has been meandering from one To Do list to the next for the past 15 months.
For anyone out there reading this who is not versed in Austrian politics – and I’m guessing that is all but one of you (Hi Ly!) – here is the shortest possible synopsis of the political situation here.
After the last election in 2017, the Right party with its 17 year old leader joined together with the Far Right to form a coalition to govern. I can’t think of any particular principles these two groups had beyond ambition and opportunism, but they set off together to set things right and get things done and drain the swamp and make Austria great again. A Far Right guy bagged the coveted Minister of the Interior post where he got to boss around the cops and make life as uncomfortable as possible for all the refugees that had been allowed in the previous year. This Minister Kickout proceeded to make a string of authoritarian, nationalistic, and xenophobic statements such as a suggestion that they be ‘concentrated’ in . . . well, I guess something like camps. Meanwhile he mucked around in the asylum policies in ways that repeatedly pulled the rug out from under the applicants. Being forbidden to work or start learning a trade, and this over waiting periods of four or more years, many of the young men drifted around in packs, had trouble learning the language or integrating. Some turned to unofficial work with exploitation wages. Some turned to dealing. Others, like my unofficially adopted third child, H. from Afghanistan, have managed to go to and stay in school, but he goes through periods of anxiety or near despair as he waits and waits and waits for a decision on his asylum application. We’ve learned to recognize the signs of one of these phases coming on. He’ll start skipping classes or talk about taking off for France . . . We talk him through these times.
But I digress. Back to Austrian politics.
Fast forward to May 17, 2019 when a video appeared and broke the Austrian internet. It was seven hours long and showed the head of the Far Right party in a Spanish bungalow colluding with a woman he thought was the niece of a Russian oligarch. You publish nice articles about us and we will give you fat public construction contracts . . . stuff like that. It came out later that the whole thing was a set up.
Nevertheless, the party leader resigned the very next day. Eight hours later the 17 year old Chancellor broke up with entire party and asked the President for new elections to be called.
Two days later, the Chancellor tried to get Mr. Kickout fired and all of the ministers from his party resigned in protest. They retaliated further in joining a no-confidence vote which happened the following week. The Chancellor lost his job.
The President called for new elections in September and, for the interim, he installed experts to run the various ministries as well as a non-partisan temporary leader. Austria had its first female Chancellor (of sorts).
I sat there and marveled at the efficiency of this implosion. Americans have suffered an onslaught of daily outrageousness for two and a half years with no end in sight, but here, one lousy video toppled the government in the space of 10 days.
In the following four months I started thinking Hey! This no government thing is not so bad. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. The economy chugged along. The post was being delivered and the trains were running on time. After a wildly destructive thunderstorm in June, the road workers were out the very next day fixing everything up. A week later new roadside ditches had been dug to prevent similar flooding in the future. The evening news reports were scandal free and did not induce a single flinch.
Of course it couldn’t last. About two weeks ago the political roundtable discussions began on TV in earnest. The entire old cast of characters was back. Political videos began ping-ponging around the internet. H. came into my office to show me one of Kickout. He was spitting cynical venom about Austria’s ‘Triple A rating’ in dealing with migrants. He said what ‘AAA’ really stood for was ’aggressive Afghani asylum seekers’ and bragged to the crowd about how he was going to deal with them. They loved it.
And the campaign signs started appearing on the side of the road. All these earnest or friendly faces underlined with the corresponding slogan. I’m not sure how things look in other parts of the country, but the Far Right party signs are the most ubiquitous around here.
And they are usually placed in pairs. The new top candidate’s happy face followed quickly by mean Mr. Kickout, peeking out from behind him, hovering over his shoulder, whispering into his ear . . .
Tomorrow is Election Day. I’m thinking about moving to France.
My mother, my sister, my daughters and I were sitting on a porch talking when we decided somewhat spontaneously to consult the Runes about our various life issues. In turn, each of us concentrated on a current situation of our life, reached into the bag, felt around until one of the little clay tablets felt right to us, pulled it out and placed it on the table. Then we read the corresponding text out loud and proceeded to analyze it collectively. The miracles of selective perception and empathy kicked in and we came to a crystallized statement on what attitude would help each of us to move on in the world. It was . . . amazing.
Daughter 2 got a new idea on how to extricate herself from the melodramatic rivalries among her teenage girlfriends.
Daughter 1, who was conflicted about her imminent move out of our house to a new apartment and new life, was told that ‘Now is a time of separating paths’ and ‘to not be bound by old conditioning, by old authorities’. She took a picture of the text and plans to frame it and hang it in her new bedroom.
Mom, a woman born two weeks before the 1929 Stock Market crash and subsequent Depression, was hesitant to ‘splurge’ on redecorating her apartment in the way that would make her happy. The runes told her to go for it and we all agreed enthusiastically.
Sister, who skipped her turn, having been disappointed by earlier messages done in solitude, has since admitted that it might have been better to consult the runes in the company of four empathetic female relatives who love her.
And me? I thought about all of the conflicts of the previous school year as I pulled out my rune. It was ‘Laguz’. Alternative names: ‘Flow. Water. That Which Conducts’. ’It told me to go back to trusting my instincts, to pull back, and to concentrate on ‘the receptive side of my warrior nature’. It said to me that I don’t have to fight anymore. I had done enough.
I carried the attitude with me into the first day of work and, sure enough, the place had a whole new feel to it. My energy was back. Coworkers were noticeably more attentive to one another; there were fewer interruptions and digressions. Sticky topics that might raise tensions were assiduously avoided. We were disciplined and productive. The year got off to a smooth start.
Fast forward to Monday afternoon:
The meeting was going on forever. And once again, we had drifted off onto a subject irrelevant to objective – which was to prepare a one hour presentation of our pedagogical principles for a parents’ forum on Saturday. This was the second meeting. The first one was four hours long and had gotten us nowhere near an end result. Which was why we were all sitting together again for a second attempt.
At some point we began listing all of the professional development courses and seminars we had done in the past ten years. Someone mentioned ‘GfK’ which stands for ‘Gewaltfreie Kommunikation’ (nonviolent communication). I remembered that the term was being thrown around a lot when I first came to the school. It was a course some of the teachers and parents had done in the year before my arrival. In those early days, I slowly figured out that it was the source of a few curious phrases people in the school liked to use. ‘I feel I am not being heard’ was my particular favorite. It was also the reason most of our meetings had a certain group therapy feel to them. Why they often started in silence, with the participants looking within themselves, reflecting, and then stating in turn ‘how they were there’. The final block of this course took place during my first year, but because I had not been there for all the previous sessions, I didn’t attend it.
Eight years later – at this interminable Monday meeting – someone add ‘GfK’ to the list on the flipchart and I murmured ‘That was before my time’.
‘NO IT WASN’T!’ my neighbor to the right blurted out.
I just glanced at him and then turned back to the discussion of the others which had moved on. I had no intention of engaging. Seconds later my attention was forced back to the neighbor because he was jabbing his finger into my arm.
‘YOU JUST MANAGED TO GET YOURSELF OUT OF IT!’ he said.
The accusatory tone of his voice could not be overheard. I looked at my arm where he had poked me and then into his face for a second. I am fairly sure my irritation was obvious because he seemed to startle. I just shook my head a little and went back to listening to the other discussion. My peripheral vision registered an uncomfortable smile and I think there was a little laugh – as if to say it was all meant as a joke. My instincts told me to just tune him out from then on. Eventually, the meeting ended, but not until after a date and time for Meeting #3 had been arranged.
It took me quite a while to realize the utter irony of the situation.
An earlier version of me would have spent hours ruminating, trying to come up with the perfect retort after the fact. Something about his need for a refresher course in aggression-free communication. Or maybe questioning if this was a demonstration of what he had learned there?
Instead, I channeled Laguz. I was water and conducted that aggression through and out of me. It flowed from the point of the finger jabbing up to my voice, circumventing my heart, and came out as almost humorous dinner table conversation. It flowed down through my fingertips, into words on a screen, soon to be jettisoned out into the ether.
Meeting #3 today finally brought concrete and final results. In a return to the new normal, it was a careful and civilized affair.
It has been a week now since returning from my month in the States and of the myriad of wonderful conversations and experiences and reunions, one topic has stuck in my mind: health care. Maybe it is because I came back home to a letter telling me my application for a “cure” had been approved by the national health insurance. That means that I will be spending three weeks in a “cure spa” in the mountains near Salzburg exercising with trainers, getting physiotherapy, eating healthy, and learning to replace my bad old sedentary habits with better and healthier ones. And yes, the whole thing is covered. My copay comes to $9.35 per day.
There are other reasons that health care in the States has been on my mind. In conversations with friends and family, the subject came up often. A lot of us are nearing or at retirement age, slowly winding down our careers and making decisions about “the right time to go”. In the case of two couples, the husbands were working into their 70s – putting off retirement till the day their wives qualify for Medicare. Another woman wanted to stop working and had saved enough of a nest egg to do so – she just couldn’t afford the private health insurance in the interim. One woman who was basically self-insured through her own business talked about how much those costs ate into the company’s earnings. Two more women – one with a pre-existing condition and another with a special needs child – knew that losing their jobs would have more than mere ripple effects – it would mean a financially ruinous tsunami washing over them.
“People like the health insurance they get through their employers.” How many times have I heard that statement since the start of the health care debate way back in the Clinton era? 100 times? 500? 5000? And I have never understood it. I know very few people with 100% job security, so if the employer decides whether or not you continue to have a job, don’t they also decide whether or not you continue to have health insurance? Doesn’t that yoke you to your place of employment and limit your own freedom and self-determination?
The last school year was not the best for me. There were even times when I considered leaving – to the point where we had a mini family conference about it. It would have meant bridging the last two and half years of my professional life with other “unofficial” work (tutoring, translating, etc.), but what to do about health insurance was not one of the considerations. I find myself wondering now what my situation would have been, if I were on my own and in the States . . .
I decided to make myself a fictional 57 year old single woman with no dependents, living in Milwaukee and earning $50,000 a year. A nifty paycheck calculator online told me that I would end up with $3,196 a month to live on. Ouch! That seemed pretty low. I thought Americans paid a lot less in taxes, but this was only slightly more than the Austrian equivalent of this fictional woman would take home. In her case, about $700 a month would be skimmed off the top to pay for her health care and pension.
From there, I went to the Healthcare.gov website. After first figuring out what “deductibles”, “out of pocket” and “copays” meant, I entered my fictional information and clicked on “See Plans”. Of the 24 options, here were two at the opposite ends of the spectrum:
The cheapest Bronze Plan – “only” $709 a month. (Gasp!) But if I understand deductibles correctly, I would have to pay my own medical bills up to the tune of $650 a month before the insurance ever kicked in. So . . . why am I paying the additional $709??
The best of the Gold Plans. If I’m doing the Math right, I could technically afford this one with my $3200 monthly take-home pay – that is, as long as I never go to a doctor. Or take any medicine. Or own anything requiring maintenance. Or go on vacation. Or eat out.
Again. I don’t understand.
People protested last year to save this system. They camped out at congressional offices and marched on streets with signs saying “Don’t take my health care away”. They clearly supported this system in which they pay what seems like exorbitant prices to keep insurance and pharmaceutical companies profitable. I assume many of their employers have to pay such high prices too. It must make the cost of labor a burden on their bottom lines, which in turn incentivizes downsizing, relocating, outsourcing and all of the other euphemisms for “You’re fired!”
Navigating this system, making financial or life decisions based on this system, being constantly worried about losing this system . . . that all must create a great deal of stress in people. Anxiety too. Sleepless nights. Depression. All things that can lead to other, more serious illnesses . . . but never fear! The pharma industry is on it! Whatever your problem is, they’ve got a pill for that. What’s that? You don’t know what your problem is? Well, here’s an array of possibilities to choose from . . .
I only watched about three or four hours of TV during my month in the States – but that was more than enough to get a picture of what is going on. Rachel would do her 20 minute A block without interruptions, but from then on it was a constant flow of commercials broken up by sporadic 3 minute news segments. And it seemed like a third of those ads came from pharma companies. So here’s what the experience was like:
Rachel tells me about an explosion during a Russian nuclear missile test and how the radiation is spreading in my direction.
Then a nice woman in a commercial asks me if I ever feel anxious. If so, I should ask my doctor for xxxxx which, in some cases, might lead to dry mouth or mysterious sounding “sexual side effects”.
Then I see a short report about an immigration raid with desperate crying children, after which
a pharma commercial guy asks me if I am feeling sad. If so, I could try yyyyy (but I should watch out for such side effects as fever, confusion, uncontrolled muscle movement, decreased white blood cells, seizures, impaired judgment, coma, suicide or death).
The next news report is about a recent mass shooting by a white supremacist, followed by
another nice lady asking me if I am having “racing thoughts” and trouble sleeping. I should try zzzzz (but beware of tongue swelling, memory loss, and/or hallucinations). Her successor knows what I could take for my “restless leg syndrome”, but it might increase my gambling urges or make me fall asleep while driving.
In the final news report, I hear that the pwesident is leaving to go on vacation. He has done nothing in his 2½ years so far to combat the country’s widespread addiction to painkillers, but never fear,
there is now a treatment for OIC (opioid induced constipation)! Just watch out for nausea, vomiting, stomach tearing and constant pain.
I think most people -me included – have a touch of hypochondria (aka “Illness Anxiety Disorder” or IAD) in them. Who doesn’t hear of some new disorder and think briefly “Ooh! Maybe I have that!” So I wonder what the cumulative effect of all these messages must be. And then to continually hear these gruesome lists of possible side effects which often seem to end with “death”. It’s unbearable. Four or five more hours of watching this stuff and I’d have started tearing my hair out.
Which, thanks to a sign in a Chicago el train, I now know is an official thing: trichotillomania or “hair pulling disorder”.
The industry is working on a treatment for it.
I appreciate living in a country with a social welfare economy, but that doesn’t make me a Socialist. I also don’t believe in Capitalism for Capital’s Sake. From everything I have seen, a healthcare system that is privatized and profit-driven has every inducement in the world to keep the country sick. As long as it continues on like this, there will be no cures.
About thirty-two years ago I was contemplating getting married, so I consulted “the bible”, and in particular, Chapters 8 and 10. After that, I insisted on adapting our wedding vows to “I promise to love, honor, cherish, and occasionally play Scrabble with you for as long as we both shall live.”
It turned out that “occasionally” meant once every quarter of a century. So it was only five years ago that I discovered, to my horror, that my husband cheats at Scrabble. (Or do you think that “Jeanhose” and “Krux” are words?) Thank goodness I won the game anyway. Two points less and I could be divorcée right now.
As it is, it’s my 30th wedding anniversary today, and sort of like last year, I spent most of it chauffeuring kids around, obeying the commands of my cleaning lady, and doing load after load of laundry. It’s now about 7:00 pm and I am all alone for the evening – unless of course my adopted refugee son pops in for some food. Daughter 1 flitted in from her trip to Malta and took off two hours later to spend her first night in her new apartment in Graz. Daughter 2 is at a concert in Vienna, with friends and strict instructions to send me a text message every two or three hours.
And the husband is off fishing in Sweden again.
However . . .
Being the person he is, he made sure that a surprise appeared in the kitchen this morning. I might just be the only wife in the world who un-ironically thinks a bag of Cheetos is the best anniversary present ever! (The fountain pen was nice too.) But wait, there’s more! A half hour later my cell phone chimed.
Check out what my husband calls “our Weddingfish”:
All sorts of little milestones and round numbers have been reminding me lately of time passing. My thirtieth anniversary is in less than three days. My sixtieth birthday and retirement(!) are in less than three years. My daughter graduating from high school made me feel – among other things – well, . . . . old. And what was the final diagnosis of my joint troubles of late? Apparently, I am just aging.
I have also now officially lived in this house on a hill outside of Loopyville for thirty years – since 1989 – so for more than half of my life. In all that time, whenever we drove somewhere northward (and that was literally hundreds of times), our route took us through a little village and past a sign with an arrow and the words “Europe’s Oldest Oak Tree”. We never once turned off to look at it. That is, until a month ago, when the husband and I were returning home all refreshed and relaxed from our spa weekend. On a whim, we veered off toward the oak.
I can say with 100% certainty that it is the most un-touristy tourist attraction you will ever experience. It’s just a tree. In a field. With one little information sign. From that we learned that the tree was between 1000 and 1200 years old along with its height and diameter.
We also read that this tree had briefly made international news. After being struck by lightning in the 1970s, someone tried to save it by pouring concrete into the trunk. But that cure turned out to be more deadly than the original injury. In 1989 (the same year I was moving furniture and all my earthly possessions into my new home in a nearby village), a massive rescue attempt was made to remove the concrete and restore the tree’s natural drainage. And it was a success. Thirty years later, the oak is clearly thriving.
I walked around the tree, peered up into it, felt the old bark and thought about everything it had lived through. The ground beneath it had been ruled by the Magyars, the Romans, the Babenbergs, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and the Freedom Party. It had survived Turkish invasions, two World Wars, acid rain, a lightning strike, Chernobyl, tourists with pocket knives and being called fat by the locals (“die dicke Oachn”, which means “the fat oak”). It had scars and missing limbs, but it was still going strong. It was clearly planning on sticking around for a while yet.
While I was contemplating all this, the husband took this picture – which I just love. Maybe because I look so young!
So here’s a possibly original take on the classic “why I haven’t been posting lately” post: I have just been so busy with one getaway after another.
First there was the sick leave, which, if I am honest, (and now that the memory of pain has faded), was really kind of nice. I have several crocheted animals to show for it.
That lasted about a week until boredom set in and sent me back to normal work for a few days. The week after was spent with two colleagues and twenty kids between the ages of 10 and 15 in an unheated house on an icy lake in Carinthia. Crap weather kept a lot of us in the one warm dining hall / arts and crafts / common room for most of the time. I taught a lot of kids to crochet and carve hiking sticks and make juggling balls with rice and balloons while my two coworkers took care of sports activities, homesickness and conflicts. We shared the task of kicking boys out of girls’ rooms and vice versa in the nights.
Back home, there followed an abnormally over-excited week of work, thanks to the fact that the sex education experts were coming on Thursday and half the school kids were in a permanent tizzy – until the workshop was over, that is. Thursday at 12:30 pm they all casually emerged from their daylong sequestration in a state of feigned blasé whateverness.
(Note to future self: schedule the sex workshop BEFORE the trip to Carinthia!)
The following weekend – last weekend – was spent with my husband in some long overdue twosomeness at a nearby spa – my birthday gift to him. It was really perfect timing. With a long work slog just behind him and a mammoth one coming up, this was his one chance to unwind and unplug for a few days. Experience has taught us that we don’t see much of one another in the last weeks of the school year. For us teachers, June is the cruelest month.
Upon arrival at the spa, the first realization was that he had forgotten to pack swimming trunks. He rejected my idea to simply buy new ones. He didn’t really want to spend time in the water anyway, he said. He would start his training for an upcoming mountain bike tour and take long runs instead. He checked his cell phone and email.
“Whatever you want,” I said, and secretly hoping that the spa would work its magic.
It did. By Day Three he was napping on a lounge chair by the pool.
June could now begin.
Back home again, I stared at my calendar for the upcoming month and became confused. It slowly dawned on me that – at least in my case – this year was as good as over. First off, three long holiday weekends all fall in June this year, so I only had 10 more school days – and those were mostly excursions and sports days and special projects. Written into my calendar were some concerts and fests, a recital, one play and a canoe trip. There was a day at the public pool. There was a high school graduation ceremony and a big family celebration. There was the last day of school and the sentimental ritual that includes.
June was going to be a breeze!! Or so I thought.
The way I see it, Life is not a pathway forward but a curve-filled trek, always spiraling back toward some earlier point in time, though maybe on a higher or lower plane. That idea is behind the name “circumstance” and the way my blog entries often tend to end at or near the place they started.
In the case of this post . . . I am back on sick leave. Whatever caused my hip problem (which is much better now) has wandered up to my left shoulder. I’m back on anti-inflammatory meds and have new specialists and tests ahead of me next week. I assume there are also some hefty antibiotics in my future and some physical therapy. Olga will probably be beating me up again.
On the bright side . . .
. . . my earlier experiences tell me the worst of the pain involved (with the exception of Olga) is probably already behind me.
. . . I assume I will be able to take part in all of the events in my calendar that any one-armed person could manage and that is most of them. The canoe trip is probably a no-go. Shucks.