A Round Dance

I should probably do something to make up for my last post. During my three weeks in the States, most of the conversation and the ENTIRETY of the news revolved around the antics of the pwesident and his circular firing squad of cronies. It was “All Twump, All the Time”. He eventually wheedled his way into my blog. But now I am home again and after stumbling through two days of jetlag, I am ready to write about something that has nothing to do with American politics – maybe something European and cultured . . . sophisticated . . . snooty, even.

Luckily, it just so happens that I went to the opera yesterday. “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. And not just in any ol’ opera house – but one that had been built outdoors inside a huge stone quarry:

As we took the roundabout walkway that descended into the quarry, the impressive stage slowly came into sight. And when we took our seats, I was happy to see that the ones directly in front of mine were empty for four rows – leaving me a perfect view. The stage itself was at least four times the size of a normal one, and having no ceiling, it allowed for dramatically large objects in the stage design.  The natural rock wall behind it was integrated into the backdrop and light show. The sound system surrounding us would put us deep inside of the music:

 

 

The sun set and the opera began. The sheer enormity of the stage props made the players seem tiny at first – but that might fit well with one theme of the opera – the general smallness of people. They scurried around the stage like insects while huge projected images loomed over them. (Only their singing voices were large enough in dimension to compete.)

For those that don’t know the story (as I myself didn’t until reading up on it during the two hour drive to the quarry), Rigoletto is a court jester serving a womanizing Duke whose most profound statement is that love must be free (and apparently, fleeting). He then proceeds to seduce (ruin) one girl after another with Rigoletto’s help. The jester’s reward is the kick he gets out of ridiculing the girls’ husbands and fathers once the deed has been done. However, when one of these offended men puts a curse on Rigoletto, it begins to haunt him obsessively – to the point where he considers paying to have this father killed. It is a glimpse that somewhere inside him, there might be something like a conscience. Why else would this curse get to him so badly? For one brief moment, he seems to realize that as a person, he is not much better than a hired assassin. He uses his tongue as his sword while aiding and abetting the juvenile, narcissist/playboy in charge, possibly against his own character. I couldn’t help but think of all those rep . . . (nope, no, not going to go there, back to the plot . . .)

Rigoletto’s most human quality is the love he has for his daughter whose existence he has kept a secret from everyone. (You see where this is going now, don’t you?) Oddly enough, he also keeps his real name and what he does for a living a secret from her – as if he asked himself “How could I look my daughter in the eye and say I support this man?” (Oops, darn it! back to the opera.)  Of course, he wouldn’t want his own daughter anywhere near the Duke, much less, god forbid, alone with him.

 In a Shakespearean-style, implausible mix-up, Rigoletto ends up unwittingly helping in the kidnapping of – you guessed it – his own daughter who then becomes the Duke’s next conquest. Enraged, Rigoletto returns to the assassin and this time goes through with the deal – but with a new target: the Duke. When his daughter tells him that she still loves the man, he forces her to watch the Duke go after his next conquest and then sends her away. She sneaks back and sacrifices herself to save the Duke. She manages to stay alive just long enough to be discovered by her father, sing a (fairly long!) aria and apologize, as if it were her own actions and not her father’s that brought all this about. Then she dies.

Things never seem to go well for the female characters in operas.

But that is not quite the end. Rigoletto holds his dead daughter and screams out something about “The Curse!!”  In other words, “look what has been done to me!” rather than “look what I have done!”

Aahhh, 19th Century morality. Gotta love it. Those were the days. So great. Wish we could be (made) so great again . . . (oops, sorry!) . . .

No, I did not think about Twump and his minions all through the opera. In fact I didn’t give them a second thought. They came slinking back today as I wrote this post. Thankfully, last night the music and singing and stagecraft were so wonderful, that they allowed me to suspend the present and shake off my modern feminist and political sensibilities for three straight hours (which went by in a flash!) I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this horrible horrible story.

 

PS. The cool fireworks afterward helped too. You don’t get those in a dumb ol’ opera house.

      

At the Core

 

I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.

So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.

The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall.  Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.

 

To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:

But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:

 

So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.

Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.

While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:

I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.

It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”.  A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):

                  

Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.

All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.

 

We’ll Always Have Pittsburgh

 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume everyone reading this has had a relationship-gone-bad somewhere in his/her past. In the beginning, you seemed to be in complete agreement when it came to world view, passions, dislikes, etc. When other things were getting you down, this person could make you feel great again. Your contact intensified, consumed more and more of your time, and you didn’t notice for a long time that the slow and stealthy cycle of self-destructiveness had begun.

It started with little things – maybe a smug quip that rubbed you the wrong way. You began to notice how they repeated the same words and phrases and stories. You got tired of rants about the unprecedented outrageous-ness of others. Then lying became an issue. You suddenly recognized how they felt superior to – and simultaneously put upon by – the entire world. If you didn’t watch your step, you might just fall out of favor, too. At some point, the last straw dropped and you realized it was time to get out.

That’s where I am now. I’ve made my decision.

I am breaking up with MSNBC.

 

(You thought I was talking about the disillusioned Twump voter, didn’t you? I admit, the description would probably fit . . . )

 

Something snapped in my brain while listening to the coverage of Twump’s rosy garden speech on the Paris climate treaty. The MSNBC commentary dutifully pointed out his relentless string of lies, and yet, it was . . . lacking. I care deeply about this issue and it seemed to me that they cared more deeply about something else . . . exactly what, I am not sure – righteousness? ratings? I started surfing for something more . . . something more real . . . and there he was – my dream man:

You might think I am kidding, but I am not. I listened to this discussion four times and was moved each time: (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/shields-brooks-trumps-climate-pact-consequences/ ).  It seemed to me that, in 12 short minutes, they cut to the core of everything that is wrong with the current administration and the world right now.  And they did it in a serious, honest and heartfelt way – two people coming from different perspectives, in mutual respect, agreeing on essential core truths:

people who think and feel differently from us are not our enemies,

we may disagree on the best method, but helping other people to do better is good, and

there are very, very, minuscule-ly!  few people out there who are truly “out to get us”.

 

When it comes to following political developments, it is time for me to shift gears. I now believe that a couple of hours of PBS each week is all I really want and need.

It is not like I want to cut MSNBC out of my life entirely. A part of me will always love them.  I sincerely hope that we will stay good friends.

 

Heavenly Blast From the Past

 

Shortly after coming to Austria, I began understanding what it meant when a country does not separate church and state. I found certain norms creepy or irritating – like Religion class in schools or the way all the stores shut down at noon on Saturday and didn’t reopen till Monday morning. The worst thing, though, was church taxes – what a concept!

But I later came to see the bright side of this setup – all those funky extra religious holidays like Pentecost or Corpus Christi. I used to joke that every time a saint sneezes, Austrians take a holiday. And if that sneeze happens to be on a Thursday, they just go ahead and take the Friday off too. Today is the start of one of those wonderful long weekends – it’s Ascension. That’s why I finally finished the Gingerbread Man, reinstalled my printer, planted my flowers, prepared my next university course, cooked lunch and am now finally returning to WordPress after a somewhat unintentional break.

Ascension is kind of my favorite, not only because it is the first of three long weekends in rapid succession, but also because it has such a great name in German. This needs a little explaining.

Way back in high school German class, there were a few words that set most of us off – either giggling or blushing, depending on the personality type. One of those was the German word for the number 6. The other was the word Fahrt (meaning “trip” or “drive” or “ride”). With our bad accents, it always came out as “fart”. To make matters worse, Germans like to create a lot of new words by simply adding a pronoun to something else. So . . .

“entrance” is Zufahrt

“driveway” or “onramp” is Einfahrt

“exit” is Ausfahrt

“the way there/back” are Hinfahrt and Rückfahrt

“passage” is Durchfahrt

. . . and there were dozens more.

But the very best one of all was the name of today’s holiday.

 

Happy Christi Himmelfahrt, everyone!

The Lemonade Stand

Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.

Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance?  What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?

In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.

One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.

 

 

      

Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.

 

The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”

 

They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.

“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.

“Sure,” I answered.

And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS.  We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.