Wacky American Stuff, Part II

22 10 2010

Oh man I really wanted to stay out of this one because I have no right to tell anyone what they should do on election day, least of all the voters of that great little state of Delaware. But I just can’t keep my mouth shut here.

The “I’m not a witch” commercial was amusing, and a few of the spoofs it spawned were absolutely classic. It was good to see that Americans have not lost their sense of humor despite the misery of the financial crisis. I would still be laughing my head off if Christine O’Donnell were not serious about trying to steal a Senate seat.


Twins, separated at birth


Sitting 3,000 miles away for the past 20 years, I have had a very unique – nay, privileged – perspective on U.S. politics. With the buffer of distance and only the high-level noise reaching us over here, we get what seems like a more objective idea of what is really going on back home.

As an observer across that great big ocean, you realize very quickly how wacky some of the stuff coming out of the American political system really is. Mainly because all of your European friends pester you with questions and ridicule you about it at every opportunity. You become the lightening rod for what they think is wrong with America. You get a cramp in your neck from looking up as they get on their high horses, leaving you firmly planted in the mud. Often you are strong-armed into a political corner you never in your wildest dreams expected (or wanted) to defend.

Though mildly irritiating, it’s certainly good practice and keeps you sharp.

After the international wave of 9/11 sympathy ebbed, the rest of the Bush II years were particularly rough for Americans living abroad. In 2008 a whole bunch of us voted for change, and then spent election night joining that collective sigh of relief that was audible around the world. This would be the dawn of a new era in domestic politics, too, where sanity overcomes madness, and the rifts in society would be bridged by constructive and concilliatory cooperation. Right?

Wrong. This year (my Pennsylvania absentee ballot already safely in the mail), after all I’ve seen so far, it seems like there is so much more lunacy going on out there than ever before, and the battlefront seems to have ended up in tiny Delaware.

After padding her resume, cozying up to Sarah Palin and telling the world she’s not a witch, NOW Christine O’Donnell goes and questions what’s in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Hello? Anybody home in that pretty little head? Election Day is still a week and a half away – plenty of opportunity to drop a few more verbal bombs that will shake the nation. Or just Delaware.

Hopefully the fallout will be enough to convince our dear Delawarean neighbors not to elect an intellectually challenged right-wing nutcase to the Senate. The Senate! Christine may not be a witch, but there are a lot of things she is. Like, entirely, undeniably, unbelievably unqualified for Washington DC.

I mean, where do they get these people?

Dresden, Germany, October 3rd, 2010

4 10 2010

We walk along the north shore of the Elbe River in the afternoon. It is overcast, the leaves are starting to turn and the cold wind signals autumn has arrived. A recent flood has left debris on the shoreline and the sounds of a street festival echo in the distance. We look south, beyond the swift but receding current, at the restored old sandstone city. Transformed from a scarred and neglected victim of war just a generation ago, it now glows in a brilliant new light, fresh colors and newborn hope.

21 years ago, my friend and her city tasted freedom for the first time. A cold war kid born on east side of the Iron Curtain, she and her family fought the totalitarian system as best they could for the place they were in. As practicing Christians and conscientious objectors, their feelings  toward the state alternated between ambivalence and downright antagonism, which caused moments of anguish and years of struggle. But as she says today, it was the only right thing to do. And so they did it.

The secret police apparatus that had permeated every corner of East German society dictated the course of their lives. Her father was recruited but refused to serve. Her mother’s letters to relatives in the West were intercepted. For political reasons, she and her sister were denied educations and careers they had dreamed of. They lived with a feeble hope that better days might come but also with a constant fear that their actions or their words or their neighbors would secretly betray them. She credits her family with giving her the backbone to stand up to injustice and her faith has made her an open, forgiving human being, without bitterness.

The whimpering demise of the regime in the autumn of 1989 and the birth of a united Germany eleven months later signaled to her that her opportunity had come, and that she was morally bound to seize it. After unification, she returned to her interrupted education, finished the qualification that would allow her to study, and went to university. For the very first time in her life, at 20, she could choose her own path and determine her own future. In this fresh new world, no party official had the power to tell her she was not allowed to.

Our friendship formed during that exhilarating, reckless time of fundamental change in East and West, and has lasted across the oceans and canyons of time.

In the almost seventeen years I have been coming here to visit her, buildings have been repaired, windows replaced, roofs newly shingled. Along the train tracks, pastel-colored villages now stand where that ubiquitous dismal brown-grey color of decay, so prevalent across the eastern Europe of our childhoods, used to be. The penetrating, acrid smell of burning lignite has disappeared.  Belching brick chimneys have made way for wind farms – their huge, slender blades now cut through the clean air in perfect synchrony.

For the most part, the wounds inflicted before and after the Berlin Wall fell have healed. But resentment and envy sometimes still cast dark shadows on the modern era.

Without slipping into trivial nostalgia, we agree as we walk along the river this chilly October afternoon that what happened twenty years ago is a miracle beyond words. We quietly celebrate that miracle today, together, on the twentieth anniversary of unification.

The local weekend newspaper’s front-page headline declares simply, “Congratulations Germany”.


Women Matter

1 10 2010

Last week, Switzerland’s parliament elected two new members of cabinet to replace two elder gentlemen who had recently stepped down. There is now a female majority in the seven-member cabinet – four women and three men.  This, just 39 years after national female suffrage was introduced, and just 20 years after the last Swiss canton finally allowed its women to vote in local elections (as a result of a Supreme Court case, against the will of the canton’s men).

It’s a bit distressing to know that I live in an industrialized, first-world country where women have had the right to vote for less time than I have been alive.

Last Wednesday, the parliament had the opportunity to elect a fifth woman to the cabinet instead of a man, but I guess that was a little too much of a good thing for the (male-dominated) legislative body.

It's hard work, climbing a mountain.

I grew up in a household where I was told that pretty much anything was possible. My parents did their best to open doors for me, sent me to top schools, and told me I could go out and be whatever I wanted to be. But amid all their motivation, when it came time to strike out on my own, they were surely silently aghast at (and hopefully a little proud of) some of the decisions I made. I became a journalist and went to dangerous places, I learned to fly small airplanes, I expressed no interest in having or being around children.

My fortune would be found on the road less traveled by, my career would certainly not follow a straight line – of that I was convinced. By no means a trailblazer, I just wanted to do something unusual with this life, and saw no reason to do what people expected of me. Or to worry about what the neighbors and relatives would think. One uncle declared me lesbian when, at 30, I still wasn’t married.

An international management consultancy recently published a series of studies on the effectiveness of women in upper echelons of management. The main conclusion: the more women in positions of responsibility, the better a company does financially. Why? Because female managers use a wider range of techniques to motivate employees (like “inspiration”), thus improving performance. Very, very simple concept, folks.

Yet women continue to remain outside the old boys clubs, noses pressed to the windows, looking in. In order to advance up the ladder in the workplace, women are required to display the same dysfunctional patterns of behavior and play the silly power-games that men have cultivated for years. They must take on a dress code and a language which is often all too foreign to them. Sometimes other women are our own worst enemies – mistakenly thinking there is room for just a very few of us at the top.

Will the female-majority cabinet in Switzerland make a difference in the everyday lives of women here? Probably not. Misogynic attitudes don’t change in an instant, and the everyday challenges women face will not disappear overnight. Government business will go on as it has always has – with the exception that cabinet meetings might be a little more colorful in the future.

But it’s nice to see that we are finally getting somewhere, ten years into the 21st century. And boys, don’t worry – when we women end up ruling the world we promise not to silence you. Unlike some of you, most of us believe gender diversity is a good thing.