Sunday, April 2, 2017

Learning Stuff

I read a post about science writing by someone who didn’t think she’d ever go there. It resonated with me, because here I am, a German lit major, teaching science. It’s been a fascinating opportunity to expand my horizon. 

After raising three kids, while putting in enough time as a mail carrier to collect a pension, I dusted off my education degree, and became an after-school science instructor. I’ve learned a lot. This past winter we’ve connected phone systems, interacted with robots, applied Newton’s three laws of motion, studied fish, investigated power sources, and more. Last year, we focused on outer space. It’s always interesting. It's only an hour day and sure makes me appreciate the teachers who crowd-control, educate, and nurture day in and day out. And, did I say I’m learning stuff?  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Lemon Tea and the Internet

It never ceases to amaze me how the internet has changed my life. Ask any question and there’s an answer…it’s like that tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Early this morning I made my usual green tea with lemon and was delighted to cut open a lemon which had no seeds. None! So I googled this. I mean…why do lemons usually have so many seeds compared to say…limes? And I got an answer. I could explain that answer here, but why should I? The answer is completely searchable and findable. Knowledge of almost any and every kind is readily available so long as there’s electricity and a wi-fi (which does not mean wireless fidelity, but rather IEEE 802.11x) connection. My little finite brain no longer needs to store infinite facts. I just need to type in the right question and I will get an answer.

The internet goes beyond the facts. It allows us to connect with real people. We can share joys or problems. We can support each other. No longer do we need to feel alone. How in the world did the world work before the internet?  I remember the pre-internet days. Young people today take this connectivity as natural as sunrise and sunset. We’ve been through a revolution…and come out the other end with a whole new way of living. I like it.

But as a child I discovered this yearning to look between the words, past the facts, past the veneer of smiling faces.  I think this is what put the seed in me to want to be a writer. So yes, the internet is an amazing tree of knowledge, but its fruit is full of seeds and seeds are good…they promise new life…unless you’re drinking tea.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Animals and War

I recently finished a book about horses in the Second World War. (Pferd und Reiter in II Weltkrieg by Janusz Piekalkiewicz). Animals...whether horses used in battle, zoo animals exposed to bombs, or family pets left behind during flight...the fate of many animals during the carnage of war was a tragic one.

A couple of children’s books focusing on German shepherds are must-reads that show the misguided revenge against all things German. (Finding Zasha and Saving Zasha by Randi Barrow).  

I came across an article in the BBC News Magazine, where it shares the sad fact that in Britain, 750,000 pets were euthanized within one week at the outbreak of the Second World War. Pets were viewed as a luxury in austere times.

Philip Kerr's book, The Winter Horses, tells the story about rare
Przewalski horses, living on a nature preserve in Ukraine during the Second World War.  It's supposed to become a movie.

The Trakehner horses, an East Prussian breed, almost went extinct at the end of the Second World War when the breeding stock had to flee across the frozen Vistula Lagoon to escape the Soviet advance. 

Many horses died in battle. One of the worst atrocities occurred in May, 1944 in Crimea. German riders were ordered to kill their own horses, rather than let them fall into Soviet hands. Machine gunners shot thirty thousand horses at the edge of a steep cliff, and let their bodies fall into the bloody Black Sea. loyal and so voiceless.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Old Music

When I was almost ten, my parents moved into a spanking new house in the suburbs of Winnipeg. The neighbourhood was stuffed with young families and we had many a mud fight in between the mounds of construction gumbo. I learned the hard way that the pink insulation might be great for bouncing, but not so good for bare skin. There was a real comradery amongst the neighbours…we’d all moved in about the same time…and I was happy. Of course, there was the issue of my parents being German, and some kids called them Nazis. My friends were scared of Dad when he marched down the street hollering for me at sunset. His broad accent and his military strictness sometimes hid the loving, soft father that I knew.

A favorite place in that new home was the rec room Dad built. In the rec room we had a record player and while the rest of my friends were buying Beatle and Monkey records, I was discovering my dad’s old German 78s. (Our family belonged to a fundamentalist church and any kind of rock music was considered sinful. Yes, sad but true. That’s a whole other story.)

I played those old German songs over and over. Tangoes, seranades, operettas, folk music, songs of yearning…songs filled with Sehnsucht.  I organized them, catalogued them and secretly danced to them. My parents were too busy working, cleaning, growing tomatoes, playing crokinole, or fishing to listen to the old music. I inhaled it. Then one day, I accidently stepped on a pile of them and for years I couldn’t hear them anymore, but they played on in my mind.  Now, with YouTube they are so easy to find and I can’t keep a good thing to myself.

I’ll start with the ever-popular song, Lili Marlene. It was made famous in 1938 by the singer, Lale Anderson. The lyrics, however, were written during the First World War in 1915 by Hans Leip—schoolteacher and conscripted soldier. The name, Lili Marlene, is a combination of two of his female friends. Norbert Schultze created the melody in 1937. It’s kind of interesting how it took more than twenty years for a simple poem to become a song. And then, when it was released, not too many paid attention. By 1941, less than a thousand copies had sold. But then, Radio Belgrade—which broadcast to soldiers on duty—took a fancy to it and the song took off. After some wrangling with a reluctant Goebbels, it became the signature sign-off song when the station retired at ten every night.

In 1942, the British discovered the song and Lale Anderson released an English version.

The song reached even more troops when Marlene Dietrich recorded it in 1944 for the American Office of Strategic Service as part of the Allied propaganda effort to discourage German soldiers.

An amazing song. An incredible time. I like Lale Anderson’s version best. Her voice is beautiful. But here’s Marlene Dietrich, with her rendition. It’s an evocative song, either way. And when I was twelve years old, down in the new rec room in suburbia, it made me cry, made me dance, and filled me with Sehnsucht for a time and place I couldn't grasp. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Canadian Dream and my Russian friend

As Canadians we have a pretty high opinion about our country…especially when it comes to accepting immigrants. So it’s kind of a shock to me, that a friend is packing it in and returning to her home country, Russia, after almost two years of struggle. She says that yes, Russia is more corrupt and less free than Canada. But, in Russia she can work in her chosen career. She’s had it with scrubbing toilets and barely scraping by. It’s a sad story and unfortunately, her story is not unique.

As a child of immigrants, myself, I know how hard my parents worked to give me the life that they couldn’t have. For a while, my dad was a fix-it guy and my mom worked in a potato chip factory. But they'd had no chance to get a higher education.  It’s different for children. Kids absorb the language and lifestyle in schools. Later, with job training, they automatically get the ‘correct’ paper work, to enter a career of their choice. 

For the older, highly-skilled immigrant however, Canada is often not paradise. It’s often menial labour, financial struggle, and later, sadly, the feeling of being ostracized by their own culturally-adjusted children.

It takes courage to come to a new country as an adult. Immigrants like my friend arrive in our country with a sense of optimism and adventure. Gradually, that optimism can erode into discouragement. You’re away from friends and family. And here you are, unable to move ahead, cleaning houses just to pay the bills. This is what many immigrants experience.

I asked my friend what life will be like for her back in Russia. The city where she’ll live, four hours east of Moscow, is a lot like Winnipeg, she told me…with long, cold winters. Dogs run free, owners do not pick up after them, and living in a detached house is rare. Plus, there’s more crime, violence and drinking. But her new home city offers excellent public transportation, condos and apartments are affordable and so are the restaurants. Culture is everywhere… many museums, theatres and concert halls. Post-secondary education is free.

Since making the decision to move back, my friend has had several job offers and looks forward to the life she dreamed she could have here in Canada, back where she started…in Russia.

It’s still hard for me, born in Canada, to imagine that life could be better in Russia…a place that destroyed my own family during the Stalin years. But I’ve appreciated getting to know a modern-day Russian and to have this glimpse into a country and a people that has long fascinated me.