The South African Gardener

 

Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.

Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.

So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:

According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. http://theconversation.com/you-say-morals-i-say-ethics-whats-the-difference-30913

 

Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.

I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.

This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.

So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.

But I really really wanted to see how it ended.

So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’

‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but the fact that everyone does something doesn’t make it okay. Saying ‘Everyone does it’ is basically the antithesis of having ethics.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’

 

At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing.  (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)

 

In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.

There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!

One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.

‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.

I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.

Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’  Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.

And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.

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*(And, yes, you read right. Austrian students have Religion as one of their school subjects. If you want to hear my thoughts on that disturbing reality, you can read ‘Heathen Talk’ or ‘Scene of the Crime’.)

Thawing

 

As I have related over the past two years, my one-sidedly antagonistic relationship with a certain neighbor has been slowly warming. We now regularly have short and shallow chats as I pass her house on my daily dog walks. A while back she suggested that we allow our ducks to roam more freely. She wouldn’t mind at all if they waddled down to her yard to eat some slugs. Last week she offered me a peach.

Yesterday, however, she had a particular concern to discuss with me. A complaint, really . . When my husband came home later in the day, I told him about the conversation

‘She said we should kill our rooster and eat him.’

 

To backtrack a minute, we have discussing this exact topic for a while now. Whereas I was thinking along the lines of re-homing the rooster like we did last time, the husband was for a more final solution. I found that sort of sad. This rooster had once been part of a happy Band of Brothers and by sheer dumb luck became the sole survivor (two of his brothers have long since been digested, the third one landed in our freezer). Unfortunately, he made a fatal mistake when deciding to start his days of loud crowing at 4:30 am. Now his time was up.

 

I thought that by telling the husband about my conversation with Mean Neighbor Lady he might change his mind. He didn’t. In fact, it seemed to make him more determined. He told me later that he was going to do the deed himself. I asked him how and he explained. I asked him if he was going to use an axe and he said, no, probably the big butcher knife he had gotten from his brother.

 

We sat in silence for a time and I contemplated his burgeoning collection of knives and his predilection for reading grotesque psycho killer thrillers.

‘You know,’ I said, ‘they say one thing all mass murderers have in common is that they killed small animals in their youths.’

‘I killed mice when I was young,’ he responded. ‘Of course with traps.’

‘You didn’t enjoy it though . . . or . . . did you?’

He didn’t respond.

I thought about what we were going to do once the animal was dead. He had said earlier that he would probably just bury it because it was too old to cook. I sighed.

‘I guess we will have to eat him. Otherwise it is just murder.’

 

The husband is now sitting out on the porch in his farmer overalls and watching YouTube videos about how to properly slaughter and dress a chicken. And I have to go clean out and reorganize the freezer to make room for a second rooster. The whole time I will be muttering about Mean Neighbor Lady and how she is to blame for setting this whole unfortunate series of events in motion.

Yesterday, my life had only one old bird in need of thawing. Soon there will be four.

 

 

Mushroom Crowd

 

It’s become something of a tradition that we and seven other families spend a few days in mountain cabins in a place called Klippitztörl. A little googlie told me that name comes from the Slovenian word hlipica which means ʺwindy areaˮ and the Austrian word Törl which is ʺa steep rocky narrowing of valleys and pass routes across a range of mountainsˮ. You’d think that what would most excite the crowd would be the beautiful landscapes or the exhilaration of reaching rocky peaks after a long hike, but it quickly became clear that it was something else. My first clue was that everyone seemed to be hoping for rain. My second clue was how my fellow wanderers kept their eyes peeled on the ground around their feet or to the left and right of the paths. It was fungus they were after.

On Day One, I only halfheartedly joined in the fungus hunt, occasionally glancing here or there, hoping one would jump out in front of me. After two hours of hiking, here was my paltry contribution. Three tiny chanterelles:

Day Two went much better. Not only did I nab a porcini, but it was probably the biggest one found yet. And it is not like my husband helped me. Like by saying ʺC., come here . . . you might want to look over in that direction . . . no, a bit to your left . . . no, your other left . . . maybe look by the tree there . . . now right by your foot . . . watch out! Don’t step on it! . . . Yeaayy!!! Now that’s a nice mushroom! Good job!ˮ No, it was not like that at all. But he did let me in on an old fisherman’s trick when we took the picture. He told me to hold the mushroom way out in front of me and that would make it look bigger. See for yourself.

On our way home from our hike on Day Three – part of which I spent at a lodge reading while the others went all the way up to the top – we took one of the husband’s infamous ʺshortcutsˮ. After wandering around for an extra hour trying to find our way back to the original route, we chanced upon the chanterelle homeworld. It became hard NOT to find one. Believe me, I tried.

 

As you might guess, the grand finale / evening meal of our last day was a gorgeous mushroom goulash. Cooking was a group effort directed by my husband with his famous recipe.  Here it is, step by step, just in case anyone out there wants to try this. As they say in Austria – Mahlzeit!

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Batshit Crazy

Greetings from an Oasis of Sanity!  Also known as my sister’s house. This year I flew to the States ahead of my husband and daughters so that I could spend more time with my American family. I told people that I was going earlier so that my sister could give me some intensive therapy – a small joke, but like most humor, there was a bit of truth in there. As I wrote to her before I came: “I’m doing fine and so are (nuclear family members), but it seems to me everyone else in the world is batshit crazy”. She wrote back “I feel the same way.” (By the way, “batshit crazy” is not a term I would normally use, but I have a theory about why those words popped out of my mouth . . . )

It is Day Five in the Oasis now and healing processes are well underway. It turned out that for every story I told her from the last year – work conflicts, personal crises, relationship catastrophes, etc., she had a similar story from her experience or her various circles to relate. It seemed like an abnormally large number of our people were struggling with some serious problem. We kept wondering if something was generally wrong with the world.

And of course we laid a lot of the blame on the orange Occupant and the universal malaise in the country, thanks to his incessant trolling. We wondered when he would finally hit rock bottom; we considered the possibility that there is no bottom. We differed a bit in our theories on “what is wrong with him?!” and whether or not he is getting worse. Call me naïve, but I remain hopeful. I believe the arc of his mental decline is long, but it bends towards hospice.

These discussions happened during meals and long walks, on drives and on the porch, over coffee and while crocheting my newest project. Stitch by stitch, the world came to seem more manageable. My sister watched the progress as the form took shape, as it became an animal and then a metaphor. She asked me (in a sort of hopeful voice) what I was going to do with it when I was done.

As soon as the last loose thread was weaved in, I gave it to her for keeps:

 

Day Ten Thousand, Nine Hundred and Fifty-Eight

About thirty-two years ago I was contemplating getting married, so I consulted “the bible”, and in particular, Chapters 8 and 10. After that, I insisted on adapting our wedding vows to “I promise to love, honor, cherish, and occasionally play Scrabble with you for as long as we both shall live.”

It turned out that “occasionally” meant once every quarter of a century. So it was only five years ago that I discovered, to my horror, that my husband cheats at Scrabble. (Or do you think that “Jeanhose” and “Krux” are words?) Thank goodness I won the game anyway. Two points less and I could be divorcée right now.

 

As it is, it’s my 30th wedding anniversary today, and sort of like last year, I spent most of it chauffeuring kids around, obeying the commands of my cleaning lady, and doing load after load of laundry. It’s now about 7:00 pm and I am all alone for the evening – unless of course my adopted refugee son pops in for some food. Daughter 1 flitted in from her trip to Malta and took off two hours later to spend her first night in her new apartment in Graz. Daughter 2 is at a concert in Vienna, with friends and strict instructions to send me a text message every two or three hours.

And the husband is off fishing in Sweden again.

However . . .

Being the person he is, he made sure that a surprise appeared in the kitchen this morning. I might just be the only wife in the world who un-ironically thinks a bag of Cheetos is the best anniversary present ever! (The fountain pen was nice too.)  But wait, there’s more! A half hour later my cell phone chimed.

Check out what my husband calls “our Weddingfish”:

 

I’m starting to think this guy might be a keeper.

 

Die Dicke Oachn

All sorts of little milestones and round numbers have been reminding me lately of time passing. My thirtieth anniversary is in less than three days. My sixtieth birthday and retirement(!) are in less than three years. My daughter graduating from high school made me feel – among other things – well, . . . . old. And what was the final diagnosis of my joint troubles of late? Apparently, I am just aging.

I have also now officially lived in this house on a hill outside of Loopyville for thirty years – since 1989 – so for more than half of my life.  In all that time, whenever we drove somewhere northward (and that was literally hundreds of times), our route took us through a little village and past a sign with an arrow and the words “Europe’s Oldest Oak Tree”. We never once turned off to look at it. That is, until a month ago, when the husband and I were returning home all refreshed and relaxed from our spa weekend. On a whim, we veered off toward the oak.

 

I can say with 100% certainty that it is the most un-touristy tourist attraction you will ever experience. It’s just a tree. In a field. With one little information sign. From that we learned that the tree was between 1000 and 1200 years old along with its height and diameter.

 

We also read that this tree had briefly made international news. After being struck by lightning in the 1970s, someone tried to save it by pouring concrete into the trunk. But that cure turned out to be more deadly than the original injury. In 1989 (the same year I was moving furniture and all my earthly possessions into my new home in a nearby village), a massive rescue attempt was made to remove the concrete and restore the tree’s natural drainage. And it was a success. Thirty years later, the oak is clearly thriving.

I walked around the tree, peered up into it, felt the old bark and thought about everything it had lived through. The ground beneath it had been ruled by the Magyars, the Romans, the Babenbergs, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and the Freedom Party. It had survived Turkish invasions, two World Wars, acid rain, a lightning strike, Chernobyl, tourists with pocket knives and being called fat by the locals (“die dicke Oachn”, which means “the fat oak”). It had scars and missing limbs, but it was still going strong. It was clearly planning on sticking around for a while yet.

While I was contemplating all this, the husband took this picture – which I just love. Maybe because I look so young!