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We Clearly Majored In The Wrong Subject

, , , , | Related | December 29, 2022

My parents are in the process of moving, and we’re in their new house, which has about half of their stuff in it. They are telling me about the next load the movers will bring. They’ve inherited a number of pretty old antiques.

Mom: “The china cabinet is going to go there—” *points* “—and then the other one is going right here.”

Me: “What other one?”

Mom: “1730.”

Me: “…what?”

Mom: “1730.”

Dad: “What are you talking about?”

Mom: “The one from the 1730s!”

Me: “What one? I don’t know how to tell 1730s from 1830s from 1930s!”

Mom: “The one we got from Aunt Susan!”

Me: “I don’t know what that is! What kind of furniture are we even talking about?”

Mom: “The buffet in the dining room by the kitchen door! Why don’t you understand?!”

Apparently, I need an advanced degree in historical furniture to chat with my mom.

When Stubbornness Hits The (Beta)Max

, , , , | Right | December 27, 2022

In 1992, I have a job at the call center for a well-known manufacturer. This particular manufacturer makes many consumer products for the home. They used to make home electronics (TVs, VCRs, etc.) but sold that division to another company a few years prior.

One Saturday morning, a man calls. He sounds a little older — maybe in his fifties or sixties.

Caller: “My wife and I have been going around to the local yard sales, and we purchased a stash of brand-new 8-track tapes!”

Me: “Brand-new? As in, never opened?”

Caller: “Yes, that. I’ve been calling around to different electronic stores to see if you guys have an 8-track player I can buy.”

Me: “Well, since 8-tracks are an obsolete technology, you would be best served checking electronics repair shops or places that sell used electronics.”

Caller: “But these are brand new! What do you mean, it’s obsolete?”

Me: “Well, people have moved on to better technology. The 8-tracks tended to jam and the pinch heads tended to cause the audio to be weird, so people eventually moved to cassette tapes and then onto CDs.”

Caller: “No, I don’t want to go to a used electronics store. I want someone to sell me a brand new 8-track player!”

Remember this is 1992, and he’s looking for a technology that faded away in the early eighties. He does NOT want to hear my answers. In his mind, he got a bargain on new 8-track cartridges, and by God, someone is going to sell him a brand-new 8-track player!

I keep explaining, and he just gets LIVID — one of the angriest customers I ever spoke to in my six years at that call center.

Caller: “I will find a new one!” *Slams the phone down*

Every now and then, I look at my cell phone that plays thousands of streamed songs, and I think of that guy.

The Politics Suck, But Some People’s Kindness Knows No Borders

, , , , | Legal | December 15, 2022

Back in the days when Germany was still separated firmly into the DDR — Deutsche Demokratische Republik or east Germany — and the BRD — Bundesrepublik Deutschland or west Germany — it was really hard to cross the border into east Germany from any country that wasn’t part of the Soviet Union.

You had to make an official request that had to be granted by the eastern German authorities, which didn’t happen often for western Germans to visit eastern Germany, and rarely ever for eastern Germans for visiting the BRD

At the border, even if you had all the required paperwork, you had to endure tenuous searching and questioning. There were very strict rules on what you could bring with you into the DDR and equally strict rules on what you could export. The border was very wide, with only small control points where you could cross. The land in between was a death zone full of mines, and people who tried to cross the borders without a legal pass and travel permit risked being shot; if you tried to pass through the death zone you also risked being shot or blown up, and if you got caught, definite incarceration.

But the eastern Germans weren’t bad people. They were friendly and generous, and it was well known that the border patrol was usually much more friendly and lenient if you brought your whole family, as long as your papers were on order.

I was still very young when my parents started visiting friends in eastern Germany. They would bring them many goods that were hard to get in eastern Germany and sometimes even smuggled medications. They did this rarely since it was very risky — not lose your life risky but definitely being held for quite a while and never allowed to come back risky. It was also required to exchange a certain amount of western money into eastern currency, but you couldn’t change it the other way round and couldn’t take any money with you out of eastern Germany; it was strictly prohibited and would definitely result in prison time if you got caught.

To make things easier, we would all go together as a family, and since I was so young, I didn’t really understand all the stress and the seriousness of the whole situation. The border guards were indeed always very friendly to me and my mom, and the border checks were intense but short. 

As a German girl, I didn’t really understand weapons or what the guns of the guards meant, so I enjoyed those trips. Our friends’ family had a small farm with chickens and sheep, and I loved it there. I was always sad when we went back home, and the guards always thought that was cute.

One time when we went back home, things were different from the other times. At first, everything was normal. An older border guard, [Border Guard #1], checked our papers and told us to drive on the side for a quick check-up. He saw me sniffing because I had to leave before the birthday of my personal friend, the family’s young daughter, and he bowed down to reassure me before he left.

But then, everything went downhill. 

One of the younger guards decided that my father was behaving suspiciously and ordered a full search of the car. That meant we all had to leave the car, during early spring in No Man’s Land. Everything around us was flat and open; you could only see the street, the border posts, the watchtowers, and the empty death zone between the mesh fences topped with barbed wire. It was extremely cold, and I had to watch as several angry-looking soldiers filched through our car. I was terrified.

Meanwhile, another border guard questioned my father next to me while I clung to my mother.

Border Guard #2: “Why did you come to the DDR?”

Border Guard #2: “What did you take there?”

Border Guard #2: “What did you bring back with you?”

Border Guard #2: “Do you have any money still on hand? You know it is forbidden to bring any money with you…”

That was the moment I truly realized that it was forbidden. I knew before that we shouldn’t have any eastern German money on us but I didn’t really understand that it was so serious. I really was very young. And young and stupid as I was, I indeed had some money — just a few coins my friend had given me, also not knowing how bad that was.

I then started crying earnestly. I was deadly afraid they would arrest my dad. They looked so angry. A female officer took away my mom for searching, and then [Border Guard #1] came back and saw me crying. He picked me up and smiled at me.

Border Guard #1: “Hey, why are you crying, Kirsche? Come on, smile for me!”

“Kirsche” means “cherry”, a common nickname in eastern Germany for small girls.

He turned to the other guard and my dad and told them he’d bring me into the warmer office. They agreed. I don’t think my father had much choice in this and thought it would be better to be quiet.

I liked that guy. He had something nice and grandfatherly about him. I couldn’t stop crying, though. And after a bit of gentle poking, I told him what my friend and I had done. 

He looked at me with worry.

Border Guard #1: “Hoo, Kirsche! That’s bad! You shouldn’t have done that.”

He then hugged me.

Border Guard #1: “Do you promise to never do it again?”

I nodded.

Border Guard #1: *Whispering* “Then give it to me. I won’t tell anybody.”

I gave him the money. It was only two or three small coins — really not much. You couldn’t buy more than a roll for them. He gave me a wink. 

Border Guard #1: “That’ll be our little secret! We will tell no one! You listen? No one can ever know!”

And I promised. And I never told anybody. This is the first time I’ve done so. 

After a little while, my mom was brought in. The whole search lasted almost two hours more, and my father was worried sick, but we didn’t have anything else that wasn’t allowed. The coins were gone, safe in my new friend’s pocket.

I later learned that what that guy did was considered treason and if anyone had found out, he would have gone to prison, even though it was just a few, almost worthless coins.

It was the most frightening situation I ever had in my life, but also one of the best because I learned back then that even in the worst and most unreasonable situations, there are still decent people, and sometimes you find a friend where you expect them the least.

It was the only time we were searched this intensely. It luckily never happened again. But I know for sure that ever after, my parents only brought strictly legal stuff and never risked smuggling again. They suspected that someone had snitched on them bringing medication sometimes. But it could also just have been a random search. I guess we’ll never know.

The Galileo Seven

, , , , , , , | Right | October 31, 2022

Back in the 1990s, the local school seems to be doing a big project on astronomy, as swathes of children with their parents are coming into the library to borrow books on stars, planets, galaxies, and the like. Some children have been assigned famous astronomers, and I get six children in one day taking out books on Galileo Galilei. A seventh child and mother approach me.

Mother: “Why don’t you have any books on Galileo?”

Me: “We did, ma’am, but he’s very popular today and all those books have been borrowed.”

Mother: “That’s ridiculous! How can there be so many out?”

Mother’s Son: “Mom! I told you we needed to come earlier! Everyone in the class wanted to do Galileo because he’s easiest!”

Mother: “Shush, you!” *Turns to me* “Fine, just call up one of the parents and tell them they need to return the books.”

Me: “I… can’t do that, madam. That’s not how it works.”

Mother: “I pay my taxes so that I can walk into the library and expect to get the books I am looking for! Now go and get me those books!”

Me: “I can help you find alternative books on the subject, madam, but if they have been borrowed, there is nothing I can do.”

Mother: “This is ridiculous!” *Turns to her son* “You’ll just have to do the project on Leonardo DiCaprio, instead!”

We Wish It Was Like Bridgerton, But Alas…

, , , , | Right | September 26, 2022

I work at a museum that depicts how Britain used to look during Victorian times. We sometimes have mannequins dressed up in period-appropriate clothing. We tend to stick with the Dickensian part of the nineteenth century, as this was before most of the laws concerning the poor’s rights were introduced in our country.

On this particular day, some Americans are visiting. One of them approaches me after I have given a talk about life for the poorest citizens while I am standing in a mock street.

Tourist: “Hey, we were wondering why y’all don’t have any Black mannequins?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Tourist: *Scoffing* “I can’t see any Black mannequins. Y’all got the costumes right and everything, but if you wanna be accurate, why don’t y’all have Black people? They matter, too, you know.”

Me: “There were very few Black people in the Victorian era. Even then, I think that most Black people would have been servants, rather than living in slums.”

Tourist: *Taken aback* “Really?”

Me: “Yes. Even as late as 1945, there were only about 20,000 non-white people living in Britain.” *Pauses* “How many Black people lived in America during the nineteenth century?”

Tourist: “About one-fifth.”

Me: “That would explain it.”

To be fair, he did seem to become interested in how different our countries are.