Resurfacing

 

It seems I have chosen Mother’s Day (or Mother’s Day has chosen for me) to be the day I return to blogging. It is kind of fitting – because it is mostly due to my mom and my mother-in-law that my life energy is coming back after a long period of hibernation and lethargy. Firstly, Mom and I exchanged old-fashioned email letters this week and caught up, making me suddenly acutely aware of how much I have missed communicating with her. It energized me just seeing her name in my Inbox. Thanks, Mom.

Then my mother-in-law invited all her kids plus spouses to the opera in Vienna on Friday, inspiring my husband to turn the occasion into a longer weekend stay. Despite one spell of bad luck (a crazy accident that will be covered in an upcoming blog post) it did me a world of good to leave the home village. Once again I became acutely aware of just how long it has been since my last getaway. Sometimes you simply have to put physical distance – kilometers or miles – between yourself and your daily worries and ruts in order to clear your head. That is what our two days in Vienna did for me. Thanks, Omili.

 

A few hours after getting home, I went to mini-seminar on wild herbs that my next-door neighbor had organized. A specialist walked with us around our neighboring field – the same route I take with my dog every day – pointing out various wild plants and flowers. She told us their medicinal powers, which parts were useful or edible (root, leaf, or blossom), and how to prepare foods or tea or creams with them. We gathered some, went back to the house and chopped them up. We mixed them into sheep’s cream cheese and yogurt. We spread it on fresh-baked bread. It was delicious.

That was yesterday. Today I wrote down all the (German) names of the plants that I could remember. Then I grabbed a basket and my dog to take my usual walk – but this time I noticed all the different wild plants I passed. I collected some again, repeating all the names I could remember. When I got home I laid them out on paper to create photographic cheat sheets in case I forgot any of it. And then it struck me . . . I could only translate two (!) of these 15 or 20 words into English. If I had been asked to name any of these plants two days ago, all of them would have been called either “weed” or “wildflower” –  i.e. one of the only two words in my English vocabulary for small green stuff that grows in fields.

I went to my laptop and fired up the google. I started typing these German names into the translator. “Yarrow”? What is that? I had never heard that word before! And if I had had to guess, I would have said it was a part of a boat. “Ribwort”? “Plantain”? I would not have recognized these as members of the English language. “Sorrel”? Isn’t that a breed of horse? “Avens”? I think that is a Norse goddess. “Ash weed”? “Vetch”? “Campanula”? Not a single bell was rung in my head by any of these words. And the final insult? – the one plant I thought I could name – the stinging thistle – turned out to be a “nettle”.

Now, I have never claimed to be Nature Girl, but this all struck me as fairly bizarre and pathetic.  Ostensibly, I have been passing these plants twice a day for thirty years without them ever having caught my attention or interest. Coincidentally, I have been powering through menopausal maladies for half a decade while about 5 different plants growing between my front door and my mailbox have been known to help ease these discomforts . . . How did all this knowledge escape me? How is it that I had almost no words to name the things I see around me every day?

Yarrow, ribwort, plantain, sorrel, avens, ash weed, vetch, campanula, nettle, thistle.

 

I assume I will continue to walk my dog around the cornfield at least once a day – this is one of my routines that I would never consider a “rut”. But from now on, I also assume I will not be plodding along obliviously, with my sights turned inward, circling around obsessively in the dark recesses of my brain. No, I will be looking at what is outside and around me, identifying green things and appreciating their existence. And I know they exist because I now have names for them.  The path of my daily dog walk has been resurfaced.

I think I’ve been resurfaced too.

Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Omili.

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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.

 

Dam Cracked

 

Not to diminish the insult or pain caused by Confederate statues, but it strikes me that discussions around them take our attention away from the true horror of Charlottesville. There were Nazi’s and KKK people marching proudly and openly in front of live cameras!  With guns and torches. Quoting first Hitler and then Donald Trump. In an American city.

Take a moment and really consider that.

It demands a response from every thinking person with a conscience. But what can possibly be written that hasn’t been said already by 1000 talking heads and one or two Republican senators?

As my subconscious gnawed on these recent events, a childhood story popped into my head. The one about the little boy who plugs a hole in a dike with his finger and saves the town (or was it the whole country?) I guess I thought of this story because it was somehow the metaphorical opposite of what I want to see happen.

In my three weeks in the States, I detected changes in the vocabulary people used to discuss the latest daily Twump farce. Way back during the campaign we had heard tentative expressions about “false statements”, “untruths”, “misrepresentations” and “distortions” – now people were saying straight out “he lied again”. An earlier “unprecedented outrage” was now yet another “idiotic” stunt. Words like “narcissist”, “pathological”, “obsession”, “unhinged”, etc. were now being thrown around with impunity. Newscasters began to smirk when saying the words “The president tweeted today that . . . .”  and no one talked about his brilliance in business or deal making anymore. And yet, everyone still danced on tiptoes around two topics. The first was his mental state. The second was fascism. Any remark comparing Trump’s playbook to that of historical fascist regimes was immediately pronounced “out of bounds”.

Still, it seemed to me that the vocabulary of dissent was growing in volume and intensity. I discussed this with my sister many times to make sure it was not just wishful thinking or me hearing what I wanted to hear. I was sure this drip drip had turned into a trickle at least. I wondered what it would take to turn this dribble into a stream and then, finally, maybe a torrent. What would make the dam break? Access Hollywood didn’t do it. Nor did the Comey firing. None of his many nasty attacks got his party members running, nor did the fact that he lied five times a day on average since taking office. Could Charlottesville be the thing? – the one that finally could not be simply waited out? When an important senator openly questioned the pwesident’s mental fitness for office and CNN started debating the question the next day, I thought this might really be it. The three words “on many sides” would open the flood gates. I braced myself and . . .

dribble . . . dribble . . . dribble . . .

I should have known that the senator’s words would not equate with metaphorically unplugging the hole in the dike. (His name was “Corker”. It was a sign.)

I googled the story anyway (search terms: boy finger dike) and discovered a lot of confusion. No one seems to know the origins of the story, but it was made famous by an American woman in the 19th century when she included it in her book about life in Holland: “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates”. This woman had never been to Holland when she wrote it and apparently most Dutch people were not and are not familiar with the story. (This detail doesn’t surprise me at all. I have met literally thousands of Austrians and can only name three who have seen “The Sound of Music”.) Even so, there are (erroneously named) “Hans Brinker” statues in many cities in the Netherlands today. Wikipedia suggests they were put up for the benefit of American tourists.

And now I am back to statues.

It seems our objectionable statues have about as much true connection to our country’s heritage and traditions as the Hans Brinker ones do to Holland’s. Who believes that these ugly monuments, put up during Jim Crow, were meant to glorify a bunch of 19th century generals fighting a lost and immoral cause or the man who occupied a short-lived and illegitimate presidency? No, they had a different purpose and it surely wasn’t to attract tourists. And who believes that the present day defenders of these pieces of concrete are there to honor history? If anything, it is a bunch of 21st century generals fighting a different lost cause they are chanting for, along with the current man occupying a (short-lived?) and illegitimate presidency. The man whose words encouraged them to creep out of the closets and remove the hoods. These people clearly have an affinity to and recognize a common cause with the pwesident.

So . . . it seems that self proclaimed neo-nazi’s can say publicly that “he is one of us” but the rest of us are still not allowed to say “he is one of you”.

I am almost desperate in my need to hear Washington lawmakers and serious news people start openly discussing this man’s true political leanings as well as his mental capacity and health. He keeps going lower and he’s taking the country down with him.

There were Nazi’s and KKK people marching proudly and openly in front of live cameras!  With guns and torches. Quoting first Hitler and then Donald Trump. In an American city.

Take a moment and really consider that.

A Moment in Teaching

I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.

One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.

“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”

 “Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”

“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”

 “I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”

“Spell out the name for me, will you?”

“D – E – D . . .”

“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”

 

We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.

 

“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”

 

Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

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!

Once More Unto the Breach!

(My Years of Montessori – Part 36 – partially plagiarized from Part 6 – but this time with pictures!)

 

On my very first day in my “new” school (which really isn’t new anymore, seeing as how this is my sixth year there) I watched with morbid fascination at how awful the kids in the “Sekundaria”  – the 13 and 14 year olds – treated one another as well as the teacher who was trying so hard with them.

Traditionally, in this first circle discussion of the school year, the group comes to a consensus on seating arrangements and general rules concerning classroom etiquette, independent study time conditions and shared space. This includes a wide variety of topics from the use of cell phones to eating in the classroom, from quiet versus social areas to music volumes, from which kids are allowed in which rooms to respecting others’ property, from doing chores to not running in the hallways . . . It was quite a list. And a surprising one. In my introduction to the ways of this school so far, I had heard it contrasted to “rules schools” quite a few times. And here were the same prohibitions you would find anywhere. The only difference was that the kids were supposed to come up with and agree to them on their own. The teacher’s goal was to have them create a poster of the rules that would then be signed by all and hung in the classroom to guarantee a peaceful and productive school year.

That poster never came into existence. In this long excruciating hour, the kids teased and interrupted one another constantly. They chatted with neighbors rather than listening to the one who currently held the conch, oops, I mean the heart-shaped pillow. Elbows were dug into other kids’ ribs. Squirming was constant and adversarial. Barely audible but clearly snide comments and subsequent chuckles were made at other people’s expense. Pseudo-laughter over things that weren’t really funny was a constant feature in general. Arms were crossed in a defensive posture as one student after another leaned back and signaled their anger. All the while, the well-meaning and not un-respected teacher kept cajoling and lecturing the kids, trying to make them admit that they were old enough and smart enough to understand everything he was trying to accomplish. They were and they did – but none of them were going to actually admit that out loud. At some point, the clock struck 10, signaling recess, and the group discussion was over.

I went home and brooded over the experience for hours on end. In less than two days, I would have to face this group for the first English lesson (a subject they had collectively rebelled against in the past). How could I get this troop to give me and English a chance? I would have to hit the exact right tone and fairly quickly – these kids were clearly not receptive to lectures. They were tired of being talked to, reasoned with, and they immediately tuned out. And rules? They turned out to be enticements – the kids were very creative in finding ways to break them. I was going to have to get equally creative.

The first question was how to deal with all the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, it was an election year, so one of our first topics was democracy. I introduced them to the American history and governmental system with an emphasis on rights and responsibilities. We moved from “I have rights” to “Everyone should have equal rights” to “Everyone should respect the rights of others.” The final project in these lessons was to take their classroom rule list and reframe it. For instance, instead of “Rule #1 – No running in the hallways”, they wrote “We all have the right to safety and security, so we don’t run in the halls.” They may have been wildlings, but they were also impressively smart. Suddenly breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules didn’t seem like such a great idea to them. But there was still a problem in how they treated teachers and one another on an emotional level . . .

And now we get to the sub-title of this post.

Two years ago, on a different blog platform, and before any of my current readers (except one) even knew I existed, I wrote about my eventual solution to the “wildlings” problem:

. . . After three weeks I introduced them to my group dynamics box.
Sitting on the floor in a circle, I explained to them that sometimes I wanted to send them a message, but didn’t want to do it in a lecturing way. So everything in the box was a symbol and a message. The first object was a Stop” sign but with some words added underneath. It meant things were getting too rowdy. Time for them to collect themselves:

stopsign

The second object was a little music box that played a particular melody – that one was sort of self-explanatory for them.  They were, after all, 13 and 14 year olds and they inherently understood the concept of momentary brainlessness.

music-box

The third objects were for the cases when a student was disinterested in everything –– the idea that something is “”Boorrrinngg!”” can be so contagious in a classroom. I said, ““I don’t expect you to find every topic interesting, but if everything is boring to you, then you are not really living. You might as well start building that coffin.” I put some big nails on the floor. Here are some coffin nails. You can get started.””
coffin-nails
Also in the box was a Socrates doll (teacher/student relationships / listening goes in both directions), my replicas of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (the classroom is a democratic space), and a little stuffed bird. This last one referred to a German expression “”You have a bird! which is actually an insult and means You are crazy.”” I told the kids that, in our class, “having a bird” was a compliment – like thinking outside the box or being original / creative.

         socrates replicas bird

Im not sure what Montessori, Steiner, Wild, & Co would think of this method, but the kids loved that box and it worked like a charm. The few times I did use it, there was always some laughter and then an easy course correction. They showed it off proudly and explained it to their parents on Hummingbird Day . . .  
My box of objects has gone through three adaptations based on the group dynamics and the personalities in the class each year.

 

About those adaptations. I had a subgroup in Year 3 that loved to make ridiculous requests. The first two or three times, I actually explained, almost apologetically and in words, about why I had to say “No”. Then I realized it was just a game for them. They wanted to see how I reacted. Enter the flying pig:

flying-pig

chickenNot all of my inspirations worked out. In Year 4, I added a chicken to deal with two boys who refused to speak English. It completely backfired and was quickly remr-potato-headmoved from the box. But also in Year 4, Mr. Potato Head joined the collection to deal with problems in circle discussions. He had big ears and no mouth. He turned out to be a keeper.

Last year I had such a harmonious class that I retired the group dynamics box all together. But lately, I have been considering reactivating it. I have a pack of five boys who have started rebelling collectively, mostly against journal writing. (For ten minutes at the end of the school day, the kids should reflect on the day and write something – anything! – about it.) The vast majority of our kids seem to like doing this. They write creatively and/or review what was new or fun for them that day. They add colorful illustrations or fitting song lyrics. But for the past month, the entries of the Pack of Five have included a lot of illegible scribbles or swearwords or penis drawings, etc. Or they provokingly write the same two sentences day after day after day: “Before the break we had (Math) and after the break we had (German). It was cool.”

This rebellion came to the Team’s attention and since then the battle fronts have hardened. (To be honest, I kind of admire the boys’ tenacity.) The schedule was tweaked so that I am now there for journal writing time twice a week to support my sorry young colleague who had been taking the brunt of the incoming up to that point. I also identified the weaker links in enemy force and have been employing a divide and conquer strategy with some success. Last Tuesday I challenged the whole class to write five sentences without ever using the German phrases for “I/we had” or “I/we did” – and that led to a few creative workarounds. I think I am weakening their defenses, but the battle is far from over. They still want to win.

I have been racking my brain for some symbol that might help in this journal feud to add to my magic box before I reintroduce it. One idea was a little white flag of surrender and a message like “I know you don’t want to give up. The problem is that you already have.” Another idea was something to do with wolves or sheep – though that might be too harsh. Basically, I am still waiting for an inspiration.

So I’ve decided to enlist YOUR help, my blogworld people – you are all so creative. Any suggestions?

 

Hail to the Chief

hail1

I have no idea where they came from, but we inherited this ancient German encyclopedia set and these books have spent most of their lives since collecting dust in my library. Recently, however, I took one off the shelf on a whim and gave it a closer look. My first discovery was the old Germhail2an script which I find quite difficult to read. Then I looked at the copyright and saw that these books were published in 1937 in Leipzig, Germany. Almost exactly 80 years ago.

 

1937 . . .

If memory and my high school history teachers serve, 1937 was four years after Hitler’s election to German Chancellor and one year before he annexed Austria, kicking off the march toward World War II in the process. I wondered, what was the mindset of the people who let these developments happen? What were the facts of their world? Here on my library shelf were five volumes with the answers to my questions.

I first tried to think of non-political things I could look up. Things that might have been new at that time. My husband suggested “Jazz”.

After struggling a while with the kooky letters, I learned that Jazz “arose out of English and Scottish folksongs and operetta music as well as the plantation work songs and religious singing of the North American negro and their dances which stemmed from Africa. Jazz is foreign to the German music sensibility.”

The word “negro” stood out. In German it was “Neger” and that is a word that is no longer socially acceptable around here. I assume, however, that no one in 1937 Germany had a problem with it.

I looked it up and read about where the negros come from and all the places they were shipped off to as slaves (“See ‘the Negro Question’”), a litany of their – seemingly unattractive – physical attributes, and (dubious) cultural influences, leading to the fact that: “The power of state-building is inherently lacking in the negro.”

Apparently, (I’m paraphrasing now) their industry is limited and mostly agricultural. Only one tribe in Liberia developed a real written language. Their mostly religious artwork only reached any heights in one part of West Africa. There seems to be a general musical talent. “Intellectually they rapidly developed, but the negro quickly lagged behind the people of European cultures; he is not suited to autonomous cultural work but does not die out when coming into contact with higher cultures, rather resigns himself to it.”

This little nugget of wisdom was immediately followed by the term “Negerfrage” (“the Negro Question”), meaning the dangers of racial mixing and the “negro-ification” of white peoples in places where they live in close proximity. It is a long, convoluted, and disgraceful entry which I stopped reading after the third sentence.

Of course there was one more thing I had to look up.

 

hail3I read about Adolf’s youth and long (seemingly heroic) struggle to finally be elected leader (with 36.8% of the votes). I “learned” how “very early on he became a decisive enemy of narcissism as well as Judaism and realized that nationalism and socialism only seemed to be antithetical, and that the German worker had to be restored to his traditional role.” How he turned a small Workers’ Party into a movement. How after gaining power, he successfully dismantled the longstanding dominance of political parties and the parliamentary establishment. “In foreign policy, he stood for a policy of peace and accommodation based on German honor and equal status.” Or, in simpler terms, he promised to make Germany great again. After that, he consolidated all the power and proceeded to get over 90% of the votes for basically everything he wanted. And there the story ended. For the time being.

To be continued . . .

 

I’ve heard we are living in a “post-factual” world – probably because we have become used to powerful people saying things in front of live cameras and then denying having said it two days later.

But that can’t be true because, clearly, facts are not static things – they are the always changing, commonly accepted perceptions of reality as we grow and learn.

I would say we are living in an era where facts are simply buried under a mountain of manure. Sort of like in Germany in 1937.

Our outgoing president reaffirmed his faith in people just yesterday and I agree with him. I still hope and believe that 80 years from now, people will look back at the encyclopedias of 2017 and have no trouble distinguishing truth from today’s transient turds.