At the Core

 

I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.

So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.

The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall.  Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.

 

To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:

But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:

 

So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.

Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.

While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:

I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.

It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”.  A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):

                  

Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.

All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.

 

Seedy Alley Surprise

This must be my 20th trip to Milwaukee, so it was nice to find a little hidden treasure just a five minute walk away. At first site, it is nondescript and uninviting little side alley, that makes you stop and consider taking the long way around:

 

But once you enter, you find yourself surrounded by this:

Here was my favorite part:

He’s Back

 

Gingerbread Man left home for the first time in decades. After overhearing me talk to a colleague about my cosmetic plans for him, he had high hopes of returning a new man – fully restored to his former glory. Things turned out somewhat differently.

At first he was thrilled to finally reach a pillow in a new place, but then one day passed, and then another, and nothing happened. His euphoria waned as he heard all the kids playing and laughing just outside his window. He listened to a bunch of them spending hours and hours doing stupid soapstone carving instead of needlework. He began to doubt his time would ever come.

So on Day Three, still in his sorry, tattered, one-eyed state, he cautiously ventured out into the open air. He chose an empty chair by the campfire and sat there for a while, lonely and friendless.

But then something wonderful happened. A few girls expressed interest in him – wanted to know who he was. They weren’t at all repelled by his appearance, in fact, one of them even called him “cute”! They invited him to sit with them and later he joined them in a ball game.

      

The spiffying finally began on Day Four, but there was only time for some jacket trim repair and a preliminary procedure to restore his right eye, before it was time for everyone to head down to the pier. In the meantime, he returned to his pillow to recuperate.

      

On Departure Day, he was thrilled to be asked along on a final walk to the pier. He sat with his new friends and contemplated the beautiful lake. This was quite possibly the greatest day of his life. The water was so enticing – he couldn’t resist:

    

All too soon, it was time to get back on the bus. Gingerbread Man did so in a physical condition only slightly better than the one he arrived in. Still, he spent the ride home basking in the sunlight of poignant memories and renewed hopes for a brighter future.

Gingerbread Man. On The Road Again. Unplugged.

As some of you know, my Gingerbread Man spent many years in darkness and solitary confinement before his release from the nightstand last year. Since then he has been lying on various shelves or the bedroom floor collecting even more dust. He doesn’t understand the world anymore or what he did wrong. He misses his old life of international travel and new pillows in exotic places. He misses sunlight. He misses his right eye.

So I have decided to take him with me on my school trip. Five days at a lake in Carinthia with 27 kids (one of whom – as his mother informed us – can’t sleep without his favorite stuffed animal and he’s very afraid the others will make fun of him.) I have also decided that I am going to devote my arts and crafts time to him this week. (But he doesn’t know this – it’s a surprise, so “Ssshhhh!”) He’s going to get his eye restored and his little jacket trimming replaced. That hole in his neck will be fixed and maybe a little scarf crocheted to hide the scar. There will be general nipping and tucking and spiffying.

 

So you’ve got the “Before” picture here. The “After” one will be coming in about 6 days. In the meantime we two will be offline at our cell-free camp – so have a nice week! We’ll miss you!

 

The Lemonade Stand

Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.

Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance?  What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?

In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.

One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.

 

 

      

Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.

 

The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”

 

They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.

“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.

“Sure,” I answered.

And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS.  We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.

 

Women’s Work

It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.

It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!

Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.

(Am I being unfair?)

This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man.  At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,

“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”

“No. My mom does it.”

I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.

“What is so funny?” he asked.

“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”

My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:

“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”

 

That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.

What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”

Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.

At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:

“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”

My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2.  I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked

“Why?”

“Why do you think?”

In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?

What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.

So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:

“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”

That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.

 

People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or  government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.

I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.

I tell myself.

 

 

Trash Wednesday

Well, actually “Ash Wednesday”. Which means yesterday Austria celebrated what they call “Fasching”.  It has nothing to do fascism – quite the opposite really. It is the big blow out before we all, or most of us, or actually just some of us give up something we really like until Easter, or at least for a few days, or sometimes maybe for just for a few hours. Nowadays on Fasching Tuesday, Austrians of all ages either make themselves ugly, or they don the usual Halloween-type costumes – witch, pirate, cowboy, angel, devil, etc. But I have read that the old tradition was to slip into the opposite of one’s usual role. So men dress up like women and women like men. A king (- in American terms, the president) dresses up like a court jester while a fool becomes a president.

With that old tradition in mind, I chose my costume for our school party:

cook

Full disclosure: that last sentence was a fib. Actually, my husband bought and wore this costume at his own school’s Fasching party last year. And, no, I am not this large. The costume has a little motorized fan that blows it up like a balloon.

As I walked into each classroom yesterday, a loud round of shrieking broke out first. The kids then approached me carefully and made little tentative pokes. Those became jabs. After 10 minutes, I felt less like a cook than a punching bag and had to reassert my teacher authority to stop the abuse. The wooden spoon came in handy. The best part of the celebration was dancing in the disco in this get up – doing all the hip-hop moves I learned from my daughter as my students freaked out. Some of them were laughing, but others were staring at me with a questioning look on their faces: “Who ARE you?? And what did you do with my English teacher??”  I am fairly sure there are quite a few pictures of me currently floating around in various teenage WhatsApp groups.

I don’t care at all.

I used to really dislike Fasching and everything connected with it. I didn’t have this tradition growing up, so seeing all these grown-ups dressed strangely and acting crazy was sort of creepy. And the village festivals were just obnoxious puke parties as far as I was concerned. Ash Wednesday became one of my favorite days, because 1) being a heathen, I enjoyed not having to give up stuff I like for six weeks, and 2) it meant Fasching Tuesday was over. Then I changed jobs.

During my first two years in the school, I had to jump over my own shadow to participate at all in these parties and the enjoyment factor was non-existent. Slowly, but surely, I started to get into it. I slipped more and more into my new role-for-the-day and had fun with it. This year I came the closest yet to that coveted feeling of abandonment. One NOT achieved in a cheating way with chemical help (see “puke parties” above.)

As an immigrant to this country, it has become very clear to me how much a person’s character is defined by the culture they grow up in. I used to tell my (university) students that, as far as I could tell, it is impossible to “become an Austrian”.  People’s identity here is so tied up with the real estate they were born on – the country, the province, the city, the village. The Carinthians make fun of the Styrians and vice versa, the Lower Austrians make fun of the Upper Austrians and vice versa. Everyone makes fun of the Burgenlanders. No one outside of Vienna likes the Viennese . . . When my husband is asked where he comes from, he answers with the name of a city he spent only his first five years in. I couldn’t imagine myself ever saying “I come from Brown Deer.”

I basically emigrated from the States at the ripe old age of 20. I came back for one year to finish my undergrad studies. I came back again for 7 months to finish grad school. I have had many month long vacations there over the years. But . . . total it all together, it still doesn’t come close to the 31+ years that I have lived here in Austria.

Have those 31 years gotten me closer to being Austrian? Hardly. But yesterday, dancing in the disco along with my bearded colleague in his fairy butterfly bride costume and a hoard of young costumed confetti-throwing kids, I moved a tiny notch closer.