Other People’s Secrets

 

For the first two and a half years of bloglife, I was skipping along . . . riding a wave . . . whistling my way down Easy Street. Meeting my self-imposed, randomly chosen goal of posting three times a week turned out to be no prob. Ideas arose, ran down from my brain through my nervous system to fingertips on a laptop keyboard and then on to the WordPress Dashboard and then out into the ether. I had no qualms about publishing my own personal stuff for the world to see (albeit when I say “the world” here, I am talking about a total of zero to 20 readers). Surprisingly, the husband and daughters were also okay with me telling their stories from time to time – possibly as a way to make up for not being part of my blog’s reading audience. Having a job in the real world that I loved and no ambition to see my name on a book jacket helped me to concentrate on the fun factor. It propelled me along hummingly in my hobby.

Something changed.

It is now fall, which has always been my undisputed favorite season. It reminds me of my childhood excitement for the first day of school and how I always laid out my carefully chosen outfit the night before, next to my beautiful new school supplies in an un-customarily neat room. Fall reminds me of later pleasant backaches induced by hours of stacking firewood or gathering chestnuts to roast and then not eat because they don’t really taste good, but still somehow manage to seem romantic. Fall is the time when everything begins anew even as it is changing into glorious colors shortly before dying.

This fall has been different. It seems to be ALL about endings and few foreseeable beginnings. As I navigate my way through a successful start of the school year with my three new English groups, I can’t ignore the world around them disintegrating. My beloved school is in deep trouble on the parental level. Some new personal conflict arises among them every week, spreading quickly through the social network and ultimately to the kids in the classroom. Our sociocratic experiment has hit a rough patch. Something tells me the path to resolution will be a long and disruptive one. I assume the school will continue on for the next four years – my last four before retirement. But I am preparing myself anyway for eventuality that it won’t.

At the same time, in the other half of my professional life, I am also realizing that the end is nigh. The stream of students into Business or Economics majors at the university has been drying up because, on graduating, too many of them find they are over-educated for the jobs most companies want to fill these days. (They want lower level staff and techies.) With fewer and fewer students enrolling, my GDE course tailored to them is also shrinking out of existence. This is officially my 30th year teaching this course, but I think it will be the last.

Then there is my expatriate life and morbid fascination in the quagmire American politics has become. Unfortunately the daily twumpian absurdities combined with the sheer distance between me and my ability to affect anything there are leading me to detach.

And my more immediate private life? It has revolved completely around – been infiltrated and consumed by – Other People’s Business.

 

In this autumn of endings, day after day, week after week, my thoughts have been chock full of events and concerns and news and ideas and developments and amateur psychology sessions – none of which are technically my own and none suitable for blogging.

 

So, once again, I will write about chickens.

They also incessantly squawk and squabble and peck at one another and make everything a mess. But they are chickens. So it kind of suits them. And night after night, they all waddle into the coop together where a few sorry ones on the lower bar get pooped on by others who managed to get a better perch higher up.  I suppose it is still better than being outdoors at night and risking being eaten up by a weasel or a fox.

After that glorious first egg my alter-ego, Blackthumb, told you about, a second one was found – lying on the grass and broken. After a closer look around, we discovered a pile of destroyed egg shells – maybe four or five of them. One of our chickens was breaking and eating the eggs (of another one, I assume). As for the layer of the destroyed eggs, I suspect the Sulmtaler (“Trump”). Despite being the same breed as our rooster, he doesn’t give her the time of day. She spends the day waddle-darting from here to there, acting all nervous and confused (not to mention looking silly with that awful hairstyle). As for the Egg Killer, I immediately suspected the Swedish Flower Bully. She then further incriminated herself by beginning to lay one egg a day in the quarantine coop. A half dozen so far. Thanks to this whole episode, she finally has a name: we call her Darwin.

 

Tomorrow her six eggs will be fried or scrambled and eaten along with some bacon and buttered toast. I will do my best to find them distasteful.

 

Advertisements

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.

Day 10

So.

When I go to bed tonight, I will mentally pat myself on the back for going 10 straight days without . . .  self-administered carbon monoxide, tar and approximately 6997 other chemical poisonings. I can’t yet brag about giving up nicotine yet, because in weaker moments, I am falling back on various other delivery systems for that particular drug. The plan is to make it through the first month in this way and then detox completely when my stress levels plummet precipitously on July 1st.

I did look into a few other commonly used methods to conquer addiction, but none of them seemed particularly auspicious. There are all sorts of natural and/or homeopathic products, but deep down, I believe that you have to believe that they will work for them to work and I am not much of a believer. The same problem arose when I googled “12 Step Program”. Somehow I don’t see myself taking a fearless moral inventory of my character, admitting my defects to a higher Power and then humbly asking Him to remove these shortcomings. I also don’t plan to become missionary among my many MANY smoking friends. No, I will use my own (if I may say so myself, impressive) powers of denial to get me through.

This I know:

Thinking about quitting sucks big time. It is truly awful in its futile endlessness.

Quitting, at least so far, has been easy in its awesome finality.

The Pompitous of 1973

It all started back in the 5th Grade with Secret Valentines. Two weeks after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, I started finding little Sweetheart candies on my school desk. Then on February 14th,  the big reveal came. MC had drawn my name out of the hat and he handed my present off to me in an embarrassed walk-by. It was a 45 – “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. That record set off a month-long unrequited crush and an awakening to music’s power to incite and amplify emotions. I played that single to death while somewhere in the background, the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were finished – making them briefly the world’s tallest buildings – and the Watergate hearings began. Only that third one really registered with me because it upset Grandpa so much. It also vindicated me after losing the class debate on the ’72 Presidential Election earlier in the fall. My attention was much more attuned to “Maurice” ‘cause  he spoke “of the pompitous of love” (whatever that meant). That was the first record in what would become a fairly large collection of vinyl.

If memory serves, I played my 45 on a portable record player in my own room. I don’t remember exactly how it looked, but while googling, this picture seemed most familiar to me, closest to my fuzzy recollections – especially those two white knobs on the front. Meanwhile, an exploration of our house had added two LP’s to my collection – the only two I found that weren’t classical music: “The Best of the Monkees” and the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I played them to death. Secretariat won the Triple Crown and the Lakota people gave up their occupation of Wounded Knee with the government promising to investigate broken treaties, but I barely noticed. I wanted more. I wanted the stuff I was hearing on WKTI FM – the “non-stop stereo rock” station.

I had started the 6th Grade and the Vice-President had resigned, when I saw an ad on TV for “24 Golden Hits of 1973” and it was perfect. It had “Monster Mash” and “Superfly” and “Crocodile Rock” on it!! Amazingly my mother let me order it. (Possibly she was tired of hearing “The Joker” and Davey Jones?) When it arrived in the mail, I was so excited and then immediately deeply, deeply disappointed. Somehow I had missed the fact in the commercial that these weren’t the original songs. They were all covers done by a group called “The Sound Effects”. (To use my non-PC 1973 vocabulary): “What a gyp!”

 

I played that record to death.

And I began “appropriating” records from my brothers to grow my collection. Goodbye Pop Top 40, hello Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.

By the time I was 13 or 14, Nixon was long gone, the world population had passed the 4 billion mark and Lucy’s discovery in Ethiopia had set its starting date back about 3 million years. I started to have a little mad money from babysitting, raking leaves, shoveling snow, etc. I had also stopped spending all of my allowance on Wacky Packages stickers and Bazooka bubble gum. One day, I finally did it. I entered a record store with the intention of actually buying something. The decision was excruciating, but I finally went for Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and the brand new Queen album – “A Night at the Opera”.  (“Hhmmm. Pretty good choices!” my later self would think 40 years in the future.)

From then on, music was a constant and continually changing companion. It helped me feel the world and helps me now to remember it. Every relationship got its theme song. Styx’s “Come Sail Away” will always evoke the basement of my high school house and the first boyfriend who lasted more than a few weeks, (now shrouded with an extra layer of sadness since the news of his suicide a few years ago.)  Toto’s “Hold the Line” still throws me back to my first real date – as in boy picks up girl in his dad’s car and gets grilled by the girl’s stepfather (who only looks mean) before driving her to a family restaurant with popcorn on the floor. Journey, Kansas, Genesis, Foreigner, The Cars, Kinks, Kings and Doors were some of my guides through the wild but romantically lean college years during which I scared away a succession of potential suitors by pointing out how their love of Bruce Springsteen contradicted their support for President Trickledown.  Later, a certain nameless artist’s now unmentionable song about violet precipitation remains the soundtrack to my one and only broken heart and still, 30 years later, makes me change the radio station went it comes on.

 

But it is not only romances I remember. Country music conjures the smell of the pine trees up in northern Wisconsin. Neue Deutsche Welle tastes like German wheat beer and pungent French filter-less cigarettes. Punk makes my shoes stick to the floor in an illegally occupied tenement turned even more illegal dancing bar. The sound of the accordion has me sitting in a cozy warm mountain lodge on a cold night sipping tea with schnapps. R.E.M. puts my first baby back in my arms. The fiddle wakes up ancestral memories stored in my DNA. Fusion Jazz tells me that my childhood is officially over. But never fear – a Davey Jones song can bring it back for a while if I ever need it to.

As I wrote a while back, my birthday present this year was the resurrection of long lost feelings and memories, raised from near-oblivion by the power of music – “the records of my past” in both meanings of the phrase. Something tells me this going-back-to-vinyl thing will be more than just a passing fancy. Last week I was in Graz and had some time on my hands before I had to catch my train. I googled record stores and actually found one. Here’s what my smile and I came home with:

Listening to these sometimes scratchy sounds takes me out of the present for a while, but while helping me with a dose of nostalgia, I also sense a faint and haunting echo.As the disc spins, it seems to me, here in 2017, that the world of 1973 has circled back on me – only now with its population doubled and its history slightly warped. There are big holes in the ground where the twin towers used to be, and yet, we are still living under their shadows. There’s another space cowboy/joker in the White House planning new onslaughts on Roe and the Lakota. There’s an old conflict in Southeast Asia ramping up just as the hearings on Watergate 2.0 begin. There is pompitous galore and the same old song being played to death.

 

A Piteous “Pentafecta” Impedes Posting

I’ve been a bad blogger. Very very bad.

In the lead up to the glorious outbreak of Easter vacation, a whole slew of life circumstances intensified and all came to a head simultaneously. I realize “pentafecta” is not a real word – and if it were, it wouldn’t really mean what I am forcing it to here. But I can’t think of another way to express five sets of circumstances colliding at once.

Starting with the outermost realm of my reality – so external, in fact, that it is more of an alternative reality – is my ongoing, time-consuming obsession with American politics. Like most people, I too am guilty of letting the news of the world flow to me through a filter. In my case the filter is NPR and left-leaning cable news and websites. What they present me is a badly cast reality-show-presidency, flailing and mindlessly counter-punching. And that is it.  All un-pwecedented twump, all the time. As a consequence, I have not heard of a single positive political development since January 20th that wasn’t steeped in Schadenfreude.  (Goodbye and Good Riddance to Flynn and Sessions and Ryancare, to Bannon and now Nunes and the Muslim ban  . . . and whichever of the Best People or Beautiful Promises is next to go. My only regret is that your departures were not more spectacular and categorical.)  The increasing intensity of the daily outrages combined with my self-imposed limits on political content often left me with nothing to write about. I could either sigh once again that “Twump is ruining my blog” and leave WordPress without posting, or I could take the bait and add my two cents for the 50th time – like I just did in this paragraph here. That makes $1 dollar so far. If and when I hit the two dollar mark, I will change the name of this site to “Rant*”  –  (*Resisting American Nutcase with Tirades”).

Luckily, I was regularly forced to leave Alternativeworld and go to work.

Work was wonderfully distracting in its way, but the load kept getting heavier.  Also, I have had trouble explaining to my Austrian colleagues how insane the outside world is and why I was more tired than usual. The American daily outrages do not flow all the way to them. They are concentrating on their own problems and the daily school issues, local politics and why various trees and plants are blooming way too early this year. With them, I debated the effect of cell phones on kids and how to deal with adolescent protest. I defended my “homeroom” kids with a protective passion while still mentally carrying my fellow teachers’ concerns home, along with a new stack of homework assignments to add to the existing ones on my chaotic office desk. Occasionally, I considered bringing order to the Home Division of Workworld, but then this tidied space would no longer go with the rest of the house. As usual, the (mental) energy-sucking powers of my work led me towards procrastination.

But! Procrastination actually did have its benefits when it came to other aspects of Homeworld. My permanent mountain of ironing was all done by my mother-in-law (best birthday present ever!!) and my longtime plans to turn the basement pit into a guest room was mostly accomplished by my daughter (as a condition of being able to invite a friend here for two weeks.) Still, the list of household jobs awaiting me was a daunting one, made worse by the addition of a hundred little details to be accomplished (tax returns to file, bills to pay, prescriptions to fill, emails to answer, phone calls to make, flights to book,  . . .

. . . blogs to read, comments to make, posts to write . . .

And then came the fourth sphere of my realities: The issues going on around me in my home, or my friend’s and relatives’ lives. All of them occupying my mind but all of them OPS* and/or NSFB**. So with rare exceptions, my writing experience of the last few weeks was sitting down to the laptop way too late in the day, mentally mucking around in the swirling brain, finding nothing to inspire a first sentence, giving up and clicking on MSNBC.

* other peoples’ secrets
** not suitable for blogging  

 

That was then. This is now.

It is Day Five of Glorious Easter Vacation and here is the state of things:

House picked up. (Check!) Basement cleaned. (Check!)  Translation done and certification arranged. (Check! Check!) Also – Reports for Ethiopia written and sent. Garden weeded. Laundry done. Office tidied. CDs organized. Flights booked. Mail sorted. Documents filed. Application readied. Easter decorations put up. School photos organized. Book finished. Emails answered. And now . . .

Blog post written.

Worrywart Worries

It’s March 31st, 2017. I want to remember this date.

In March 2016, two things were set into motion that have kept me internally rocking and reeling ever since. In March 2016, I enrolled my daughter officially in the Milwaukee Public School System for her high school exchange year and in March 2016, my school team officially applied to take part in a two-year European Union project in partnership with institutes in Portugal and Italy. Had both “projects” gone smoothly, I would be heading for Vienna on Monday to take part in a big Kick-off Meeting. I would also probably be skyping daily with my distant daughter from my very quiet household.

Things didn’t go smoothly. In either case.

The first enrollment set off a series of visa nightmares and disappointments, but then – as a silver lining – a year+ long quest through the bowels of bureaucracy to get dual citizenship for my (adopted) daughters. The second application set off a yearlong series of frustrations and added stress that had my idealistic and hard-working colleagues nearing the burn-out point. (Did I mention that the EU project aimed to find good practices for preventing Burn-out?) Both issues have kept the back of my mind working on overdrive for most of the year.

Today, within a span of 3 hours, both issues resolved themselves abruptly and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon and six months (!) after our original application, the mailman arrived with a registered letter from the Austrian government granting my daughters permission for dual citizenship. Two hours later, I left a meeting at the school in which we had extricated ourselves successfully from the EU project – with no bad feelings, no lingering resentments and no danger of tanking the project as a whole.

My inner worrywart doesn’t know what hit her. It’s like she suddenly has no reason to exist. She’s dazed and confused and I almost feel sorry for her.

Kids in Their Cells

 

My Years of Montessori – Part 37

 

I spent five hours of my normally free Friday with my Secondary class. They were having their annual “Movie Night”/ sleepover at the school. It was very good timing, too, because the once good atmosphere in the group has been slipping away. And for one major reason: cell phones.

We have a general agreement that we teachers don’t take their cells away from them during the school day. They should be on flight mode and only used for listening to music during the break. I don’t know exactly when it started, but it is now the school’s worst kept secret that the five boys huddled on the couch for the entire 40 minute break are NOT listening to music. They are stealthily clan clashing or mine-crafting or subway surfing or Pokémon going. (I assume I revealed my ignorance about these games with that last sentence.) The non-gamers in the classroom are increasingly bothered about it – not only because of the dishonesty, but because these boys are no longer available to them. They are missed on the soccer field and in the rounds of Werewolf or Activity. They are missed in simple conversation. As they sit there staring into their screens, thumbs waving, they are unresponsive and inaccessible to everyone else. And they resent being asked to stop by their classmates, then compensate for their tinges of guilt by being extra snippy or sullen. As these cell phone games draw them in, they also draw them away from their friends, isolating them in a sort of self-inflicted solitary confinement.

So as I wrote at the start, it was a very good time for a class event like the Movie Night. Just like last year, I agreed to chaperone until 5 pm, when my younger and more idealistic colleague arrived to take over for the night shift. And just like last year, I agreed to do this on the condition that my Dog 4 came along and that we ALL went for a walk together.

When I arrived, most of the kids were cooking lunch already. The missing five were up in the classroom, on the couch, staring into screens with thumbs flashing. I sat down next to one of them and asked him to show me the game. Technically the school day was over and they had the right to do this openly, but my presence seemed to take the fun out of it. They broke off and, one after another, meandered down to the kitchen where all the laughter was. The one last holdout could not be talked into joining the rest, so I left him there alone. He finally showed up for lunch when the remainder of the spaghetti was cold and sticky.

We cleared the table and immediately set out for our walk. The girls set off at an enthusiastic pace, singing songs, while the boys lagged behind in a demonstration of their reluctance. Our destination was a sort of natural playground next to a stream that had been recently restored to its original course as part of a regional conservation project. It’s a beautiful area that now attracts more bikers and hikers than tractors or pesticides. Part of the project was planting hundreds of trees and special plants in an effort to bring back the bees. The restoration of the original river will hopefully bring back the native fish.

 

About halfway along, one of the girls blurted out: “Could we maybe forbid cell phones in the school?” That set off a flurry of discussion and revelations about what was going on in their classroom and how they felt about it. I mostly just listened and learned. The discussion continued all the way to the playground where we sat down and waited for the stragglers to show up.

They (the stragglers) eventually arrived and plopped themselves down at a distance from us, apparently exhausted after their 30 minute trail of tears.

But then something happened. The playground started to work its magic. They slowly, one by one, got up and moved toward some piece of equipment. They started playing. And competing. And laughing. Cell phones appeared – but only to take pictures.  As we all soaked up the sun, some of their adolescent lethargy melted away and the factions started intermingling.

The walk home happened in different constellations and unhurriedly as we stopped along the way for more games by the river.

Two hours after taking off, we returned to the school and . . .

. . . the five went directly to their classroom couch, dove into their cells, and were once again lost to the others.

But not for long. Protests from their classmates pried the first two out and back to group games. They went outside to play soccer, leaving just three. After five minutes, I said to them “Everyone else is outside playing – why don’t you join them?” I pointed to a cell phone. “You can do that anytime.” It was enough to get another one to move. Three down, two more holdouts: the biggest gamer of them all and a recent convert who I guessed was only doing it to fit in with the others. I set my sights on him.

“You know, I don’t think you realize what that device in your hand is doing to you. Those 12 kids outside are your friends and their feelings are hurt. You all only have about three more months together. They want to spend time with you. And you are up here doing something you can do alone in your room.”

The convert paused for a second, put the cell down, sighed an “Okay” and went to join the others. That left one. The leader of the lost pack.

“Are you coming too?” I asked him.

“Maybe. Later.”

It took no more than a few minutes before the convert was running around whooping after scoring his first goal. Another five minutes after that, the final holdout appeared at the side of the soccer field. The others noticed him and squealed out his name, letting him know how glad they were to see him. He smiled.