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’.)

Gerontogynophobia

 

It’s official. In the Best Vacations competition, Easter beats Christmas hands down. The weather is warm, the sun sets at 8:00 pm, there is no present-procurement stress, and no one asks if you want to go skiing. The supply of chocolate in the house grows dramatically, while the surplus of eggs in the fridge gets reduced. This last point is particularly fortunate, now that we are getting up to seven (!) a day (she says proudly).

Despite a long mental list of Easter vacation projects, including catching up some more with blog friends and long overdue house improvements, I — somewhat inexplicably — spent the first two days crocheting this giraffe. It is my very first stuffed animal:

This was all before Notre Dame started burning, before an overnight trip to Vienna with my two daughters, and before the Mueller Report landed with a thud, kicking off the collective hyperventilation of America’s journalists and pundits. No, for those two days, I happily binge-watched silly Sci Fi series and counted stitches. My greatest concern was what to do with the giraffe once I had finished. Gingerbread Man to the rescue! Since he is my only other crocheted stuffed animal thing, I introduced the two and they became immediate bff’s.

Speaking of new friends, I have one too. And it is none other than Mean Neighbor Lady! For more than two decades I suffered her Daily Disapproval Tours and disparaging comments about my (lack of) gardening skills.  Hundreds of times, when my Nice Neighbor Lady (NNL) and I walked our dogs past her house, I stood back silently while those two had a friendly chat or MNL gifted her a plant from her garden. All I ever got was half-nod and a grunt. MNL became a constant source of bemusement between NNL and me.

But then things changed. The thaw began with Dog Four and was helped along by the chickens. MNL and I began to have very short talks about various plants and I sometimes saw her bringing kitchen scraps to our goats. About two weeks ago, on my dog walk, I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and it was her. Up to that point, I wasn’t aware that she even knew my name.

I retraced my steps back to her. She wanted to know if it was true that the noise her grandson made when he rode his moped around the cornfields bothered . . . . . . my husband. I assured her that he had never complained. She replied, “That’s what I thought.” Then she offered me a plant from her garden. A week later she complemented my new flowerbed. On my next dog walk with NNL, she got the icy grunt and I got the friendly hello.

“I guess I’M her favorite now!” I crowed as we walked on.

 

I have no illusions that this new friendship will endure. One escaped goat munching on her flowers would surely be enough to end it. And then there is my well established fear of little old white-haired ladies, especially those with scowly faces.

I checked the official list of phobias to see if I could find my particular condition, but the closest things I found were a general fear of women and the fear of growing old. This made me realize something. Maybe it wasn’t the scowling little old ladies I feared; maybe what I really feared was becoming one of them myself. Which brings me back full circle to my giraffe.

Crocheting stuffed animals is something grandmas do!

In fact, my own grandma must have been almost exactly my age now when she made the Gingerbread Man. I did the math.  And in the ensuing years she proceeded to shrink as her hair turned white.

But then again . . . I came to think of her as one of the most beautiful people I knew – ever more so the older she got. She was still able to live on her own at the age of 90. She loved to dance. And she never scowled.

 

The Dishonor System

 

My elder daughter just finished the last test of her senior year and in a few days she will hear the result. All she has to do is pass and her life as a HS student will be over. (She still has the big graduation exams in five subjects ahead of her, but there will be no more normal school days – just prep classes and some tutoring.) Her homeroom teacher sent her this picture of the event:

I stared at the picture for a long time because there is just so much wrong with it. All three senior classes together, taking the same test, because we can’t risk the chance that one of the three teachers will give an easier test than the others. Desks dragged to the gymnasium where there is enough space to isolate each student – who otherwise would surely cheat! Cell phones and watches collected upon entering. Forty-five kids bent over desks for five hours, spewing out whatever they managed to shove into their short-term memories, solving complex math problems that will stymie them six months from now. Proving they can do things that 95% of them will never need to do again for the rest of their lives.  Needing permission and an escort if they have to go to the bathroom.

Learning the lesson in a myriad of ways that all this is necessary because no one can be trusted.

I wondered if the same thing happens in American schools now. I remember taking tests in my normal classroom at my normal desk. I remember take-home exams and open book tests. I remember being allowed a 5” by 8” cheat sheet – and spending so much time writing and re-writing it in smaller and smaller print that I memorized everything and didn’t actually need it. Most of all, I don’t remember any cheating going on. I had no doubt that my teachers would test and grade fairly and I think they trusted us to do our best independently and honestly. There was an honor system.

There may have been one here too years ago, but if so, it is definitely gone now. Slowly but surely, changes have been made – ostensibly to ensure fairness – but with each one taking a little more power out of the hands of the teachers. Subject matter is prescribed by the Ministry of Education. Tests must be uniform. Grading has to conform to a system and be documented in detail. And those graduation exams? They have been centralized for the entire country.

A week or so before the date determined by the Ministry for whatever subject, the written exams (in sealed packages) will be delivered to the school by armored car and then locked in a safe. At the exact appointed time in every high school in the country, the packages will be brought to the examination room where one student will witness the breaking of the seal and then sign a paper confirming this step. (And if the seal in one school was not intact, the exam will have to be repeated at a later date by every student in the entire country!) When grading the exams, the teachers are given long and explicit instructions on which answers can be accepted. For the oral exams, there is a state-wide pool of topic areas and the individual students get theirs lottery-style. They draw two numbers corresponding to question sets on two particular themes, look at them, and then choose one set to answer. Twenty minutes later, a panel of three teachers and one supervisor decides if the student’s general mastery of the subject is very good, good, satisfactory or in-/sufficient, when, in reality, the entire exercise probably has just as much to do with the student’s test prep strategies and sheer dumb luck.

Vladimir was once a child too.

I have been in many discussions with Austrians about this new system and usually ask why graduation exams are necessary at all, not to mention the massive amount of regulation involved in their centralized implementation. The answers are usually some variation of “Trust is good. Control is better”, which only makes me wonder if they realize they are quoting Lenin. I wonder why they can’t see that we are talking about a rite of passage and not proof of educational attainment. There’s a reason why the German name for these exams collectively is “Maturity Test”.

Now, before you can graduate from this post, I have two question sets for you to choose from:

Is there really so little faith in the people involved that all these complex procedures and massive control efforts are necessary?

and – something even more basic:

Should it really be the goal of an education system that every child learns the same things? Wouldn’t it be better if each student left school having learned something different – deeper knowledge in the subjects that correspond to his/her individual interests and talents? And wouldn’t trusted and empowered teachers be the most able to help the students discover what these subjects are?

 

German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, and Roman

 

I’m back to talking chickens.

Loyal readers will know what that means: there has been too much NSFB (“not suitable for blogging”) stuff going on and occupying my thoughts lately. Add to that the fact that I also subjected blogworld to two political rants in a short space of time, making me feel like I have to make up for it somehow. I have been rooting around for a nice, easy, non-political topic I can spend some time on . . . now, let’s see . . . what could I write about? . . . I know! . . . chickens!

 

 “We’re going to be grandparents of three,” my husband said to me a few days back. He had just checked our third batch of incubator eggs with his special illuminator device, homemade out of a toilet paper roll and some tin foil. Of the six eggs, three of them had dark shadowy innards. It takes almost exactly 21 days for the eggs to hatch, so in about two weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if he was right.

Our first attempt, some of you may remember, resulted in the deformed, short-lived Quasimodo and the equally doomed Fred, the German Reich’s chicken who was clearly too beautiful to live. Those two were accompanied for their short time by some hastily purchased Wyandotte chicks, all four of whom turned into roosters and, subsequently, three of whom turned into dinner. The fourth is the father of our current incubator batch. This time I am actually hoping for a rooster. I want to name him “Pete Buttig-Egg”.

Our second attempt at incubating was more successful – it produced four hearty Orpingtons who managed to survive the harsh winter in a small henhouse with an open door. They did it by sticking close together. By March we had three full grown hens and one rooster but, sadly, no eggs. For months I fed them, checked the empty laying box, and then informed them that they were a bunch of good-for-nothing losers. But then – on the very same day Mueller finally submitted his report to the aptly named Barr – one of them laid an egg:

Surely there will be more to come. There has to.

 

All this focus on progeneration naturally led me to other thoughts. What about me? Where do I come from? I still remember asking my mother about it way back in grade school when the topic of nationalities was first introduced into my consciousness. Just like Elizabeth Warren’s mother’s tale of a Native American ancestor, my mom had a theory of her own to tell:

“Well let’s see . . . you are German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish and Roman. Pretty much in that order.”

“Roman?” I asked. “Where does that come from?”

Mom told me that her own mother was 100% English, but that she had dark hair and olive skin – so that probably went back to some Roman soldier from the Empire’s occupation of England in the first millennium. It seemed pretty feasible.

In defense of my mother, I assume now that she was being a little facetious and never thought I would go on to repeating that list of nationalities – including the last one – for the next two decades. Thank goodness there was no “Roman” box to tick on my college application form!

The mystery surrounding my heritage was further complicated by my elder sister who has spent years compiling a massive database of our genealogical tree. I only know a tiny bit of it, but I vaguely remember her correcting my version of our connection to the Mayflower and – more importantly – not being able to confirm the “Irish” part of my nationality list. This disturbs me greatly because I once distinctly heard the call of my ancestors while wandering around the peninsula of Dingle in Ireland. On the other hand, when I was in Rome a few years back, I listened for a similar call and . . . nothin’.

Fortunately, modern science might offer me a way to prove or disprove my mother’s and sister’s theories. My Cuban friend (whose mother told her she had some Chinese ancestry) did a DNA test through “MyHeritage” and got some surprising results. To cut to the chase, she now walks around feeling less connection with the Ming dynasty and more with the Massai.

Of course, after hearing her tale, I went online and ordered two kits for me and my husband. They have been sitting on a shelf for weeks, but I’ve decided that today is the day to force the hubby to swab. Once that is done, I will mail the spittle off. So . . . in about six weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if my mother or sister was right. I’m curious to find out who, if anyone, will be exonerated.

 

 

My Baby’s Gone n’ Done It

Continuing with the Bible citing from my last post, I will add . . .

King James Version – Genesis 2:2-3:

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

 

All this repetition makes me think God really, really (!) wanted to make a point about all the work he had made and how he needed a rest.

Suddenly we two are back in sync. I needed a rest too! Of course, me living 6000 years later in a more modern period after the Great Flood and the invention of weekends, I took both the sixth and the seventh day off to rest. And then I added on the eighth for good measure, because . . . heck! Why not? It’s summer!

On the Ninth Day, however, I was fully back with The Plan – the one exception was the blogging part.

And my elder daughter was to blame for that.

It pains me to say this but she . . . but she . . . she had the AUDACITY  to . . . to . . . TURN 18!!  And to add insult to injury, she is . . . she is . . . TAKING HER DRIVING TEST TOMORROW!!

There. I have said it.

I hope you will all understand why, when it comes to blogging, I am just phoning it in today. All I will add are the links to earlier posts which should suffice to explain everything about my state of mind:

Fritz the Sheep  and Driver’s Education.

 

P.S. My daughter loved the box of treasures I had been saving since her babyhood (mentioned in the post above). At the end of the evening she asked me where I thought she should keep it. I offered to keep storing it in my closet for her and she immediately thought that was a good idea. She may be 18 now, but she still likes the idea that Mom will take care of certain things for her. That was a gift from her to me today.

 

(Silent) Home (Horror) Movies

 

I have been getting some of our VCR tapes digitalized before they start decomposing and/or give up the ghost completely. One of those tapes was home movies from my childhood and I stayed up till about 3 am a few nights ago watching them.

Some of the films were classics – like one of our childhood Christmas shows, my ballet performance with dramatic final pose, or the King of the Raft battles during one of our many summer trips up north. Other films were only vaguely familiar to me – maybe those were the ones that tended to be left out on the occasions when my dad hauled out the projector and turned our living room into a movie theater. As we five kids tossed pillows on the floor and jockeyed for a comfortable spot with a good view, Dad stuck a reel of film on one of the arms of the projector, threaded the tape through the machine and on to the empty receiving reel. The lights were dimmed and then came that clackety-clack sound of the projector in motion, the humming of its fan, the initial ornery and dusty smell of an appliance that has not been used in a while being forced back into deployment.

As the youngest of five kids, I had to sit through a whole lot of scenes starring my elder siblings before I was born. It did not escape me that the number of films (or photographs) of each child was inversely proportional to the order of his/her birth (Child One has the most, Child Five the least.) But, to make up for this disadvantage, I also noticed that, in contrast to the black and white childhood of my brothers and sisters, at least mine was in color!  The films were also all silent, which turned out to be another advantage. We kids were free to talk and comment and reminisce and argue as the images danced in front of and past us. In that way, I was initiated into all the chapters of our family legend that pre-dated my membership.

 

While watching all these old movies again a few days ago, I started pausing and making screenshots of memorable moments. The resulting pictures turned out to have such an eerie quality to them – I guess because the images had been reincarnated over and over again. From camera to developed film reel, from film to video cassette (Thanks, Mom!), from video cassette to digital video, from digital video to image file . . .

And now . . . some of those images are about to be launched into the internetsphere with a mere click of a “Publish” button. They will blast off in a gazillion different directions, but only very few will eventually collide with physical entity capable of decoding them. Your laptop or computer screen, for instance. (Yes, Reader, I am talking to you!)

So here they are – a few captured specters of the binarily transcribed, inversely imprinted, silent visual reproductions of moments that have become – via this long insane string of coincidences – some of my earliest memories. It really is no wonder that they seem so ghostly!

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A Barn Yarn

 

“I’m stuck!” I told my sister on the phone. “No one wants to read about my morbid obsession with the American pwesident or my current workplace  . . . curiosities. I can’t write about anything in my private life because it is all OPS. And I can’t just keep writing about chickens.”
“Keep writing about chickens! Do!” she answered.  “I love it when you write about chickens.”
Thanks, Sis. Once again.

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I jumped on the chicken bandwagon a bit too late.

Had I been in on our poultry project from the start, I would have encouraged the husband to build our hen house in the style of a traditional Wisconsin barn. The kind I passed on weekends as we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house each Sunday. Or the ones we saw on our way Up North for vacation each summer – those yearly six or seven hour drives, first through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin farmland and then into the Big Woods with its 15.000 little lakes. A cottage on shores of one of these was our usual destination – our own temporary “Little House”. Within an hour of arrival, I was in the water and basically stayed there for most of the day, every day. Any time not in the water was spent on nature hikes and/or steeped in fantasies of being Wisconsin’s most famous pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I devoured her books (repeatedly!) as a child. She was my link to the 19th century version of myself.

My husband has his own link to his 19th century self and it is much more impressive. His great great grandfather was a famous writer and poet who grew up modestly in a remote mountainous region of Styria. The childhood home of this man, Peter Rosegger, is now a museum. My husband visited this place many times in his childhood and I imagine he also fantasized there about being a 19th century “Forest Farmer Boy”. In any case, he clearly had some other image in his mind as he built our chicken coop. Something more Austrian.

 

Last week he announced that he was going to paint our hen house and started suggesting colors. It was at this point, that I finally got involved in the construction project. Blue?? Who’s ever heard of a BLUE barn?!? Honestly! Anyway, here is the result:

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P.S. Thanks Sis, too, for the compliments on the coop via WhatsApp. As for your curiosity about what it looks like on the inside, I have to disappoint. Chickens are crappy decorators. Literally.