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Archive for November, 2011

A few years ago, responding to one of those “getting to know you” memes, I listed the ten most influential people in my life.  One of them was Peter Bochow, the man who taught me German.

A few people contacted me after that.  It seems that like me, they had Googled his name, but unlike me, they had  actually found an online reference to him —  my blog — and to a man, they wanted to know if I had heard anything more about him.  Mind you, this man was a remarkable teacher by any standards, so I’m not surprised that people who had also learned German from him, as I had, would remember him after all these years.  Who could forget his memorable demonstration of when the verb “to go” takes the accusative, and when it takes the dative?  (To illustrate, whenever you told him to go to the blackboard using the dative, he’d start to climb on top of the blackboard.)  Or the “pretty little green car” (a Matchbox car) that he used to illustrate how adjectives work in German?

He was as remarkable a person as he was a teacher, broadminded to an extent unknown in the world at that time.  His English was practically flawless; it took me over a year to decide that he was, in fact, a native German, and not just an American who spoke German very well.  Over time, a sort of friendship developed between him, my husband, and me, and we would meet regularly even outside of class for a beer and conversation, in German, of course.  He would tease me relentlessly about the sole glass of milk I had drunk one evening before class (“Milch?!  Pfui!”), and in retaliation, my going-away present to him when we left Germany was a milk can.  He never spoke much about his youth, but there was one memorable class when he talked about his “open-air classroom” when he was ten or eleven — that was in 1945, and the “open-air classroom” was a school that had been bombed to smithereens.  I learned when his birthday was (today), I remember when he met his wife, and I remember when his children were born.

Over time, as too often happens, we lost track of one another.  He had children and a couple of jobs, teaching not only for the University of Maryland but also for IBM in (I believe) Wiesbaden.  We had children, and moved fairly often with my husband’s job, and in one of those moves, lost our address book.  It happens.  But when all these inquiries came my way after my blog post, I looked up first him, then his family members, and found an address for his daughter.  I sent her an e-mail, explaining who I was and what my interest in him was, and asked if she could bring me up to date on his life.  She wrote back, rather coolly, and told me that he had died in 1996, and hoped that the information was what I was looking for, “even though I don’t know you.”  Well, no.  But I knew you as a baby, Toots.  I did write back to request his date of death so I could commemorate him, but never got an answer.

All lights go out, eventually, but this is one that truly grieves me.  He was a smoker when we knew him; I guess it got to him eventually, even though he did give it up, I hope permanently.  I don’t know if he was remotely religious, or if he even believed in God; but clearly, God believed in him enough to give him a gift for language and teaching, and in terms of the parable of the talents, this is someone who took his five talents and made fifty out of them.  I hope he is parked at Bach’s feet, enjoying The Art of Fugue as it has never been heard this side of eternity.  Lacking a date of passing for him, I can’t commemorate it; but on this day that would have been his birthday, I offer this prayer:  May your memory be eternal, Peter Bochow!

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“Have you ever protested for anything?”

Finally, a topic I can respond to. Most of the last several have been, shall we say, “uninspiring.”

In fact, in my callow youth, I did care enough about something to mount a picket line. Mind you, it didn’t do much good. We did everything by the book: Kept the line moving, kept it on a quiet side street, so we were always drowned out by the more spectacular crowd parading down Fifth Avenue, screaming slogans and obscenities and planting themselves in such a way that it took four or five cops to wrestle one into a paddy wagon. This was the Vietnam War era, and there were thousands who marched the streets of Manhattan in protest – and one quiet little group demonstrating in favor of the War. That was us.

I mean, really. Nobody’s in favor of war, not even the military. People get killed in wars, Us as well as Them, and those lines can get blurred very quickly when you meet one of Them up close and personal; a warrior can be put out of commission for the rest of his life by having to kill someone in hand-to-hand combat. So no, the military isn’t pro-war, either, just pro-deterrence: Rattle a long enough sabre, and the enemy thinks twice before invading. And that’s as it should be.

In our case, we were very clear about the purpose of the Vietnam War. It was the containment of Communism, period. China was big and Communist, and pushing its way into smaller countries, gobbling them up like appetizers, and our small group considered that Americans had an obligation to those countries to keep them free enough to decide their own destinies. There was already plenty of evidence to suggest that Communism wasn’t a remotely benign form of government. There was no real economic incentive for the United States to be in Vietnam, either; it wasn’t like we were exporting Vietnamese teak, or whatever, by the metric ton. No, the goal was very clear: containment of Communism.

Not to mention that in those days, there was an actual draft. You turned 18, and you either went to college or into the service. Most of our group were college kids, but a fair number were 1-A status, and knew that it was only a matter of time before being called up. And still they participated in our little counter-protest. For the other side of the coin was equally plain to us: Regardless of what the media and the mainstream asserted, American boys didn’t run around killing babies, and we owed them our support.

It’s been more than forty years since those adventures, and I’m still glad I did it. I have a clearer idea now of what Vietnam was really about – it was supposed to be a “quick victory” for Kennedy in 1964, to boost his chances of re-election – and that awareness annoys me no end. But there was one other fallout that never once occurred to me in those days: Now, forty years later, I can look a Vietnam vet in the eye and say, “I did my best to support your efforts over there.”

(By the way, I’m currently re-reading “Vatican,” by Malachi Martin. There’s a fascinating chapter in there on the role of the Catholic Church in undermining the American effort in Vietnam. Keep in mind that Malachi Martin was a Jesuit for a number of years, so he had no anti-Catholic agenda. Read the book – it’s an eye-opener!)

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It’s quite a few years back that I saw, in Reader’s Digest’s “Toward More Picturesque Speech,” something that ran along these lines:

“No sun, no flowers, no warmth, no leaves, no grass, no daylight — No-vember!”  Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

And yet…

Maybe it’s because I live on a Main Street, which means we get a lot of traffic through here.  And maybe it’s because of the biker bar down the street from where I live, so that all summer long we have motorbikes roaring through here at full throttle.  Maybe it’s the fact that a busy State road is less than a quarter mile away, just down the hill.  But I find that as I grow older, November has grown on me.

My favorite month used to be October, with its riot of colorful leaves; there’s something so exuberant about October.  Even on a rainy day, there’s a vibrancy about October — the leaves seem to glow even brighter when they’re wet.  By November, that’s pretty much history; most of the deciduous trees are bare, and those that are not, have leaves well past their prime, sad remnants clinging to the last dregs of dear life; sort of, “nursing-home leaves.”

But as I said, November has grown on me.  I like its quiet.  I like the way things seem to be settling down for a long nap.  The frenetic and eponymous Holidays are already trying to push their way into our consciousness, but they are comfortably far off enough that we can ignore the attempt for at least a couple more weeks.  November has its own rhythms, its own chores, its own demands:

Clean the garden tools, give the grass one last mow before it snows (something we actually didn’t have a chance to do this year, as a freak snowstorm blanketed all of New England), clip the hedge one last time.  Arrange to have the trees pruned.  Check the garden one last time for any stray root vegetables that we may have missed.  Rake the last of the leaves and pile them into the garden for mulch.

And oh, all right, start making out gift lists for Christmas.  Might as well.  That’s my chore, anyway — all that garden stuff belongs to the hubster, whose enviable green thumb is responsible for all the outdoor chores that get dumped on him.  Besides, he loves being out of doors.  I don’t.  Woman-like, I enjoy buying gifts for my family.  I enjoy it even more since the advent of online shopping; I’ve never been a crowd person.

And then there are the other delights of November.  “No light” means that we draw the curtains earlier, eat supper earlier, have more time to read, knit, or whatever.  Nothing else clamors for attention.  I can spend a good part of my day preparing the savory soups and stews that I love to make, that have no place in the summer; who wants to eat hot food in the summer?!  Summer’s bounty is stored or given away to our neighbors; now we all hunker down to enjoy the fruits of one another’s labors, as well as those of our own.

The Aran sweater I abandoned after May is calling me to finish it.  Pumpkin spice coffee is brewing.  National Novel Writing Month beckons.  (Not this year; I’m clean out of ideas at the moment, but there’s always next year.)  With it, too, November brings the memory of “Allerheiligen” and “Allerseligen,” All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated in the West on the first and second of November.  There’s just something about November that is consonant with remembering “those who have fallen asleep.”

Thank God for November.

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“Name one thing you wish you could go back and change about your education.”

Only one?

Considering how my life has unfolded, the biggest change I’d make is that I’d have gone to college right out of high school.  Back then — and I didn’t know this at the time — it didn’t matter what your degree was in, the main thing was that you had a college degree.  You could go anywhere with that magic piece of paper that had Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences on it.  Knowing that, I’d have chosen to go for Music; but back then, I thought you had to know what you wanted to do in life, and that college was supposed to be tied to what you did for the rest of your life.  And a career in music was the equivalent of a Bachelor’s in English nowadays:  I would have expected to spend my life singing, “You want fries with that?”

And yet, music is what I have spent my life doing, whether playing piano (badly — not enough lessons) or singing, or, for two exasperating and wonderful years, directing a choir.  If I had realized any of that, I would have let nothing stop me.  Particularly exasperating is that, having been brainwashed by the Cost of a College Education (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t cheap), I thought, what was the point in trying?  My family could never afford it.  It wasn’t until long after I was married that someone told me that the City University System of New York was absolutely free, if you went to the college of your own borough.  In my case, that would have been Queens College.

And, in light of that piece of information, I can’t help wishing that I had gone to a public, rather than a parochial, school.  We got a fantastic grounding in the English language — its mechanics, as well as putting together a coherent composition (not that you could judge by this post!) — but not in much else.  Again, I was an adult before I realized the importance of the Iroquois Nation in New York State history; what we learned, this being Catholic school, was, “The Iroquois were the bad guys because they sided with the English, who were Protestant, and the Hurons were the good guys because they sided with the French, who were Catholic.”  I hasten to add that the Hurons were up in Canada…  And this had what to do with New York State history???!  Our math and science education was also minimal, and the Arts were non-existent.

So yes, there is a very great deal I wish I could have changed about my education.  That said — it was still a better education than what my kids got, described by my daughter as “eleven years of brainwashing, followed by one year of real education.”  Both my kids took three years of Latin (and no foreign languages), and learned in three years what I learned in one.  (And I took three years of French, besides.)  Neither learned very much at all about European history.  In fact, I used to love it when my son would get suspended from school for fighting; we’d watch public television together and talk about what we’d seen.  One program focused on an island in the Netherlands where cars are banned altogether!

Foreign cultures, foreign ways:  Now that’s a real education (from the Latin “e”, “out of,” and “duc”, the root of the verb “to lead” — as in, “leading one out of one’s own experiences, and into a wider world).

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“Do you think you’ll ever try living in another country?” is one of the prompts suggested by the Post-a-Day project, and it’s one that speaks to my heart, particularly at this time of year.

I probably would not ever have thought in terms of “trying” to live in another country, but in fact — I did, a very long time ago.  Some people could argue that it wasn’t “legitimately” living in another country, since my husband was in the military and was stationed in Germany, but they would be wrong.  At that time, only career military personnel could live in base housing.  There were a limited number of flats “on the economy” that were contracted through the Armed Forces for junior officers (lieutenants and non-career captains who were married), and non-career enlisted personnel who were married were either separated for the man’s entire tour of duty, or they found housing on the economy for themselves.  We fell into this last category, since, for reasons I will never understand, my college-educated husband was enlisted.

Fortunately, he spoke German, so was able to find a place for us with no trouble.  I did not speak a word of German.  After three months of not understanding what was going on around me, I enrolled in an evening college course in German language and grammar.  It helped that my husband had also enrolled in an evening course, for his Master’s degree in psychology.

For the first year of our marriage, we did do many things on base, notably laundry and grocery shopping.  We never attended church on base; my husband just liked the German Mass better, and I came to appreciate the spare beauty of the hymns, and eventually, the theology expressed in them.  But half the time the base laundromat was out of order, and most of the time the “fresh” meat and produce at the commissary was plain awful, so bit by bit, I began transferring my business to a more local venue.  Grocery shopping was something we did together — my German was still very limited, at that point — but I could handle the laundry by myself:  I’d load my laundry basket onto the back of  my bicycle, secure it with bungee straps just like all the locals, and pedal off a mile or so into downtown where the laundromat was located.

I still remember when “the light bulb went on.”  I was sitting in the laundromat, listening to the ladies chit-chatting about whatever, and, bored out of my mind, I picked up a ladies’ magazine that was lying around and began to skim through it.  And suddenly it dawned on me:  I could read this.  I was actually understanding it!  Not all of it, of course, but enough that I began to buy this magazine for myself, and to skim through the articles, picking up more and more German on the way.  (It helped that there were great recipes.)

As my fluency increased, so did my social contacts; finally, during the last year we lived there, we were like any of the rest of the locals, commuting to and from work by bicycle, purchasing our groceries every day, spending our Saturdays at our favorite city haunts and our Sundays, after church, touring the countryside and indulging in Kaffeetrinken (afternoon coffee) before heading home.  One of our great pleasures was singing; not only were we members of the church choir, but we also joined a “Song Club” (Gesangverein), where I learned some of the most beautiful folk music I have ever heard.  How can you resist “the beautiful, shy hour of creation” as a description for the first hours of daybreak?  Or the fun of learning that although “the devil has many arts — he can’t sing”?

It took me twenty years to re-accustom myself to life in the USA.  And a corner of my heart will always consider Germany “home”:  It was where I came alive, came into my truest self.  It was where I learned to sing.

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The wild weather patterns of the past few years continue, and we have been hit with our first major snowstorm — in October.  October, 28-29, to be exact.  Complete with blizzard-like conditions, winds howling between 30 and 60 mph, and, in this part of the world, the inevitable power outtages.

We are blessed, my husband and I, to live on a street called Main Street.  Now, if you saw what constitutes this particular Main Street, you could be forgiven for laughing all the way back to your hometown.  Our town has the “distinction” of being a regular destination for rubes, as in, “You gotta see the night life in X!”  So we regularly get people driving through here, especially in summer, asking us (as we mow the lawn), “Where’s downtown X?”  “Well, buddy, this is it.  Ya see the post office down the street?  And the little circle with the flagpole and the flowers in it?  That’s downtown.”

The other annoying thing about living “downtown” is that there’s a biker bar just up the street, and in the summer, the Thundering Hordes come roaring through on their de-mufflered machines, all day long.  I’m not the only one who wonders why it’s OK for bikers to roar all over New Hampshire, while car drivers can be ticketed for doing the same thing, but I think I’m the only one who supposes that local law enforcement has been instructed not to annoy a major source of revenue.  Bikers bring a lot of money to this rural state.

However, winter or summer, there’s this to be said for living on Main Street:  When the hurricanes or blizzards rage, as both have done this year, and our power goes out, we’re among the first to get it back.  I think it has a lot to do with the fire station that’s just up the street (opposite end from the biker bar).  Even though they have a backup generator, it runs on diesel fuel, and there’s only so much diesel that the City can afford to buy.

So this time, we were without lights and heat for “only” 18 hours.  Last time, during Hurricane Irene, we were without power for ten hours.  But there was a time, not all that long ago, that we were without power for three days, and that was in the middle of winter.  We were very fortunate that our house only got down to 50F; others we knew were at freezing before their power came back on.

Still others we know never felt the cold, and relied on oil lamps for lighting; they use wood stoves.  We used to have one, but found it inefficient, and got rid of it when the pipes failed and smoke began to fill the basement.  I’d consider a pellet stove so that we could at least have heat; but the other factor to consider is the refrigerator.  We began our married life in Europe, so I got into the habit early of buying only what we need for each day, and generally that works well for our needs; but especially if you are expecting a snowstorm, the tendency is to buy ahead, in case you can’t get out for several days, and then when your power goes off, you’re stuck with all those groceries.  Coolers can only hold so much, and last for so long.

Not to mention being incommunicado, which wasn’t as much of a problem when we were newlyweds in Europe and had neither television nor telephone.  We had each other (cue the Kitsch music).    😉    But now we are old, and while we still have each other (thankfully), we also tend to get nervous about being totally out of touch.  After all, a fall at this point in our lives could kill us.

So we are now looking into the other backup plan observed by most of our neighbors:  a generator.  Nearly everyone else on the block has a little portable genny that runs off gasoline.  My husband, son of a fireman as he is, has a horror of flammable liquids around the house.  We also have an alternative source of fuel to tap into:  We heat our house with natural gas, where most of our neighbors use oil or the ol’ reliable wood stove.  So we’ve been looking into a whole-house generator  that can be hooked up to a natural-gas outlet, one that would provide us with power for nearly all our major appliances as well as lights.  Considering what you need to be able to run — furnace, water tank, refrigerator — it hardly seems worthwhile to look at anything less than a whole-house unit.  (We don’t have a huge freezer, not being inclined to deer meat, and I refuse to countenance an air conditioner for the 2-3 weeks we would need it.  This is New Hampshire, for crying out loud.  Fans work fine.)

Whole-house units are not cheap.  But neither is peace of mind.  And at this point in life, peace of mind wins out.

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