A Call to Suitcases ~ An Austrian Adventure

“Boots!”

“Check!”

“Rain gear!”

“Check!”

“Pants?”

“Who needs those?”

“You need to get off Twitter. Undies!”

“Check… and check.”

“I’m not even gonna ask. Socks!”

“Che.. ahey, those aren’t mine! Catch!”

There are certain advantages to raising military brats. One of them is that they can mobilize with the speed of a SEAL team, going from lounging leopards pawing tenderly at iPads to tossing socks and unmentionables across a hallway in 2.26 seconds flat. Another is that they have been hammered, honed, and tempered in the forge of military moves, and thus are capable of assembling basic necessities (Toothbrush! Favorite T-shirt! Snacks! Plush Eeyore!) without assistance or prompting.

There are drawbacks, too. First and foremost there is the Laissez-Faire approach to packing. Aka “If it won’t fit I shall make it fit!” Aka “Mom really doesn’t remember why she even owns an iron.” Aka “Come over here and sit on this!’ – “Did you just call me fat?” Secondly, it requires naught less than a crowbar with a steam engine attached to divert them from their mission. Once the hosiery and toiletries are airborne, mother can only dodge and evade; any and all appeals to help retrieving an errant shirt from the happy dog fall on deaf ears.

Right. The dog. Travel bowls? Check. Leash? Check. Squeaky duck? Che… I sure hope they weren’t planning on bringing those pants. Wait, didn’t she have a shirt earlier?

Road Dog
Road Dog

We’re horrible at planning. Abysmal, lousy, harrowing. We are the unchallenged Queens of the Very Last Minute, flying by the proverbial seats of our pants while our aircraft is cheerfully shedding screws and the odd bit of wing.

As the merry mayhem progressed upstairs and I was absentmindedly squeaking a disheveled chew toy, I wondered, wistfully and a bit enviously, how our sweet neighbors do it. I wouldn’t call them organized to within an inch of their lives, but they always manage to tell us two, or four weeks in advance when they need a dogsitter. They have itineraries, lists of good restaurants and interesting sights. They have their clothes washed, ironed, and packed the day before departure, they have a tank full of gas and a plan.

We have bright ideas.

Such as the one that started this latest upheaval. The email had been sitting in my inbox for a week, largely ignored. A 30% off coupon for a fancy hotel with horses and a spa. Horses and a spa! Well, it’s October and the weather in the mountains of Austria is likely somewhere between abysmal and depressing. But … horses! Spa! 30% off! If you take the horsey 3-day package, you even get another discount. But… we did have plans. Of a sort. On this glorious, rare 4-day weekend, elder daughter was going to visit some friends while younger and I would park our resplendent selves on the couch for a “Vikings” marathon and only move under duress (YOUR turn to order pizza!).

Yet as the date drew nearer, so did the feeling of “Ugh. Boring” increase. But what to do? Summer season was long gone, winter not even a blip on the radar yet. Rain, that’s what was on the menu. More rain. One sunny autumn day, followed by … yep, rain. And the Lion King musical was sold out, when mother peeked online – just in case. Prague? Rain. Berlin? More rain. Spain? Too short notice by now, plus we’d practically have to leave again soon as we touch down. Couch? Pizza it is.

Bright ideas happen randomly in this family, as do odd food hankerings, and left-field interjections during perfectly normal breakfast conversations about politics and astrophysics and Kirk vs Picard.

“Voting for this guy would be like flying into a quantum filament just to see what happens. Positively Kirk-esque recklessness!”

“I want Kaiserschmarrn!”

“Me, too. Let’s go to Austria. And vote for the other guy.”

“Agreed. On all counts. With quince jelly.”

It took about an hour to find the email, call the hotel, find the lady who spoke English, find out they had an opening, several actually, and if the ladies would like a suite it’s an extra 10% off the package (off-season you understand), whip out the credit card, and book a holiday starting… today. T minus 6 hours.

Let the melee commence.

 

 


Inspired by and written for Wander.Essence‘s beautiful “ANTICIPATION & PREPARATION” series. Check her out, she not only has the most amazing pictures, but she has Plans!


 

The Austrian Adventure continues here: Mountains, cows and coffee!

 

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Winter Has Come

(I do apologize for the blatant GoT reference while simultaneously stating that I do not own any rights to the trademark or franchise, nor, sadly, a Direwolf.) 

 

Winter. Once upon a time that season was greeted with dread. Winter meant a struggle to survive. A slow and agonizing death for those who did not have enough food put away during the time of plenty, or who did not ration wisely, or were simply unlucky. For some, a quicker death if you got caught in a storm, or an avalanche, trying to supplement your dwindling rations by hunting. And if the snow and the cold didn’t get you, disease and exhaustion and malnutrition were just waiting their turn.

Since the advent of central heating and supermarkets, with airplanes flying in fresh apples from New Zealand and 18-wheelers carting guacamole even deep into the Great White North, “Winter Is Coming” has lost its terror. It is even anticipated with joy – at least it always was by me, perhaps not so much by my dad, who every year dragged the snowblower out of the shed while mumbling astonishingly creative bad words (under his breath of course, so I would not hear. And of course I did, and marveled at his artistry).

DEFCON cucumber, aka “throw on another layer and the BIG hat!”

Winter meant pond hockey, hot chocolate, and a magical forest covered in glittering white.

Maybe that’s why ‘Snowflake’ is deemed such a cute insult. Who fears Winter? Well, maybe Texas does, considering the “The End is Nigh!” panic on social media and every single Interstate as soon as an errant cloud accidentally drops some deadly crystals.

Anatomy of a Snowflake

This particular insult has puzzled me since the first time I heard it, and in the beginning I only derived from the context that it was, in fact, meant as a slight. I mean, they’re pretty, right? Awww you think I’m exquisite, and intricate, and I refract light in tantalizing ways, and I look awesome in closeup pictures? Why, thank you!

A short while ago a young man decided to vent his frustration with the world at large and the female population in particular in the direction of my older daughter. What started as clumsy attempts to get her attention and assert his masculinity by wolf-whistling and strutting around like a rooster with to basketballs pressed to his chest (the latter earned him a “Ru would be proud” comment from the target’s younger sister), quickly deteriorated into becoming an all out nuisance. The unholy trinity of familiar bullshit, from mocking the very physical traits he had glorified earlier (aka “If I can’t touch this radiantly magnificent bosom, I shall now declare I never liked it in the first place”), to questioning the attached young woman’s character (aka “Only a mean and stupid woman would reject me!”), to the carpet bombing of blaming everything and everyone other than himself (aka “If not for evil Feminazis and Liberals my crude advances would be enthusiastically reciprocated!”)

Well, no. Like her mother, the young lady with the Mae West figure and the brains to match the cleavage, does not respond well to rudeness. Unlike her mother, she remained serene in her responses. And was declared a “Snowflake” for telling the young man that he was being vulgar and hurtful.

It got me thinking.

pucksmiley

A 17 year old military brat (and if you’re not familiar with the slang, ‘brat’ in this context is a tender endearment), a hockey-playing, horseback-riding cowgirl who could shoot the wings off a gnat at 300 yards but cries when a dog dies in a movie, a soul so gentle she lets her mother win at Monopoly every damn time, who bakes Christmas cookies for soldiers who are away from their families and unable to get home for the Holidays, who could have planted this rude boy on his hind end with one good shove but chose to politely point out that he was being an equus asinus … is a snowflake.

Well. Alright.

To be sure, this one’s a Northern Snowflake (“You better get your scarf and mittens, dude, where I come from the snow don’t play” – sic) . The kind that rides a blizzard down from the Arctic and delivers a few Canadian pines to your doorstep before settling on your roof along with a few billion buddies. Best get shoveling before the cousins show up. They look fluffy and harmless and very pretty, but only until that roof caves in. Do trust me on that one.

A Tale of Ice and Fire 

Now, my stalwart teenager may not have solved her ‘persistent bully problem’, but her wintry cool response allowed me to look at the situation from a different angle.

Here I was, ready to cover my baby’s six at her “Need backup!” call and breathe fire and doom upon that hapless lad smaugwho felt entitled to her attention, and resorted to increasingly crude and abusive tactics when it did not materialize (cue Smaug: “I am FIRE! I am DEATH!”). Here was my younger daughter, channeling her Norse ancestry (95 lbs of Viking fury sounds funny – until it comes straight at you). Here were the high school teachers poised to intervene and chastise the luckless suitor turned bully, and last but far from least, my daughter’s friends and teammates, ready to unleash a blizzard that would warrant a state of emergency in 47 States (and at least an annoyed “Eh!” in Canada).

It was not needed.

Because there is something terribly sad about the “Suck it up, Buttercup!” and “Fuck your feelings!” crowd. About the raging and ranting and the “I’m just blunt and you can’t deal with it!” cries. There is a hurt in there somewhere, a helplessness, and – so my daughter mused when I expressed my marvel at her composure – perhaps a fear of those feelings we’re supposed to ‘suck up’. A fear that allowing yourself to feel, to have empathy, to show but a flicker of insecurity, would instantly deflate the carefully constructed facade of strength. And then one would see the boy who simply doesn’t know how to talk to the adored young lady, who’s terrified of rejection, and whom noone has ever taught about honey and vinegar. About the courage to show your softer side, and the strength one finds at the heart of vulnerability.

Image result for elsa frozen
Perfectly harmless Snowflake

It’s so much easier to double down on the bluster and the anger than to deal with the feelings of “I wanted her to like me but I’ve hurt her”. So much easier to shift the blame to the perceived ‘snowflake’ for not being able to handle a strong, masculine personality. So much harder to admit “I was being an ass to her, and that’s why she doesn’t want anything to do with me”.

I might not be able to summon the same compassion as my Snowflake for this angry, rude young man. I still think he would greatly benefit from a right ding behind the ear, preferably administered by the collected works of Lord Byron. But I can see where she’s coming from. Or rather, where she stands. On her frozen plain, being a lovely, glittering bit of frozen water, and quite content with it. Just don’t insult her on the other ice. The one where pucks fly. That’s when all bets are off and she will surpass her grandsire’s creativity in unleashing utterly majestic expletives. In three languages.

Let it Snow!

It’s -14ºC in Germany today, or about 6ºF. For three ladies hailing from the Adirondacks, that means one extra layer of flannel, and the good boots when walking the fluffy dog.

A fine, crisp cold that nonetheless creeps into your bones and reminds you why our ancestors didn’t mess around with Winter. That even with our sturdy walls and readily available fuel to heat them, even with our internal combustion engines that tirelessly bring food and supplies, even with mighty power plants, we are not quite so safe as we like to think. When the sap freezes in the trees and only the bitter wind breaks the deadly silence of the forest, that bright white blanket of snowflakes is still beautiful. But you don’t feel inclined to call it harmless.

Said the youngest of the ladies, her breath forming small clouds in the crystal clear air: “This ain’t no joke, brother. Yegawds. You two keep going if you want, the dog and I have enough brains to go home and hide under the furs. Auf Wiedersehen!”

February 2018 - Snowlflakes

 

 

 

The not so Old Girl and The Sea

It started with a Hashtag.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the tributary streams of our modern world flowing into the big river of awareness. Then the conventional media outlets caught on and before we knew it, the Weinstein dam broke and it was Land Under in Hollywood.

I’ll admit, my brain went into ‘white noise’ mode after the first few hundred Tweets. It seemed yet another sad, frustrating déjà vu moment in history – I’ve already seen this, and not once but twice, three times … it’s like we’re forming a brave bucket brigade on the Titanic, shouting encouragement to each other while that sad, lonely SOS echoes over the frozen Atlantic. If anybody out there really gave a damn, wouldn’t they have answered by now?

So, I was resigned to have another talk with my teenage girls about why life isn’t fair,

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about politics and the legal system, and that there really, really still are good men out there. I thought about calling my dad – the guy who always has, and always will top that list for me – and tell him I love him. Not in those words, maybe. He’s a sardonic, oft taciturn fellow who shows you how he feels rather than prattle on about it. I thought about checking in on an old friend, who struggles to this day with the aftermath of an abusive relationship. Offer support in case her Facebook feed had her puking and crying. Keep bailing water while the band plays on. And tomorrow we’re on to other news. Again.

Only it didn’t stop. Not this time.

When the Bough Breaks

Encouraged by the sudden, inexplicable shift in the winds, that unexpected turn of the tide, women told their stories. One after the other. A great many of them no doubt felt like having stumbled into a kind of Narnia – a magical land where suddenly the laws governing the world no longer applied and women were believed instead of dismissed, ridiculed, silenced.

But it was the stories you don’t find in newspapers that stood out for me. While the

narnia
I don’t think we’re in the 1900eds any more…

reckoning that caught the rich and powerful like a tide was important, even crucial, it was a glimpse at the ocean from a sandy beach. Or an iceberg, as it were.

Among those stories from the depths of the ocean was one one of my favorite bloggers who broke her long silence, making a quiet but powerful statement about the “Silence of The Abused” 

Like my friend, this sweet, funny, generous lady was and is suffering. Yes, even years later. Like my friend, she struggles against the dragnet keeping her down, keeping her silent, every knot made of fear and shame and dismissal.

This one hit me hard.

I have amazing parents, loyal friends, and have never been described as a shy girl, or timid woman (rather the opposite – I often have to convince people that I’m actually quite a sweetheart). And I still have #MeToo stories. Stories I don’t like to tell, because of the “Naaaww, you? Get outta here!” reactions. Because of the “You just want some payback on a guy who ditched you!” bulldung. Because it’s tiresome. Because bucket brigade.

But for my friend, and that blogger whose posts I’ve always enjoyed, and for anyone whom it may help, I’ll take my skiff out and hunt marlins (pardon the shameless Hemingway reference). Because even women who kick arse and take names know what it’s like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And because you need to know we have your six if you need it. All you have to do is ask.

Damn right. Hashtag Me, too.

I was 16, and had just grown from the cute tomboy into your “All American Girl Next Door” – though with the vestiges of the tomboy still clinging to me. That, combined with the facts that I was a late bloomer and that my interest in boys was still mostly limited to how well they could shoot a hockey puck, had thus far saved me from much unwanted attention – in school and elsewhere. Well, that, and Billy’s black eye after he pulled my hair in 7th grade (guess who got detention).

Mother nature caught up with me eventually, and though I never saw the point of overly highlighting my figure which suddenly resembled a 50ies pinup girl rather than a baby giraffe, it did attract notice. Like most girls, I put up with the catcalls, swatted away hands attached to grabby teenage boys and employed the occasional strategically placed elbow if the gentler methods had no effect. I gained a reputation as a “mean bitch” for not responding well to what to my mind was just plain rudeness.

But life in a small town in Northern NY, with a well known and respected veteran for a father and a veritable firebrand for a mother has its advantages – and granted me a reprieve I now know many women never had.

Until it didn’t.

As sexual assault tales go, my first is almost embarrassingly brief and undramatic. Just a young woman working a summer job at the hardware store, trying to save up a few bucks for that old pickup truck I had my eyes on. Jeans and a tshirt, some solid boots – simple, sturdy clothes for when an elderly customer needed help hauling stuff around. I was as oblivious to the men’s weird “hardwood flooring” jokes as a gerbil to quantum physics. And as stunned as a hockey player who takes a puck to the head when one of those men cornered me behind some shelves and slid a hand under my tshirt to yank at my bra.

I remember the smell of sawdust. I remember freezing like a deer in the headlights, trapped between a guy who outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, and the wood. And I remember that it hurt, worse than stupid Billy pulling my hair, and then the rush of fear followed by pure anger.

I don’t remember what I said, but my boss later told me he’d never heard such language from me before. I don’t remember kicking the guy hard enough to make him yelp, though apparently I did, earning me an ‘attagirl’ from bossman’s wife. I don’t even recall said bossman pulling the sonofabitch off me after he heard the ruckus, only that shaky feeling you get after being slammed into the boards at a hockey game. Adrenaline, fight or flight.

It stuck with me in such annoying detail not because it was horrifying (I was more angry and disgusted than frightened), but because it marked a sad end to innocence. And because of the aftermath, which is a story every victim and survivor can tell like a litany

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in Catholic Church, the same old song, over and over, only the singers change.

“Are you sure you did not encourage him?”  YES I’m sure!

“Could you have misunderstood?”  Hard to misunderstand being pinned and groped to the point of pain!

“But you were leading him to that secluded section” It’s where the oak wood is

“You claim you did not understand the … hum hum … hardwood jokes?” I did not. I do now.

“But you realize how it might have seemed you were…” NO.

“But we never had any trouble with him” How nice for you.

“Well, no harm done, right?” Are you f*ing kidding me right now?

Believe it or not, I was lucky. Though that police officer had me doubt my own sanity for a minute, my boss’s testimony was convincing enough (a fact which didn’t much help my anger – why do you believe him but not me?). The guy walked away with a slap on the wrist, but he was no longer welcome at the store and at several other local businesses. I had to put up with some whispers about being a tease, and the already familiar “mean girl” as well as “probably a lesbian”. The fact that it required another man – in this case my dad – to silence most of those with some well placed, gruff comments and his trademark calm, no-bullshit attitude …. it should have bothered me, but didn’t. I had better things to do. Like buying that truck.

And just when you thought it was safe…

Older, not much wiser, with still a bit of that sweet naïveté but thinking I knew it all … you guessed it. College.

And of course I was asking for it, working as a barkeep in the evenings, right? Wearing those snug, comfy old jeans and v-neck shirts that let you see just enough cleavage to leave the girl a nice tip. Never mind said girl is a margarita wizard and plants your Bud Light in front of your nose before you finished the ‘ght’. Never mind it’s hot and loud and she’s working hard, and already sweating worse than Sidney Crosby in round seven of the playoffs, she should have worn a baggy turtleneck.

Don’t get me wrong – I met some awesome guys at that bar. Sports fans shooting the breeze, appreciating a girl who knows a linebacker from a left winger and can rattle off her favorite players’ stats rather than gush about their cute behinds. Quiet guys, talkative guys, sad drunks, happy drunks. All of them fine men.

I learned to handle the unpleasant ones. The octopus who seems to grow more arms every time you smack one away, the would-be poet who’ll croon odes to your female attributes and switches to crude insults when you explain you have other customers. Or don’t give him your number. Or politely decline a drink.

Again, it often took one of my ‘regulars’ to step in and remove those guys. Because a woman saying ‘stop that nonsense’ was not enough, it needed another man. Vexing, but you deal with it. Paying customers waiting. Four Molsons, coming up. Down, boy, I ain’t got time for this.

Until the night two men decided to wait for that “Cocktease bitch” and teach her a lesson. crime_sceneWith any other crime, this would have been called ‘premeditated’. They had planned it well, scouting out which car I drove, where it was parked, when my shift ended. The forced nonchalance of “Who do we have here?” wouldn’t have fooled a blind goose wrapped in cabbage leaves. It didn’t fool me. But until they actually put their hands on me, I remained in that “they’re rude assholes, but they wouldn’t cross the line to criminals” state of denial.

I’ve never been tiny or frail. I thank my father’s Scandinavian blood every day, not only for a lovely, gravity-defying rack and legs that won’t quit, but a 5’7″ frame of sturdy bones, and a left hook that will make you hear the Valkyries sing. But I had no hopes of outmatching the weight and muscle of two grown males. So yes, I panicked. The moment  my arms were wrenched behind me and I was shoved behind a large SUV, the moment that hand went for the waistband of my jeans, denial took a hike and survival instinct roared to life. Complete tunnel vision. I cared about nothing but getting those guys off me. By whatever means. Kicking, scratching, biting, slamming my forehead into a nose. I still hear that sound, and the guy’s howl. The curses. The “You’re gonna get it, bitch”. Still feel the backhand blow that made stars dance before my eyes.

I was saved again by other men attracted by the yelling – they thought it was a bar fight spilled out onto the street and went in to separate the combatants. Go figure.

And just like that, the litany started once more. Nursing a swollen, bleeding lip and more bruises than I could count, I got to explain to a dubious law enforcement officer that I had neither invited, instigated, nor sent mixed messages. That I hadn’t broken a poor man’s nose for a harmless butt-pinch. That I hadn’t flirted with the poor besotted guys and then changed my mind. That I wasn’t a college girl gone wild who then couldn’t handle what she had coming.

“But you talked to them. In the bar.” I’m serving the drinks, talking is required!

“If you saw them waiting by your car, why did you keep approaching them? If you felt threatened, why not go back inside?” I underestimated the threat. Next time I shoot first and ask questions later. Would that suffice?

“How much have you been drinking?” Nothing

“You tend bar, and no one bought you a drink?” I don’t drink alcohol at work.

“Why didn’t you call for help?” I don’t know. I thought I did.

“You realize broken nose guy is pressing charges?” Oh? What paragraph covers ‘I was prevented from raping a woman’?

“There is self defense, but you really went after those guys.” I. Was. Scared.

“You don’t look scared.” Tell it to the mother-effing Marines. I want to go home.

Again, it was the testimony of other men that changed the tune. My regulars at the bar, explaining patiently that I was not in the habit of beating up men. That those guys had shown some issues with boundaries before. A man saying “If those *%&#$ers show their faces again I’ll bury them” was shrugged off as chivalry. Me saying “I wish I had broken more than his nose” was considered vicious and vindictive.

And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the cavalry charging to my aid. I’ll never forget the guy who gave me his jacket to cover my torn and bloody shirt, and I’ll never Image result for rape cultureforget the police officer who finally barked a “You shitting me? The girl is bleeding. I’m taking her to the hospital. Get the statement later!” Much of the rest is a blur. There was a soft spoken nurse, and bone deep exhaustion. Simmering anger and frustration, more questions. Always more questions.

In the end, I was cleared of the charges – but the mere fact I had to defend myself for, well, defending myself, left a bitter aftertaste. That I was once more the mean girl who had tempted upstanding citizens into rash actions, and now was crying rape – and they didn’t even get to do it, the poor guys. Punished without getting a piece of the action. What a bitch.

Cry me a river, cry me a sea

Not at all surprisingly, the pushback in form of “Feminazis want us all oppressed” and “What about Muslim women? You don’t care about them, do you? (newsflash: I do) – bitches don’t know how good you have it” and other agonized cries of “I’m being punished for being a man!” and “I’m afraid to be chivalrous now, they’ll misunderstand and make me look bad!” is already in full swing.

Never mind that if a guy so fears being hated by women, he just might have a reason. Never mind that the horror of ‘politically correct libtards’ is all too often identical with your own nana telling you to mind your manners or there’ll be no cookies. Never mind that physically opening doors and slamming metaphorical ones into women’s faces is not chivalry.

This post isn’t about blame. Do I hope those guys learned something in the end? That maybe their grandmothers gave them a good ding behind the ear and their fathers sat them down and rehearsed common decency 101 with them? I do, actually.

But I wrote it for the women. The ones who still feel somehow their SOS calls are disappearing into the void because they’re not important enough, because their stories are not horrifying enough, because their tormentors are too close, too powerful still. The ones who are still scared to speak up. The ones who think their pain and fear makes them weak. Who still believe in some corner of their soul that they share at least part of the blame.

I hear you.

You’re not alone.

And the good guys are out there.

Any Port in a Storm

It feels as if women are navigating an ocean where not all boats are equal, and some seem to stumble from storm to storm while others sail cheerfully across the seven seas, Storm only bumping into the odd reef here and there. It’s neither fair nor right that I got my start as a well armed frigate straight out of a fine East Coast shipyard, while others have to brave the roiling waves with a leaky dinghy. It’s neither fair nor right that I have a solid home port to put in for repairs if and when I do run into trouble, while so many others are still frantically searching for a welcoming light, and harbor. Any harbor.

What does one do with such privilege? For now and always, never less than the best I can do. I’ll keep patrolling the seas, answer any and all distress calls I can reach, and keep my guns at the ready. And right now, I’ll make that call and say thank you to my dad.

Thank you for teaching me to stand up for myself. For teaching me right from wrong, and to fight for those who can’t defend themselves.

Thank you for showing me how a good man treats his woman (and yes, I know that over the past 50 years your wry comments drove her up one wall and down another so many times, there’s a groove in the ceiling. She loves you anyways. I know. She told me.)

Thank you for having my back, again and again, even when it looked to all the world that I might have been in the wrong. Even when I myself was not sure. Thank you for telling those gossiping biddies “I taught my girl to never start a fight, but to damn well finish it. So bring your beef to me.”

Thank you for teaching me it’s OK to sometimes not bother with the bastards because I’m tired of the drama, and that I’m not weak for calling in the cavalry.

Thank you for letting me fall on my face sometimes, so I could learn to get up. And for being there with the band-aids and an attagirl.

Thank you for showing me that a hard-as-steel veteran can sniffle away tears when his first grandchild is happily dozing off in his arms. That you learned how to bake for your grandchildren (and after you retired took over the kitchen completely – mom loves your cooking!)

Thank you for being you.

Of Candy Bars and Climate Change

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Leave it to my 14-year old to sum up a generation’s dismay and bewilderment in five words.

What prompted the above statement was an adult’s diatribe on how this past January had been awfully cold, and how the sheer amount of snow should convince even the dumbest climate-change believer that it was all a giant hoax. Invented, of course, by China.

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Behold, The Snowball. We are saved.

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he was. Deadly serious. And the crux of the matter is, that both the teen and the adult stared at each other in a deadlock of mutual incomprehension. Each of them thinking:”How can you not see what is so clear, so obvious, right before your eyes? How is this possible?”

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he could. The approximately fifty year old man, who could not or would not believe that his generation might have tragically, disastrously erred somewhere along the way and handed the teenager standing there in disbelief a gigantic mess. Please don’t be serious. Tell me you’re not looking me in the eye and disavowing any responsibility. Tell me you’re not washing your hands off me. You’re supposed to be the elder, the wiser, the one who looks out for me. Tell me you didn’t sell my future for your comfort, and now explain to me I am stupid for asking what you’ve done? Tell me you’re joking. That you didn’t mean to make a mess, but now you realize what’s happening and you’re going to man up and try to fix it. Please don’t be serious…

“I can’t even.”

Leave it to 17 to express ultimate defeat in one pithy sentence.

But 14 would not surrender her guns just yet. After a brief recovery period involving the stages of denial (“He isn’t serious”) , anger (“That son of a biscuit IS serious!”), bargaining (“Maybe if I act all sweet and stereotypical good girl he’ll at least listen ….”) , depression (“I want piiiizzaaa! And ice cream! Buckets!”), she arrived, not at acceptance, but at:

“How do you talk to people like that?” 

Oh child of mine, if I knew that, we might well not have this problem.

So, although mom “can’t even” either, nor uneven (I can do odd if it’s any help), here’s what our customary after-dinner talk produced:

Maybe just KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Image result for candy bars bagBasic: If mom brings home a bag of candy with 20 bars, and I have 4 friends over, I don’t need to be a math genius to make sure everyone gets their fair share.

Intermediate: If I need to figure out when those two trains will meet, or want to balance my checking account, or want to build a shed for the chickens that won’t collapse the first time one of the feathered darlings sneezes, I need a basic understanding of numbers. You know, so many square yards for the roof. Does a steeper angle mean more lumber or less? What angle is more practical anyways? Does anyone have a calculator? Paper and pencil?

Advanced: If I want to figure out the coalescence rate of massive black hole binaries, or what the einsteinspeed of light has to do with time dilation … I need an aspirin. Or find a university that will teach me such things, along with a large supply of aspirin. I’ll need people who studied these things for years to explain to me why the increased relativistic mass of a body comes from the energy of motion of the body divided by the speed of light squared, and why this is important. I need books. I need research. I need the shoulders of giants to climb onto and have a look around.

What in the name of Frigga’s cat has this to do with climate?

Well, it sort of is like the climb from candy bars to general relativity.

Basic: If I step outside to feed my chickens (frolicking outside their new shed I hope) and see big balls of gray on the horizon, I don’t need to be a meteorologist to smell the rain. If after a sweltering hot day the wind suddenly picks up and the sky turns dark, I need no weather channel telling me that Thor is about to start a ruckus.

Intermediate: My hometown in in upstate NY. We have four seasons. (Or two, known as Image result for shrieking brass monkeyWinter and Construction). If we’ve had snow every winter for as long as I can remember, safe bet is we’ll have snow next winter, too. If I believe my elders who say it’s been the same for them, and their elders, and theirs … I’ll just keep the big coat handy. But if I want to know whether the coming one will be rough or mild, it helps to have lived there a while. How early, or late, did the geese leave? Did we need two or three layers under our Halloween costumes? I don’t need to go to college to know that if February was “Shrieking Brass Monkey cold” 34 years out of 36, mom is likely sitting under a pile of blankets right now. But a newbie to our region might not realize that planting your tomatoes in early May is a spectacularly bad idea.

Advanced: If I want to know why the horses are giving me dirty looks even though there is not a cloud in sight, I might rely on my experience and add “muggy weather plus a weird wind” to equal “Maybe not go for a ride down by the lake just now”.  Or I might turn on the TV and see satellite images of a massive storm brewing over Canada, and know for certain  (score one for the equines though, it turned south faster than the weatherman thought). But- I have no satellites, no high tech weather stations measuring temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and I most certainly have never studied how to interpret those massive heaps of raw data. Which is why I’m constantly amazed just how often they get it right (and the express delivery of buckets and buckets of rain did arrive – from Canada with love I’m sure …)

norfolk-navy-base
Photograph by NASA

If I want to know why the U.S. military is worried about Norfolk and Camp Pendleton and bases in Alaska … I need another aspirin. Or find someone who can explain to me the correlation between the data gathered from buoys in the oceans and satellite images, between the Gulf Stream and the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean, between what the guys up on the ISS are measuring, and observing with their own eyes, and the numbers on old, yellowing paper that talk about summer in Queensland, Australia, in 1907.

Not enough aspirin in the western hemisphere. But lots of people who studied this stuff for years and years. Who might not know a stellar nursery from a pulsar (or in some cases, where the hell their glasses are again), but can look at a chunk of Antarctic ice and tell me how much CO2 there was in the atmosphere 400 000 years ago.

I see smart people …

So, does that mean we should just take the experts’ word on everything because they studied their respective subjects a long time and are, you know, experts?

fork-bomb
Credit: SG Atlantis “Brainstorm”

If they’re self-respecting scientists, their answer will be a resounding NO!

If you know the very first thing about scientists, it’s that there’s nothing they enjoy more than poking holes into each others’ hypotheses, theories, statements, papers, and offhand remarks about why deep dish is better than thin crust. It’s their favorite sport, and climate research is almost akin to the Super Bowl.

If you know the first thing about good scientists, it’s that they want you to look at their hypotheses, theories, statements and papers (stay away from their pizza), double checking their numbers, criticizing their methods, questioning their conclusions. Of course, if their paper is bulletproof in the end – that is oh so sweet. But if it isn’t? New stuff learned. New data to add. More knowledge. Poking holes in the old paper just helped them make a new paper. A better one. Thank you.

If they had a credo, it might well be: “Show me where I was wrong. Tell me why you think so. What verifiable data do you have to prove … oh hold on, this is interesting. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that. It’s your own paper. Can we call that guy on the ISS to confirm the readout? Whaddaya know, we were both wrong. Unless McMurdo goofed. Call them, too. And order some pizza, it’ll be a long night.”

οὐδὲν οἶδα – don’t look at me, I’m as clueless as you

So, should I trust every hypothesis, theory, statement and paper to be 100% correct and accurate and applicable?

If I want to graduate from aspirin to vicodin, maybe.

Should I pay attention when this squabbling mass of smart people who constantly explain to each other why that equation there contains a goof of Iliad-epic proportions, and “by the way, Frank disproved that data from the Phillipines last year, catch up willya”, actually agree on something?

Maybe? I don’t know. Let me check the numbers. Florida may be six feet under by the time I’m done, but at least I’ll be 100% sure. Wait, what?

 

Fork Bomb :(){:|:&};:

But they’re all elitist eggheads, looking down on simple folks like me with my haphazard chicken shed and my deep, deep knowledge of Canadian goose migration. They could tell me the sky is purple and prove it, and I could tell them a thousand times to look up, “Look, it’s blue!”, and they’d call me stupid. Because data. Because complex equation that doesn’t mean squat to me (the horse seems to think there’s something to it, though…). Because lots of big words designed only to make me feel more stupid.

You know what? Maybe I should get over my insecurities one of these days. Maybe I might Image result for blueberry clipartacknowledge that a meteorologist (BIG word alert) doesn’t call them “big fluffy grey clouds” the same way I don’t call wild blueberries “weird round things, can I eat those?” (The answer is yes. Yes, you can Mr. Egghead).

Maybe … maybe they’re trying to talk to me (revolutionary concept, I know) and they assume I’m smart. That I understand, and will start poking at their numbers, asking things like “why” and “where did you get that” and “but Frank said it’s only half a degree Fahrenheit”. Maybe they think that if I don’t understand, I’ll tell them.

Maybe, if I feel stupid, I could ask myself “But can they make blueberry jam that countries would rightfully go to war for, can they soothe a skittish horse so nana can remove the splinter?” and then I would not feel small and defensive when I say: “Once more from the top please, and this time assume I have no idea what you just said?”

But, but … conspiracy! China!

Seriously, dude?

 

Je suis Charlie

Remember this?

Has it really been two years? Am I the only one who feels as if it happened yesterday – and a lifetime ago?

 

I got off work a little late yesterday and drove down to the train station to pick up my older daughter, who was not at all mad she got to stay with her German friends a bit longer (for context: I am a single mom of two teens, serving in the military and currently stationed in an astonishingly pretty area of southern Germany).

Looking for that little café nestled behind some buildings that were old when the Mayflower set out across the Atlantic, I absentmindedly returned the occasional perfunctory nods and friendly half-waves of the locals. You see, even though we’re not supposed to wear uniform, or anything that might give us away as members of the US military while frolicking among the natives – they’re not going to be fooled. This close to a US garrison, their “Ami”-radar has been calibrated and fine-tuned for 60+ years. And so when I came to a screeching halt at the quaint little newspaper stand just outside the ‘Bahnhof’, the kind elderly man immediately registered “Ah, one of them” and addressed me in English as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And for him, I suppose, it is.

“Times, Madam? We have London or New York. English magazines, too.”

But I was staring at that French magazine sitting next to something displaying a scantily clad woman and an issue of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine”.

“Oh yes, Charlie. Very funny. If you know French. 4 Euros, Madam.”

Somehow I dug the by now familiar Euro coins out of my pocket and mumbled my way through my still heavily accented German courtesies, before returning to my original mission: locate teenage daughter, forage for food, drive home.

But the magazine, and the avalanche of memories it had set loose, stayed with me.

 

Déjà vu – I have seen this before

The first time I set foot on European soil, I was a teenager. The Cold War was nearing its end, though none of us knew this at the time. The “Winds of Change” were in the air, but exactly which way they would blow a day, a month, a year from then … we had no clue. Terrorism was on people’s radars – the IRA, the ETA, lots of acronyms, varying causes, varying levels of concern – but it was not the haunting shadow that seems to cast its pall over the globe these days.

I remember an autumn day in London, dad and me riding the subway (sorry, the Underground. Or is it the Tube?) when quite out of the blue our train stopped at an odd looking little platform that to me seemed straight out of a James Bond movie. Or maybe a WWII film – it certainly looked ancient to a “Yankee” teenager. A voice came over the speakers, but in the low buzz of English people expressing their discontent in more or less polite ways, all I understood was that we weren’t going any further.

So we disembarked amidst Londoners who seemed to alternate between vexation and resignation, and befuddled, nervous tourists. True, I noticed dad’s frown, but was too busy absorbing this unexpected adventure to even suspect anything other than some sort of technical issue. I remember marveling at how deep underground we were, trying to count the steps of the big winding stair we had to climb to get back to the surface, trying to figure out where we were once we emerged into daylight. I remember dad’s dismay at the suddenly overcrowded streets, the iconic buses stuffed to the brim, no taxi to be had even if traffic had been moving at more than snail’s pace, and pedestrians everywhere. I remember thinking “All we need is a hot dog stand and some cursing cabbies and it’s rush hour in Manhattan” right until the first casual mention of “Bomb threat. Bloody terrorists.”

Strangely enough, I don’t remember being afraid. If I grabbed dad’s hand a little tighter, it was because my biggest fear at the time was getting separated in the press of people, all of whom seemed to know where they were and where they wanted to go.

I remember this, because I admired the Londoners for their stoicism and acerbic humor. I admired how they dealt with this major disruption – and very real danger, as I slowly came to realize after watching the news that evening – it felt as if their entire city had been wearing a “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirt.

I remembered this long after we were back home, safe and sound. Or so we thought.

(Of course to this day my dad blames the IRA for my career choice. I don’t recall wanting to race after the bomb squad that day so I might peek over their shoulders; my sole intent after what felt like crossing London on foot was to secure a mountain of fish and chips, followed immediately by scarfing down every scrap of Indian food within 40 miles. But he’s a wise man, and an amazing cook. Therefore I will not contradict him).

Déjà vu – here we are again

The woman who returned to Europe many years later was quite different from that innocent teenager. Not only had the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history taken place in my home state, but this time I was a member of our armed forces. Thanks to my lifelong fascination with chemistry and physics, and particularly the science of “Why does this go boom, but that only bounce around in odd ways?” I had followed a path similar to the one the guys in London had taken so long ago: going towards the thing everyone else gets away from (and should! Seriously. Even if it only goes “squish” in the end. Get away. Don’t try to be a hero, they’re not paying you enough. They’re not paying me enough, either, but I got all the cool toys).

And Europe, for better or worse, was different, too. Perhaps not so much the Germans, stubbornly sticking to their proverbial guns rather than real ones – the descendants of the people who started a World War now seem to have a unilateral and uncompromising distaste for the concept. But Europe as a whole felt more tense than it had living under the Soviet Union’s shadow. It was subtle enough at first – mostly politicians bickering over details. How much hijab is too much? May a minaret be taller than a church tower, and will Swiss cows object to a muezzin’s call? (This is serious, people, do not mess with Confederate cows. India may hold them sacred, Switzerland will fight you over them).

It became more heated when the war in Syria – for a long time only another soundbit on the news, another hopeful Arab Spring turned slaughter – became the breeding ground for yet another terrorist group. This time, with their sights fixed on Europe.

Then came Paris. January 7th 2015

Je suis Charlie 

Is it more scary, or less, if you already know the gamut of emotions you will run from the time you first hear the news? If you can almost clinically analyze “Yep, still in disbelief. With early signs of anger. Give it a few more hours for the grief to hit. Fuck this. Hello helplessness, my old friend.”

Is it more scary, or less, if you immediately start running your mental checklist “Who is where, anyone close to this situation, when have I last checked in with x and y, what is the threat level at this location, at that one, …”

There was relief, making its entrance right around the time anger morphed into sorrow, because this time there had been none of mine affected. But that same night I started wondering whether that was true. None of mine?

 

“All is forgiven”

Agree with Charlie Hebdo’s satire or not, laugh or find it distasteful, France values their freedom of speech no less than we do.

Having been born in Lady Liberty’s own shadow, I could not help but take this one personally. Not just because that beautiful lady is French, not just because I truly, deeply believe in what she stands for. Because those had been my people. Irreverent cartoonists and a somewhat cynical soldier, we might have gotten into some heated arguments had we met in a bar – but at the end of the day we shared our belief in having that argument. In liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I was Charlie.

But Paris was never the same. Even as the French – magnificently irrepressible bastards that they are – suspended their bickering they enjoy so much for a while to stand together, their world was changing.

November 13th 2015

Déjà vu – when does it end?

From #portesouvertes to “Je suis en terrasse“, Paris was defiant. But this time, the leaders could not ignore the calls for something, anything to be done and declared “état d’urgence”. A State of Emergency that was extended again and again, and still could not prevent the attack in Nice.

July 14th, 2016

No two weeks later, the girls and I went to see the horses in the Camargue, stroll through beautiful Marseille, and stuff ourselves with French delicacies far off the beaten tourist paths. We had planned this trip for over a year. We discussed whether it would be a good idea to go. We hated even asking the question “should we?”

As a mother, I was immensely proud of my girls when they went into a quick huddle and then declared like two small Generals Patton: “Toujours l’audace!”Also as a mother, I could not prevent the dark shadow stirring, the one that wanted to protect my young at all cost. The reasonable approach – there is NO place they’ll ever be 100% safe – did not weigh as much as the argument “It is well to defend a life, but should they not have one first?”, and in the end we were safe enough. Safer than we would have been much closer to ‘home’, as Berlin reminded us painfully not a few months later.

m.jpgStill, it was impossible to not see the large police presence, the soldiers keeping a watchful eye over the milling crowds in the larger cities and near the tourist attractions. It was also difficult to not overhear the locals grumbling about it. One might of course argue that grumbling is the French default state, and if they cease doing it, the midden truly is about to hit the windmill. So we asked. Me in stumbling high school French augmented by the bits and pieces you’re bound to acquire growing up a moose-hop south of the St Lawrence, my girls rather more comprehensively.

I shall not translate the profanities, beautiful and creative as they were (Really? Zig-zag? I had no idea you could do that…). But it boiled down to this: 10 out of 10 French agree that terrorist may go procreate with themselves.

3 out of 10 believe Madame Le Pen is on to something, but considering she’s a politician will surely find ways to screw it up. The police? Yes, good. Let them pull their weight a bit. The soldiers? Bah. Fat lot of good they’re doing just standing around. But they look handsome, non?

4 out of 10 felt that politicians are all idiots but what can you do. What, afraid? Bah. Well, the homegrown extremist bastards are just as worrisome as those coming in, but how do you communicate with people who live in/come to the best country on earth and want no part of it? So they must be idiots as well. You’re not, obviously, since you came here to visit and spend your money. Good for you. The soldiers and police? Would you have come without them making you feel safer? Yes? Very good for you. Have another glass. Tell your friends to come.

2 out of 10 felt that their current politicians are the worst idiots but what can you do. At least they are French idiots, though it is small consolation (yes, the “your idiots are bigger than ours” was implied. Or stated outright). The soldiers? Waste of taxpayer money.

1 out of 10 was either uninterested in sharing, too interested in sharing (I still have that manifesto somewhere), more interested in flirting with lovely American ladies than politics, or too upset about the quality of the fish to bother with silly tourists.

Their world may have changed around them, and they may have adapted (while grousing and squabbling) because that’s how you survive. But for those we talked to, living is still more important than mere survival. As our gruff horse-tour guide out in the marches of the Camargue put it “The f*ck I’ll let anyone screw my life for me. If I go out tomorrow it shall be biting and clawing, because what I have is too good to give up. You hear, mignonne? No dying before you die.”

It was yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.

What did I take home from this trip, other than a truckload of memories and excellent wine?

If I must raise my children in this age of terrorism, let me do it with courage. Let me be irrepressible. Let me hold on to the things I believe in. Let me always remember that I am not alone.

Je me souviens.

Je suis toujours Charlie.