Based on all the videos and memes being bounced around the internet, all the cards and Christmas letters and text messages I have gotten, there seems to be an absolutely universal agreement that the year 2020 was the worst. thing. ever. and can only be despised. “Good Riddance!” is attitude of the whole world. I was on that wavelength, too, beginning my own Christmas New Year`s letter with a note to 2020 that no one will miss it (except maybe that one guy, whom no one will miss either).
But then something happened.
On the very last day of the year, December 31st, 2020, I got some very good news. I’m talking life-changing news. Suddenly, my heart began to soften. I started feeling sorry for the year. I mean, Coronavirus is not 2020’s fault! The pwesident was not 2020’s fault – in fact it was the year we got rid of him! It was time break with the herd and find something nice to say. I added an epilogue to my letter:
As much as you sucked, you WERE a year of spectacular sunsets. I still won’t miss you, but I am thankful that you – in contrast to that other guy – clearly know how to make a beautiful exit.
I am late in sending out my customary blogworld Christmas greetings this year due to an unexpected family emergency. Gingerbread Man (of “My Velveteen Rabbit” fame) had to go to the hospital.
One week beforehand a problem had been discovered and all thoughts of work or Christmas preparations or Covid lockdowns dissipated. The focus turned entirely to health issues.
Last Wednesday, Gingerbread Man arrived at the clinic and was admitted. A whirlwind ensued. Two procedures were done on Thursday and Friday, the doped-up recovery began on Saturday. On Sunday, he was already allowed to go home – with a list of medications and a little less stuffing. He’s a bit blurry about the whole experience but remembers A LOT of needles and that the food there really sucked.
The early release was lucky, because it gave us all enough time to do any neglected preparations and pull off – somewhat contrary to earlier expectations – a wonderful Christmas Eve.
I’m happy to be able to tell you that Gingerbread Man is feeling a little better each day. He spends a lot of his time now in the new recliner with his new electric blanket. Here he is, staring at the Christmas tree lights, basking in nice memories and hopeful feelings for the future.
It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.
While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.
In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:
I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.
So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.
The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.
A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.
It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:
The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.
By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.
It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.
On Monday I woke up and officially began the last week of my summer vacation. More shockingly, I began the final week of my last ever summer vacation! Next time this year, my 39-year teaching career will most likely be over. And if you don’t have work, you don’t have vacation, right? Weird thought.
Of course, I should add here that I am notoriously bad at making predictions, so when I say that I am beginning the last year of my teaching career, you could be forgiven for a tiny bit of skepticism. I am, after all, the person who spent the better part of 2016 telling everyone “there is no Math” that would get Twump to an election victory. I also wrote in early July this year that I had an expanse of lethargic nothingness ahead of me, but now, in retrospect, the summer was full, and it sped by. I had my last week of my cure in Salzburg, followed by an even better cure week at my aunt and uncle’s in Tyrol, followed by a week of golf lessons (the muscle aches from which I am still feeling!) followed by a week of relaxing and hiking in Carinthia. Here is a random sampling of impressions from those days:
Other activities during my final summer vacation included a lot of home projects (most of which came down to “putting shit away”). I did a six-hour braiding session with younger daughter and attended a performance or two of the older one. I supervised the building of blacksmith shop in my yard. I befriended a barking rat (my name for Chihuahuas). I ate two family-sized bags of Cheetos and then briefly considered immigrating to Australia when I read that the Dominos there is giving out free pizzas to women named “Karen”. I monitored the DNC and the RNP (“P” stands for “Pukefest”). I read two and half books and made two and half new friends. I requested my absentee ballot. I did lots of laundry and no ironing. My dog and I together lost 8 pounds.
It’s now Friday, which means I am officially into my last summer vacation weekend before work starts up again on Monday. From here on in, it’s going to be a long string of last times: My last preparation week, getting my last work schedule, my last first day of school, going on my last team-building excursion with the kids, making my last attendance/homework lists and year plans for my four English groups, attending my last “Start Weekend” with all the parents, designing my last chores wheel for my class . . . . And that is all in the coming two weeks. Assuming I resist getting talked into extending my stint, by the end of the year, this list of last times is going to be really long.
While on our daily dog walk, Nice Neighbor Lady told me that her son refuses to celebrate Mother’s Day, saying first that every day should be Mother’s Day and second, that it was a Nazi creation. It’s not, but after that, I didn’t have the heart to tell her how wonderful mine was.
It started early with two new flowers for my garden and then a trip to my sister-in-law to pick up a washing machine (along with a whole bunch of other furnishings) for my daughters’ new apartment. From there we went to a (socially distanced) family gathering where I got to see my mother-in-law for the first time in two months. Since the golf courses have reopened, her life is back in order again. We couldn’t stay long, because my daughter had to get back home for a performance. It was a Mother’s Day Concert being livestreamed from the nearby spa featuring local musicians. I don’t want to brag too much, so I won’t say that she stole the show. Instead, I’ll quote a few of the WhatsApp reactions from friends and my sisters in the States:
“Wow. wow wow wow. She’s killing it!”
“Oh. My. God. So beautiful.”
Right before leaving for the concert, my husband called out to me that my favorite chicken just hatched a new chick. (She actually let the other hens do all the brooding work for 19 days, and then took over for just the last two. Crafty girl!) Right after the concert, my Skype started chiming and I got to spend the next hour with my own mom. And finally, shortly before going to bed, my daughters posted on my Facebook page, including two of my very favorite photos. Here it is – or at least a doctored version with names changed to protect the perps:
What a wonderful day full of momstuff, sisterstuff, daughterstuff, and grandchickendaughterstuff! To spread the joy, here are two songs from my favorite singer:
One yearly ritual of this blog is that I post a silly Fasching picture of myself, thereby erasing any last iota of respect I might still have from this or that reader. And this year I am dragging the husband down with me. It is HIS fault that my costume this year was soccer player. HE was the one to order the cheesy fake tattoo stockings from China. HE was the one that borrowed the jerseys, shorts and socks from a trainer friend. I just followed his lead because, frankly, it was easier than trying to come up with something to beat last year’s Cheesehead.
So now I have restart that long uphill trudge of re-establishing respect within my diminishing readership. Let me start by informing you that I have played a grand total of ONE soccer match in my life. And I have scored a grand total of ONE goal. The way I see it, that gives me a statistically perfect soccer career. It’s how I saw it back then, too. And thereafter I used my statistical perfection as an excuse to get out of ever having to play again.
It’s 12:30 on December 31st and – as tradition dictates – the table is set, the wine is aerating and Barbie stands ready to dance. The frat boys have straggled in one by one and taken their seats. As I type this, they are sampling the first of ten bottles. I have retired to my office to write the last post of 2019 – my 501st in all since starting this blog and my 1st on this new notebook. (A certain computer specialist informed me that one no longer uses the term “laptop”.)
Speaking of which, my transitioning has now entered Phase Five: transfer of photos and videos. (Un-?)fortunately, this required me to first finish up two long-on-the-list standing projects: a photo-book and a Year in Review slideshow for the school. From last year. That second one got done last night . . .
With the notebook taking the honorary place on my desk and the old laptop relegated to an extra table, I sat and listened to it huffing and puffing and wheezing and whining as it struggled to render the slideshow video with its 600+ photos, 8 music tracks and hundreds of transitions and motion effects . It was trying so hard that even the Devil Cat got concerned and went to comfort it. Finally, after three hours, the video was done, copied and secured. Old Laptop had successfully completed its final mission.
You’d think I would feel some relief being able to strike this point off my list of projects, but what I really felt was irritation that such a list exists at all.
It’s now 6:22 pm and the last of the frat boys have just left. As tradition dictates, I will spend the rest of this evening in the usual way, some chauffeuring, some washing out of wine glasses, packing away the Barbie for the next 364 days, later some panicky dog-sitting during the fireworks. In between, I am sending this message out into blogworld that I love my traditions and don’t want them to change.
I went out for dinner with two dear school friends last night and it was the fastest five hours of my life. They had arranged to go to a popular place that takes no reservations so we had to get there by 4:00 pm. As our plans were shaping up in a series of ping ponging WhatsApp messages, all sorts of idioms and cultural references to (mean and skimpy) old ladies popped up that were unfamiliar to me and needed explanation – finally prompting one of my friends to write “You have been gone too long.”
So, Blue Hair picked me up and we drove to the restaurant where Weenius would meet us. We all arrived within a minute of one another, but curiously, two of us spent the first half hour at a table with an empty seat while the third spent it on a bench across from the hostess station three feet away. We needed our cell phones to finally find one another. Another round of allusions to our aging processes ensued.
But at the same time, the rejuvenating magic of old friends started working. Conversation flowed fast and furiously, simply picking up where it left off last time. There was no feeling of “having been gone too long” – in fact, no time had passed at all it seemed. Giggling erupted and years started peeling off. Who is getting old? Not us! We are as immature as we ever were! And blessedly so.
The place was filling up and our consciences told us that we really should be leaving to free up the table for all the waiting customers. So we got our doggie bags and spent ten more minutes figuring out what 94 divided by 3 equals. Then we stiffed the waitress and left. Blue Hair drove off the curb with a clunk as we left the parking lot.
“American trends take about ten years to come to us.”
I heard that statement dozens of times when I first came to Austria. And it struck me as true. It was 1984, but the younger people were still walking around in hippie garb and attitude. Stores were quaint in their lack of variety or marketing pizzazz. No one celebrated Halloween and Christmas was surprisingly uneventful. Trees were not put up till the 24th, they were only lit up once using real candles, and they were gone before New Year’s Eve. No one put up strings of electric lights outside their homes. I’m not even sure they were available in stores. There were Christmas markets, but they were cozy affairs centered more on mulled wine than on trinket or handicraft shopping.
Things have changed.
I noticed this year that when the Halloween merch was removed from stores in early November, it was immediately replaced with chocolate St. Nicks and reindeers and Santas and angels. Then one neighbor after another strung up lights until we were the only house left without them. Santas appeared on rooftops and life-sized crèches populated front yards. Mailboxes were stuffed full with letters from charities.
Clearly, American trends had come to Austria, but I didn’t realize just how fully until I went to City Hall Christmas market on my evening in Vienna.
This was a level of kitsch that even Americans would have trouble matching. Austria had not only caught up, it had surpassed us! This could not stand!
Fast forward to yesterday as I walked the daily route to this Milwaukee neighborhood’s central shopping street. Along the way is a huge house that has been under the process of gorgeous (and expensive!) renovations for the past 10 or so years, yet still seemed uninhabited. I noticed a huge Christmas tree in the front window and, it being only December 12th, I wondered at the owners’ Yuletide enthusiasm. Then I proceeded to walk past the side of the house and noticed a second tree in the next room:
In the third room there was yet another tree:
And in the fourth . . .
And, yes, there was a fifth . . .
Part of me was fascinated and plagued by the question “Who ARE these people?!” But another part was delighted. Take THAT Austria! When it comes to Kitschmas, we are still Number One!
I finished our wreath yesterday, just in time for the First Sunday in Advent celebration – which this year consisted of lighting a candle. My 16 and 18 year old daughters dutifully complimented my work, made 95 seconds of small talk and then retreated back to their rooms.
In earlier years, we would have had a longer ritual including aromatic tea, cookies, the sound of Bing or Dean or Frank softly singing Christmas carols in the background, and a reading of some short, moralistic, Christmas-themed story. That last part, to be honest, was never my daughters’ favorite and might explain their speedy departures now.
So . . . seeing as how I missed telling them a sappy story, I will force one on my blog audience . . .
A week ago, we just had friends visiting and we took them to the Christmas market that had enchanted us so much the first time we were there (when I bought my “alternative” crèche.) While we were there, I unhopefully walked up to the cashier and asked if anyone had found a missing Baby Jesus made of felt about the size of my thumb. I wasn’t expecting much as we traipsed over to the next room. In the corner where my crèche had been displayed there was now a bucket of stuffed sheep and cows. We took a closer look and . . .