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.

69th Street

Our wise, conscientious and more-educated-than-the-common-rabble electors have spoken – not with any partisan blindness or pecuniary self-interest, mind you – and I now have to finally come to terms with the impending inauguration. As much as it pains me, (sigh), it seems America has no alternative but to become white, oops! I mean “great” again. Like it was in the Happy Days or the pre-Sixties 60s. The time when I was a child and life was wonderful.

 

It really was wonderful, my childhood.

69-gangBorn originally in one of those industrial subdivisions, my parents moved me and my four siblings into a different community with a fabulous school system when I – the youngest – was just 3 years old. We inhabited an enchanted place on an elm lined street full of not technically modest houses. 69th Street. With 7 houses on each side of the block between the road on the crest of the hill and Pickle Alley at the bottom, a sufficient number of 3 to 16 year olds spilled out into the streets daily to ensure me an endless supply of group games and seminal experiences.

There were the Grands – a weird brother and sister I never really connected with but they had the greatest tree swing in their yard. (Decades later they visited me in Austria and I found them both charming.)

There was Ellie – my very first friend. We were so loyal to one another that we could be cruel and distant with impunity, never threatening the core connection. (She later had a hard life of serial losses and intermittent addictions/institutionalizations. A few years ago, I even heard that might not be alive anymore. Lately, I did some internet research and found evidence that she had recently remarried. That heartened me.)

There were the Champions – the most beautiful family that ever existed, but who somehow struck me as unhappy. Even unhappier were the Aspens, who lived right next door.  The kids were standoffish and the parents universally disapproving. My one experience with Mrs. Aspen was when she decided to take us kids to the opera shortly after our dad’s death. I was 8 or 9 at the time and was not exactly enthralled with Madame Butterfly. When I dozed off, Mrs. Aspen was deeply offended and proceeded to scold me on the ride home – much more harshly than my mother ever had. I avoided her like the Plague after that.

69th Street was also home to the Savage family with an uncountable number of kids. The youngest one was my age and had older twin sisters, one of whom was a witch. But, boy (!) could she play piano! And tell wild stories!  At the same time!

Then there was the house that seemed to change occupants every two years. For a short time, Katy, the Reverend’s daughter, lived there and she became my fast and furious best friend (“Sorry Ellie!”) until she moved away (“Hello, Ellie!”)

And then there were the Olders – all of them blindingly red-headed. Scott was my age. He was weird. He needed a comb and to lose the handkerchief he blew his nose into and then stuffed back into his pocket.  He was my first official boyfriend. (And he died on his bicycle two blocks from home at the ripe old age of 15.)

Those kids were my gang. We met up regularly in different constellations and in different flashpoints. We secretly explored the yards of the childless houses on the block. We played statue-maker and kick-the-can and (when it rained) Monopoly. We made hysterical attempts at strip poker after first donning layer upon layer of extra clothes and then arguing about whether we had to take off both or just one sock after a loss.  We made excursions to the Village for ice cream. Sometimes, this or that pairing would succeed in separating themselves from the pack on the way home. They would share an awkward moment of twosome-ness in Pickle Alley, then rejoin the pack and proceed to whisperingly ignore one another. For a while, some of us turned an old car on blocks into a clubhouse. Once, when Savage Boy wanted to come in, one of us told him he had to guess the (non-existent) password first. It quickly went from funny to cruel. After that, the clubhouse lost its charm and was abandoned. And we were all nicer to SB for a while.

In winter there were magical snow days with their social perfection. Everyone was released from prison for a day. First we all pitched in to shovel out driveways, but after that, there were a billion new toys to play with and no adult supervision. And then there was hot cocoa.

As I grew older, there were days when I didn’t automatically go out and meet the neighborhood gang after school. I stayed inside and watched TV. It was the afternoon and there were reruns – mostly of popular series from the preceding decade. Brady Bunch, Beverly Hillbillies, Dick Van Dyke, Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons . . .

Of all the shows I watched, the one with the most diverse cast of characters was probably Gilligan’s Island.

What I didn’t understand until much later was the demographics of my childhood. Whether it was my neighbors, the TV I consumed or the snow days . . . they were all completely white. The city was about 99.9% white and, I’m guessing, 90% Republican.  The vast majority of my friends had dads who left for work in the morning and housewife mothers who didn’t. (If any of my other classmates also carried a house key to school, I didn’t hear about it.)  In economic terms, we all landed smack-dab in the center of the middle class.  We were suburban. We were monotone and . . . bland.

Enter Josephine.

She was my mom’s household help. From my perspective an incredibly large black woman who entered my life once a week. There were a few times when I stayed home sick from school on one of Josephine’s days. She made me scrambled eggs and they were runny and sort of slimy. I gagged just a little when I swallowed them. I might have wished that mom would find a new cleaning lady – one who made better eggs. But that feeling didn’t stick. Josephine was kind and she checked up on me throughout the day.

I remember my mom and Josephine sitting together over coffee and talking as equals in their very different languages. I remember Josephine taking bags and bags full of our old clothes and toys to her car.  I learned that she distributed these things among needy kids in her own neighborhood. She and my mom had created their own private goodwill network.

Years later I suspected that it was important for my mom that we have contact with people different from ourselves. Josephine was not the only example of my mom’s attempts to widen our horizons and diversify our experience of the world. Her own childhood coincided with the Great Depression which hadn’t left her family unscathed. I think she knew how very limited our worldview on 69th Street was – or, I should say, would have been. Or I should say, could have become.

69 was a number that could make young teens giggle and blush, but it was also the number most similar to yin and yang. Without Josephine, witho69-yin-yangut all of my mother’s Josephines, my childhood days could have been all yang with no yin – just a sort of upside-down apostrophe. More contracted.  Incomplete.

 

About four weeks from now, our nation will say goodbye to yin and then just hang there, symbolically and spiritually diminished. An upside-down apostrophe, signifying nothing.  A people who identifies themselves by what they are NOT, not realizing that the exercise alone makes them only half of what they once were.

Election Eve

austria-green  austria-blue

Tomorrow is Presidential Election Day here in Austria.

Again.

It is a do-over after the nearly 50/50 results of the second, run-off election were contested. So we will see in about 18 hours if the country is caught up in the big blue wave from the right. Will it be “First Brexit, then Trump, then Austria, and then . . . the world”? Or can little Austria stop the wave with a green light?

Again.cookies

Tomorrow is also the Open House day at the refugees’ home. Our guys came over tonight to bake cookies for the event. Afterwards, we had a nice dinner and played Level 8.

Again.

Tomorrow, a whole lot of my fellow villagers will go to the polling place and vote for the party who says migrants are not welcome and that they should not come here. Many others will go to the home of the migrants. They will be welcomed.  “Please come in! Have a cookie!”

Quite a few villagers will do both.

 

Home. Again. The Other One.

Leaving home is hard. Coming home – especially after an extended absence, is . . . tricky.  For me, having essentially two homes, there is always a double whammy as I travel from one to the other. And this year, it was slightly surreal.

 

There is always something idyllic about the time we spend in Milwaukee. Each day begins with a long, relaxed breakfast, sipping hazelnut coffee and looking out over the oceanic Lake Michigan. This year the day’s pace was even more relaxed than usual as the humidity zapped our energy (as 288 straight hours in the sauna would have the tendency to do). Still, we had beautiful weather the whole time. Just a little . . . . moist.

Now I’m home. Again. The other one. The one I own. The one I have lived in longer than any other place in my life. It is beautiful here. But also full of responsibilities. I’m missing the other, magical home where life takes a break for a while. On the other hand, I look out at the vista from my porch and think it is pretty idyllic too:

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No sauna conditions today. Here the weather gods prefer intermittent rainfall. There was even some thundering, but it was pretty half-hearted. Not like the wild storms at the start of summer. Now the gods are just phoning it in.

It seems like we always time our trips to long stretches of sunshine in Milwaukee. It occurred to me more than ever that the guests we bring along on our visits (this time it was Omili) experience the very best of the city – the lake and parks, the museums and festivals, the arts, the foods, the multicultural neighborhoods – not to mention the unbelievable graciousness and generosity of our hosts. We don’t bring them to the sketchier parts of town beyond invisible lines drawn through the city. Like the parts that have been burning for the past two nights.

Our departure from Milwaukee occurred exactly halfway between those two episodes of violence. Being busy getting ready to fly home, we missed the morning news coverage of the first night of protests and violence. We wouldn’t see those images until we watched the evening news on our first day back here in Austria.

20160815_200320 20160815_200349

It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that these pictures were coming from that beautiful place I just left.

As much as they disturb my own personal idyllic associations with that city, it is probably a good thing that they are drawing attention. Milwaukee is a place with deep-seated racial divisions and economic inequality issues that need to be brought out into the light. Just like in Cleveland, or Dallas, or Baltimore, or, or, or .  . .

And then there is my daughter, who is still there.

As I write this, she is about halfway through her first day of High School. She has probably just finished her first cafeteria experience. Right now she is in Gym class. I wonder if she was able to open her locker without help or get to her classes on time. Her school is a fabulous place – colorful, multi-cultural, academically serious, and socially conscious.

And, according to Google Maps, it is less than 3 miles as the bird flies from the center of the unrest.

Cry Baby

There are things that simply cannot go unsaid. After each police shooting tragedy (or at least each one caught on video – I hear there have already been almost 500 this year) I opened up a blog post I had begun nine months ago and tweaked it some more. For some reason, I never posted it, but now, after this awful week, I feel the need to. And NOT because of the five police officers, or the CD seller or the man with a four year old child in the backseat, halfway between his license to carry and his broken taillight . . . no, the main reason for me is still the 12 year old boy in the park.
So here it is – the post begun in December of last year, rewritten in February, tweaked in April, and now completed in July . . .

 

Cry Baby

I’m not a crier. The last time I cried was on December 28th 2015 at about 9:30 pm. Before that it was December 14th 2012. And before that I had also gone for several years without shedding a tear.

When awful things happen, I brood for days on end, commiserate with like-minded people and write out my feelings, but I very rarely cry. With a well-made tearjerker film it’s the same. I can count on one hand the films that have brought tears to my eyes and only one of them was a sad film: “Cry, Freedom”. And I actually didn’t cry until the credits were rolling – that long list of names of real people who had died or gone missing –it seemed to go on forever. The other films are “The Joy Luck Club” and “Parenthood” – neither of them particularly brilliant movies, but they get me every time. I have no clue why. So, don’t ask.

I have found myself thinking about that third one lately. Directed by Ron Howard. I like his movies, but let’s face it – can a person be any whiter?? Little Opie in Mayberry and Steve in “American Graffiti” and Richie Cunningham in “Happy Days”. “Parenthood” also shows the quintessential clichés of white suburban middle class family life. Puking up hot dogs after baseball games, losing a retainer at the video arcade slash family restaurant, old-timer fetishes and drag racing, little league and school plays gone bad, SAT scores and unsuitable boyfriends, parent-teacher conferences and the vibrator in the nightstand of the single mom worried that her kid is on drugs. But it’s the birthday party scene that’s been on my mind.

parenthoodCowboy Dan didn’t show up and so the father (Steve Martin) takes over as Cowboy Gil and saves the day. Balloons are twisted. Bad jokes are told. A raucous toy/squirt gun battle ensues. American boys and girls playing imaginatively with guns. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers. Innocent American fun in former, supposedly better and happier days.

 

Why am I thinking about all this? Because Tamir Rice was in the news again today. Apparently, the city sent his family a bill for his ambulance ride to the hospital. And that reminded me of the last time I cried. December 28th. The day it was announced that the policeman who shot him will not be prosecuted.

tamirI had watched that video several times. What I saw was a little, 12 year old boy with his toy gun alone in the park. I wondered what game he was playing in his mind – maybe some more modern version of Cops and Robbers? An edgier one where tough guys hold guns sideways and conceal them in their waistlines. No one else was around as Tamir acted out his fantasy: pulling the gun out of his belt and sticking it back in. Pulling the gun out of his pocket and sticking it back in. If he had been born 30 years earlier he might have had an imaginary side holster. He might have pointed the gun up toward his mouth and blew out a little “whiff” over the tip  and then twirled it around his finger twice before holstering it. The police car careened in, the door opened, shots were fired, the boy dropped. All within a second or two.  The fantasy was over. And I had just watched a child being murdered. In reality.

Apparently it was alright that they used deadly force after arriving at the scene of no apparent crime. Apparently they were justified in feeling they were in danger after racing into the expectation of it. Apparently it is perfectly okay now to “shoot first and ask questions later”.

What I want to know is . . . . . do they ever ask the questions later? And I don’t mean “Why haven’t you paid the ambulance bill yet?”

 

_________________________________________

 

Now, after this horrendous week of murders, my own questions are starting to take shape again. Here are some of them:

  • Why is a white man flaunting a gun exercising his 2nd Amendment rights while a black man with a gun is seemingly justifying the preemptive use of deadly force against him?
  • Do equal rights mean anything when benefit of the doubt remains clearly separate and unequal?
  • And hey, Wayne LaPierre! Will you finally revise your bullshit theory – now conclusively and tragically disproven – to “the only thing that stops a bad man with a gun is a robot packed with explosives”?
  • And, hey members of Congress (R)! Where is my well-regulated militia? I have 2nd Amendment rights too. Is holding on to your job truly more important than keeping little kids safe in their parks and classrooms? Can the NRA strike that much terror into your heart or don’t you have one? Tell me, how many news reports or videos of children being murdered are out there in our futures? And who but you can prevent them from coming? It’s time for you to leave Mayberry or whatever black and white cowboy film you live in.

We may be stuck with you for now, but I hope, I hope, I hope . . . not for much longer.

 

Shock and Awe

For the first time in ages, I simply woke up this morning. No chiming alarm made it happen. No doorbell and subsequent dog barking. No telephone ringing. I just . . . woke up.

Weird.

I came downstairs and greeted my Hungarian cleaning lady, who had arrived an hour earlier, let herself in with the key, taken the dogs for a short walk and fed them. She had also already finished most of the kitchen and the two buckets full of decaying food stood ready to be taken to the compost pile. As we chatted and I made my coffee, I told her that she should not do the master bedroom today – it was so full of piles of laundry in various stages of cleanliness, she wouldn’t have been able to do much anyway. (So . . . no “Yes, yes” followed by a little laugh – this time I made sure she really got the message.) While the coffeemaker worked its magic, I went and turned on my laptop and checked my calendar. Second shock of the day:

shock and awe 1

I can’t even remember the last time my calendar told me that I had the day off.

After going around the house, collecting all the little piles of clothes my family had deposited everywhere and dragging three baskets-full down to the basement, sorting them, and starting the first load, I returned to my laptop to enjoy my first coffee of the day while catching up on the news. Instead of the dreaded stories of Orlando carnage, the first report of the day turned out to be about Mr. Smith Going to Washington. To be honest, I was quite moved – even hopeful by what I heard, and awed by the thought of those 15 hours Senator Murphy stood and spoke through. I got downright nostalgic for the days when immigrant directors made unapologetically patriotic movies about America. I downloaded some graphics of the fictional and real speeches for a possible blog post. Then I reconsidered (or maybe, “woke up” again) after comparing the number of listeners in the backgrounds of these scenes:

shock and awe 2 shock and awe 3

Still, I fully enjoyed two hours of alternate surfing and dabbling at housecleaning. I started really getting into this new day-off feeling . . .

And then came the onslaught.

It started inauspiciously with an email from my boss reminding me to arrange two parent/teacher meetings for next Thursday. I whipped off two text messages and settled back into my surfing.

DING! DING! Mother Number One says Thursday’s not okay. As she had informed us of that already! RING! RING! Panicked mother Number 2 wants to know what is wrong and why we need a meeting. She happens to be one of our more erratic and emotional mothers – lovely in the same way most rollercoasters are. (She is fully aware of it and attributes it to the Egyptian half of her heritage.) Today she was in particularly good form, talking a mile a minute – so about 15 miles in all – while I only managed to get two or three sentences in edgewise. In the midst of this “conversation”, my neighbor showed up at the front door and we gestured back and forth to each other as I held the cell to my ear and rolled my eyes. I let Dog Four out to play with her Collie and we all walked a ways down the road together as Egyptian mom talked about the Cyber Generation and how we all don’t get enough sleep and she doesn’t interfere with her son’s education and he is clearly not being challenged enough, etc. etc. My neighbor gestured to me that she had to get back home and we somehow managed to sign language plans to meet up again in the afternoon for a proper dog walk. I waved goodbye and concentrated on finding a way to calm my Egyptian friend and end the call just as a truck drove up to the house. That’s when I remembered that someone was coming today to buy my husband’s old car. I had been given strict instructions to take the cash and get a signature on the contract before handing over the papers – no more negotiating on price!!

The men got out of the truck and proceeded to complain about how my husband had given them the wrong phone number and that they had been driving around for 20 minutes trying to find the house. As I tried to identify their accents, they asked for the key so that they could check out the car. They seemed nervous. Then one of them asked me to stay and watch them. They asked various questions about certain discoveries, like the fact that the electronic locking system only worked on the front doors. They commented on my accent and asked me where I was from. My response brought the first smiles. Milwaukee and Harley Davidson were both familiar to them. I asked them where they were from and they said Serbia. (Oops. Luckily they were too young to remember the bombs and soldiers the US sent to former Yugoslavia – mostly to stop Serbian aggression.) They discovered the paint stain on the floor by the back seat and said my husband had failed to mention it and then added how they both dreamed of going to the States – mostly New York, but maybe California, too. “And Las Vegas!” one added with a big smile. They hooked up a computer to the car to do a diagnosis of the engine. They each lit a cigarette and then offered me one. I accepted. We talked some more about America. They asked me which was better – America or Austria? They looked at the computer readings. The particle filter needed replacing they said. That would be expensive. The chief negotiator then offered me $600 less than had been agreed on. But he did it . . . uncomfortably. The smiles we had been sharing were gone again.

Suddenly, I was back in London, negotiating about breakfasts.

I knew my husband was supervising graduation exams in the school and probably wouldn’t answer his phone, but I tried anyway. He actually picked up and I quickly explained the situation. I passed the phone to one of the men and watched in fascination as his voice returned to the original hard-ass tone I had heard at the start – before the first shared smile. He complained about the unpleasant discoveries, he argued about how much it would cost to do unexpected repairs, he listened, and then he passed the phone back to me.

My husband began by apologizing for putting me in this situation. Then he said no price reductions. The particle filter was fine; the light meant that they just needed to do an oil change. The paint stain had been mentioned and shown in the announcement. He had not given them any phone number, much less the wrong one. I should say “Take it or Leave It.” And now he had to go. We hung up and I immediately chose a different negotiation tactic. “I’m sorry,” I said, but it is “Out of My Hands”.

There was a short silence. Then the chief negotiator dropped his arrogant tone and raised his offer. We were now just $100 apart. I countered with a $50  discount on the condition that we kept it our secret. I would add the $50 dollars to the cash they gave me. They could consider it my personal donation to their future trip to New York. That made them smile again.

We had a deal.

As we finished up the paperwork, my phone rang. My Cuban friend (N³) needed to talk about our daughters’ plans for the weekend. As we talked, my cleaning lady tapped me on the shoulder and signaled that she was done. I took the cash from my car buyers and gave a part of it to her while working out the plans for our daughters on the phone and watching the new car owner sign the contract. As I handed over the papers, I noticed the time and realized that I had to pick up my daughter from school in 15 minutes. I said goodbye to my Cuban, waved goodbye to my Hungarian, made a formal farewell to my Serbs, texted “Car sold” to my Austrian, and then raced off to pick up my Ethiopian.

shock and awe 4

 

A half hour later, sitting in the fitting rooms of H&M and waiting for my daughter, I realized once again how much I hate shopping. I took a second picture to commemorate the moment.

After that came cooking a late lunch, several more loads of laundry, the arranged dog walk with my neighbor, dealing with the clothes piles in my bedroom, and extended negotiations via phone with my elder daughter throughout her shopping trip to Graz about not missing her piano lesson in the evening. Approximately 9 calls were necessary in all. In between, a barrage of organizational work emails came in which went largely ignored. I also made a To Do list for the rest of the weekend.

Starting tomorrow, of course, because today was my free day.

My husband came home around 10 in the evening and we talked through the events of the day. He told me that right before my call that morning, a former student came to see him. She had been the girlfriend of yet another former student who committed suicide two days ago. My husband, she said, had always been a father figure to her. And then she spilled out her heart and all her questions. How could she get the awful images out of her head? Should she go look at his corpse? Should she have known? Was she to blame? He had written a letter saying it was work stress and a sense of hopelessness that drove him to his decision . . . At some point my husband and I realized that we both had spent the very same half-hour giving amateur therapy to distressed people. We talked it through until he couldn’t anymore. He said good night and went to bed. I returned to my laptop.

My mind went backward through the day. My momentarily overworked husband, over-extended and exhausted daughter, all the mundane domestic work that never ends, the wheeling and dealing done to save or make a few bucks, the social obligations that fill up every empty space, my Arabic-speaking mom/interpreter who went from unemployment to a 70 hour work week overnight when the refugees started coming, the fact that part of our jobs as teachers now apparently includes being an amateur psychologist, that the Washington current Mr. Smith goes to is an empty room, the fact that waking up naturally in the morning is now a disquieting experience . . .

. . .that the system is making us sick and our world is in a sorry state.

But there are people who are willing to stand up for 15 hours and shout some small part of that fact to anyone who will listen or no one at all.

That is something. And I will take it.

Girls Off the Rails

If I were ever to share a train car with a suspected criminal, I would be useless to the police as a witness. On my weekly commute to the university, I usually board the train, hunker down in a seat, and whip out my Sudoku book. I spend the entire hour completely oblivious to my fellow passengers. Couldn’t tell you how many there were, what they looked like, anything really. I am truly off in my own little world.

But not the last two trips. In both cases it was a group of high school girls who dragged me out of my reverie and back into the here and now. The first was just a group of two across the aisle from me. Each with their cell phone in hand, they had discovered a site with a hundred different farting sounds and were trying them out one by one. They giggled softly at first after each one, and then, slowly, the volume of both their playback and their laughing increased. They were not off in their own worlds, they knew that everyone else in train car was partaking in their mirth – whether they wanted to or not. This continued for an obnoxiously long time. The rest of us emphatically ignored them.

Yesterday, I took an earlier train and ended up in Graz about the time school lets out there. I got on a bus and took a seat next to the most silent black woman in the world. One row up, four school girls were seated in a group facing one another. They were talking too loudly as teenage girls do. They mentioned Ramadan and then something about praying and “right now”. It turned into a dispute about how feasible it was to observe the rules exactly. One of them said (loudly):

“It’s not a problem! I just say I have to go to the bathroom. Then I go in there and shut the door. I throw my sweater on the floor and kneel down and pray. If someone comes in and wonders why I am crouched there with my head on the floor – who cares?”

This puzzled me. I knew a little about Islam and had heard of a five-prayers-a-day rule, but I had no idea that there were particular times for these observances. Later, at home, I did a little research and found this information on a website of an Austrian Islamic center:

prayer times

It surprised me to see six prayer names and exact times of day – (the things you learn while eavesdropping on strangers!) I could understand the standpoint of the girl who argued it was too hard to keep to the rules – Austrian institutions, public spaces, opening hours, schedules etc. are not set up to be convenient to Muslim prayer obligations. It was a Tuesday while I was on that bus and 12:56 came and went as I listened to those girls.

At one point the discussion got hefty with all four talking at once. I couldn’t catch more than snatches of it – something about “wanting to grab that thing and rip it off her head”, for instance. I looked at them more carefully. They all had sleek dark hair and beautiful faces. They were wearing nice clothes including the ripped jeans so in fashion right now. They wore make up and no head scarves. They spoke perfect German in an Austrian dialect that was clearly native to them. I doubted very much that there was any other language they had better command of.

The discussion turned to the subject of their mothers as they tried to one-up each other. “My mother would have a fit!” one of them said. “My mother would send me straight to the mosque,” said the second.  “That’s nothing! Come to my house once and you will see what it means to be extreme!” the third countered.

The bus turned a corner and passed a large billboard. It was a political ad for Austria’s Freedom Party candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Three of the girls raised their hands and sent a middle finger salute in the direction of the man’s picture. The fourth girl was nudged. She looked up from her cell and asked “What?” One girl pointed at the billboard. “Oh” said the fourth and she made the same quick gesture.

We were getting near the main square where they were going to get off the bus, so the crazy mother competition was replaced with an equally loud discussion about their afternoon plans.  One of them objected to the idea of getting some Kebab first.

“There you go again! It’s the same point I was making before,” another girl nearly shouted. “You have to think more about other people! I AM HUNGRY!” They debated back and forth emotionally and then seemed to find a compromise just as the bus reached their stop.

I thought about these two scenes a lot for the rest of the day, and then again today. It suddenly struck me as odd that they stayed on my mind and I wanted to figure out why. Two sets of girls were sort of obnoxiously loud on public transport – that is fairly normal for teenagers anywhere. I had learned a little something new about Islam from the second group, but then it wasn’t THAT fascinating . . . and then it finally dawned on me.

I had been surprised at how normal those four girls were.

Five or ten years ago, that idea would have never entered my head. Tens of thousands of Muslims have been living in Austria for decades. I have had hundreds of Muslim students and didn’t find anything unusual about it. This surprise of mine was something new – something had to have changed inside my own mind for me to feel it at all. Could it be that all the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, fear of terrorism talk I have heard in recent years had gotten inside my head despite my rejection of them? I want to think of myself as being above that, being immune to manipulation, but there it is. I hate such moments of discovering my own prejudices. I hate the thought that extreme politicians can create such crap perceptions in the minds of people who hadn’t had them before.

I want to think that despite ups and downs, humans are generally going in the right direction when it comes to racism. That the moral arc is truly bending towards justice and that someday the current concepts of race will die out. That the future world my daughters live in will be even better to them than this one. But right now I am wondering if some ideas can’t always be raised from the dead again.

My two girls ride trains and buses with their friends. I don’t want them sitting silently and trying to be invisible. I also don’t want them shouting or giving the finger to a political billboard. And I sure as heck don’t want them playing loud farting noises on their cell phones. But more than all this, I don’t want the other passengers looking at them and being surprised at how normal they are.