A Colorful Hotel

I decided to stay in a hotel at Newark instead of driving 2 hours on with my family and then after breakfast driving back to Newark (add an hour for rush hour). I chose a hotel a bit further away from the airport (Fairfield Inn) than the expensive in-airport hotels. But they have a bus shuttle to the airport, breakfast is included, and they have free Internet.

Sure, I wasn't served at breakfast - had to get my own coffee in a styrofoam cup (and it wasn't bad, for American coffee), had my oatmeal in a plastic bowl with a plastic spoon, and the place was crowded, but breakfast was actually better than that fancy place in Mars. And they even have a swimming pool, although I decided I was too lazy to use it.

The most noticeable thing about the hotel is that there are people of color here - many people of many different colors and nationalities. Not just the people working here, the people staying here.  It is a truly diverse crowd, and not just all foreigners. Most speak American, they just didn't want to spend twice the money on a room in New York or at the airport.

As a middle-class girl I am used to the segregated society that still exists in the USA. The church we attended on Christmas Eve was 99% white. The neighbors are 99% white. The shoppers at Trader Joe's were 99% white. The clerks and the cashiers tend to be a bit more diverse, and of course, and the cook at the Japanese place (more about that in the next blog entry) was Japanese.

I really like not being in the majority - it is the way I think Things Ought To Be.

You have mail!

We were to be heading back home after breakfast this morning, when the telephone rang. It was the Butler post office calling - Daddy had arrived and was on the delivery truck! But we couldn't get it, as it was addressed to the funeral home. Should be delivered by noon.

A short discussion later we delayed the return trip in order to complete the burial. We headed for Starbucks, one brother taking back breakfast for the princesses and my sister-in-law, the other riding out with me to dig a hole. We had breakfast in the car, while driving. I had a cinnamon bun about the size of 8 Swedish kanelbuller, that should be enough calories for a day or two.

There was a light snow, and these Pennsylvania curves are treacherous. My cousin remarked yesterday that they just let loose a snake in Pennsylvania and the paving machine follows right behind. And the hills - oh my, my stomach recalls exactly the rhythm of the hills leading down to the farm. We passed the old Brownsdale store, long out of business, and drove past the old farm house. We pulled into the driveway of the neighbors - they seem to be thankfully not at home.

We chose a spot up at the top of the lot with a good view both of the house he built himself and the house his mother and sister had built when they sold off the rest of the farm. Looking back one can see the woods behind the cornfields. The top of the ground was frozen, but the shovel quickly bit through that, the rest was not frozen. We took turns digging. There was just a bit of topsoil, then lots of clay and stones that were not easy to get out. While I dug, my brother looked for stones; while he dug, I made a cross out of sticks and some ribbon that was among the flotsam on the floor of the car.

We got a nice deep hole dug and headed back to the hotel. The princesses were enjoying the swimming pool, we had them get out and get packed. We packed up the car and headed back to Butler. We know the way by now without the GPS system. At the funeral home they had us sit down and wait, while they looked. Yes, the mail had come. Yes, there was a box for us there. The postal worker had forgotten to ring the bell, the registered mail thingy was still attached to the box, unsigned. The box was postmarked December 21, the cremation was December 13. Where did he spend that week? How on earth an registered mail that was supposed to be sent overnight took more than a week to get from Florida to Pennsylvania remains a mystery.

We signed the forms, declined to buy an urn, and headed back to the lot. I rode with the box on my lap, a very strange feeling. This, then, is all that remains of a person: about 2 kilograms of ashes, in a box. As we came down towards the village I had my brother take a short drive up and down Main Street, a sort of farewell to the church, the school, and the train tracks. Then we made it up the hill and parked.

I had prepared a short ceremony that we followed, lowering the box into the hole, pouring a bottle of good red wine in on top, and then everyone taking a turn at putting the dirt back into the hole. We tamped it down, lay the cross and the stone down so we can find it to plant a dogwood tree there in the spring, and we found that it was now good. The spot was just perfect for him, and we all felt a sense of relief, a feeling of closure, that we had completed the mission.

Rest in peace, Daddy!


A Proxy Funeral

"I've been in the business 29 years," the funeral director said, "and I have never had this happen before."

Daddy didn't make it to his own funeral. He died over 3 weeks ago in Florida and was cremated 2 weeks ago there. He was to be sent certified mail with the grand and glorious United States Postal Service to the funeral home in Butler, PA, where the funeral was held today. Apparently, the funeral home in Florida didn't put him in the mail right away, but there is proof that he was handed over. But the USPS has no idea where the ashes currently are. They are not in Butler. They are not in Pittsburgh. They are not in Jacksonville. They just don't know. Call again tomorrow. As they have been saying for days.

This would have irritated Daddy no end, as he liked to be on time. Luckily, we had a poster board with a lot of pictures so that we at least had something. And the obituary had been printed in the local newspaper as planned, although we did rather think it would be a waste of money. Imagine our surprise, when in addition to the children, grandchildren and cousins two neighbors of my grandmother came, a good friend of my aunt with her husband, and two guys who knew Daddy in grade school and high school.

So we held a memorial service, with music, even though no one sang much except "Amazing Grace" at the end. I gave the eulogy, one brother read the poem "Flare" by Mary Oliver, the other told some good stories, and two of the granddaughters also stood up to say something, which pretty much had everyone in tears.

And then we were at a loss. We had planned on taking the ashes in the car to the little village where he was born and scattering the ashes on the acre he still owned there. But there were no ashes. We decided to drive out anyway. We parked at a neighbors and walked around the wet and snowy field. We reminisced about the place, and then drove on in search of lunch.

The first place was closed, but the municipal airport hat a little eatery. We all had typical local food (I had a Rueben sandwich with some really good coleslaw) and a good visit with the cousins. After lunch they headed home, and we drove around a bit more. We drove slowly past the farm, and the house I grew up in. We toured the village down by the creek, me hopping out to make pictures. Then we climbed the hill on Meridian road and headed out to look for our grandparents' graves. We found the cemetery, and there was even someone there to give us the exact coordinates. The graves were covered with snow, but we found them.

I was struck at how much this part of the world resonated with something deep inside me. This is the place I come from, my home country. There is something here that is me, even though much has changed since I lived here. I even find myself slipping into the local dialect: "yinz", "root-8" (for Route 8, although I of course say "rout 66"), "spigot", "sahrkraht". Oh my, there's even a Wikipedia entry on the dialect! And a page dedicated to Myron Cope, the sportscaster I loved to listen to, on Pittsburghese.

So if Daddy ever gets found by the post office, I'll be back home for burying the ashes.


The Boxing Day Reception

The day after Christmas is generally a normal working day in the US, but in England it is called Boxing Day. My brother and his family attend an Episcopalian church, which is rooted in England, so their rector has a Boxing Day reception. I tagged along as sister-of.

The parsonage was packed with people when we arrived. The rooms were filled with Christmas decorations and knickknacks galore. The dining room table groaned under plates and plates of food, and there were stashes of bubbly and beer in each of the rooms. I collected some pink bubbly and a plate of food and first stood around being the sister-from-Germany.

While foraging for a drink refill the rector introduced me to a guy standing next to him, and we started to chat. He's one of those hedge-fond guys who are selling European debts short and are, in my opinion, responsible for much of the current mess. Instead of asking me about the European situation, as a guy at dinner last night did, he told me about all that Europe is doing wrong.

Another guy joined us and they carried on a bit about the European Problem. Then they started talking about the Stratfor hack by the Anonymous group (NYT report). I found it mildly amusing, because they tried to explain to me what the group was and what they were doing. They had not yet asked me what I do, so they didn't know that I know a tiny bit about the Internet. I wondered what I would do if I were a member of Anonymous, how I would keep a straight face when people discuss this and have so much information wrong. One Anonymous annoncement denies that they are responsible for this hack on the open source intelligence agency, although there is a link to the announcement from an Anonymous Twitter account, and there they deny that they are not responsible. Whatever, there are lots of links posted.  

Anyway, the guy was saying that credit card numbers were posted on the Internet. Well, kind of. They are posted, but are encrypted, as they should have been at Stratfor. Apparently, a few pictures were posted with credit card transactions, and there were social security numbers posted. As I was defending the action, he went ballistic. These guys are criminals who need to be arrested and punished. He was frothing at the mouth, so I kept feeding the fire, saying that a company that keeps credit card numbers online is inviting trouble. "Well, what if I say that you are really bad at self-defense and so I smack you in the mouth to prove it? Huh? Huh? Is that okay?" He was really agitated, I guess he was afraid his credit card number might show up.

His wife came to collect him, but on the way home he apparently ran into my brother and chewed his ear off. I got asked what on earth I had said to him ;)

So what do I think of the action? It's a bad idea for the organizations getting the money if the credit card companies fight back and charge the recipients 35$ a pop for "fraudulent transactions". But judging from this guy's agitation, that hit him where he will pay attention. Don't know if it will change his attitude, though.


New York, New York

It is a tradition in my brother's family to spend Christmas Eve in the best city in the world - New York. So we did an early run to get fish for dinner, I stood in a long line at the French Bakery to get croissants and baguettes, and my brother got coffee at Starbucks. We gulped down breakfast and got into the car with the princesses and drove down to New York.

At that hour of the morning you can make good time, we pulled into the parking garage of the Museum of Natural History just after it opened. And the first order of business was to open the trunk for inspection. I asked why, apparently they are looking for "bombs". I said, that's crazy, if I'm bringing a bomb in, it's under the seat, not in the trunk. Why do they put up with that? Oh, it's only 30 seconds, and it makes them feel good. Before you approach the cash register you have to go through "security". There was a long list of things not allowed, like my Swiss Army Knife. Luckily, the guard was pretty much asleep, and we distracted her with questions about the lost and found (we found a sweater on the parking lot), so I got to take my knife in with me.

We spent about 2 hours in the museum, seeing the Origami Christmas tree with dinosaurs folded out of paper.  Then we went to see the real dinosaurs. Of course, the dinos in Berlin are much better and bigger than the ones in New York, but they kind of like them. And there is a little rotunda in the dinosaur department that has a nice view of New York, looking out over Central Park. Yes, that's me and my camera reflecting in the window. My picture taking skills need polish.

We went to Virgil's Real Barbecue for lunch - a heavy lunch, although we only had sandwiches. It was full southern BBQ furnishing, and the menu was calorie-laden. Salads? You have to be joking. I had a mixed BBQ sandwich and burped it all afternoon. Not my favorite kind of food. Then we walked to the Rockefeller Center in the bright sunlight.  The streets are full of yellow cabs ferrying people to and fro, but the walk was very nice, even if we did have to keep the princesses locked into an adult hand apiece so as not to lose them in the crowds. There was a tree at the Rockefeller Center - I've seen worse in Berlin. All tinseled up and with a big crowd pushing through to see it.

There was a tiny ice skating rink in the middle of the plaza that was crowded with people, and a Santa Clause lazily skating around. All around the plaza there were flags hanging from the buildings. This is something that still unsettles me, the sheer amount of patriotic flag-waving that goes on in the US.

On the way back to the car we passed the New York headquarters of the IRS, the tax collectors of the US. They have a sign out front with the current national debt on it:

Bill Clinton balanced, the budget, remember? And Mr. Bush, Jr. pushed that up to 15 trillion (!) with his war in Iraq. We got into the car (parking in New York is exorbitant, I think my brother paid over 70$ in parking fees alone!) and headed back to Connecticut. There we got ourselves prettied up and made it to the family church service at 5 pm. It was a 2-hour service, there's a lot to get in and the place was packed.

Then home for a Seven Fish Dinner (we gave up after six, there was just no way that anyone was going to be able to eat another bite): Braised tuna with sesame and poppy seeds, clams, mussels, grilled salmon, scallops in butter and parsley sauce, shrimp in garlic sauce. Add champagne and French bread, and it was just marvelous!

We managed to get the princesses to bed after reading the "Night before Christmas" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". I have tried to talk the princesses until waiting until 7.30 am to wake us. Fat chance that will work, but I tried.

Merry Christmas!


The Elf Party

For the last appearance of Elf on the Shelf we decided he needed a pool party:

Yes, that's the Mermaid Barbie I gave to one of the princesses for her birthday. That elf looks pretty wasted. I wonder where Ken has been all month?

Merry Christmas!

Deck the Cars

No, it is not enough that people decorate their trees, here. Nor their houses. They also decorate their cars. Antlers and a red nose.

My sister-in-law says that there is an Easter version as well. Glad I'm not here for that.

Most of the houses are relatively decent in their decorations. A wreath on every window, a Santa on the roof. The public decorations are prolific, but non-religious: wreaths, snowmen, red bows, glitter, tinsel, flashing lights, trees.

There is a big fight about a nativity scene being held on public property. Since there is separation of church and state, there can be no religious matter on public grounds. But the Knights of Columbus have a special dispensation, that if they pay rent for the property, pay for the scene themselves, and have guards on duty 24/7, then they can have a nativity scene set up.

The prize in the department I-Don't-Want-Your-Electricity-Bill is:

The whole entire house is draped in lights. Blinking lights. Colored lights. There are creatures on the lawn. They blink. I would not want to have to live next to this.

Elf on the Shelf

I've been hearing about the trials of having an "Elf on the Shelf" from my sister-in-law's Facebook page, but I really didn't understand what this was about. It seems, however, that this is all the rage here this year. The princesses were telling me excitedly about all the other kids they know with their own elves.

It is a doll, dressed up like an elf. Apparently, he listens to the kids in the house, trying to find out what they want. The kids can talk to him, but not touch him. He flies to Santa's place every night, to tell him what the kids want, and he's in another place the next morning when the kids get up.

A spa day for Rudolph and Barbie
That's the challenge, finding good places to put him. My sister-in-law has been setting up "dates" between their elf, named Rudolph, and some of the assorted Barbie dolls found around the house. The princesses find this scandalous, although as I pointed out, Rudolph didn't actually marry any of them, so he is free to go on a date with a different Barbie every night, if he is so inclined.

Last night Rudolph apparently returned from Santa pretty wasted, so he treated himself to a spa treatment with the Barbie of the night, including real cucumber pieces on their eyes. Everyone had a good laugh about them.

While we were shopping in the morning, the dogs managed to jump up and eat the cucumbers, luckily Rudolph survived. We look forward to seeing what he will be up to tomorrow, when he gets back from Santa again.


I know you!

I was accompanying WiseMan to a Christmas party in his department that one of the postdocs was hosting. The postdoc had also included families and kids that their kids knew from school and kindergarten, so there were quite a lot of kids milling around.

After most of the kids left and we were able to enjoy the punch in relative quiet, the woman sitting next to me stood up to gather up her kids. She stared at me, and then exclaimed "I know you!" I'm used to people kind of knowing me, so I just smiled, as I had no idea who she was.

"You were my advisor for my thesis!" Oh my. I just counted - I have had 145 theses that I have advised over the past 18 years. When she said her name, I recognized the name, but could not remember the topic. But I asked what she was doing, and was very happy to hear that she had a great job at a largish company here in Berlin. And we connected up on a possible project with another professor in my department.

Berlin ist ein Dorf, as they say here, Berlin, this place is a small village. That's one of the things I like about this city.


Why are all these people here?

We had the service of lessons and carols this evening at our church. We normally have about 20-25 people at service, often 3 of them kids. This evening there were about 130 people and a dozen kids, people come for the Christmas carols.

One of our regular kids, Leonie, age 5, grabbed my hand as I was collecting the offering. "Why are all these people here this evening?" She was seriously irritated. I explained quietly that since we had a choir, many people wanted to listen to the choir and sing with us. "But there's no place to sit!" We had many people who had to stand in the back, as all the chairs were taken. "Why don't they come every week?"

Kids are very observant!


No more midnight calls

There's a strange feeling about this evening. It's Sunday night, time to connect with the family night.

For years, my mother wrote a letter to her parents every Sunday evening while watching TV after dinner. When I moved to Germany, I got a Sunday letter every time the German post office was so moved to deliver the letter. Sometimes I got them 3 days later, sometimes 8 days, sometimes 2 weeks later. I tried to get into the habit of writing as well, and rescued a big pile of my letters when we were cleaning out their house in 2004.

As telephones from Germany to the US got cheaper, I couldn't be bothered writing anymore, and would just call. After putting the folks in the home in 2004 I made sure to call every Sunday at midnight (6 pm their time, just after supper). Daddy would pounce on the phone at the first ring.

Every now and then I would forget (being busy with something or other), and he would be so sad that he had missed me. So I tried to call from where ever I was in the world. Skype was wonderful, I got the call out so I only needed Internet to be able to reach him.

I'm glad I tracked him down last week. It had gotten difficult because you had to find out in what hospital he was in that week, and talk a nurse into holding the phone in his room to his ear. But we got it to work last week, and so I had a last, short conversation with him.

This week - deafening silence. I feel the need to talk to someone, manage to find my brother for a short chat. I'll miss the calls, terribly.


Sad Nikolaus

Strange - when I got dressed this morning I somehow couldn't bear to have color on, although it was our grand foundation laying ceremony. Black was the only thing I felt comfortable wearing, with a grey and black coat. Someone remarked that I was all in black and I noted that at least the top button was in the school color.

It was a rough day, for other reasons. I got home, wanted to just sit down and listen to the music, but the phone noted that there was a call on the answering machine. It was my brother. Calling back, I knew what he was going to say before he said it.

Daddy died today. He had a good breakfast, then had trouble breathing. They called the hospice worker, she came and gave him morphine. He fell asleep, and died in his sleep. He didn't get to see Mommy again - that will have to wait.

We're going to bury his ashes on that piece of the farm he refused to sell, to keep the buyer from putting in a street to his housing development. It's next to the house Daddy built with his own hands. I'll fly over and we'll do a service in the village church and the burial between Christmas and New Year's. Let's hope the snow stays away.

Thanks Daddy, despite everything, thanks. And say "Hi" to Grandma, Grandpa, and Aunt Jean.


Daddy's dying

My brother flew down to see what was up with the parents, the rehab clinic had insisted that he come, and come soon. I've been having trouble reaching him, he's been whisked off to this hospital or that rehab, but in general I've been able to track him down for our weekly call.

He's dying. We've known that for years, no, decades. He spent the longest time trying to drink himself to death, but when we put them in a home in 2004 he perked up, actually got his drinking under control, and enjoyed life! The hardest thing he had to do was put Mommy in the memory care unit. I was in Iceland, and we spoke by mobile phone, it cost me a fortune, but it was important to be speaking with him that night.

I left home at 19, put an ocean between me and my folks, that was the proper distance. I wrote letters every week, and called when I could. I have always been an expert on how to organize cheap transatlantic calls, and have tried out many schemes over the decades. Once it got cheap enough, I would call every Sunday evening. The midnight call (6 pm for them) got to be a very regular habit that I have continued over all the years. The past few years he would pounce on the phone, pick up at the first ring, so I tried to be punctual about calling.

He was always a busy man. When I was very young he was working as an engineer, working on a Master's degree in industrial engineering, and building a house for us with his own muscle power. He was just like his mother and dad, farmers who were in constant motion from the moment they hit the floor in the morning until they said their evening prayers. We moved around from job to job. He used to joke that he had to move when he got a house perfect so there was nothing else for him to do. My best childhood memories are of going to the hardware store with Daddy on a Saturday, and helping him with the weekend project. I still love hardware stores.

He was often away on some building project or other, he built or managed railroad systems. Westinghouse; Union Railroad; P & LE; Washington, D.C. Metro; some strange desk job in Atlanta managing the American Institute of Industrial Engineers where he drank heavily with the heavy-drinking top manager; the "Tijuana Trolly" in San Diego; The San Francisco BART system; car production for subway systems; a number of other jobs after I left, the last for Matra, designing systems for Kuala Lumpur and the driverless people mover in Jacksonville. His heart broke when Jacksonville decided not to continue building the people mover. He made a proposal for Pittsburgh, that didn't get accepted either, and he retired to a life of hard drinking.

They made it over to Europe a few times, especially after there was a grandchild. We were in Berlin in August 89, ventured over the wall into "Commie-Land", visited Sweden. They loved Sweden, you could buy milk with a credit card and no one batted an eye, not like that horrible Germany where they rolled up the sidewalks Saturdays at 1pm and you could starve by Monday morning if you hadn't managed to lay in food for the weekend.

In his younger years he was, like his sister, a lay preacher in the Methodist church. In older years he served in other capacities, often as an usher. He was so proud when I got my lay preacher's license, I taped my sermons on my iPod and sent CDs over to him to listen on his CD player.

He was horribly right-wing, politics was not a topic we could discuss in civil tones, although time and again I would raise an issue and we would fight it out. I remember their first visit to Kiel where we were fighting about the issue of handicapped-accessible public transport. He felt that was a waste of money, I felt that handicapped have the right to be able to use public transport as well. I'll never forget the look on his face when he was faced with a train station in Berlin pushing a baby carriage. "How the hell am I supposed to get down here?" he hollered. "It's not handicapped-accessible, Daddy you put it under your arm and carry it down, or you ask for help!". You could see the wheels whirring in his mind. He finally understood. His next station, in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, was a skater's dream - not a step in the place, only ramps.

He would listen to that horrible Rush Limbaugh every day. On my last visit I would get so angry at the nonsense that Limbaugh would be spouting. But Daddy was adamant - although he now needed Medicare, he was 100% against "socialized medicine". So I talked a lot about the weather as I waded through the piles of bills.

After he had Mommy put in the Memory Care Unit, as they euphemistically call the Alzheimer's ward, he would visit her every day, even after he was confined to a wheelchair. That was something to do! Now he himself lies unmoving, unable to carry on a conversation, unaware of people around him, waiting to die.

WiseMan already lost both his parents - his father in 2006 (Blogposts:  1 - 2 - 3 - 4 ) his mother in 2009 (Blogposts: 1 - 2). Things change when they are gone. You are now the oldest generation. And there is now no one around who played a part in your childhood memories. I find it hard to work today, my mind is flooded with memories, pictures, voices, smells.

Daddy - I hope you find your peace with the world.



We went to the local English-language cinema this evening to see Carnage while munching proper salted popcorn. The theater was pretty well filled, but we had good seats, i.e. the tall guy sat down just to the right of me.

Oh my, what a funny play. Ingmar Bergman would be proud of all the shifting alliances, the deep-seated emotions, the allusions to deeper problems. And Christoph Waltz plays the nasty lawyer perfectly. How does he manage to do all of these evil guys without cracking up? Jodie Foster is beautiful in wrinkles and Kate Winslet, well, Kate is just stupefyingly beautiful - and a beast when drunk. John C. Reilly was just like the dad of my best friend when I was little.

What happens? Well, one couple's kid knocks the other couple's kid with a stick and injures him. They are talking it out like civilized people. Not. 

The US-fake-niceness was so hard to bear at times, I facepalmed with my scarf. The barf scene - worthy of a Monty-Python-Award - was, I hope, the reason for all the 2D and 3D artists.

It was a different sort of movie, we laughed a lot - worth seeing!