Other People’s Secrets

 

For the first two and a half years of bloglife, I was skipping along . . . riding a wave . . . whistling my way down Easy Street. Meeting my self-imposed, randomly chosen goal of posting three times a week turned out to be no prob. Ideas arose, ran down from my brain through my nervous system to fingertips on a laptop keyboard and then on to the WordPress Dashboard and then out into the ether. I had no qualms about publishing my own personal stuff for the world to see (albeit when I say “the world” here, I am talking about a total of zero to 20 readers). Surprisingly, the husband and daughters were also okay with me telling their stories from time to time – possibly as a way to make up for not being part of my blog’s reading audience. Having a job in the real world that I loved and no ambition to see my name on a book jacket helped me to concentrate on the fun factor. It propelled me along hummingly in my hobby.

Something changed.

It is now fall, which has always been my undisputed favorite season. It reminds me of my childhood excitement for the first day of school and how I always laid out my carefully chosen outfit the night before, next to my beautiful new school supplies in an un-customarily neat room. Fall reminds me of later pleasant backaches induced by hours of stacking firewood or gathering chestnuts to roast and then not eat because they don’t really taste good, but still somehow manage to seem romantic. Fall is the time when everything begins anew even as it is changing into glorious colors shortly before dying.

This fall has been different. It seems to be ALL about endings and few foreseeable beginnings. As I navigate my way through a successful start of the school year with my three new English groups, I can’t ignore the world around them disintegrating. My beloved school is in deep trouble on the parental level. Some new personal conflict arises among them every week, spreading quickly through the social network and ultimately to the kids in the classroom. Our sociocratic experiment has hit a rough patch. Something tells me the path to resolution will be a long and disruptive one. I assume the school will continue on for the next four years – my last four before retirement. But I am preparing myself anyway for eventuality that it won’t.

At the same time, in the other half of my professional life, I am also realizing that the end is nigh. The stream of students into Business or Economics majors at the university has been drying up because, on graduating, too many of them find they are over-educated for the jobs most companies want to fill these days. (They want lower level staff and techies.) With fewer and fewer students enrolling, my GDE course tailored to them is also shrinking out of existence. This is officially my 30th year teaching this course, but I think it will be the last.

Then there is my expatriate life and morbid fascination in the quagmire American politics has become. Unfortunately the daily twumpian absurdities combined with the sheer distance between me and my ability to affect anything there are leading me to detach.

And my more immediate private life? It has revolved completely around – been infiltrated and consumed by – Other People’s Business.

 

In this autumn of endings, day after day, week after week, my thoughts have been chock full of events and concerns and news and ideas and developments and amateur psychology sessions – none of which are technically my own and none suitable for blogging.

 

So, once again, I will write about chickens.

They also incessantly squawk and squabble and peck at one another and make everything a mess. But they are chickens. So it kind of suits them. And night after night, they all waddle into the coop together where a few sorry ones on the lower bar get pooped on by others who managed to get a better perch higher up.  I suppose it is still better than being outdoors at night and risking being eaten up by a weasel or a fox.

After that glorious first egg my alter-ego, Blackthumb, told you about, a second one was found – lying on the grass and broken. After a closer look around, we discovered a pile of destroyed egg shells – maybe four or five of them. One of our chickens was breaking and eating the eggs (of another one, I assume). As for the layer of the destroyed eggs, I suspect the Sulmtaler (“Trump”). Despite being the same breed as our rooster, he doesn’t give her the time of day. She spends the day waddle-darting from here to there, acting all nervous and confused (not to mention looking silly with that awful hairstyle). As for the Egg Killer, I immediately suspected the Swedish Flower Bully. She then further incriminated herself by beginning to lay one egg a day in the quarantine coop. A half dozen so far. Thanks to this whole episode, she finally has a name: we call her Darwin.

 

Tomorrow her six eggs will be fried or scrambled and eaten along with some bacon and buttered toast. I will do my best to find them distasteful.

 

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Red (-White-Red) Wedding

 

I stopped reading the “Game of Thrones” books after Part Four. And the only reason I finished that book is because I had bought and started it, and I have this thing about finishing books. (That is also why I made it all the way to the end of “The Thornbirds” despite all the suffering it caused me to read the worst. book. ever. But I digress . . .) I actually detached emotionally from GoT in Book Three already. It was the Red Wedding. I never got over it. From that point on, I hated the sadism of the author – the way he manipulated us readers into liking a character, only to then have him or her die in some particularly gruesome way. I eventually coped by simply changing the events of Book Three in my mind – fantasizing up a whole scenario where everything turned out differently. Robb Stark lives, creates alliances, unites the kingdoms. The war ends. Winter isn’t coming. And all of that because a wolf was there, standing by and watching over the wedding.

That whole first paragraph is a very inappropriate introduction to what this post is supposed to be about: my husband’s nephew/godchild got married this weekend. It was a truly lovely ceremony in classic Austrian (“Red-White-Red”) style and not at all . . . games-of-thronesy. Let’s start with the fact that the bride and groom knew each other beforehand. They also love, like, and respect one another. And that’s only one of the many differences. Like the fact that the nephew got married with the uncle in attendance – in GoT it was the opposite.  Another difference that occurs to me offhand is that last Saturday, the bride and groom weren’t stripped naked by the guests in the middle of the celebration and then carried off to a bedchamber to consummate the marriage. There were also very few casualties and ALL of those involved wine glasses, not people.

That is not to say that Austrian weddings can’t be brutal in their own special way . . .

As is customary here, a Christian wedding consists of two ceremonies. The first is with a Justice of the Peace and the second takes place afterward in the church. The first part can often be officious and devoid of sentimentality, as the cramped guests in some undecorated, provincial courtroom try unsuccessfully to understand the inaudible droning of some nervous bureaucrat and then watch contracts being signed. Thereafter they shuffle onward to the church and basically sit through an hour plus of all the glorious trappings of Sunday-Morning-Among-the-Pious interspersed with five minutes of wedding stuff. A long administration of dry wafers and fermented grape juice happens. Meanwhile, collection baskets are passed through the congregation. The marrying couple waits patiently through it all, dwarfed by the picturesque pomp and gold grandiosity surrounding them.

My nephew-in-law and (now) niece-in-law-in-law managed all of this much much better, making their wedding not only a lovely pair of ceremonies, but an all-around nice day from beginning to end. It started with their choice of locations – in a south-Styrian village with a wonderful restaurant designed exactly for such occasions.

 

The sign we passed on the way to our chairs told us “Today two families will become one. So choose a seat, not a side”. (That would have been good advice for the Tullys and the Freys, too, I think.) We watched a sweet ceremony, thanks to a government official who made the effort to get to know the couple a little so that he could personalize the ceremony. The rain clouds also waited patiently till we were all safely under a roof again, sipping sparkling wine and snacking on yummy hors d’oeuvres.

 

From there we had a 90 second walk to a wonderful church that managed to be impressive and understated at the same time. If later internet research serves, it is a Franciscan church, i.e. related philosophically to our current Pope Francis (who even a heathen like me finds pretty awesome). The priest who conducted the ceremony was modest and pleasant to listen to. He framed his words around the concept of heaven on earth and even found ways to link the music selection to his messages and the occasion. It all somehow worked. It all somehow seemed right.

 

But the best part of this location was outside the church. A huge statue created by Bolivian artist, Fernando Crespo.

 

It depicts the story of Francis of Assisi and the Wolf of Gubbio which teaches the importance of finding a way to peaceful coexistence – even with feared and dangerous enemies. With this wolf watching over things, I can confidently predict a Happy End – for nephew and uncle alike.

          

 

 

The Path of Totality

 

With all of America being in Solar Eclipse Fever, I was reminded of my own past luck to find myself in “the path of totality” for one of these. Austria, August 11th, 1999. My husband (of ten years at the time) and I decided to throw a garden party for the occasion.

It took me a while to locate these pictures in my many photo albums. I had started with the 2001 book because I was convinced that my elder daughter was a baby in attendance; I could picture the buggy standing in the shade and her sleeping peacefully inside. But it turns out that I must have conflated this party with my husband’s 40th birthday bash two years later – the one with the “End of the World” theme. I found those pictures in a later album and there was a baby in a buggy with shades on, it just wasn’t ours. And he had the sunglasses because of eye troubles, not because of an eclipse. While looking through those pictures, I couldn’t find the crazy invitation we had made for this party and started getting suspicious again . . .

More foraging through photo albums revealed that my memory was conflating this second party with his 50th Birthday Bash (also a garden party). That was the one that coincided with some religious prophecy about the coming of Judgment Day – May 21st, 2011. Our invitations for that party read:

(That party was a really good time!)

Now, after all sorts of rummaging through albums and the recesses of my brain, I have it all straightened out. So back to the Solar Eclipse Party . . .

We had a perfect cloudless day and as you can see, being in the shadow of the moon really makes day turn into night. The later pictures in the album show bright sunshine again. This being the days before digital cameras and the internet, I didn’t get a good shot of the ring, but I did look at it for a few seconds with my own eyes.

    

As I look at these pictures, the ugliness of our house and general lack of foliage in our garden at that time strikes me. It is also strange to realize my elder daughter wouldn’t be born until a full year later, and that, at this time, I had no idea we would even be adopting a child. Then I look at all the people in attendance and see her two godfathers. I see the two couples who I later helped with the paperwork so that they could secretly  get married in Las Vegas. One of these two also later asked for our advice about adopting and now are deliriously happy with their permanent foster daughter. I see another woman who would become my daughter’s singing teacher. She and her husband together celebrated their “100th” birthday just two days ago and I was in attendance. My daughter sang there. I see pictures of babies who will be graduating from high school this year, young kids who are now done with university. And of all these people, I see only a handful that I have lost contact with.

I had no idea at the time that these people would stay a big part of my life over the next two decades and most likely beyond. That they would be the same crowd pictured at that 40th bash and the 50th ten years later, and presumably the 60th just a few years from now.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I didn’t see the eclipse today because I was a third of the way around the world from the path of totality. Instead I took a jog down Memory Lane and then livestreamed NASA coverage via NPR. And because the experience wasn’t exactly action packed, I played some Solitaire at the same time while trying to get my head around time differences and where the sun was compared to here and why the moon path went from west to east:

  

 

I was lucky to get these screenshots  – right after the second one, my crappy wifi broke down and the stream was interrupted.

I got up and went out onto my porch just in time to catch the sunset. Ten seconds earlier I had been tracking the sun’s path over Oregon en route to my family and friends in Wisconsin. And here it was, by me, the way it always is.

Things suddenly reset and were back to normal. To the way they should be. There was a feeling. And I want to remember it.

Goodbye, Tree

 

As many of you already know, I’m not exactly Nature Girl. I have an extremely limited vocabulary to describe the natural world, mostly due to  . . . let’s face it, not really caring. I divide the green stuff I see around me into the loose genres (is that the right word?) of “grassy”, “bushy”, “flowery”, “treelike”, and “snack”. Within these groups I can identify a handful of individual specimens. For instance, I know a rose when I see one. Also a dandelion.  I can correctly name a weeping willow, a maple tree (thanks to the Canadian flag) and staghorn sumac (gardenworld’s “Walking Dead”). In the “Snack” genre, I can recognize a cornstalk and several types of berries (assuming they are ripe and ready to pick). But that’s about it.

So I am at a loss to identify the tree in our garden that was destroyed in last week’s wildly raging storm. It was our biggest tree and a rare type – or so I was told by a visiting botanist about 15 years ago. I immediately forgot what he said the tree was and have been meaning to find out. It was very shapely and tall. It was very good at providing shade and privacy to my favorite spot on the screen porch. But half of its huge branches (– tree-sized themselves) were lying on the ground after the storm and the remaining half of the tree threatened to fall on our neighbor’s roof. It had to go.

Before After the Storm:                      After the Chainsaw:

               

I spent a good ten minutes today on the internet trying to identify the tree based on its leaf. The closest matches were “Norway Maple” and “Canadian Hawthorn” – both of which can’t be right. The tree has no flowers or nuts or four-inch, fatal-looking thorns. I was sort of hoping one of my many greenthumbed blog people could identify it. Thanks in advance! And while you are at your research, I will be out on the porch with my Kindle and glass of Coke, feeling ever-so-slightly more exposed.

I’ve Missed You

I should probably start by apologizing for being unsupportive and absent to my blog bff’s (whom I love dearly and truly!) I could then follow it up with my reasons for neglecting you, which would really be excuses, which would then negate the sincerity of the original apology.

One of those excuses could be that I have been busy meeting up with old high school friends – another set of people that I have been absent from, neglectful of, unsupportive to, uncommunicative with, etc. etc. – and that for more than 37 years now (“Go Raiders! Yeay, Class of 1980!!”) And yet, every two years when I come home to Milwaukee, we somehow manage to meet up.

In the first few minutes of our biannual reunions, we peer intensely at one another to assess the advancement of our own aging process. This gets confusing because the one or the other looks exactly the same despite laugh wrinkles around the eyes and graying hair. Each time, we also suddenly panic about all the details we really should know but don’t, or have forgotten. (You had six siblings?! Did I ever know that? You lived in California?! Did I know that? You were an English major too?! Did I know that?) Slowly but surely, the skeletal frames of life highlights spanning the past 37 years are reconstructed. Marriages, kids, professional moves, travels, parental concerns . . .  We all silently vow to commit these facts to memory in preparation for the next reunion, but know somewhere inside that two years from now, the same conversations and surprises will happen again.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because with old friends, like old habits, once you pick them up again, you simply take off from where you left off. You tell and retell the same old stories that somehow seem familiar and new at the same time. Meanwhile, long neglected, dusty old details of your life as a teenager resurface in your mind. Names of classmates you have not had a second thought about in decades are suddenly accessible. You start sorting these names into categories like “popular” or “cool” or “dweeb” or “wild” – all with the understanding that it is your 16 year old selves doing the sorting because you gave up on this kind of immature labeling long ago. At the same time, it becomes clear to you why exactly these people and not ones with newly re-remembered names and labels are here around the table. You realize how much you share with these people and that it goes deep.

And you laugh a lot.

And you make plans for a longer, cooler reunion in 2019. Before saying goodbye and returning to your current life, you take pictures.

And then you post one of them on your blog.

And you say, “I’ve missed you.”

 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

 

. . . or the first day of it anyway . . .

 

 . . . but before I get to that, where can I get my hands on one of these T-shirts? It is perfect. All three of these crazes came to our school this year – much to the irritation of most of my colleagues. When it came to bottle flipping, I agreed – how is this an achievement?? However, I confess that I did the dabbing (aka “Usain Bolt”) gesture myself many a time and that fidget spinners also have a certain fascination for me. My colleagues were continually demanding that the students put them in their pockets or anywhere out of reach/sight. I never had to insist on that. When I came into the classroom, all the kids quickly disappeared their fidget spinners for fear that I would “borrow” it, start spinning myself, and not give it back. One of my students gave me one as a farewell gift and I blurted out “HOW COOL!!!” The sad thing is that I was honestly excited about it. Here it is (and notice the background!):

I got that gift on Friday morning – the last day of school filled with tearful farewells (but no tears from me, I’m not a wimp). The afternoon was spent carting daughters here and there, going last-minute-shopping for stuff they needed for their trip to the States, and finally at the Fair Trade Festival, where Mitzi’s new band had their incredibly successful premiere:

The night was long and moist for everyone except us designated drivers. I confiscated the husband’s car keys after he told the story of our kitchen renovations for the fifth time (a story, I might add, that he stole from me): “We wanted a new refrigerator. We are getting a new kitchen.”

Eventually, we made it home and fell into bed. We had made it. We had survived. Except that . . . (full disclosure) . . . the last day of school is not the last day of the school year. There was one more week of “Post-readying” to get through. And there were still “a few” things to do before our new kitchen could be installed starting Monday morning . . . i.e. 48 hours later . . .

 

Backtrack.

In the exhilarating process of planning and ordering our new kitchen months ago, we somehow found it feasible that the last week of work before summer vacation would be a good time for having the kitchen built. We didn’t really consider everything that would have to be done beforehand – the water lines, the electric cabling, the heating pipes, the subsequent plastering and mess. We didn’t consider the fact that my husband would be out of town for half of the last month of school and glued to it for the other half (mostly due to graduation exams) and that I would be feverishly working on the year-in-review slideshow for a week and then writing 28 farewell letters to my students the next. We also didn’t consider that our kids would be reeling from one year-end recital or party or performance to another while packing and preparing for their first solo flight to the States. Or that the hubby was taking part in a barbecuing competition that would keep him from home from noon Saturday to the wee hours. Or that we would have to leave for the airport in the middle of the night (2:00 am) to get them to the airport, driving for two hours there, two hours back, and then reporting for work at 9:00 am on Monday morning.

 

And because we hadn’t considered all of this, we woke up on Saturday morning in a bit of a panic. The fridge and dishwasher were still standing in the middle of the room which had to be emptied, cleaned and painted. But before that could be done, we had to go get the hubby’s car and Mitzi’s keyboard. And we had to tape up plastic everywhere to protect the windows and rest of the house. And the husband had to get everything ready for his barbecuing competition – that meant cleaning grills and finding all the equipment in our now disastrously chaotic household. We managed and he took off at noon. I walked into the kitchen and considered where to begin . . .

I decided on emptying the last load from the dishwasher and moving it. I opened it up and was greeted by some kind of new life-form. It seems we forgot to actually turn the machine on after that final loading five very warm days earlier.  I had to transport all those green and fuzzy dishes and glasses and cutlery to the bathroom and wash them by hand. It was truly one of the Top Five low points of my life.

Next task – moving the refrigerator. This required emptying it out completely and then sliding it into the living room and filling it back up again. Seems straightforward enough, but it took hours. And there was a lot of toting things to our one water source in the bathroom and back. More green fuzziness was also involved.

After that came vacuuming and mopping and daughter chauffeuring and mopping and unsuccessful attempts at online check-ins and mopping and then some more mopping. The kitchen had now gone from this:

to this:

 

And I went from this:

to this:

 

Sunday was painting day.

 

 

Monday.  We had left to take my daughters to the airport at 2:00 am and got back home around 7:00 o’clock in the morning. The workers arrived shortly thereafter and everything was hunky-dory as far as the kitchen project went. I drove off to school relieved and then had . . . the worst day of my entire six years there. (Details are unimportant here, but will probably be dealt with in some future post.) I can say I came home demoralized and ready to quit. I tracked the progress of my daughters and saw that their flight had been delayed. It was almost midnight before I got word that they had landed safely, gotten through the airport procedures, found the right bus, contacted my sister and were safely arrived. I went to bed.

On Tuesday morning, the workers arrived again and continued installing the kitchen. I drove off to school  . . . reluctantly . . . almost unwillingly.

I arrived and walked into the kitchen. My “boss” was crying and the other members of the teaching staff were in intense discussion with her. I realized that all of them had felt as deeply bad about the meeting as I had and that they were equally exhausted. We talked through all the crap from the preceding day and reaffirmed our solidarity with one another. The efforts to drive wedges between us had failed.  We even got a few things on our list done.

I went home and checked the progress of our kitchen. I recognized that it was going to be gorgeous. I checked the mail. The letters confirming my daughters’ citizenship interviews had arrived.

My husband suggested a shopping trip to pick out new dishes and pots and pans. It had been quite a few days since we had thrown money to the wind. In the store, we actually found dishes that we both really liked.

When we got home, we chatted with our daughters about their impending canoe trip and concert and civics lessons (to prepare for their interviews).

I hung up and felt that the world was a different place.  After a week, no, make that a month, no, make that a year of recurring anguish and frustration, things were just falling into line. The kitchen was taking shape. The citizenship process was becoming clear and comprehensible. The dimmed lights of my professional future had just brightened. The end of the tunnel was now . . . not quite in sight, but the lightness of the walls indicated that there was just one more curve ahead of me and then . . .

Sunshine.

And nothing.

But, sunshine.

 

PS.  A few days have gone by since I wrote the above. The school year is now officially over. The kitchen is now done. Have a look:

 

Places I Used to Inhabit

It is strange to be suddenly confronted with your own unconscious and habitual movements and behaviors. This happens when there is some major change in your accustomed physical environment. For instance, it has almost been three weeks since quitting smoking, yet when I’m writing and get temporarily stuck searching for the right formulation of words or thoughts, my body just stands up all on its own and walks out onto the screen porch.

Now when this happens, there is no ashtray out there. No matches. Nothing to light. So I stand there for a few seconds in a state of confusion wondering: why am I here?

And then there is the kitchen.

For the past two decades, my day began like this: I walked into the kitchen and took a sharp right. All in one place were the things I needed. The coffeemaker, the filters, the coffee, the water, and the compost bin (for yesterday’s grounds). The next ten movements I made were all so habitual that no conscious thought was necessary. And because I keep my thyroid medication on top of the coffee tin, I never forget to take it.

This morning I woke up, went down to the kitchen and took a right. I found myself standing back-to-back with a refrigerator, staring at a blank wall where my coffeemaker used to be, wondering: why am I here?

All that because . . . this is my kitchen now:

And this is my kitchen now:

And this, too,  is my kitchen now:

I forgot to take my thyroid medication for the first time in years this morning. This afternoon, I needed scissors. I walked into the kitchen and headed toward the empty wall where the scissors used to hang. Later I needed a plastic bag. I headed toward a drawer in front of the kitchen window. The frig was in my way. And of course that drawer is no longer there anyway – it is now in the bathroom. It is only a matter of time before I walk into the kitchen and simply drop my empty coffee cup, letting it smash on the floor right below where the sink used to be.

It is going to be like this for about three more weeks.

Once the new kitchen is here, I will have to learn a whole slew of new habitual movements. I have no idea yet where the coffeemaker is going to go in the new arrangement, but I am going to put A LOT of thought into it. Because this kitchen is probably going to be my last one. However it is arranged is going to determine where I go and what I do in the first five minutes of every day from now until . . . my institutionalization.

That is, assuming my institutionalization doesn’t happen sometime in the next three weeks.