“A Woman in Berlin”: A Review

What does it mean–rape?..It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything–but it’s not.

 I just read the book “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City” and I keep turning around in my head. It’s an unbelievable account of mass rapes perpetrated by the Red Army at the end of World War 2. The anonymous author worked as a journalist before and after the war and spoke passable Russian. It’s unbelievable this book came to be at all, especially when one considers how well-written it is. Republished in 2004 after the author’s death, it’s disturbingly relevant today:

I look at the 16 year old girl, up to now the only person I know who lost her virginity to the Russians. She has the same dumb, self-satisfied look she always had. I try to imagine how it would have been if my first experience had come in this way. But I stop myself–it’s unimaginable. One thing is for sure: if this were peacetime and a girl had been raped by some vagrant, there’d be the whole peacetime hoopla of reporting the crime, taking the statement, questioning witnesses, arrest and confrontation, news reports and neighborhood gossip–and the girl would have reacted differently, would have suffered a different kind of shock. But here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain, and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered. Which of course doesn’t mean that creatures more delicate than this cheeky little Berlin girl won’t fall apart or suffer for the rest of their lives.

The 16-year old girl was raped by 3 Russians and afterwards proudly declared that they all immediately went for her and didn’t even glance at her sister.

It’s strange to think of a situation where rape can be so normalized that it can be joked about and taken lightly or even seen as a matter of pride:

It seems he left [the widow] with a compliment. At first she didn’t want to reveal it, but finally she told us: “Ukrainian woman–like this. You–like this.” The first “like this” he illustrated with a circle formed by both his thumbs and forefingers, the second “like this” with a single thumb and forefinger.

The widow still hate nightmares about it later, but she felt free to discuss it with everyone. Usually, rape is dealt with silently. It’s simply not discussed. I was attacked and nearly raped two weeks shy of my 16 birthday. Afterwards, I emailed one friend and told her about it, but she was the only one and even today so few people know. How do you bring that up in conversation? And yet, among the friends I have told about it, a surprising number of them have similar experiences. One of my high school friends was raped at a party. She woke up feeling pain ‘down there.’ Another friend had something slipped in her drink at a bar. Another was molested by a family friend as a child. They say that one in three women will experience some sort of sexual abuse in her lifetime. Detractors say that these numbers are highly inflated and include women who regretted having sex and decided to ‘cry rape’ later. I have no difficulty believing they’re accurate.

The women in the book run the entire gauntlet of emotions after being raped, from disassociation:

I remember the strange vision I had this morning, something like a daydream, while I was trying in vain to fall asleep after Petka left. It was as if I were flat on my bed and seeing myself lying there when a luminous white being rose from my body, a kind of angel, but without wings, that floated high into there air…Of course it’s just a fantasy, a pipe dream, a means of escape–my true self simply leaving my body behind, my poor besmirched, abused body. Breaking away and floating off, unblemished, into a white beyond. It can’t be me that this is happening to, so I’m expelling it all from me.

To disgust:

I’m constantly repulsed by my own skin. I don’t want to touch myself, can barely look at my own body. I can’t help but think about the little child I was, once upon a time…

To despair:

 Judging from their speech the two women behind me were well-bred ladies. One said: “You know, I was completely numb. I’m very small there, my husband always took that into consideration.” Apparently she’d been raped repeatedly and attempted to poison herself. Then I hear her say, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later learned that your somach has to have enough acid inside for the stuff to work. I couldn’t keep it down.”

 “And now?” The other asked quietly.

“Well, life goes on. The best part was over anyway. I’m just glad my husband didn’t have to live through this.”

And then acceptance. The author realizes early on that it’s better to have “one wolf to keep the rest of the pack away” and works her “way up from supply train to major,” the major being wounded and surprisingly sensitive, for a rapist:

Please give me your hand.” I stare at [the major]…He takes my hand and clasps it firmly with both of his, then says, with pathetic eyes and trembling lips, “Forgive me. It’s been so long since I had a woman.” He shouldn’t have said that. Next thing I know I’m lying with my face in his lap sobbing and bawling and howling all the grief in my soul. I feel him stroking my hair…A little later in the dark I tell him how miserable and sore I am and ask him to be gentle. He is gentle and silently tender, is soon finished and lets me sleep.

This is perhaps the most important thing that most people miss in discussions about rape. It isn’t about the ability to say yes to sex. It’s about the ability to say no. If someone is passed out and they can’t say no, you can’t assume he/she is saying ‘yes’ because they aren’t capable of consenting, one way or another. Annonymous could not say “no.” She was going to be raped whether she wanted to or not. The only power remaining to her was the ability to choose who was going to do the raping.

In spite of what they’re gonig through,  the author and other women she encounters seem to concern themselves with their men’s feelings more than their own:

While Ilse and I discussed the subject, her husband stepped out to visit their neighbor, as he put it, to get the latest news for me off a crystal set. As he left, Ilse grimaced. “Yes, well, he can’t really bear to hear about that.” Her husband is tormenting himself with reproach for staying in the basement and not doing a thing while the Ivans took their pleasure with his wife. During the first rape, down in the basement, he was even within hearing range. It must have been a strange feeling for him.

I know a lot of people who are very passionate about guns and a woman’s right to bear arms–the great equalizer, and “when seconds count, cops are only minutes away.” But in this situation, any action by anyone to defend themselves with firearms would have been construed as a counterinsurgency under martial law. So the men did nothing because they were powerless to do anything:

These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men–and the feelings of all other women–are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man– is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of “Man.” In earlier wars men could claim that the privilege of killing for the father land was theirs and theirs alone. Today we women, too, have a share. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.

When Alpha was 3 months old, we went to Finland for my husband’s grandfather’s funeral and rode in the entryway on a severely overcrowded train. With us was a really drunk Finnish guy, who wanted to talk to DH the entire time. At one point, he approached Alpha and me aggressively and I swear, I have never seen my husband move that fast–to protect me and his son. It crazy, but comforting to know that he would totally stand up for me. What reaction would you have knowing that your husband couldn’t?

The baker comes stumbling toward me down the hall, white as his flour, holding out his hands. “They have my wife…” His voice breaks. For a second I feel I’m acting in a play. A middle-class baker can’t possibly move like that, can’t speak with such emotion put so much feeling into his voice, bare his soul that way, his heart so torn.

An Ivan grabbed the bookseller’s wife as she was coming back with water…The woman shrieked and her husband came running out of the apartment, making straight for the Ivan and shouting, “You damned bastard! You prick!” As the saga has it, the Russian piped down, shriveled up and backed off. So it can be done after all…I’m convinced that this particular woman will never forget her husband’s fit of courage, or perhaps you could say it was love. And you can hear the respect in the way the men tell the story, too

The only other story the author recounts where a man tried to protect his wife, he ended up getting shot and dying. Even more tragic, his wife was Jewish and the author explains how he had such a hard time during the war because of it, but refused to divorce her or leave her because he knew what would happen to her. So much of what happens in this book is senseless, so easily avoidable. So many people who poison themselves, a woman who runs out of a building and dies trying to evade Russians, others who get blown up waiting for water:

Beauty hurts. We’re so full of death.

Then her fiancé returns home and it’s interesting that, although she mentions all women will have to pretend she in particular was spared or their men will never want to touch them again, she does precisely the opposite with Gerd:

If I was in a good mood and told stories about our experiences over the last few weeks, then he got really angry. “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, everyone one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?…It’s horrible being around you. You’ve lost all sense of measure…”

I gave Gerd my diaries (there are three notebooks full). He sat down with them for a while and then returned them to me, saying he couldn’t find his way through my scribbling and the notes stuck inside with all the shorthand and abbreviations. “For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” He asked, pointing to “Schdg.” I had to laugh: “Schändung” of course–rape. He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.

Gerd only echoes society’s opinion the first time this book was published in the 1950s, when it was roundly condemned as “shameful to German women.” In a scarier way, Gerd’s words echo those of many Americans today. Remember, if it’s “rape-rape,” you won’t get pregnant! Your body has a way of just shutting down! Or those who claim “she was asking for it” or get annoyed when women get raped and actually want the perpetrators brought to justice instead of keeping quiet and letting it all go away. At least here, that can happen. The bigger shame for Germany in the 1950s if you ask me isn’t the way the women behaved, but they had to shut up about it afterwards and pretend that nothing happened so as to spare the menfolk’s feeling.

The author confesses she herself doesn’t know how many times she was raped. I guess after a while, you lose count, but I make a rough estimate of at least 15 times. At least. It’s darkly amusing how after a while, her concern is less with the rape itself than with the fact the rapist just ripped her last pair of whole underwear.
I don’t think this book shames German women at all. If anything, it shows how amazingly badass they were to go through all that they did. They endured the carpet bombing (by Americans, hence the saying “Better a Russky on top than a Yank overhead”), the deprivations of the last few weeks before the Soviets invaded, the rapes of the last few weeks of the war, then got up, brushed themselves off and became the infamous Trümmerfrauen, moving mountains of rubble with buckets to clear streets and rebuild homes. They were tough as nails. A German guy I knew in college told me German women scared him. After reading this book, I can understand why.

Why are Americans so fat?

One of my friends just got back from a trip to Austria to visit her parents for Christmas. Her father, an aging Austrian, leaned over to her husband during the trip and said, “Look around! Do you see any fat women? NO! Because there aren’t any fat women in Austria!”

“And there aren’t!” My friend informed me, part despairing, part admiringly.

How does this work? Why are Americans (especially American women) so much fatter than other nations (excepting Mexico).

We didn’t used to be so fat. Seriously. Go back 50 years and Americans were a lot thinner. Go back 20 years at this point, to late ’80s and Americans were a lot thinner then, too, making “skinny jeans” the worst timed fashion comeback ever.

What happened? Cultural change.

Whenever I go to Europe, I lose weight simply because I only eat 3 times a day with my host family. We eat breakfast together. We eat lunch together. Then we have Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake, around 4pm. Think of English teatime?) and then eat dinner (Abendbrot) and that’s it. Snacking in Europe is uncommon.

Compare that to the US. When my husband moved here and got a job, he returned home from work one day and informed me that Americans only eat one meal a day, it just lasts all day. We have a tendency to perma-snack. All. Day. Long. According to this study, 90% of male’s and 112% of women’s increased calorie consumption is from snacking and calories consumed at meals time have gone down. Food is present pretty much everywhere. Workplaces have candy bowls everywhere. My gym set out cookies and Christmas Candy in the days leading up to Christmas (?????). Food is more convenient and transportable than it’s ever been before, making it easier to eat more.

In addition to our poor eating habits, we’ve also become very accepting of larger body types. Fat Shaming week made headlines actually and I thought it was really horrible and awful. Why would you want to make fun of someone just because he or she is fat. Maybe I should just say she–because it’s usually women. Men are just BEEFCAKE. But, again, if you look at other countries, they do not accept fat people–at all. Especially not fat women. When my Ukrainian host sister returned to Ukraine maybe 10-20lbs heavier than when she left it, the first words her father said to her when she was arrived, were “You need to lose weight!” She was still, as I call it, “American skinny.” But American skinny is Ukraine-chubby. I’m 5’6″ and 165 and consider myself “American skinny.” But it became quite apparent in Finland that I was definitely not Finland skinny. “You know,” my husband commented, “when we’re in the US, I think you’re pretty thin and healthy. But in Finland…” I just nodded in agreement. His mother was more direct. Commenting on Haakon’s pickiness, she told him in English “If only you had your mother’s appetite…”

In Finland, it’s okay for guys to be fat, but not for women. They’re expected to watch their weight. Looking around the Christmas dinner table, I realized that all the men were overweight (my youngest brother-in-law actually looks like someone stuck a bicycle pump in him and overinflated him)–except for my husband (a lean 175 at 6’2″, Americans keep telling him to gain weight).  But all the women were thin–except for me.  And it’s all cultural pressure.

My sisters-in-law are very careful not to eat too much. And I don’t see them snacking or eating sweets much when I’m there, either. Maybe an occasional piece of fruit or yogurt. They stay away from most things that have a lot of added sugar–and it helps that not everything has added sugar in it in Finland. Nearly everything in the US has added sugar in it and that shows when it comes to our obesity and diabetes rates. If you’re trying to eat healthy and order a salad in the US, get the dressing on the side. There could be enough sugar in it to spike your blood sugar if you’re diabetic. Even so, there might be some on the lettuce. Unless you make all your food yourself, you cannot get away from it. It is impossible.

So, we eat all the time, most of the food we eat has a lot of sugar in it and we have a culture that is very tolerant of being overweight. The final nail in the coffin is the fact that we don’t move very much. We walk an average of 5,117 steps a day while others walk 8,000-10,000. We drive a ton, mainly because the distances we have between us and the places we want to go are larger than in other countries. One of the biggest regrets I have about living in the countryside is that I can no longer walk anywhere except “around.” I have to drive 20 minutes to get anywhere. I drive to the gym to work out because if I walked to it, I would never get there. I’d probably die in a snowbank somewhere along the way.

The good news is that while we may be one of the fattest nations on earth at the moment, other nations are rapidly catching up with us! I was amazed at how many fat people I saw in Germany the last time I was there. It was strangely comforting. No country is immune to overeating. Once the cultural rules of eating start to relax and allow a lot more snacking, it’s like opening the floodgates.

And I should know. I was doing really well no-s-ing for a while there. Then I stopped right before New Years (yes, I did really well right until Christmas) and I haven’t quite managed to find the willpower to start up again. I’ve vowed to start again, reminding myself if not now, when? If not me, then who exactly is going to shed the extra 15 lbs I’ve been carrying around since having two kids?
But my mother-in-law was encouraging. She asked my husband how much both of us weighed and then did the math to figure out our BMIs. She concluded, “Well, for living in the US, you’re not too bad off!”

Uh, thanks?

My False Friend: The Eagle

My host family in Germany always throws the most amazing parties. They’re German affairs, featuring perfectly folded napkins, a nice array of food, alcohol and cake. Preparing for these parties is no small affair. If it was a Big Enough Deal, I guess they would have it catered–I never really paid much attention to that part, honestly. These parties were so far removed from how things happened in my family (pick your own box of cake mix!) that I had no frame of reference. But I didn’t mind helping with the preparations.

One party, they told me I could make the eagle. Huh? They showed me a bunch of gehacktes (raw ground pork) and some onions and told me to shape it into the form of the an eagle. This wouldn’t be cooked, either, in case you were wondering. Germans are among the nations of people who still think eating raw meat occasionally is good for you. I thought it was disgusting back then. Now I’m merely on the fence.

At any rate, I stared at the mound of ground pork, picturing an eagle in my mind.

Where the heck was I going to get that kind of wingspan out of ground pork?

Confused and seeing no easy solution, I got to work and shaped two kind-of wings a head and some kind of feet-like talons with onions. When I decided it was close enough, I announced I was finished.

The Germans looked over at my eagle and said with typical bluntness, “What kind of an Igel is that?” They quickly and expertly removed the onion and reshaped the gehacktes into a round mound, sticking the onions into its back like needles. I stared at it, totally confused.

At the nearest opportunity, I slipped down into the basement and pulled out my trusty German-English/English-German dictionary and looked up Igel. Hedgehog.

Oooooh.

What can I say? We don’t even have hedgehogs in the states, much less sculpt them out of ground pork.

Why Americans Have Baggers–and Europeans Don’t

One of the major differences between the US and Germany and Finland is the lack of baggers. Seriously. If you shop at any American grocery store, they will have the cashier (standing because physical pain shows dedication) and a person at the end of register to bag your groceries. You as the customer only have to swipe your card. In some places, they will still even push your grocery cart out to your car for you!

They will not do this in Europe. In Germany, cashiers will not get up from their cushy chairs unless there’s a fire. You are expected to not only bag your groceries, but pay for the bags to do so (or bring your own, which most people do) and to do it quickly enough to spare yourself from the wrath of the cashier and the customer behind you. If you’re not used to packing your groceries, I recommend just taking them all to the bagging shelf where you can take your sweet time to do things properly.

Why these differences? There are several reasons.

1) Culture. Germany and Finland don’t really have a huge service culture. If you want good service in Germany, you pay for it. Germans are che—thrifty, so they don’t want to pay for service. They’d rather pay for quality. Finland is only nice to foreigners who are shopping there. Now that my husband has been out of Finland for about 6 years, he gets the foreigner treatment when he goes home and is constantly amazed at how much better he’s treated. Actual Finns: you’re own your own.

2) Labor supply. In the US, baggers tend to be very young, very old or mentally retarded. Occasionally someone hire up will be filling in for them, but this is the general rule. It’s unskilled labor. In the US we have a lot more unskilled labor than they do in Finland and Germany. This is partially due to the fact we have a lot more unskilled (and illegal) immigration. It’s also due to tradition. It’s a lot more “traditional” in the US for teenagers to work. I got my first official job when I was 15 (babysitting in a church nursery. I got $27.70 after taxes every two weeks). By the time I graduated high school I was working two jobs: church nursery and telesurveyer at a university. My husband’s first job was when he was in college: tutoring other students. His first real REAL job was after he immigated to the US. The foreign exchange student my sister had from Berlin actually got some jobs when he was a teen: as an extra in some soap operas being filmed in town. It definitely wasn’t anything regular though.
Of course there is regional variation. I was discussing contractors with a friend and he said that was the biggest difference between living in California and the Northeast: in California, you hire people to work on your house and they show up at daybreak, banging down your door ready to get started. Hire someone in the Northeast and they’ll show up…eventually. You might have to call them a few times though. If you fire them, it’s useless. The replacement will be just as bad. They’re like this because they know there’s not a lot of competition. Any immigration in the Northeast tends to be skilled white collar labor and population trends are down, kind of like Germany and Finland.

3) Labor costs. Labor costs are a lot higher in Europe than in the US. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25. Finland and Germany don’t have federal minimum wages, but wages are negotiated via unions by sector. But the average for unskilled labor, like a cashier, in Finland and Germany is higher than in the US. Or maybe that’s the issue: in the US, cashiers are considered unskilled labor. You will be set ringing after maybe an hour of training. In Germany and Finland, you’re probably educated and as far as I know, probably have to have a degree from a vocational school in cash register technology. Labor regulations also increase the cost of hiring an extra cashier. So you usually encounter two or three cashiers in a store and long lines. In the US, both retail chains I worked at (large chains, you’ve definitely shopped there), had rules regarding how many customers could be waiting in line. At the large box store it was something like 2+1 (Two customers waiting, one ringing). At the pharmacy retail store, it was “I-see-3.” If he saw 3 customers in line, the cashier was supposed to call that code for back up. This will not happen in Europe because there IS no back up. And you will wait. But those cashiers are damned efficient. Their productivity has to be high in order to justify their employment. The amount you’re paid signifies how productive your employers expect (or think) you are. Cashiers in Finland in Germany have to be a heck of a lot more productive. Go to a McDonalds in Europe and compare it to a local one in the US. In Finland, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than two cashiers at Hesburger (it’s like McDonalds) or McDonalds. They’re like octopuses. It takes longer to get your meals, you wait longer, and the employers are crazy busy, but it works. In the US, it depends what time it is, but generally three cashiers and people running the drive thru along with assorted other people running around doing things. Completely different.

Any other reasons?

My Kids Believe in Santa

Apparently telling your kids about Santa is controversial these days. I do it. Why? Because it’s fun. And sometimes, I like to have fun. People who are against telling kids about Santa raise the argument that telling kids some dude goes into their house and gives them presents while flying in a magical sleigh pulled by reindeer is not only creepy, but also lying to them. My response to this is: considering all the other ways you’re invariably going to lie to your kids while raising them, you’re picking this one to make a stand? Really?

In the long run, it doesn’t matter one bit if you tell your kids there is a Santa or not. If you want to tell them there’s a Santa, DO IT! If you don’t want to waste your time (and give all the credit to an imaginary person), then DON’T! Either way, it’s not going to turn them into a serial killer or make them cynical. Growing up and realize that their parents aren’t perfect is going to make them cynical. Not learning there is no Santa.

My parents told me about Santa when I was little. I believed it until I was 5. Then I started noticing my older sister and brother kept accurately telling me what I was going to get for Christmas so I finally asked my mom if there was a Santa Claus. She said no. I wasn’t upset at all. At least not until I tried to tell my friend down the street. She refused to believe me and kept insisting that there was a Santa Claus. I kept insisting that there wasn’t. Eventually they moved away, but I now have the satisfaction of knowing that eventually she found out that I really was right. Since then, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just shut up and not be right.

My husband also grew up believing in Santa Claus. Or more specifically, Joulupukki. Joulupukki lives in Finland in Lapland. Every year on Christmas Eve they have Joulupukki reading letters and taking phone calls from kids on the television. You can even fill out a form online somewhere (I’d look it up, but I’m lazy) and give Santaland an address and name and they will send you a letter from Joulupukki. In other words, Santa is a big fricking deal in Finland.

Onko täällä kilttejä lapsia?

Telling our kids about Santa/Weihnachtsmann/Joulupukki gives Finland that extra edge of cool in the language and culture race in our household. When Alpha went to Finnish preschool while we were visiting over Christmas last year, they discussed Joulupukki and that was the only word he ever actually said while at Finnish preschool. Other than that, he was completely mute. But JOULUPUKKI IS BRINGING HIM PRESENTS, MAN! That has to be acknowledged. Then Joulupukki showed up at his grandparents house on Christmas Eve (presumably while on his way to hand out presents to all the other kids out there) and personally delivered presents to everyone. Alpha was beside himself with excitement. Beta was confused.

This year, they’re both excited. They know about Joulupukki and they know about getting presents. This is actually the first year it has firmly registered with Alpha that he can request presents and get them. He’s asked for a scooter, which we bought (one for each child). Then he changed his request and asked for a fire scooter. I have no idea what it is, but he gave me a long monologue about how he could ride it in the street because he would be “sehr sehr sehr sehr sehr vorsichtig” and if a car came, he would be able to go REALLY FAST. I told him I didn’t think there were such things as fire scooters. He insists that there are. I think he’s going to be disappointed tomorrow.

But he’s convinced there’s a Santa. The crazy thing is that we haven’t even put forth a lot of effort to convince him of this. Society has done most of the work for us. And it’s not a “be good or Santa won’t bring you any presents on Christmas” thing either because unless you’re actually planning on NOT giving your kid anything for Christmas when you say that, that’s a really ineffective way to discipline. They’ll learn that either a) you don’t mean a damn thing you say or b) that Santa is on their side. As far as my kids are concerned, Santa just comes and brings them presents because he’s cool like that. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected their behavior. Today my son decided he needed to clean up all his toys so that Santa wouldn’t step on them and hurt himself or break his toys. I told him that was a really good idea.

So whether or not you tell your kids about Santa or believe yourself, have a Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten, hyvää joulua!

Stupid Suggestions to Save Money

I have a bad habit. Every time someone talks about someone who is tight on money, I reflexively suggest the plant a garden. I need to stop doing this because, while gardening might be a great way to get outside, get some exercise and get some fresh, organic vegetables, it is not necessarily going to save you money. Unless you’re a really good gardener, gardening is going to cost you money. You might not have to spend much money on vegetables anymore, but let’s be honest: how much money do you really spend on vegetables each month? Enough to make the money you spend on dirt (if you have to buy dirt), seeds, seedlings, organic bug killers and compost, not to mention your time (which is valuable). You’d be better off buying vegetables from the grocery store and…getting a job.

This isn’t the only bad suggestion I’ve made or heard others make as a way to save money.

Whenever people discuss how being poor makes it hard to eat healthy, invariably people suggest the poor eat “beans and rice.” Because beans and rice are apparently the solution to everything. The issue is: they don’t taste all that great unless you add a lot of spice to them. You have to soak the beans. Seriously. You have to soak the beans. And they take a long time to cook. And, quite frankly, if I had a choice between buying beans and rice to cook at home and a Big Mac, I would take the Big Mac because the Big Mac is that much more delicious and contains something that resembles meat more than beans and rice do.
And we used to eat beans and rice! In the 3 years surrounding Alpha’s birth, we ate one meal a week that was bean based to save money because we were broke. This usually ended up being the meal neither of us really looked forward to and I ended up eating most of the leftovers before discarding them all together. We were hard up for cash because my husband hadn’t yet found a permanent job in the US and I quit my job when I had my son (thinking that DH would have a job any minute!). Our income was near zero and we were living off savings. In other words, the solution to our problem wasn’t “Moar beanz and rice!!!!!” it was, “MORE MONEY!”

I’ve also made my own laundry detergent to save money. This works pretty well–it is cheap compared to most laundry detergent (unless you coupon and buy on sales, etc)–and it’s better for the environment. But it takes time. And it doesn’t necessarily get your clothes as clean as actual laundry detergent. As far as the meager amount of money you save doing this, it’s also not really worth your time. Unless you’re the Duggars, you’d be better off getting a job and buying the detergent. Better value for your time.

Then there’s hanging your clothes out to dry. I personally love hanging my clothes out. It gets me out of the house on nice summer mornings and I find it meditative. In the winter, it adds moisture to the air in my house. The stiffness of the clothes doesn’t bother me. I’m so used to line drying that I have a hard time believing jeans that can’t walk by themselves are actually clean. My sister fell in love with my rotary clothesline when she visited and got one at home. I encouraged her because it would “save money and electricity.” Then my brother-in-law pointed out that after the cost of the clothesline, they’d have to line dry clothes into their next several reincarnations to recoup the cost because electricity is dirt cheap where they live. Because I’m surrounded by hippies, it’s twice as expensive where I live. So I’m saving twice as much money! Go me! But if you live in Germany, where electricity costs 30 Euro cents per kilowatt, you’re line drying unless you’re rich and have money to burn. Or your maid’s time is way more expensive than the cost of the electricity to run the dryer. If you have a dryer in Europe (and a significant number of Europeans don’t), you use it on an emergency basis only. The end. But for the average American, the time it takes to hang out clothes is not worth the potential “savings” in the electric bill. It’s a dumb suggestion to save money.

Though when we lived in an apartment and had to pay $1.50 each time we did laundry to semi-dry our clothes, it was totally worth it. We were both unemployed, so we had plenty of time to violate the house rules and hang out our laundry on our balcony. But it would have been more worth our time to…actually have jobs, instead. Oh well.

Sewing your own clothes is another great way to save money! Except it’s not. There is no way you can be produce more clothes more cheaply than someone in Thailand. This is why Thailand/other places in Asia make most of our clothing these days. Sure, the occasional novelty outfit you sold yourself is good fun and sewing your own clothes is a great way to make sure you have your clothes exactly how you want them. I know I’d love to have a pair of custom jeans (as in, custom made not by me). But on the whole, sewing is not going to save you money. You will have earned more working and buying a similar outfit than you will have saved by sewing it.

Canning is another activity that will not save you money. It will result in you saving more vegetables from your garden (and maybe help get your garden a little less in the fiscal red), but it’s unlikely you will actually end up canning a quart of tomatoes for less than you could actually buy them at the store.

I started baking my own bread again to “save money.” We used to buy the sprouted whole grain Ezekiel bread at the grocery store, running $5 a loaf. But I decided, hey. I have a bread pan. I have hard wheat grains in my basement. I have a grain mill. I have an oven. Let’s go! Then I thought, “but if I had 4 bread pans, I could make a months worth of bread at one go and freeze the rest in the freezer, thus saving precious time and electricity.” Then I remembered how hard it is to get even slices with a bread knife. “I really need a bread slicer. A proper one, like my host family has!” And then I remembered how homemade bread doesn’t stay fresh as long as store-bought bread since it doesn’t have preservatives. “I really need a breadbox, too!”

I started looking on craigslist for these sought items, convinced they would transport me to bread making heaven and save me $20 a month. I couldn’t find them on craigslist (though I did find some antique breadboxes being sold as parts of china sets, which just made me want to spend $200 on a Pfalzgraff China set). I looked for them new, but at that price they would break the bank and baking bread at home was definitely not worth it. So I decided I could do without.

I baked one loaf in my huge oven and tried to convince myself that I was totally saving money and the time I spent making the bread would definitely be worth it. I also told myself I was educating the kids in How To Bake Bread. I hope I was convincing.

Maximize Your Trick-or-Treater’s Halloween

I don’t get why we still hand out candy during Halloween. Candy isn’t exactly a ‘special treat’ any more, we have it so much that many parents don’t even let their kids have their Halloween candy, they have their kids trade it in for a toy. Even worse,  Halloween Bleed has started to occur: the two weeks preceeding Halloween are now filled with everyone, every where handing out candy. By the time the holiday actually rolls around, everyone but the kids is sick to death of candy. So why do it? Walking around for an hour or two on Halloween just for a bag of candy is hardly the most efficient way of doing things.

Instead, you should consider handing out money, maybe a quarter or a half dollar piece. If you’re rich you could do dollar bills. If the kids go to 10 houses, they would have $2.50, which is enough money to buy one bag of clearance Halloween Kit Kats (trust me, I have thoroughly researched this topic). Or if you don’t want your kid to have candy, they can buy something else instead: put it towards a toy, or buy a really cheap toy.

I guess the candy still has value for the kids; I’m pretty sure mine wouldn’t be as excited over a bag full of quarters than a  bag full of tootsie rolls, however awful tootsie rolls may be. But it’s definitely a more rational way of going about things. Even if just half of the people out there handed out money instead of candy, Halloween would be that much more optimized and parents wouldn’t have to buy as much candy from their kids.

Or they could just not give their kids candy every day of the week and save it for special occasions. When I was last in Finland, my mother-in-law told me that in Finland they also call Saturday “Sweets Day”(karkipäivä, according to my husband the day women get new underwear is also called this. He has no idea why.) because traditionally that’s the day of the week kids would get candy. And by candy, I mean a piece of candy. Did we have something similar in the US? I told her that in the US, every day is candy day. “But that’s not healthy!” she protested. No, it’s not.

So give out money instead, okay?

On School Ambiance

I spend a lot of time going back and forth on my decision to homeschool. Is it the right thing for my family? Is it the right thing for my kids? Am I going to fail them by not teaching them the things they neeed to know? Will I successfully wear both hats of mother and teacher? Lately my thoughts have been trending more toward the plus sides of homeschooling.

My sister sends her kids to school and my nephew is starting sixth grade this year at a middle school which happens to be located in the ghetto. Their first problem with this school arose when my sister found out that my nephew was not allowed to bring his textbooks home, despite having paid a textbook rental fee. She emailed his teacher to find out why and the teacher replied that too many of the students weren’t taking care of their textbooks (read: damaging them beyond repair), so they were no longer allowed to take them home. My sister then asked him how her son was supposed to study at home in order to do well in his class if he wasn’t allowed to take his textbook home? After a bit more back and forth, the teacher relented and allowed my nephew to take his textbook home. This is a fairly unusual experience for public school. My oldest nephew was always allowed to take his textbooks home, as was I. I remember one instance in middle school where we were not allowed to and that was simply because there were not enough textbooks to go around. They had ordered them but half didn’t arrive until later in the year at which point we could take them home again. So I guess we can chalk this down to another way the poor have a harder time making it. If you’re a poor kid but happen to actually want to study and take care of your textbooks, too bad. No extra study time for you!

Then last week, my nephew was late for class because he had to take his trumpet to his locker. He couldn’t take it to the bandroom like usual because he had been gone that morning for a dentist appointment. So his teacher docked him 20 points for being tardy. And my sister ended up writing an email to this teacher. I don’t think she’s received a response yet, but it does get tiresome.

I also met with a friend last week and we were discussing the pros and cons of homeschooling–she’s still up in the air about it and figures she’ll let her son decide what he wants to do– and I mentioned that one thing I was glad we didn’t have to deal with was the locked down nature of today’s schools. I really hate how when I go to the local public school, the doors are all locked, there’s a camera, you have to buzz the secretary, who then opens the microphone and then you have to state your purpose and get buzzed in and then go in and sign in on a little book. That and the high quality, cinder block construction make going to the local school more like going to the local prison. It’s actually easier to get into the State House where I live than a local public school. I can just walk right in. Furthermore, I can walk in while conceal carrying a fire arm and the security guard won’t even look up from his paper, unless I look like I don’t know where I’m going. Then he will probably give me directions. Not so in public school where kids can’t even exit the building at the end of the day with out being carefully escorted by an adult to their waiting parents’ cars, almost as though this were Iraq and the woods were full of insurgents instead of ticks carrying lyme disease.

“But that’s normal these days. All the schools are like that. You might notice it, but your kid won’t,” my friend pointed out.

“And that’s the problem,” I responded. “They won’t notice it. They’ll grow up thinking it’s completely normal to go to a school where they’re locked away. Then when they get out into the real world, they won’t feel secure without it. It’s like when you raise chickens. If you don’t let them go outside before they’re 8 weeks old, even if you open the door to their coop so they can go outside, they won’t.” According to the FDA, ‘free-range’ officially means that chickens have to have access an outdoor yard, but since egg producers don’t want their chickens going outside, they just don’t open the door to the yard until they’re over 8 weeks old. Then the chickens have access to their yard, but never actually go outside. Ta-da! Free-range eggs, brought to you by the magic of regulation.

It’s the same with kids. They have to know that they are safe in the world. Sending them 40 hours a week to a place where they are implicitly told the world is a dangerous place is not the way to do it. School shootings do happen, but they are the exception, not the rule. If our desire is to prevent school shootings, a more effective way to do so would to take all the money we’re currently spending to increase security in public schools (via Department of Homeland Security grants, mind you, not local taxpayers) and use it to treat and raise awareness about mental illness so that people who would snap and shoot up schools can go and spend some time in a nice mental health hospital instead.

For a cross country comparison, Finland used to be number one in school shooting deaths per capita. I don’t know where it is now since this was before the Newtown shooting. In spite of these shootings, when I went there in 2008 and my husband wanted to show me his old school, we just walked right through. No signing in at the office (though apparently nowadays you do have to do that), he just showed me around. And students at Finnish schools are allowed to leave during the day if they have a free period and are trusted to come back for their next class. Heck, they can even walk to school! It’s amazing.

And for all the smug homeschoolers who say, “yep! School shootings are why I homeschool,” shut up. School shootings are not why you homeschool. Statistically speaking, children are more likely to be killed by family members than by random people, so really if the physical safety of your kids is why you keep them home, you’d actually do better sending them to school. You homeschool because the odds of your kid dying are small either way, but the odds of them getting a good education are higher outside of school than in it. And perhaps because the school environment leaves a little something to be desired as far as convincing you that it’s a good place to learn.

Growing up (a)religious

I’m afraid one of my new friends will find out I’m not religious. One of the first times I met her, she told me she didn’t like hanging out with another group of people because so many of them were atheist and she herself is religious.

I found myself smiling uncomfortably, wondering what I should say. I’m an atheist, but it’s only recently I’ve felt free and secure enough to openly say that. Growing up in the Bible belt, I definitely did not.

My entire childhood, I always thought there was something missing in my life since I didn’t have a religion while everyone else I knew did. My parents were Mormon before I was born, but left the church a few months after I received my blessing. After a few years of bouncing around, my family started going to the Unitarian Universalist church, but stopped once it got ‘too Pagan’ for my mom. Other than that, we weren’t excessively religious. The extent of my religious education at home was my mom buying me a Bible coloring book and telling me I needed to be familiar with these stories because they were important to our culture.

This made me an instant target for the religious people surrounding me. I wasn’t actually smart enough when I was a child to keep it to myself and I remember loudly commenting in elementary school that the Bible should probably be in the fiction section. Shortly thereafter, a classmate started trying to ‘win my soul’ and would follow me around during recess and read me the bible. When she moved away, she wrote me letters for many years imploring me to get saved and mentioning the ABCs:

Admit you are a sinner

Believe that Jesus Christ is the son of god

Confess your sins.

I never did, and eventually I stopped replying. Eventually, so did she.

Not having a church meant I had Sundays and Wednesday nights free…to get invited to go to church with my friends. In a lot of ways, I didn’t mind because I got to hang out with my friends and they had quite a bit of fun. Then we would watch videos about kids who died and weren’t saved and how they would spend eternity getting poked with sticks in hell fire and my friend would give me nervous glances all throughout.

It’s no wonder I thought I was the weird one.  When I hit adolescence, I started thinking about getting a religion. Christianity was out–continuous soul-winning efforts had made me perfectly immune and I was already ethnically christian, anyway. But I did like Judaism. Oldest monotheistic religion in the world, still going strong and they’ve been persecuted nearly ever where! They must be on to something. But I didn’t convert. I knew Judaism was pretty iffy on having converts and I learned that if you converted to reform, orthodox Jews wouldn’t accept you. Just as in every thing else in the world, every religion has its idea of what a real Jew/Christian/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/etc. and you probably don’t qualify and are going to hell. Sorry.

Secondly, I figured if I actually did convert I’d have to marry someone who was also Jewish and I didn’t feel like narrowing the dating pool anymore than it already was.

So I looked into Buddhism. Buddhism is a fun religion and I actually agree with a lot of the things it says. Wanting is a large source of unhappiness in the world and not wanting anymore would be a good thing to accomplish. But I read a few books on Buddhism by western converts and that put me off it. What is is about western converts to Buddhism that makes them all so damn sanctimonious? My Actual Buddhist friends weren’t like that. They even invited me to go to a celebration at their temple, but my mom forbade me to go. Maybe she was afraid I would convert.

But there were always my Christian friends, a clear majority in my group of friends, though it also had Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. One of my friends and I actually discussed religion quite a bit and she convinced me to read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. He was an atheist convert to Anglicism and a pretty horrible writer in my opinion, but maybe that’s what happens when you read the Chronicles of Narnia when you’re 16 instead of 6. Oh well. I got to the chapter on “Christian Marriage” before I gave up, but I did agree with a lot of things he said. Like how “Love thy neighbor as thyself” means you should make allowances for your neighbors’ faults just as you make allowances for your own. You love yourself in spite of your imperfections, so you should do the same for others as well. Makes sense. Doesn’t explain what you should do if you don’t love yourself and can’t tolerate your imperfections. I guess you just hate everyone then?

I enjoyed discussing religion with my Christian friends. It was a nice change from just getting preached to about how I was going in hell and I was genuinely curious. Then I posted a quote by Richard Dawkins to my friend and she got really upset:

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

In all fairness, I didn’t actually know who Richard Dawkins was at the time. I thought the quote made a good point. No one worships the Greek or Roman gods anymore, after all. Well, maybe some loonies do. But loonies.

But it was the last time we discussed religion. After that, the fun in the debate was gone. Areliigious people growing up surrounded by religious people are required to respect religion and I think it causes you to grow up thinking you’re inferior to those with religion. You have to respect their beliefs, but they don’t have to respect yours.

Religious people claim the moral high ground. A friend of my sister’s who I never thought as religious caught me completely off guard when we were at her house for dinner and they prayed before the meal. I asked my sister about it later and she told me they had also started going to church so her daughter would “grow up with good morals.”

Aside from the fact that going to church doesn’t actually make you moral, this is pretty common in the Bible Belt. So common that they actually have churches people can go to that aren’t really religious. It’s just so you can feel like you’re going to church and, more importantly, have a church to refer to when people ask you what church you go to. Because that does happen.

Then I moved out East. Obviously there are still religious people out here, but it’s not as religious as the bible belt. I think I know 4 people out here who go to church regularly. There rest of us…atheists. When discussing religion, one of my friends said he was an atheist, but considered himself an “ethnic Christian” because that’s his cultural background. He celebrates Christmas and (kind of) Easter. I didn’t realize how stressful it was to be constantly feel like you were the strange one for not being religious until I moved to an area where people were less religious. I’m now ok with saying I’m an atheist, but knowing that atheists are overall the most hated group in America, I don’t wear this on my chest. I like to keep it under wraps. If I don’t know someone well, or I know that they’re religious, I just tell them I’m areligious, or an agnostic. Saying you’re an atheist tends to be very confrontational and everyone takes it badly.

I’m a negative atheist. That means I don’t believe there is evidence that a god exists. My husband, on the other hand, is a positive atheist. He thinks that there is evidence that god does not exist.

Strangely enough, he’s the one who grew up with a more religious background. He’s been baptized and confirmed in the Finnish Lutheran Church. His mother is religious for a Finn and goes to church about 4 times a year. She doesn’t believe in evolution and prayed with our kids when we went out without them.

My husband left the church when he was 15 and it took him a while to lose the feeling that he would go to hell if he didn’t believe in god. He was actually quite afraid and now considers religion to be child abuse since you’re essentially telling children they will go to hell where they will be tortured if they don’t believe a certain thing. He later became involved with a movement to get people to leave the Finnish State church, which is funded by an optional tax. By leaving the church, you no longer have to pay the tax. It bothers him to no end that the rest of his family are still members. His sisters aren’t particularly religious, but ‘it’s tradition.’

He’d be perfectly fine if our kids were raised without any religious input whatsoever. But, like my mom, I understand that it’s an important part of American culture. So I’m alright with telling them Bible stories. I don’t tell them they’re true; it’s like reading other myths and fables from the past. I also have a great book from the German “Wieso? Weshalb? Warum?” Series called “Unsere Religionen.” It discusses the 5 largest religions in the world (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and does a good job of explaining why some people are religious and what some basic beliefs of these religions are. They don’t need to be religious, but I don’t see my job as to automatically impost my beliefs on them. They can decide for themselves what they want to believe.

Interestingly enough, I think my religious friends from high school have moved more toward my point of view than me toward theirs. They no longer go to church, something which I didn’t expect would happen. They probably aren’t atheists, maybe not even agnostics. But religion has moved more into the background in their lives than I would have ever expected. It’s nice to know I’m no longer the odd man out.

I still don’t know what I should tell my religious friend. I’ll probably take the easy way out and not discuss it.

 

Finnish Schools vs American Schools: Conclusion

I wanted to write this post more about how American schools concentrate more on competition whereas Finnish schools are more cooperative, but I realized there wasn’t a whole lot I could say about that. And really because I think the issue is more that Americans are a lot more ambitious than Finns are overall, so it makes sense that we want to go to the BEST schools so we can have the BEST jobs. If you’re told from day one that the sky is the limit (and Americans are), then you’ll probably be pretty ambitious. What are Finns told from day one? I don’t know, my husband isn’t here so I can’t ask him. But I get the feeling it’s probably similar to what everyone who enters a system is told: if you do well enough here, you will be successful. Go to school, get good grades, do extra curricular activities, go to a good university and you’ll get a good job and be set for life.

The reality is less straight forward than that. In the US, our school system does poorly enough in following through on its promises that we’re looking all over the world to try and find a better way of doing thing. We’re not the only country doing this, either. When Germany did badly on the PISA study in 2002, I was in Germany and got a front seat view of their descent into Angst. They also concentrated primarily on Finland’s school system. “Why don’t you look at Japan or South Korea?” I asked my host sister. “Because they’re Asian and not European,” she answered, the implication being that their culture is so different from the western culture that the conclusions wouldn’t be relevant and that’s entirely plausible. I don’t know enough about those countries systems to offer any other opinion. But I do wonder whether or not it’s entirely beneficial to want to model everything on Finland.

Is Finland’s educational system even living up its promises? Is it providing people with the key to success in life? A relative of my husband’s has worked in it for 30 years and she’s been a strong critic of our decision to homeschool, to say the least. But recently she was talking to him and confessed that he might be on to something. “These young people, I don’t know how to advise them. The world is changing so rapidly, I don’t know if I can really tell them how they should do things or what the right decision for them to make is so that they can have a good career.” This reminds me of the saying ‘you’re always prepared to fight the last war.’ In our education systems, we’re always preparing people to live in the world of today, at best. Not in the world of tomorrow. How can we promise people that if they go to school for 12 years, they will be ready to meet whatever challenges they face when we have no idea what those challenges are?

How can we know if our school systems are actually doing their jobs if the way we evaluate that is based on tests? Or do we really see the purpose of our schools as only to teach them ‘the three r’s (that’s reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, if you’re not familar with the term). Then again, if our schools aren’t even doing that basic task well, we can’t very well expect them to prepare anyone for a career, can we?

A friend recommended Penelope Trunk’s homeschooling blog to me. While a lot of her posts come across as ego soothing (‘it’s okay for my kids to play video games all day while I work, really’) she has a lot of interesting arguments in favor homeschooling. I think they can be boiled down to this: in the future our institutions are going to be constantly in flux and the people who will do best in this situation will be people who are extremely flexible self-starters and self-learners. School does not create these kinds of people and hobbles those who are naturally like that. My husband went to school in Finland and did so badly, he almost didn’t qualify to go to college. While he has been extremely successful since, he still deals with low self-esteem from failing to do the things every other kid in his school could do easily. He can’t alphabetize anything, even though he knows the alphabet. He has horrible handwriting and writes most letters backwards, even though he had remedial handwriting classes in school. If he had taken the PISA test in school, it’s fair to say he would have bombed it in spite of being very smart and being successful in real life.

As he mentioned in his original commentary, what we need to ask ourselves is whether or not school is the best way to educate children. Are tests the best way to measure out income? How many successful people put their success in life down to their schooling? How much is inner drive.

I do think that American schools could benefit in changes based on the Finnish school system (particuarly less classroom time), but I question whether or not even Finnish schools are preparing their students for tomorrow’s economy. Which country to see having a more dynamic economy? Finland, the USA, or Singapore? Or none?

I think the US spends so much time obsessing over its educational system not only because it’s so horrible, so many other systems are just as bad. We watch so much what other countries are doing because we’re so competitive. We take our kids out of school and homeschool them more than any other country on earth because we’re risk takers. We’re also statistical outliers. The reality is that we can’t learn how to create the Best Educational System from other countries, we have to find that answer on our own. And even then we’ll probably be wrong.