Various Trespasses

 

I had this whole other blog post planned. It was going to be a series of (seemingly!!) Random Thoughts Which Occurred to Me While Administering a Three-Plus-One Hour Exam to My One (And Only) Student. I had already planned out how to sneakily take a picture of him (from behind, of course) in the seminar room, poring over his papers, scribbling away, with me thinking “boy oh boy, if you only knew that you have already passed and all of this here is just for those officious, paper-dependent bureaucrats”.  While he was working, I was going to simultaneously read and write – catching up on all the blog peeps I follow in real time while sneaking in various observations from the past week. For instance, that pretty much all of their blogs are better reads than the book I just finished.  (Mr. Wolf’s billion-copy-selling “Fire and Fury” may be great resistance candy, but it is also really poorly written.) I was going to wax pseudo-philosophically on the euphoria one feels post-pain – after a nauseating battle with the flu is over and the four-day headache dissipates. I was going to end the four hours with a gloriously clear conscience from having made amends and achieving a successful fresh start for my Trek*, all while helping a nice young man get one step closer to his dream of studying at the university.

All that was the plan.

Instead, I post this sorry picture with the statement “Forgive me blog friends, for I have . . . trespassed” (the Presbyterian word for “sinned”.) It has been . . . fifty-three years since my first and last confession. While killing an hour at the train station and deciding where to go for my daily bread, I led myself into temptation and delivered myself to evil. As I ate it, I wondered if there was a single food item anywhere at the station that was less healthy or more ecologically and socially damaging per calorie consumed. To make matters even worse, I couldn’t finish my fries so I threw them away. Now, hours later, back at home, sitting here with a big undigested McLump in my stomach (and still somehow hungry), I wonder at how quickly things can change.

My poor (as it turned out, non-)student had the same experience today. He showed up to the exam with a blue envelope ( = registered letter) in his hand – still unopened. It had arrived just under the wire – right before he left for the university; he assumed (and hoped) that it was his admission letter to the program (which he needs to be able to sign up for and take exams). I watched him open it and then stare in confusion. His hands started shaking a bit. “Oh no!” I thought, “He’s been rejected!” I asked if I could look at it and was surprised to see “Admission” written largely at the top. What was the problem? And then I skimmed down to the list of the five exams he had to pass before he could start his regular studies. English was not one of them.

He had no idea how this could have happened! Everyone had told him he would need English! He apologized profusely for my coming all the way to Graz for nothing. We sat and talked for a while till he calmed down. We hatched a plan for how he could deal with this situation.

It was during that conversation that a different mystery got cleared up. My (non-)student told me that he had originally wanted to study Business, but had been rejected for that field and so reapplied with a different major. It turns out, he wasn’t alone. Apparently, every single applicant who wanted to study Business this year was rejected – all by the same professor. When that fact became generally known, an official complaint was lodged, the job of reviewing applications was handed over to a different professor, and all the rejected applicants were contacted and allowed to reapply. All of this happened just last week. It goes a long way in explaining why I had no students this year.

Anyway, instead of giving the written and oral exams for four hours, I headed back to the train station to go home. I wasn’t even that irritated because learning that new information was well worth a trip to Graz. If only I hadn’t blown it by going to McDonald’s!

Once back home, I wondered how I could get back on track . . . how I could repair the damage, repent, restore the Karma, (and hopefully lose the McLump) . . .

I remembered an essay on the topic of McDonalds some student had handed in way back at the start of my university career. I had found it so inane at the time with all its sweepingly prejudicial and empty statements interspersed with pretty phrases (“it goes without saying that . . .”,  “it may well be that . . . “, “at first sight we might believe that . . . but on closer view. . .”). I had it hanging on my bulletin board for years and later it landed in a keepsake box. I actually found the thing. I held it in my hand and thought . . . maybe I could post it (here) on my blog, and confess that, maybe just maybe, this student had a point and I had been unfair.  I read the text again and . . . and . . .

Naaahh. It really is an awful essay. Beyond redemption. A trespass against us that cannot be forgiven.

Incredible as this may seem, it is perfectly true.

Judge for yourself.

 

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Sorry Life Stories

My cleaning lady and I don’t talk a lot. Partly it’s because her German is quite limited, her English is nonexistent, and my Hungarian consists of hello, goodbye and “one coffee please thank you”. Usually when I say something to her, she just smiles, laughs a little and agrees. So we have conversations like this:

“How was your week?”

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh).

Or, today:

“J., you don’t have to do anything in Mitzi’s room today. It’s a disaster zone. Just shut the door and forget about it.”

“Yes, ok, yes.” (Little laugh.)

She then started on the upstairs bathroom while I did the kitchen – the other disaster zone she doesn’t have to deal with. As I was sorting through the vegetable and fruit baskets, removing all the things that were no longer edible, my cleaning lady came in with a huge collection of dirty, crusty dishes and glasses, cups lined in dried cocoa with the spoon cemented to the bottom, a bag full of used tissues, empty plastic bottles and potato chip bags, candy wrappers . . .

“Oh! Are those from Mitzi’s room?  You didn’t have to do that!”

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh)

 

food1Despite my troubles in communicating with my cleaning lady, this morning had no shortage of stories. That is because I decided, as long as I was at it, to rid all the kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator of expired foodstuffs too. In the process I discovered all sorts of new life forms residing in back recesses. Some had grown eyes. Some had grown hair. Some were all shriveled and discolored. Hard things had become flaccid and creamy things had hardened. Juicy things had dried up and once crispy things had become juicy. Some of the foods I simply couldn’t identify anymore. Some were wrapped in tin foil and I just tossed them out uninspected. Some of them had been there so long that they seemed close to achieving mobility or even sentience. And they all had stories to tell.

food2Take these pineapples for example:

Life started out so well for them. They blossomed and thrived somewhere in the Philippines in a region which I am pretty sure was NOT called “Sweet Valley”. They had decent lives until one day a few years ago when the machete showed up. Suddenly they were being rounded up and sent with 1000s of their kind to collection centers in Indonesia. Then the sorting began and these particular ones were not considered attractive or useful enough to be spared and left intact. They were handled roughly, stripped, sliced and diced, doused in acids and sugars, treated with chemicals, forced into metal containers and locked in airtight. Enter Otto Franck of Augsburg, (why is there so often a German in stories like these?), the wholesaler who said he would take them in. Thus began the pineapples’ long trek to a new home on the other side of the planet. After arriving in Europe, they were packed into a truck and dispatched in all directions – these particular ones to a small town in Austria, finally landing on a supermarket shelf. A middle aged man then chanced by, grabbed them and tossed them into a cart. They were destined to become part of a fruit salad – not a bad end for a pineapple, really – but then only half of them actually made it into the bowl. The rest were still stuck in the can, cooling their heels in our fridge. They kept getting shoved farther and farther back until they were completely forgotten. This went on for a long long LONG time. Well, today, they were finally released. On their short trip to the compost bin they saw the sun again (!!) if only for a few fleeting seconds. And then they reached their final resting place. They can now decompose in a mass heap together with thousands of other foodstuffs from all over the globe.

Once again, the sheer amount of (former) food I tossed out today made me feel ashamed. (It’s another reason I always do the kitchen myself instead of asking the cleaning lady to do it.) All of these foods – like my pineapples – probably traveled hundreds or thousands of miles before landing in my kitchen. They were grown, processed, packaged and distributed in a (fossil fuel) energy intensive way. Their various ingredients – like the high fructose corn syrup surrounding my pineapples – probably came from huge, corporate-owned mono-culture fields on land once dotted by now-defunct small farms. Fertilizers and pesticides were used liberally as well as chemical additives – the flavoring from New Jersey and the vitamins from China. Trees were felled to make the paper that the labels and advertisements were printed on. More gas guzzling trucks were used to distribute these. Maybe some of my food’s plastic wrapping ended up in the ocean and suffocated or strangled some poor sea creature.

But the worst part is that the sum total of what I threw away today was probably more than people in other parts of the world eat in an entire week – including some in my neighboring country of Hungary. I found myself thinking about the photo essay “Hungry Planet” by Peter Menzel, showing typically-sized families from countries around the world surrounded by the food they eat in one week. (http://menzelphoto.photoshelter.com/gallery/Hungry-Planet-Family-Food-Portraits/G0000zmgWvU6SiKM/C0000k7JgEHhEq0w ) Here are a few examples to give an impression:

What does it say about the world that the wasted and decomposing foods in my compost heap are more traveled than the average American? That – comparatively – they have impacted the environment more than many an African? That I am one of about 8 million residents in Austria, 7,940, 281 of whom regularly throw away food just like I do?

“Eat your vegetables, C. There are children in Ethiopia who are starving.”

I suppose I could buy all my meat and eggs from near neighbors. I could restrict myself to local, seasonal, organic, fair trade and vegan products. I could say ”No” to fruits from plantations in Spain in winter. I could say “No” to fair trade products from countries farther away than, let’s say, 500 kilometers. I could say “No” to the entire frozen food section in the store. Canned foods too.  I could say “No” to ever eating in a restaurant. I could say “No” to the next trip to the grocery store as long as all my kitchen cupboards are already filled with foodstuffs near or beyond their expiration dates. Or I could say . . .

Our entire food system is a disaster zone. Just shut the door and forget about it.

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh.)