Chickens in the Outhouse

 

Most people don’t know this, but there are two countries named “Austria”. Or at least in my mind there are. One is the place I came to after graduating from college and it was filled with highly educated professional people who were well-informed on social, cultural, economic, political and international issues. The second Austria was the one I spent two months in as an AFS student at the age of 17. It was a rural village of 108 people in about 15 houses, wedged between a military training base and the Iron Curtain. 99% of its inhabitants left school after the 8th Grade to become full-time farmers, butchers, seamstresses, mechanics, etc. before going on to intermarry. The time elapsed between my arrivals in these two Austrias was either only 5 years or an entire century. Take your pick.

It’s this earlier place that has been on my mind for a while now. After realizing that I was already starting to write this post in my head, I decided to skip ahead a few childhood journals in my “Cringe-worthy” series and read the one I wrote during that last high school summer and my first experience abroad.

It was a trip.

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Shortly before I left, the long-awaited information package from the exchange program arrived. I ripped it open and intensively skimmed through the pages. The first surprise was that my host sisters were 2 and 3 years old, my host mother and father were only 22 and 26 respectively. Then I read that host grandpa was in his 50s and host grandma (“owner of the farm, practical head of the family”) was in her 70s. Hmmm? Oh yeah, and they were all farmers. Their daily life description consisted of work, watching TV and occasional day trips to relatives. The qualities they were looking for in the exchange student were “able to adapt, uncomplicated, not demanding any luxory (sic)”.

To be honest, there wasn’t much in these few lines to increase my excitement. I was the youngest child in my family with no experience of younger siblings. My baby-sitting jobs mostly had me watching TV downstairs from sleeping kids. I was also a city girl. With the exception of some horseback riding lessons, my exposure to country living was minimal. I’m fairly sure my only face to face encounters with farm animals up to that point had happened in the meat sections of supermarkets. I had almost no references to help me understand what I was heading toward. Despite all the hints in the information package, visions of the Sound of Music continued to happily dance in my head and my only real worry was whether I would be able to find a curling iron once I got there. I boarded a plane.

 

Epic Start

My first journal entry, the morning after arriving, was mostly about homesickness and . . . “feeling out of place”, but that first evening is one of the moments I can still remember distinctly 40 years later. I entered the kitchen and was led through the family bedroom to what would be “my room” for the next two months. That was it. The entire living space for the five of us when we weren’t sleeping was that kitchen. I remember then having to go to the bathroom and making the classic German language mistake of asking where the “Badezimmer” was. (In Austrian houses, the “bathroom” is for bathing and the toilet usually has its own separate room.) I was led back to a second room off the kitchen in which stood an old bathtub, a sink, a washing machine, and this thing. I stared at it and thought “What IS that?? It can’t be . . . ? . . .”. Then I noticed the electrical cord. My host mother, Edna, was clearly amused at me contemplating the laundry spinner and then led me back through the kitchen, out the door into the courtyard and on to the outhouse. As I wrote in my journal, “I almost cried when I saw [it].” There was a pile of old newspapers in there for wiping, but then Edna handed me a roll of toilet paper. She said it was just for me and asked me to keep it hidden and in my room. If her daughters saw it, they would demand to have some too.

My second biggest journal complaint was about the dinner they served me: “hot milk, bread and butter”. Little did I know then that it would be not only my dinner, but also my breakfast, every day for the next two months (except when pig lard was substituted for the butter). Food and the outhouse would become two of the recurring themes of the summer. It’s strange to see now that many of the others also showed up in that first journal entry. On my first full day, Edna showed me around the village, pointing out the Milk House and the “Club 3000” — an old chicken house that the village teenagers had transformed into a little disco. Later she took me to the nearby “city” (where I bought a curling iron). Most importantly, she gave me my first job.

 

“I did a new job today.”                

Bringing the full milk cans to the milk house, bringing back the emptied ones, and washing them out became my daily task for the summer. But each day brought other types of farm work to try out as well. I worked in the stalls and helped with harvests. I cut grass with a scythe and emptied wagonloads of hay into the cellar with a pitchfork. I hoed and chopped and raked and drove a tractor. I stripped bark from logs and stacked bales of straw. I hung up laundry. Lots of laundry. And I broke tools, lots of them, among other things.

  

“Chickens are the most disgusting creatures.”       

I didn’t mind most of the jobs (though I did write that “shoveling manure is revolting”). It was nice to have something to do and all these activities were new to me. There was one big exception. One day Oma signaled to me by way of crooking her up-turned finger that I should follow her. As we walked toward the chopping block, she scooped up a chicken with one hand and then picked up an axe with the other. WHACK! She handed me the upside-down flapping headless thing and said “Pluck!” Trying hard not to gag, I daintily pulled one feather out and then the next before Edna came and saved me. In under a minute, that bird was nude.

My objection to this particular job had nothing to do with sympathy for the dead bird. In fact, one of the funniest things for me to read in this journal was how much I hated chickens.

 

“little monsters”         

There were two other little creatures that I complained about almost as much as chickens – my two host-sisters.  There are stories in there of them taking food away from me, hitting me with an umbrella, calling me stupid . . . the list continues. Edna left me pretty much on my own when it came to dealing with them, which I found even more exasperating. But as the summer progressed, occasional nice moments with them pop up. Near the end I write about how each day began with them running into my room at 8 am to wake me up . . .

 

“going out”

The fact that my host sisters were so young was not such a problem in the end because, it turned out, there were a lot of other teenagers in the village to meet and party with. On my second day there, it was already arranged that a neighbor girl would come and get me: Destination Club 3000. Basically, every teenager in the village was there that night (I wonder why). It was the beginning of what would become an issue over the summer: me “going out”.  I did it a lot.

As I got to know the kids, I started to understand all the interrelationships in the village as well as the external perspective of my living situation and my host family. The biggest revelation, though, had – of course! – to do with plumbing.

 

Drama

 Me being 17 years old and . . . well, . . . me (“never met a boy I couldn’t get a crush on”), there ensued a series of somewhat sorry flirtations that set the village tongues a-wagging. The first was the village butcher/bad boy and I liked him till he went skinny-dipping right in front of all of us. (“I was so shocked!” I declared dramatically in my journal on Day 9.) I moved on to Crush Number Two, whose two most attractive qualities, if I am honest, were his driver’s license and old piece of clunk car. That one lasted about three weeks – until the car died, quickly followed by my interest. The third (potential) crush never went anywhere, because he was a cousin to my host family and much too smart to get himself entangled. The fact that he already had two girlfriends (and I, at least according to the locals, had two boyfriends) might also have had something to do with it.

The funny thing is that, even with my tentative command of German, I wrote often about how much easier it was to talk to these boys than to my (reserved) boyfriend back home. I realized even way back then that the pre-determined ending date of these relationships freed me to just be myself. Still, once a letter finally arrived from said boyfriend, he became my new crush for the final two weeks of the summer.

 

Gossip Generator

Despite the fact these flirtations included almost no physical contact, village gossipers had a field day with my exploits and corrupting influence on the local youth. I unintentionally fanned the flames by becoming close to the one girl in the village (the sister of Crush #2) who was attending high school and spoke excellent English. As I eventually found out, their two (much younger) siblings were born well after the death of their father, and that it was my host Opa who had been spending a lot of time there “helping the young widow out”.  After learning that village open secret, I understood some of the dynamics in my own household better, not to mention why my own host Oma was the biggest gossip generator of them all.

 

“Oma is a killer.”

Oma made it clear to me in a myriad of ways that 1) she didn’t approve of my being there, 2) so I should at least work, and 3) even though I was working, she didn`t approve of me or my work. My journal is filled with episodes where she demonstrated her feelings. She told me repeatedly how bad my cooking was. She yelled at me when I used the phone or the wrong pan. She turned off the lights on leaving a room, even if I was still sitting there. I eventually learned not to take her seriously, but for a few exceptions. The first was the way she promoted rivalry between her two granddaughters, always praising one of them and criticizing the other. Or making only one bottle of milk and letting them fight over it. The second unforgivable transgression was when I was finally let in on the big secret – and I’m not talking about her husband’s affair and love children. No, this was something much worse. It turned out that over in her rooms in a different tract of the farmhouse, there was a perfectly modern bathroom with a flush toilet. No one else in the family was allowed to use it. Scandalous!

The third transgression that I just couldn’t get over was when she complained and gossiped about Edna – saying she was lazy and never worked when that was all she did from morning to night! Unfortunately, my host father, Lou (Edna’s husband and Oma’s son) was not much help. I think he had learned to stay clear of the fray.

 

 

 

“I had a long talk with Edna today and I’m feeling much better.”

 One of the strangest surprises on rereading my journal 40 years later, was how important my friendship with Edna became for the entire experience. She and I would talk a lot while we were working together, and her kindness and openness always helped. She made me feel better about going out with the village kids by telling me that their previous AFS student never went anywhere and that it was a much bigger problem. (“I just cause family strife and break a lot of tools.”)  Apparently, homesickness got the best of my predecessor and she ended up leaving early. Edna also accepted my close friendship with the one girl in the village most likely to cause conflict in the host family (and Edna was the one to explain the whole sordid history to me). When she saw that I didn’t like a particular type of work (like shovelling manure or plucking chickens), she never asked me to do it again. When one of the ridiculous rumors about me reached my ears, Edna and I could laugh about it together. She admitted that she also had to deal with gossip and that she had trouble getting along with Oma too; she advised me to do what she did: just tune her out. The bond between us grew slowly and consistently throughout the summer. One time, she told me about a crime show she had seen the night before – it was about a woman who murdered her mother-in-law. Our eyes met and we both tried hard to hide our smiles because Oma was sitting nearby.

I eventually realized why I was there. It was not only to supply some companionship, but also to serve as a new target for Oma, taking the heat off of Edna for a while. I fulfilled that second purpose exceptionally well. As the date of my departure approached, she began to get weepy at random moments. I understood the full palette of emotions behind those tears.

Near the very end of my stay, I finally succeeded in merging my two circles. I persuaded Edna and Lou to come with me to the Club 3000 for what I guess now was my farewell party. In one of my favorite pictures of them, they are sitting in the club, Lou’s arm is around her and he is kissing her cheek. Her laughing face is positively beaming.

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I have gone back to visit the village and my host family twice over the years: once during my Junior Year Abroad in Germany and again, 15 years later with my husband. I was surprised to see that almost everything looked exactly the same, right down to the wallpaper in the kitchen. (My husband was even more surprised that there were people in Austria who still lived like this.) There were a few new additions, though, like a porcelain seat in the outhouse and two more daughters. If I remember right, Oma had passed away and my closest girlfriend had married the family’s cousin. (I suppose those two events weren’t entirely unrelated.) We had a really nice visit.

Despite the brief intersection of these two worlds, I still have trouble – even to this day – merging the two Austrias in my head. But I am beginning to suspect that has less to do with their differences than with my own psychology. . . .

 

Two Worlds

. . . . because my biggest discoveries in reading this old journal were about me. I recognized the quirks and qualities in my 17-year-old self that would lead me to become a lifelong traveler, the most obvious of which were my roving eye and my roving heart. But it went deeper. I felt free to be myself in foreign environments. I saw the benefits of relationships with pre-determined expiration dates. I found it easy to lead a dual life – to handle the cognitive dissonance that allowed me to write “I love this place!” and follow it with something like “In just two days I will be able to say I am going home in a week!” At 17 I could already allow myself to feel Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (wanderlust) at the same time which somehow freed me to live in the moment. They struck a compromise and coexisted peacefully side-by-side within me. “I live in two worlds” is a statement I have made many times, in many different contexts. It’s a feeling I have carried with me my entire life. It has allowed me to leave places and people, knowing simultaneously that I may never see them again and that they will always be there. It has given me my somewhat harsh ability to silently say, “Goodbye and have a nice life! What’s next?”

 

Refreshed Start

 

Here was the first sunset of 2020:

 

But the world is not the only thing starting a new year. Here we go . . . (sound of throat clearing) . . .

It’s my baby’s 5th birthday. I’ve decided to give it a present: an upgrade. For no other reason than to get rid of those crappy ads showing up in the middle of my (so carefully designed) posts. I bet you are seeing one right now. Probably one telling you that you can learn to speak a foreign language fluently in just five minutes. Or maybe it is that picture of ugly feet that keeps popping up.

I’m a bit nervous about how this will go – if and how my blog will change in content or appearance.  Or something worse. If you happen to notice in the coming days that it has disappeared from your Reader (or the face of the Virtual Earth), well, then you will know that I messed it up.

Wish us luck!

 

Another No Resolution Resolution

It’s 12:30 on December 31st and – as tradition dictates – the table is set, the wine is aerating and Barbie stands ready to dance. The frat boys have straggled in one by one and taken their seats. As I type this, they are sampling the first of ten bottles. I have retired to my office to write the last post of 2019 – my 501st in all since starting this blog and my 1st on this new notebook. (A certain computer specialist informed me that one no longer uses the term “laptop”.)

Speaking of which, my transitioning has now entered Phase Five: transfer of photos and videos. (Un-?)fortunately, this required me to first finish up two long-on-the-list standing projects: a photo-book and a Year in Review slideshow for the school. From last year. That second one got done last night . . .

With the notebook taking the honorary place on my desk and the old laptop relegated to an extra table, I sat and listened to it huffing and puffing and wheezing and whining as it struggled to render the slideshow video with its 600+ photos, 8 music tracks and hundreds of transitions and motion effects . It was trying so hard that even the Devil Cat got concerned and went to comfort it. Finally, after three hours, the video was done, copied and secured. Old Laptop had successfully completed its final mission.

You’d think I would feel some relief being able to strike this point off my list of projects, but what I really felt was irritation that such a list exists at all.

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It’s now 6:22 pm and the last of the frat boys have just left. As tradition dictates, I will spend the rest of this evening in the usual way, some chauffeuring, some washing out of wine glasses, packing away the Barbie for the next 364 days, later some panicky dog-sitting during the fireworks. In between, I am sending this message out into blogworld that I love my traditions and don’t want them to change.

No more To Do lists. No more resolutions.

I am resolved.

Happy New Year!

 

Senior Moments – Chapter Five

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 . . .

Sigh.

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 . . .

 

Again. Sigh.

 

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.

Now hand me one of those mints!

 

From the Country with No Government

 

Greetings from a country with no government.

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.

 

Laguz

 

Sometime in July:

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.

 

The Country is Sick

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 . . .

 

https://smartasset.com/taxes/wisconsin-paycheck-calculator#eOxo4LJPs8

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.

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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.