Confessions of an Incompetent IT Administrator

It is Friday the 13th the 2nd in the 2020. Somehow, I don’t think those numbers can possibly portend anything good. The first lockdown in this country began on a Friday the 13th in March – a date I will never forget – and lasted into May. Summer was pretty chill but in Fall, signs started popping up that the predicted second wave was coming. After foolishly bragging just two weeks ago on this blog that I was in the only green spot on Austria’s Covid Map, things here immediately exploded, and we are now considered a hotspot. I fully expect that a new lockdown will be decided on today, Friday, November 13th, and that it may very well include the country-wide switch to distance learning for all age groups.

Good thing our Hummingbird School has a crack IT team (me) and a nearly functioning virtual learning platform almost set up with nearly all the kids now registered on it and a teaching team who have agreed to find time to learn how to use it – eventually.

I had been banging on this particular drum – our school’s need to have a functioning learning platform ready in case of closure – since the very beginning of the year. Being generally considered the most computer-savvy member of the team (which, believe me, says nothing good about our collective skills), I suddenly found myself in the unofficial/official role of “IT Designee”. I sighed for a week and then got down to work.

The team agreed to using the free platform provided by the Ministry of Education and the core set of teachers all registered. I learned my way around the program and then wrote up simple step-by-step instructions for the parents to register their kids (a ten-minute activity) and presented it to them at our kick-off weekend. I impressed upon them our need for their cooperation. From the serious nodding in the audience, I figured we would have all the kids signed up by early October.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t realize then:

  1. Most parents don’t read their emails.
  2. Many parents who read their emails don’t understand them.
  3. When parents don’t read or understand an email, they simply delete or forget about it.
  4. Of those who actually reacted to the emails, many had difficulty following simple instructions.
  5. Of those who succeeded in signing their kids up, a significant percentage could not log in again later because:
    • they couldn’t find the website again
    • they had registered themselves instead of their kids
    • they typed in the wrong username
    • they forgot their password

The upshot of my experiences over the past three months as IT Administrator is that I am having serious doubts about the . . . “thoughtfulness” . . . of mankind in general. I continually regather my patience as I individually talk someone through the process, explain to them where their problem lies, or send out the fifth or sixth reminder to someone. I sigh a lot.

In hindsight, I think it would have saved me a lot of time and nerves if I had just registered and signed in all 38 kids myself (although, I am not sure if this would have been possible, technically speaking.) Whatever.

It’s now Saturday the 14th and a press conference is scheduled for 5:00 pm, when government officials will announce yesterday’s decisions. Serious media outlets have already reported that all schools will be closing, but other in-the-know people say it is not true. In any case, that gives me about 9 more hours to get the last two stragglers on board before we (potentially) launch. I should probably drop the patient approach and try some good old-fashioned harassing.

Sigh.

Ugly Chicken Update

As readers will know, I wrote a while back about my slightly deformed and unfeathered chick, Quasi the Second. At the time, I showed the pictures to expert chicken keepers, among whom the general consensus was that this bird would not be long for this world.

But she kept bopping along despite being ostracized and banned from the henhouse. Despite almost drowning in the duck pond. Despite the massive second wave of red fowl mites that had the husband cleaning out the henhouse in a Hazmat suit wielding a blowtorch.

Take a look at her now:

Okay, so not exactly a beautiful swan, but also no longer the world’s ugliest chicken. And more importantly, still hanging in there.

Speaking of loners and survivors, check out the latest “New infections in the past 14 days” map of Austria.

See the little green speck in the bottom right corner of the country? The only district in the entire country with no new infections? That’s where we are.

Our ears are filled with the crashing sounds of second waves all around us, but, apparently, we’re still hanging in there.

The Masque of the Orange Death

(Kur Report – Part 8)

 

My brother’s nickname for Austria is “Clean World”. It’s his way of contrasting what he hears from me about the Covid and political situations here to what he is experiencing in the States. Well, if my home is in Clean World, where I am right now is . . . I don’t know . . . Prospero’s Castle?

As announced in my last posts, I left for my third cure week at the health resort on Wednesday at the crack of dawn. After about 4 hours of travel, I arrived, got my room key and was instructed to isolate there. Twenty minutes later, someone from the Red Cross came to my room and stuck a Q-Tip up my nose. An hour after that, someone bought me a plate of food. Five hours after that, my phone rang. My test was negative. I could leave my room. My cure week had begun.

This place is almost hermetically sealed. Everyone here has been tested, some of them more than once (if they are employees or patients who come from hotspot areas). No one else is allowed in and we have strict rules to follow if we go out. We get our temperatures checked daily before lunch. We have to wear masks outside of our rooms and sanitize our hands when entering and leaving any of the seven therapy areas. Everything imaginable is being done to keep the plague out of this place.

So, I guess it is no wonder that Edgar Allen Poe and his “Masque of the Red Death” keeps infiltrating my thoughts. What are we, if not a bunch of oblivious and merry guests concentrating only on having a pleasant time while a sickness rages outside our doors? Like the rest of the guests here, I considered tuning out the world for a week. But, unfortunately, the CNN breaking news on my TV and my list of political podcasts keep me informed about events outside, and I can’t seem to let them go. Twump’s clearly deteriorating mental state and increasingly demented actions have enabled him to sneak into this Castle of Clean World like an uninvited guest to wreak the same mental havoc here. But, of course, only for me. The rest of the people around me seem to be quite happy and fully enjoying the temporary good life.

I had free time yesterday and spent it in my room watching part of John Lewis’s funeral, including Obama’s powerful eulogy which really moved me. Afterwards, on the way down to the café terrace, I was deeply into thoughts about all the things he had said. Slowly, they got drowned out by the conversation of a group at a nearby table. It was the shallow talk of virtual strangers socializing out of necessity – complaints about the Covid restrictions and tips on how to get around them, a lengthy discussion about whether or not Hansi Hinterseer (an Austrian skier-turned-B-Grade-folk-singer) was gay, a mock feud between an Upper and a Lower Austrian, a debate about which receptionist is the rudest . . . It all struck me as so banal and meaningless. John Lewis is dead! Americans are dying and our democracy is on life support!! The “leader” is insane!

Which brings me back to Poe and another one of his stories. I remember some college professor telling us how Sigmund Freud was a Poe fan and that especially “The Fall of the House of Usher” was inspirational to him. It helped him to develop the theory of the subconscious. The upper floors house conscious, rational minds dealing – however feebly – with the world as it is. The crazy is buried in the basement – a place full of fear, obsession, and the irrationality of animalistic drives. Depending on how you see it, the protagonist either descends into madness or the crazy he tries to keep down resurfaces to destroy him. The whole house collapses in on itself.

Twump dwells in the basement of his mind. Years ago, I decided that he wakes up each morning with one thought in his head: “What dickish thing can I do today?” That has remained true up to and including today. It will be true tomorrow. It will be true on November 4th and on January 20th.

But! she says, with a budding, ever-so-slight sense of hope and change, Americans do seem to be waking up. Where locked doors fail to keep the orange menace from crashing the party and bringing the house down, the locked hands of various resisters just might: young BLM protesters shielded by a wall of moms, protected by leaf-blower dads, guarded by vets. Backing them up are the whistle-blowers, the Bulwark and Lincoln Project, the Squad, the leakers, the media monitors, the experts, the front-line doctors and nurses, the podcasters, the artists, the postal workers, the vote protectors, the voters . . .

Together they may finally pull off the orange one’s masque, revealing for once and for all that underneath, there is absolutely nothing.

 

Things Change

 

There have been some developments in the things I related in previous posts, so I want to update them in a somewhat rambling and random way, starting with:

Remasking

After a lot of speculation and delays, the government here has gone ahead and reinstated the national mask wearing order for stores, banks and post offices. Despite the starting date being set for today (Friday), many people began earlier – as in right away after the announcement, including us. Two days ago, we spent almost 3 hours in IKEA getting our daughters furnishings for their apartment. It was the longest time I have ever spent in a mask. I found it surprisingly suffocating. Then it occurred to me that long before Covid, just being in an IKEA with its massive crowds always made me feel that way, mask or no mask. Anyway, we don’t know the true reason behind or the end date of the current policy, but the general opinion among friends is that the government decided it was necessary to remind the population about how we should be behaving. With things opening up, we had gotten too relaxed about social distancing, etc.

 

Cure Continuation – With Conditions!

Speaking of opening up, the health center I went to for my cure can now start taking patients again. I just got the dates for my third cure week which was cancelled during the lockdown – it begins next Wednesday already. When the confirmation came, there were three extra forms attached about all the Covid restrictions and regulations. I had to sign them (i.e. basically swear to follow the rules) and send them back. I have to arrive there by 10:00 am on the first day in a mask, get a Covid test, and then self-isolate in my room for the rest of the day till the results come in (usually early evening the same day, they say). Masks are to be worn indoors at all times. I am not allowed to go to any other restaurants or cafes in the town. I can’t socialize with anyone who does not live in my household – so that means everyone – and I can’t have visitors. The list of rules goes on and on . . .

It is hard to imagine that this week will be as therapeutic as the first two were. On the other hand, I have been saying that I don’t know a single person who has been tested and now, in just five more days, I will know one person. (I hope they aren’t still sticking swabs way up noses.) I imagine y’all will be hearing my thoughts as I sit in my room alone waiting for the results. It’s a good thing, too, that this will not be the only travels of the summer.

 

Staycation

The onset of summer vacation was delayed this year as the first week included three somewhat obligatory social gatherings with my coworkers during which all the tensions and melodrama and plot twists of the school year were rehashed ad nauseum. So, instead of the usual end-of-the-year, 1-day system crash (traditionally spent on the couch in the company of a box of aspirin, a pukey bowl and the remote control), I went through a prolonged sort of joyless malaise with no travel plans and no energy to come up with ideas about how to fill the seven weeks stretching out ahead of me. I finally booted myself out of it a few days ago, starting with a call to the health center to schedule my cure week. That quickly led to plans to follow it with a visit to my aunt and uncle in Tyrol. After that, there will only be a week at home before taking off for our annual hiking trip in Carinthia. Then there will be just one more week at home before . . . no . . . it can’t be . . . don’t want to even think about it . . . Something seems wrong about the math here. Within a day, the summer went from being a long empty expanse to being all filled up with plans. I’m confused.

 

Clutter Box

I guess it is a good thing I didn’t plan any major projects for the summer. Instead, I dove into one of those little things that has been on the back of my mind for months. Everywhere you look in my house – on every shelf or piece of furniture or windowsill or counter space – there is . . . stuff. A small proportion of the . . . stuff . . . is actually put there for decoration. The vast majority, however, is supposed to be somewhere else, but just got left there by someone in this household. Every so often, I go on a decluttering rampage and begin sweeping all these surfaces clean, sorting all the stuff, returning some of it to where it belongs, throwing some of it away and finding new places to store the rest.

When I am done, there is always about a handful of undefinable things left over. I can’t throw them away. They look like they could be part of something, but who knows what? I imagine some future time when the husband asks me “Have you seen the gizmo for my gadget? It’s a small curvy piece of black plastic with some holes in it and a doohickey on it?” And I, having tossed it out, would have to avoid eye contact while saying, “I have no idea whatsoever what you are talking about! Never in my life have a seen anything remotely like what you are describing!”

So, instead, I throw these thingamajigs in the “Clutter Box”, just in case. I tell myself that one day I will make a piece of modern sculpture out of it all. I will title the finished product “Bob” (and then keep it in a plastic box in the basement storage room).

 

While doing the above, I also managed to somehow declutter my mind. I got rid of or stored away all the little pieces left there by other people during this crazy year. I cleared a path out of malaise and into the enjoyment of summer.

 

Hope for the Future

Not only is the future looking brighter now, it is looking brighter orange! On a whim, I checked my junk food website and was delighted to see my favorite thing in the world is back in stock and ready to be delivered. I pounced. With any luck, they will arrive before I leave for my cure. In the case that all the Covid regulations ruin the week, it would be nice to have a back-up therapy at hand.

 

 

Life Among the Lemmings

 

There have been murmurings lately about masks being required again in the future – but so far only in certain areas  – like at bars in tourist hotspots or in the few communities where there have been local outbreaks. Two of those were traced back to church services – and in one, the congregation apparently not only sang and danced and hugged and kissed, they also all drank out of the same communion goblet. (She says, shaking her head.) So now everyone within a 10- or 20-mile radius is now in quarantine. I assume the Viennese will also have to go back to wearing masks in public spaces, being so densely packed together AND permeated with tourists. But where I am, the lockdowns and mask-wearing and disinfecting are all receding in our memories. People have gone back to regular habits with the exception of cheek-kissing and handshaking. (Replaced by hugging and elbow-bumping, respectively, which, if you ask me, are both improvements.) The only places left where masks are required are pharmacies and public transport.

So, it felt a bit strange last week to have to dig out my mask and put it on while riding the train and then the streetcars in Graz. In both cases, I found it comforting to look around and see all the other passengers wearing one too. There is a certain pressure toward social conformity here that apparently keeps most everyone in line. When the lockdown came, it was estimated that something like 90% or 95% percent of the population complied – or maybe I should say they respected it. I don’t remember hearing about any mask altercations in stores. No one showed up mask-less at the parliament with signs and guns to shout about freedom. There was one sorry, sparsely attended protest, but the people speaking there couldn’t seem to agree on whether masks, vaccines or 5G networks were the biggest threat.

 

I keep wondering what all this says about us. Are we all lemmings following the pack? Are we somehow . . . less free?

Or simply more unified?

I was impressed from the start how the government coalition of Conservatives and Greens took charge and spoke with one voice. Daily press conferences kept the population well and honestly informed while preparing us carefully for the next steps to expect. Experts in every area of communal life (health system, welfare system, school system, public transport and public safety, banking, tourism, and commerce . . .) came up with thoughtful and detailed policies which were constantly updated and adapted. Just to give one example, when the schools closed down and switched to distance learning, my husband was asked by the school board how many and which of his students did not have access to a computer and/or internet at home. There were only two in his school. A few weeks later, packages arrived at their doors with brand new HP laptops inside along with a letter saying they should be returned to the school at the end of the year. I was amazed that someone in the government even thought about these kids, much less arranged for a solution in such an efficient and trusting way. You’d think they would have a thousand other more pressing issues to deal with.

It was the same for me when I had my two months of unemployment. I was dreading the humiliation and bureaucracy, but it turned out that I only needed 10 minutes to fill out a very unobtrusive online form and click “Send”. Three days later, an already complete application for benefits arrived in the mail. I had to fill in three short missing pieces of information (such as my bank account number for the money transfers) and sign it. I mailed it back the same day, postage free. Two months later, I sent a one sentence email informing them that I was employed again. That was the entirety of the “red tape”. Not exactly a socialist nightmare.

 

There was one incident in Graz where I encountered  “free” people. After taking a seat in a streetcar, I looked up and noticed an unmasked couple across from me. They looked familiar. I think they were a part of a loosely organized group who disperse themselves regularly among the various small train stations along my route and then spend the day asking commuters for money. I’ve had (very short) interactions with some of them for years. And so, here in the streetcar, I was not surprised when the man immediately asked me for money. I gave my practiced response of staring him in the eyes silently for six seconds and then turning away. (My alternate reaction in cases when a child is with them is to point at the child and ask why she isn’t in school. Both of these seem to work pretty effectively.) Five minutes later, the ticket checkers showed up. They approached the couple. Did they have tickets? No. Did they have masks? No. (The checker opened his bag, took out two masks and handed them over.) Did they have identification? No. Did they want to buy a ticket now? Yeah, maybe. Did they have money? No. During the entire conversation, the checkers remained calm and polite, even friendly. At that point we had reached the final stop and we all got off. I never found out how the situation resolved itself. But I am 99.9% sure no one ended up on the ground or in handcuffs. I am also sure that I will be passing these same people again in some train station or another next year, and the year after that.

 

With such catastrophic numbers and trends in the US news each day, this seems like such an insignificant little story, so it has taken me a long time to figure out why it has been on my mind. On the one hand, I DO believe that people here in Austria are generally under more pressure to conform. But the streetcar incident also shows a measure of tolerance and accommodation for those who don’t. This is a well-governed place and, especially lately, I’ve been appreciating that fact a whole lot.

 

 

Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Meme

I apologize in advance for the following post.

I realize that everyone is tired of toilet paper memes, but I seriously can’t think of anything else to write about. My only memorable achievement of late was performing a double leg amputation on a penguin.

SO, under the motto “If it makes you laugh, share it!” I just have to show what I spotted in the supermarket yesterday:

Now I guess I could imagine why someone might want their toilet paper to be stylish and elegant (or “ellegant” – they can’t seem to decide), even if it is only used for three seconds and then flushed.

Harder to understand is why person would want it to be romantic and superdurable.

Any theories?

 

Finally, in my defense, I‘ll add that I think he will like these much better:

 

Reopening – Part Two

(This might be a long one. As Austria is one of the earliest experimenters in reopening schools, I thought it might be of interest to people in places who haven’t reached this point yet. So, I’ve decided to go into pretty much detail about our experiences, even if our school is a quirky little private and alternative one (where the parents have far too much say!) and therefore, not exactly representative. One thing I can say for sure is that the situation in the husband’s high school is running far more smoothly and that he or his teachers don’t have to put up with a fraction of the crap we do . . . )

 

As I wrote in my last post, my teaching team and I worked all last week to prepare the school for reopening on Monday. We rearranged all the classrooms and tried to meet every requirement set by the government to minimize risk and maximize social distancing. We prepared the kids for the changes and the strangeness that would confront them on their first day back. We informed the parents about every change, every measure we had to take, and we asked them for their support. We encouraged them to contact us directly if they had any questions or concerns. Then came the final weekend before the reopening.

 

Saturday

In evening, 36 hours before the first child would arrive at the school, we get this email – addressed to everyone, meaning all the teachers and all the parents(!):

I felt an urgent need to reply and immediately composed an email that I knew I would never send. Once again, my fingers at the keyboard were sputtering and stammering. Here is what they came up with:

Of course, I didn’t send it. But getting the words out calmed me down enough to get a good night’s sleep.

 

Sunday

I wake up and the first thing I see is a response to the email above from the speaker of the parents’ organization. Her main point is that we have had bad experiences in the past with email discussions and that this mother can always – and should have – contacted the teaching team first. Her words thankfully ward off any further explosion of “Reply all” responses.

Later in the day, my boss forwards an email from a second family announcing that their two children would not be returning to the school. They wanted their kids to remember the place in a positive way and not be confronted with the fear and hysteria that apparently reign now.

That email is followed by another one saying two more kids would be leaving the school at the end of the year. This family – like the one above – had stopped paying the fees way back in March and would continue not doing so. But the kids were going to be there for the reopening the next day. “How can this be?” I wondered. (I have since found out that there at least three other families doing the same, i.e. not paying, yet still sending their kids or expecting distance instruction to continue.) My nervousness about the coming day increased. If the kids behaved anything like their parents, it was going to be a tense and tough one.

Then a third email arrived. A mother wanted to give me a little joy and sent a picture of her son in front of the computer at home. There on the screen was me, with a goofy expression and gesticulating weirdly. It made me smile.

 

Monday (– Reopening Day)

7:30 am. My job was to stand outside and greet the kids as they got off the buses or out of their parents’ cars and to make sure they knew the drill. (Go through the right entrance, shoes off, hands washed, on to the classroom – and there you can take off the mask.) It turned out to be easy. The bus kids all had masks on already and the car kids put them on unprompted as they neared the school. All I had to say after “Good morning!” was “Everything clear? Do you know what to do?” and they all said yes. They were so cool! Not one of them seemed embarrassed, fearful or resistant. They just took it in stride. You could tell how happy they were to be back and to see one another again. These were the older kids in the school (the younger ones would start on Wednesday) and apparently, they did not share all of their parents’ views. Or at least that was how it seemed at the start. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

Halfway through these arrivals, a mother walked up to a foot away from me, mask-less, and handed me a box of disinfectant and masks. She was a doctor, too. I asked for the bill to reimburse her and she said, no, she was donating the stuff. Then she turned to me and said nervously: “You aren’t really going along with all this nonsense, are you?” She went off on a tirade about how dangerous mask wearing was and pulled out a form to show me. When signed by a doctor, it freed her son from having to wear one. She began filling it out. Meanwhile, I saw her son pull a mask out of his back pocket and put it on just before entering the school. I asked the mother to wait a sec and called for reinforcements. A second teacher and I together made it clear to Dr. Mom that we were indeed following the required guidelines but added that the amount of time her son would be wearing a mask could be measured in minutes. She changed her tune and said that the school part was okay, it was the bus ride she was worried about. Luckily, we don’t have any influence over those policies and could dodge this particular bullet.

After this one jag, the rest of the day jigged remarkably well. We had great talks with the kids and then began the lessons. I’ve never seen them so attentive, receptive and, simply put, happy to be taught. Some of them handed in reams of worksheets, posters and essays; others sheepishly confessed to having done almost nothing in the 9 weeks of the closing. In each case, it was entirely predictable. We had already gotten a good idea about which parents were on top of things and which were helpless when it came to home-schooling. We had been supplying the kids with a steady flow of inputs and assignments, but mostly through their parents’ email. I estimate that in about a third of the households, the information or materials never reached the child. And in a few cases, I assume this was intentional. In order to keep up the pretense that the teaching team was not providing a service and therefore school fees did not have to be paid, all of these efforts on our part to reach out to and help their children had to be ignored.

As far as the hygiene measures were concerned, the kids cooperated with aplomb the whole day. Once or twice we hit a snag and had to pull out the one-meter stick to refresh their memories about what that distance is. In general, though, they kept each other in line. Near the end of the day, I asked one group how they felt about it, how it went. I got this reply:

“I didn’t expect at all that this day would be so much fun!”

As the last school bus departed and we teachers were alone again, we all agreed that the day could hardly have gone any better. Despite all the trouble from some parents, the kids were totally cool and impressive. Then the phone rang. It was a notoriously nervous mother complaining that, from what her son told her, we weren’t enforcing the social distancing enough. Another boy had touched his face . . .

 

Tuesday – Day Two

I could tell in the morning that some kids were already getting a bit too relaxed about the new policies and we had to go through some of them again. But otherwise it was a day of successful teaching and absorbing. During recess, two of my oldest girls actually started asking me questions about English tenses and then requested extra homework in them. This is my ninth year in the school and that has never happened before! All four of my groups seemed almost excited to get their homework assignments. They all would go home with a clear plan about their work not only for the rest of the week, but for the remainder of the year (each group will only have five more lessons). And finally, the one girl being kept home by her parents sent me a (secret) message through one of her classmates. I returned it with an invitation for her to show up at our English chat over the internet on Friday.

There was only one jag.

I was sitting with my First Year group – just three kids all about 10 years old – on a carpet and talking about their assignment for next week. Right now we are learning to use “doesn’t” and “don’t” so I showed them a poster I made years back with a different group and asked them to do the same. They should find pictures in old newspapers, magazines or ads of things they like or don’t like, cut them out, paste them and then write the English words. One of them pointed to the picture of Barack Obama and asked about it. I said he was the former president, which they didn’t really understand, and yet they started talking excitedly all at the same time. It was when one of them said, “That’s all not true!” that I started listening more carefully. The child went on. “The media are paid to say bad things about him . . . the whole thing was started by Bill Gates . . . He’s not a bad man or a racist – he built the wall to protect Mexican children from human organ traffickers . . .”

There was no way I was going to get into a political discussion with a student, and especially not a 10-year-old one. I wouldn’t have been able to in any case because I was so dumbfounded. Where does such a young kid get ideas like that??!! Please god, let it not be his parents!

(This story is not over, and I will surely be returning to it in a future post. But first, I need to consult my team to figure out what, if anything, I should do about this.)

 

So, that was our start in the new normal.

 

I’ve spent all day rethinking these past events – not just the reopening, but everything all the way back to that first rushed and panicky teleconference about closing the school down completely and immediately. The idea was to fire the entire teaching team, stop school fees, and yet, somehow, magically, keep all the kids enrolled and say they completed the school year. We managed to stave that off, but at a pretty hefty psychological and financial cost to the teaching team.

My own feelings toward the school and my future there have been changed too. In the past I had always kept a distance between me and the parents, but Corona and home-schooling made that impossible. I got dragged into the middle of the organization’s multiple crises and then had a crash course in history behind all of the parents’ idiosyncrasies. I began to mentally sort them into groups: the Seriously Supportives, the Hysterical Hyperventilators, the Squawkers, the Stay out of the Frays, the Hopelessly Helpless, and the Silent But Deadlies. After Day Two (and the revelation of a Ten-Year-Old Twumpist), I added a new group: the Conspiracy Theorists.

As might be obvious by this uncharacteristically cynical description, with some notable exceptions, I no longer trust the parents. After years of listening to yapping about solidarity and the bonds that hold us together and commitment and obligation and collective responsibility, the crisis made it crystal clear for which people this was just blah blah all along. When the road of solidarity hit the rubber of their pocketbooks, they quickly switched to personal agendas. A lot of these people are either going or gone now. But not all of them.

The question is if I should go too. Technically, I am still unemployed and could walk away, especially if the crisis management team reneges on their promise to fully reinstate the entire teaching team 10 days from now. On the “Stay” side of the equation is the team itself. We have stuck together in a truly remarkable way and we have gotten closer through this whole ordeal. I think they are fabulous people and, past conflicts aside, working with them has been a great enrichment of my life.

And then, of course, most of all, there are the kids.

 

Empty Nests

My four-week stint (or eight, depending on how you look at it) of experiencing unemployment has come to an end. I just had my first day back at work. The Hummingbird School has survived its own initial incompetence in crisis management, and starting Monday, (most of) the kids will be coming back. To comply with all the requirements set by the government and school board, we had to prepare a whole new physical environment in the classrooms – new nests, so to speak. Gone are the couches for lounging and the big carpets where we sat for circle discussions. Gone are the balls to play sports with during the recess. Gone are all the chairs in the small kitchen. Gone are the Montessori materials that get passed from hand to hand or are not conducive to being disinfected. Gone are the glasses and pitchers of water in the classrooms. Gone are the computer stations for common use. Gone are the musical instruments and board games. Instead, the room is filled with socially distanced, individual desks where the students will sit for most of the morning. In the front of the class there is a space for me to stay put and – for the first time in my career – teach lecture-style to a captive audience.

We’ve divided the students into 4 groups of roughly 10 kids apiece. Two of the four will come each day on an alternating schedule and each group will have it`s own entrance into the school. The ones who will be filling this empty classroom will disembark from their school buses in masks, enter the building, and immediately wash their hands before going to the classroom. They will take a seat and only then remove the mask.

I confess that I feel uneasy in more ways than one about these first steps into the new normal. While planning with my team members, we talked about whether it was a good idea to assign yet another text about their experiences in the lockdown and distance learning. I suggested that the kids reread the reports they handed in near the start and then write about what changed over time. In my case, I worried about feeling confined at first. Now at the end, I find I don’t really like the idea of leaving the house if I don’t absolutely have to.

I wonder if this feeling is normal. Clearly, I have had it easy. Between my spacious house and big garden, my family situation and hermit genes, it’s not like it has been hell. I’ve honestly enjoyed having my whole family around me, not to mention so much time that I stopped monitoring its passing. (“What day is it today?”) I could have continued on like this indefinitely.

But this is not where we are at here in Austria, so I guess it is time for me to come out of my hiding place. The rest of my household is doing so too (if somewhat more eagerly than me).

Whereas the school nest shown above is about to be filled up, my home one is emptying out. Last week, our refugee son moved to another village to be near his brother. The plan is for him to transfer to a school in Graz for his last year. (There is a long story behind these decisions that I won’t get into here. I will only say that I hope he will be happier and more productive with this new living situation.) Yesterday, my elder daughter moved back to her apartment in Graz after two months with us. She took my daily concerts with her. That leaves just one – my youngest daughter – who will be taking her graduation exams starting a week from now. Her original plan for a work/travel gap year got nixed by Corona, so she will be starting university in the fall and, of course, moving into the apartment with her sister.

It was while listening to a conversation between the daughters about decorating the place and the timing of Lily’s move, that the realization finally washed over me. They were talking July – or August at the latest. “Wait!” I thought, “It’s almost June already!” Too months from now, it will be just me and the husband and a whole lot of silence.

Somehow I thought “reopening” would feel different.

 

Don’t Treadle On Me

 

I think it is important that the world knows something. I own one of these now:

It is called a treadle hammer (or so google tells me) and the husband surreptitiously acquired it yesterday while professing to be out on a foray for bear’s garlic with our neighbor. I wondered briefly why they needed his horse trailer for this excursion. Now I know. When they got back, the husband sheepishly confessed the truth and then showed me our new possession. I stared at the thing and in that moment, it finally dawned on me: I am married to a serial hobbyist.

This realization really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. While organizing the basement storerooms last month, most of the work involved schlepping all of the husband’s (former) hobby paraphernalia from one place to another. Evidential remnants of his ever-shifting interests are everywhere in this house: the grape press and still acquired during his wine- and schnapps-making days, the kayaks and windsurfing sail and parachute left over from his various flirtations with extreme sports, shelves and shelves full of books on the perfect golf swing, cicada fish aquariums, woodworking, knife-making, bread baking, photography, mineral collecting, magic tricks, gardening, Asian cooking, etc. etc. etc. There is a self-made meat smoker on our front porch, a collection of old post-WWII bicycles under our back porch, a pile of Vespa parts in the basement along with enough fishing tackle and rods to equip an entire Boy Scout troop. I could go on . . .

But back to the treadle hammer. This new acquisition resulted from the husband’s latest interest, which I foolishly encouraged by gifting him a weekend seminar in blacksmithing where he made his first knife. He has been designing and building his own forge for the past few weeks, and now, with his new machine, he is planning where in our garden to set up shop. I assume there is an anvil somewhere in my future, too. (Sigh.)

After inspecting the machine, I went back to my laptop and was immediately confronted by this image, followed by a second sudden realization:

They’ve done it. I had begun to doubt the existence of the proverbial “rock bottom” (there seemed to be an unending supply of new lows), but these Twumpian Tea-Party-Offshoot protesters have finally managed to hit it.

 

If it were possible for fingers on a keyboard to sputter and stammer, mine would be doing it as I struggle to express my utter disgust. Is this woman ignorant of the Nazi sadism that led to these words being cast in wrought iron and hung over the entrances to concentration camps? Or worse, is she aware of that brutal history and nevertheless displaying her “clever” twisted word play and American flag-muzzle for the world to see? Either option is shameful.

Unfortunately, her stupid cardboard sign and my husband’s new toy are now inextricably connected in my brain. There is really no reason for it other than the timing of my seeing them. Or maybe it’s the similarity of the words tread and treadle, the first of which was on the Gadsden flags that Tea Party Old waved around.

One thing is clear, though. This woman and her compatriots are in dire need of a new hobby.

 

Surprise

 

The husband’s birthday was one of the minor challenges I have had to face during the past six weeks of lockdown. The first thoroughly unoriginal idea was to have a family picnic. But then I saw a video of some couple in the States who held a drive-by wedding and an idea was born . . . (or maybe I should say “co-opted”. . .):

                                (anonymized for the blog)

 

Of course, before I could send this out, a lot of prep work had to be done. The husband is very aware of his role model responsibility and has been strictly following the social distancing rules. On the other hand, things are slowly opening up here – stores, hairdressers, mechanics, building sites, etc. A week from now, the kids will start returning to schools. I made some calls to certain friends and co-workers to pitch the idea of this party and got nothing but enthusiastic responses. Every one of them had also been isolating for six weeks, seeing one another only through screens the entire time. So, I figured I would go for it.

Turns out the hubby`s friends and teachers are a spectacular bunch. Secret WhatsApp groups arose where they worked out the timing among themselves to make sure no crowd would form, everyone agreeing to leave as soon as the next guest showed up. (In true Austrian form, they expressed less worry about any health risks than “what the neighbors would think”!) I didn’t have to organize a thing on that end – they did it all on their own. And none of them spilled the beans.

Friday, 1:45 pm, the husband arrived home from work as ordered (only 15 minutes late). We sang a quick “Happy Birthday” and sat down to lunch under the decorated carport. The husband expressed his wish for a long family hike in the afternoon and we all insincerely said “Sure! That’s a great idea!” (heh, heh.) Ten minutes later the first car drove past and parked nearby. As the first two guests walked toward us, we quickly rolled out and set up the self-service bar, complete with hand-sanitizer station. My last worries subsided when I saw the husband’s laughing reaction and how happy was. A steady stream of very cool people made sure that he stayed that way for the entire time.