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.

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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.

Saturday Matinee

My best blog buddy, Lyart, does a weekly thing where she introduces artwork or a particular artist to her readers. I am stealing her idea today, to show some of the work of my sister. In addition to writing and photography, in the past few years she has been having fun creating cool and quirky 3-dimensional pieces. On my second last evening here, she pulled out her USA puzzle and I spent over an hour having so much fun with it.

USA puzzle

 

She had researched each State to come up with something of historical significance that happened there – and not just the good and patriotic stuff. The darker chapters of US history are not glossed over. As you put the puzzle together, the best and worst parts land side by side to create an honest and multifaceted whole. Each puzzle piece is a miniature work of art, a history lesson, and a quiz question all rolled into one. A few examples:

Area 51 alien autopsy meets the origins of Miranda rights
Area 51 alien autopsy meets the origins of Miranda rights

 

Brave and non-violent civil disobedience borders on its exact opposite
Brave and non-violent civil disobedience borders on its exact opposite

 

What these pictures don’t show well is the attention to detail. To take in each puzzle piece, you have to view it from all different angles:

Rosa in the window
Rosa in the window

 

The beginning of the end of segregation
The beginning of the end of segregation

 

It occurred to me how fabulous this would be as teaching material for US History. I even contemplated for a while how I could steal it when I leave here for my other home in Austria tomorrow. Unfortunately, it is a bit bulky. I think my sister might notice. Maybe I’ll just slip this one piece into my suitcase:

Proudly a Cheesehead (despite McCarthyism)
Proudly a Cheesehead (despite McCarthyism)

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.

Bad Neighborhood

Since moving to this country, I have been home in the States many times and have often taken this or that Austrian along for the trip. In 30 years, there has never been a single one who left with a negative impression of the country. Some experiences seem almost universal – like the way they all remarked with some degree of surprise on how open and friendly Americans are. How they didn’t see any one with a gun. How Americans are not generally obese after all. How normal and safe everything is compared to what they had expected from the movies or TV. Though, in this last point, something has definitely changed over the past three decades.

Before my husband came over with me the very first time – way back in the late 80s – I had had to reassure a bit him that my hometown was not the crime-ridden cesspool he might have imagined. After arriving at the seedy bus station in Milwaukee, we were waiting for my mom to pick us up when a very friendly black man walked up and asked us if we wanted to buy any drugs. I said no thanks. He wished us a nice day and walked on. We were picked up and arrived at my mom’s house a short time later, just in time for the evening news. It was reported that six people had been shot and killed in the city that day.

“Six?! That seems like a lot!” I said. I seem to remember my husband’s eyes widening and his face getting paler (but my memory might be making that up.)

“What?” asked my mom, somewhat distracted by the next news report. “Oh, yeah. Six. I don’t think it is usually that many.” She went on watching. Somehow, I don’t think her unemotional response made my husband feel any better.

Two or three years later we were back with one of my husband’s friends in tow. It turned out that the first new English phrase he picked up was “bad neighborhood”. My mom gets credit for that too. On our first day in town, she offered to drive us around the city – the place she has lived almost her entire life – and show us some interesting places. She was really enjoying herself and got uncharacteristically adventurous. She headed toward the north side. As block after block of street scene passed through our line of sight out the car windows, the grass, trees, stores, and people slowly decreased. “Closed” signs, vacant lots, bars, broken glass, storefront churches and garbage increased. The cars sharing the streets with us morphed into old rust buckets before our eyes. At some point my mom said, “Maybe you should lock your doors. This is a bad neighborhood.” The grand finale of this little tour was a drive-by of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building – he had just recently been arrested, if I remember right, and there were still tenants in that building that hadn’t moved out yet. My mom told us to duck down as we drove past. (I don’t know why, but something about that memory still makes me laugh.) The entire building was torn down a few years later.

I find myself wondering – sitting here now, far away and almost 30 years later – if things back then were really as bad as they seemed at the time. I know for a fact that crimes of all kinds peaked at that time and have been going down slowly and steadily ever since then. And not only in my hometown, but in the entire country. I’ve heard it said many times about New York – how much safer the city has become. I experienced it for myself last summer on our trip there. Walking around Harlem?! After dark?! That would have been unthinkable in the 80s and early 90s and yet, it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of town.

One of our hosts there was a biologist and worked in some area of (international) public health. I remember talking to him about this supposedly inexplicable drop in crime. He said that scientists and biologists in particular, had some intriguing theories about the causes. The major one had to do with lead. Once it became clear how badly it affected the human body – especially the brain development of kids – links were made between lead exposure and all sorts of behavioral problems, up to and including a propensity toward violence. All the efforts made to get lead out of gasoline and paint and pipes could be one big reason for the lower crime rates today nationwide.

crime rates 1 crime rates 2

( http://thesocietypages.org/papers/crime-drop/)

Once again, I had to think of my mom. Around the same time as those early visits, she helped my brother move his family out of some run-down old rental to a nice little house in a better neighborhood. When I remarked on her generosity, she explained that she just couldn’t stand the idea of her young grandsons growing up in a place with chipping lead paint or barely maintained heating furnaces and plumbing. It was an investment in their futures and her own peace of mind.

Of course it is Flint Michigan that has gotten me going on this subject. All those children. In the absence of a whole army of my moms, they are trapped. And with no apparent relief in sight as the governor goes frantically in search of solutions, by which I mean more people and institutions to blame. Anyone who has seen “Roger and Me” must be thinking the same as me: how many hits can one city take? I wish Michael Moore would return to the scene of his first (and in my opinion, still best) movie and make the sequel – “Rick and Me”. He can document the next six months of his futile attempts to get a meeting with the Governor. All he will ask is that Mr. Snyder joins him on a trip to Flint where he can drink a tall cold glass of tap water.

rick and me

Pink Flamingos

Seen through the eyes of my 18 year old self, what I am doing right now establishes me officially as a loser. It’s Friday night and I am at home, alone with my laptop. Of course, there were no laptops at that time – so I guess the equivalent would have been staying home and watching TV. Although . . . I don’t remember having a TV in my dorm room either.

On October 16th of the year when I was 18, I was a new Freshman at UW Madison – a school famous for its (supposedly Germanic) ethics of “Work Hard and Play Hard”. That’s what we all did. Everyone studied from Sunday to Thursday afternoon and partied from Thursday afternoon to Sunday. I enrolled there one year after the university’s era of peak notoriety – the year when the infamous “Pail and Shovel” party ran the student government.

They had run on a platform of graft and corruption. Student government had been lame and useless, they said, and so they promised to waste every penny of the student government budget – but in a way that everyone would hear about. They promised to reroute the migration of the pink flamingos so that they would land in Madison. They said they would buy the Statue of Liberty and put it in Lake Mendota. They said they would turn the dome of the capital building upside-down and fill it with chicken soup.

They were elected.

All throughflamingos 1979 my senior year of High School, as I was maintaining my GPA and applying for admission there, I would hear about the latest pranks in Madison. How students woke up one morning to find over a thousand pink plastic flamingos on the Bascom Hill lawn. How they rose on another morning in winter to find the head of Lady Liberty peeking out of the statue liberty 1979frozen lake. It was the coolest place ever. One day my letter of acceptance arrived in the mail. I was in! In May, I went to Madison to check out dorms and timed my visit with the infamous Mifflin Street Block Party – an annual event that had started 10 years earlier as a protest against the War in Vietnam, but was now just a big must-go-to party. I watched the student government president ride by on an outrageous float. He was dressed in a clown costume and was tossing joints out to the cheering crowds. The police standing around were looking intently in a different direction as he passed by.

I could hardly wait to move to Madison. This was my ticket out of Whitey-ville/Suburbia and the Me-Generation. This was my chance to be somewhere happening. I packed my secondhand clothes and my record player and my LPs and my popcorn-maker and my scrapbook into the car and headed west.

The first thing that I noticed was that the girls in my dorm had packed differently. They had a lot more clothes and none of it was secondhand. They had lots of make-up and nail polish. They all talked nervously about Rush Week and which were the best sororities and oh I hope they accept me. They discussed whether the Young Republicans Club or the football team had more cute guys. Cheerleader tryouts brought a lot of drama to the house. And the big question of the first month? Who is going to the Homecoming Dance?

I thought I had left high school. Apparently not.

And then came the coup de grace. It was November 1980 and Ronald Reagan won the presidential election in a landslide. The pendulum had officially swung to the right and we entered a long conservative wave in politics. A long, long, long downward spiral, the depths of which I could not have imagined.

At 18, I would never have believed that it would be 12 more years before my two American friends and I could do a pathetic little wave for Bill Clinton while watching the election returns here in Austria in the middle of the night. He was so much better than the alternative, but this was no pendulum swing. The era of big government was still over, marriage was in need of defense, welfare needed slashing and with three strikes you were out. Then came the eight miserable years of bushwhacking. Then came Obama, whom I love, but he never claimed to be personally as progressive as his followers. He tried for six years to compromise with his slowly self-immolating opponents, getting burned in each attempt. Meanwhile the citizenry and local governments decided on their own that it was time to end the war on drugs, the mass incarceration, the discrimination against gay people in love, the exploitation of low wage workers, the regulation of reproduction, the stopping and frisking, the drilling of the arctic . . .

And here we are now. October 16th 2015. Thirty-five years after the election of Reagan. Two nights ago the Democratic candidates debated and for the first time since my Freshman year, they vied for the title of “Most Liberal and Progressive”. This morning the alumni newsletter from UW-Madison arrived in my email inbox. It announced the return of the pink flamingos to the campus – part of its “cherished history” to be used in a campaign against our conservative governor’s plans to slash the university budget.

I think it was a sign.

I am a woman in her 50s and it is Friday night. I am alone and typing on a laptop. That might make me a loser to my 18 year old self. But I might just be experiencing now what that young girl spent 35 years waiting for. The return of the pink flamingos. The swing of the pendulum.

pink flamingos