Grössi

It was Swiss National Day. 1 August, when the original three cantons swore blood oaths against foreign aggression and the hated Hapsburgs. It was unlike any other Erste August they had celebrated before.

He sat across from her, a diminutive woman from centuries past, a veritable peasant milkmaid once upon a time who most certainly hurled boulders on the invading Austrians at Morgarten. She might have been a shade, her stature so small against the massive wooden chair she found herself seated upon. His grandmother – his father’s side – who was approaching her 85th birthday.

Grössi. Swiss shorthand for grandmother.

He looked upon her gnarled hands – worn well with ages of manual labor – and remembered the tenderness behind those curved fingers. How she would comfort his father when he was sick – a shot of grög to cure any illness (warm schnapps with water, lemon, and sugar to hide the bitterness) – how those very same hands once fended off a rabid fox using only a wooden pitchfork before his grandfather – Opa – shot it with a rudimentary (possibly flintlock) shotgun. The very same hands that knitted water-tight wicker baskets, carved planks from felled trees, sowed corn in the Alpine climate of Fribourg, cut beans, made salbe to cure wounds and prevent infections, swatted misbehaving children and grandchildren, and toasted fortune and misfortune alike with a hearty Sante and a fiery schnapps. Those very hands, rough as talons, that would pat his head and remind him – even well into adulthood – he was still just a little boy. Hepschabübe.

Apart from his full-blood Swiss cousin who was destined to inherit the family farm, he was the only grandchild who spoke enough of her odd dialect to engage in genuine conversation; the trouble with immigrant parents. He recalled the times she would badger him about his American girlfriends, when he would settle down and find himself a nice Swiss girl.

Üb’ die Berge, she would say, passing him chocolate and sweets, forcing him to sit in the shade and rest as she labored in the fields, refusing to accept his help. Over the mountain, indicating a potential Swiss bride was just over the next Berge for her wayward American grandson.

Nay, Grössi, i’ wie nicht, he would respond a thousandfold. No, Grandmother, I don’t know. His catch-all response for matters of the heart.

Schön, schön, she would sigh gayly, returning her attention to fields needing plowing and hay needing turning. Good, good. It was a waiting game for her – a means of conversation – and even though he dreaded explaining himself in a foreign tongue to this family relic, he found solace in their brief, practical conversations.

She was no taller than five feet, coming to his shoulder on a good day, but with a perpetual crick in her spine, as if the weight of the farm and family constantly caused her to tilt to and fro in either direction. Despite her size – this elderly ragamuffin – she was worth every ounce of her salt, easily outpacing him in plowing fields, harvesting hay, gathering roots, or chopping wood. She was a metronome, and he, in the prime of his Life, found himself wholly inadequate in her maternal, enduring presence. She was carved from the very stone of her mountainous homeland; part of him was certain she watched the granite blossom from nothingness.

He had visited the farm several years ago, intent on exploring Europe via foot and backpack. For a week, whilst his luggage languished in Germany – Düütschesland, she’d mutter – he helped about the place, trying to earn his keep, to show her that not all Americans were fat and lazy. Even though he awoke before dawn and helped milk cows before herding them to the hills, she was always there before him. It seemed Time was afraid of her and merely responded to her bidding. Geh’ du Lese’, Professor, she would say laughingly. Go back to reading. Farm work was no place for a boy outpaced by an octogenarian.

Once, many years ago, she asked about his American interests and what sort of music he enjoyed. Though he did take a particular liking to traditional Swiss polka and yodel, he confessed he admired Rammstein. She swore in rapid fire Swiss, crossing herself thrice – a good Catholic woman – before chastising him for his lack of taste and affinity for megabrutal music. Mein’ Gött. When they visited Rome together later that summer, she entered the Vatican on bended knee, crawling through St. Peter’s gate as a true Pilgrim. The heavens sang.

When his mother was stricken with breast cancer, the very same diminutive woman (who had only left Switzerland three times before) made an immediate pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray for healing. His uncle, who ran the farm, protested at the loss of his most valuable hand for a near week: how would he get by? Soga’ Ketzer brauche’ Hilfe, the good Catholic would laugh. Even heretics need help, she said with love. His Protestant mother had been cancer-free for several years.

He thought of the old woman he and his missionary comrades had served in Santiago de Chile. Abuela, they had affectionately called her, a tiny woman who was easily 80 years old, yet cared for her American hijos and hijas as if they were her own babes. He saw his grandmother in this woman – the very same spark of Life and vitality no hardship could extinguish. She kissed the ground as they left for the last time, falling prostrate, rising for each child, kissing them on the cheek, and whispering Spanish prayers into their ears as they hugged goodbye. He wept that day, finding his Grössi in the slums of Chile.

His thoughts returned to 1 August, a day of celebration and fest. Here they were, assembled as a family: grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, the whole mess of them drunk on wine, schnapps, food, and family.

His father raised his wine glass and the table silenced themselves – the chatter and laughter coming to a hushed close. “I wish to make a toast,” he said in his heavily accented English, “to Grössi. And to Switzerland.”

The quiet table burst into raucous cheers of hear, hear’s and Sante’s as they clinked crystal wine glasses against one another, ensuring they made eye contact with every individual at the table (and never crossing arms; taboo and bad luck) before supping the fine French wine.

Amidst bread, blood, and drink, all was well.

He looked at his father, a proud, strong man who seized the American dream by the throat and throttled every meaningful promise into existence for his family. He held back tears – plain enough to see – as he smashed his glass again and again.

Für Grössi, Vater,” he said as their glasses met.

Grössi raised her own glass, her petite bird arm cradling the fine schlöcki as she toasted her fellow well-wishers.

Für dich,” he said as he met Grössi’s strong, patient eye. “Mein’ Grössi.”

“Mein’ Kinde’,” she replied warmly, the sound of cascading crystal reverberating throughout the room. My child.

She had passed away some 12 hours before, approximately 3,000 miles away, in the comfort of her bed.


My Grandmother in Switzerland passed away during the early hours of 1 August. I last saw her in 2014 when I started Camino Primaris, still the strong, implacable woman of my youth. Her image of strength, tenacity, and willpower will ne’er leave me.

Geh’ mit Gött, Grössi.

Go with God.

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Broke Down With Nothing but a Pen and Paper

Consider the following to be fictionalized short stories based upon real-life interactions during the previous two weeks. Whilst on the road attending a couple of Advanced Placement seminars throughout New Mexico, the writing bug took hold – travel does that for me.

Enjoy these mad ramblings.

 

Continue reading “Broke Down With Nothing but a Pen and Paper”

A Call to Arms

Today I stayed at school until a little after 6PM, getting some (much needed) grading done and generally enjoying the solitude an empty classroom affords a weary soul. There is something to be said about a room – once previously filled with abounding energy – now derelict and silent as a still night. Upon switching off my lava lamp and taking final notes in my journal, I sauntered through the grounds to rev up the Green Manalishi (the Jeep for you newcomers) before heading home to some much needed and well-earned respite.

This lava lamp

Blaring Sir Elton John with the e’er present cigarette dangling from my parched lips, I casually drove back to my digs to set about my evening rituals. The sun had already set by the time I made it home, a friendly reminder that perhaps I might have been at the school a bit too long. Just shy of 12 hours today.

No matter, I reasoned, for today was a good day. And comrades, any day I wake up is a good day.

Lately I have been feeling as if my calling was misguided; that my brief tenure as a teacher was not the thread of my skein I needed to be following. After all, as I’ve written times afore (nominally whilst on the Way), I am oft unsure of what path I need be pursuing. Indeed, at my age, it is typically frowned upon to be job hopping and taking sabbatical as I am wont to do. Events beyond my control, and a select few wholly of my own doing, attempt to lead me astray from time to time.

But these kids – these magnificent little fuckers – without e’er realizing it, bring me back to grounded reality, coolly reminding me that, yes, my skein has led me here. And, Odin dammit, I am doing good things. They are doing better things.

Like taking charge of their education

As I write this from the confines of my meager kitchen, graced by the presence of Soviet propaganda and other curiosities, I am reminded of my charges’ impact upon my well-being.

A poetry book given as a Christmas gift lies atop the table. A new leather journal sits comfortably in my old school bag. Brilliant words and honest thoughts my charges have shared with me – the hallmark of trust – are strewn about my bachelor quarters, ranging from barely legible chicken scratch to assiduously constructed characters. My classroom is adorned in hand-drawn sentiments, gaudy poetry projects, and private letters and keepsakes gifted to me by my goombas. And the words my charges speak to me when greeting one another at the door or passing by in the hall, ah, comrades! Those words shall e’er provide me succor when in my darkest depths of self-pity and loathing.

This morning as I was readying my classroom in a fatigued stupor (a wedding having taken the bulk of my weekend’s productivity), I was greeted at the door by one of my charges who wished to share her creative writing piece in privacy and solitude. As I read her tale of heartbreak and youthful understanding, I asked her why she felt it necessary to share this groundbreaking revelation with me first. She had sought me out afore her friends – even her best friend with whom she’s always chitchatting during class – to seek my input and advice. It appears, comrades, I might have become an adult after all, damndest thing. We talked over her piece and swapped ideas and tales about how best to capture the emotion and really bring the story to Life. A budding writer, a strong one at that, and one who ensured my week was off to an amazing start by seeking my assistance.

Last week I was greeted by one of my Dungeons and Dragons charges (he is an upper classman and not in my direct tutelage) and he juxtaposed himself on the wall I was currently leaning upon. “Sir,” he started, “I have read your Thing We Do Not Speak Of.” It is a running joke amongst my charges that this blog does not exist and has nothing to do with me – deny deny deny. He told me how he read the previous posts, how he read it aloud to his mother, and how the bits about public education made him lament the state of education within New Mexico, but he still got a good laugh out of it. “The stuff you say about us means a lot,” he confided, as I casually shrugged my no-nothing shoulders, a grin emblazoned upon my stupid face. “You’re doing God’s work,” he said in closing, jaunting off to class afore the bell could ring him tardy.

Instances like this, comrades, these passing words and idle chitchats, keep me motivated in my darkest of days. How easy it is to lose sight of the task at hand, to become embroiled in the petty politics and administrative autocracies public education is renowned for, to sink low amidst the refuse and rubbish of standardized tests, misinformation, and power struggles teachers oft find themselves corralled in.

Yet here, in that instant, the manacles of deprivation had been cast off by the kind and honest remarks uttered by a charming goomba, and no amount of adult flak or administrative tyranny could drag me low. Ah, kids, you haven’t any idea what you mean to your “bat shit insane” instructor. And yes, that’s an actual quote from one of my promising writers. The very same from this morning.

“…what he thinks he knows.”

I have worn a great many hats throughout my tenure on Earth: salesman, security guard, student, wanderer, farmer, volunteer, journalist. No profession gives me greater joy than being a teacher. Really and truly, comrades, this is my calling. At times it is wholly taxing and I find the effort needed to survive in this trepidatious world to be almost too great; how the kids provide nectar! The pay is terrible, the administration is aloof and out of touch, the state has it out for us, the bulk of the public is unaware, but these little fuckers make it all worth the while.

I’m a teacher. It took me decades to arrive here, but sweet Christ, I’m a teacher.

Still a jerk, however. Accurate.

Now finish your essays (and stop reading my blog).

1500 Words of Pompous Arrogance (And Teaching)

Smoke. How I love watching it curl into the night air. Gray against the blackness of the dim night. Stars peeking out from behind the somber clouds, their faint light further obscured by the emanating ember of my fingertips, by the plumes I exhale upon vodka-tainted breath.

Ah, if only the kids knew what I was really like outside the classroom.

Mostly accurate

It has been a spell, certainly, dear reader(s), and I can run through my numerous excuses as to why I haven’t put finger to keyboard in some time. Certainly, my personal journal is stained in all manner of mad scribbles (courtesy of a sexy, new fountain pen), but I find myself lacking – wanting – when it comes time to pen things for my poor, beleaguered blog.

Inspiration; when did she desert me?

Teaching, I suppose, has consumed my day-to-day Life, as I find myself in a constant battle to keep ahead of grading (like the Germans in world wars, I consistently lose) and I oft struggle to present new information in an interesting, and engaging, manner. Wearing a bathrobe to work helps, but woe to the new teacher forced into a dull curriculum that focuses on teaching-for-the-test and not on critical thinking.

To which I respond: fuck that.

Continue reading “1500 Words of Pompous Arrogance (And Teaching)”

A Vulgar Intellectual’s Mad Rant on Public Education

Words words words.

Christ, how come sometimes it is so easy to write drivel that people might actually read, but when it comes time to pen something worth thinking about – pondering in a Socratic manner – I freeze up and nothing comes stumbling forth? I feel like one of my students, looking up at me with those forlorn, hopeless eyes that seem to say in a silent scream, “Why are you doing this to me? I can’t write.”

Fuck all; you think I can?

This is Where I Lose My Shit

I have some brilliant writers. Little fuckers who are going places with their written word. Youths who have captured that emotion so eloquently and powerfully that they’ve no choice but to succeed and excel. Sure, it is easy to dismiss much of what teenagers have to say as little more than angst, or hormones, or impotent rage, but a select few have transcended this stereotype for the better.

I mean, fuck, I read the things these kids share with me and I wonder how come I’m not capturing raw emotion like that. To be 15 or 16 and to write about the things going on in their lives – in their heads – so powerfully, with such gusto, how can I not be impressed? I cannot name names, obviously, but if any of you little bastards are reading this, you know who you are.

And you know I mean that with the utmost respect. From writer to writer.

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And as I always tell them: don’t stop writing.

Oh, how easy is it to give in and call it a day. This is shit. Probably yes, but the important thing is you’ve written it. Not everything you pen will be golden – that’s part of the writing process – but the fact my young charges are out there trying to find their voice in the tempest that is high school, puberty, hormones, and problems at home, well, fuck, they are doing mighty fine enough.

Today I dressed up as Charles Bukowski. Basically I wore a bathrobe and had a small tumbler filled with Coke (I am told, under no circumstances, that I’m not actually allowed to drink on campus; so much for my margarita machine for the teacher’s lounge idea). We are working on poetry projects, and to model a good presentation (and wear a bathrobe to work), I showcased So You Want to be a Writer by that grumpy curmudgeon Bukowski. Frankly, I thought it went very well. One must have fun at work, right; otherwise, what’s the damned point?

My slideshow presentation ended with Bukowski’s mantra emblazoned upon the board for all to see. In huge, bold, obnoxious letters, it stated: Don’t try.

God. Damn. You’d think I shot someone in front of those kids with their stunned looks as they read those words.

Don’t try. Don’t try? A teacher is telling us to “don’t try?!” Indeed I am, my charges, for someone has to elucidate you with alternative opinions.

Let’s be real for a moment regarding public education. Foremost, I love my job. Little bastards keep me motivated and ready to kick ass every single day. Sure, some days are more taxing than others, but I reckon that is true for any job. But dealing with 150+ kids day in and day out, well, someone has to shake the foundation of lies they’ve been sacrificed upon.

Kids are taught from a very young age that a high score is the equivalent of excellence. An A+, a 100%, these are the things kids of all ages are taught – indoctrinated – to achieve because high scores equates to higher self-worth. If I achieve high scores on everything I do, so their understanding goes, then everything in Life will be easier and within my grasp.

Bull. Shit.

Kids – especially teenagers – are not little automatons we can constantly shuffle toward the meat grinder that is standardized testing. Kids are not mindless beings who must be forced to learn by rote memorization and recalling such things weeks down the road. How many of you fuckers can remember who conquered the Incan Empire? And what was the last Incan emperor’s name?

Don’t Google it; just answer the goddamned question.

This asshole.

Why in the thousand seas of fucks of Hell are we having kindergartners writing paragraphs – fucking paragraphs – when they should be picking their noses and complaining about cooties whilst running about like wild Indians on the playground? Why can’t young men wear ball caps in class? Why can’t young ladies wear their summer hoochie shorts to class? Why did starting a chess club raise such a rumpus? Why are we singing the virtues of football and cheerleading over innovation and true excellence? Why, and this is the most important bit, why can’t we let our kids express themselves without fear of reprisals?

Yes, I admit, childhood is a product of the 19th century, but when did we decide to create little worker bees instead of human beings? What good does it serve when every child is taught to express themselves the same way, that an essay only has five paragraphs, that art is only what has been done before and must be copied, that school ultimately doesn’t matter because you’re going to college anyway and there you’ll really learn?

What, in the flying fuck of a shit tempest, are we doing to ourselves? We, as Americans, wonder why the Vikings continuously beat the shit out of us every year in international testing, but we fail to see the glaring answer looking us in our fat, capitalist faces: they innovate. They allow children to be children. They allow youths to find themselves within the confines of the classroom.

And we, comrades, are bound by an overarching administration – an oligarchy – that controls what we teach and how we teach it. Not just in my county, not just in my state, but at a federal level too. All 10th graders must be able to identify a seminal document and write a comprehensive, critical review of the piece. Bor. Ing. Sure, I will teach a seminal document – because history is important – but expecting kids, especially the slow ones, to suddenly be at a certain level because we have a high and mighty pacing guide is absurd and unrealistic.

When did we start treating kids as numbers in a system, as benchmarks, as thresholds, as fucking statistics, and stop treating them as people?

I love my job. I love working with those bright, shining stars – those kids who will one day have their names in history books – and I love working with those kids who will amount to little else. You have to take the good and the bad; tis part of the job.

But lately, Christ, lately it feels like a lot of bad is being cast upon my charges. They are expected to be groomed for standardized testing, to be able to do things they’ve little interest in, to be neat, cookie cutter clones of one another, where originality is frowned upon and self-expression is akin to murder.

Hogwash, I say, for I shall endeavor to ensure my charges – my budding authors, poets, journalists, doodlers, workmen, CEOs, and more – are allowed to be themselves. Sure, the path of knowledge is long and arduous, but many of them are showing promise beyond their means. Maybe they suck shit at essay writing, but they’ll bring your heart to a standstill as you read one of their creative pieces. Maybe they never turn anything in on time, but when you catch them one-on-one discussing poetry, you’ll find yourself surprised at their keen insight and deeper understanding. They could be serial killer quiet in class but their poetry – at 15-years-old – will impress you.

Those kids are our future, and we are doing them a disservice by expecting clones. Don’t try, kids. You’re better than that. You’re better than this system that doesn’t have your best interests at mind. You’re better than a system with its head so far up its proverbial ass, it can see through murky eyes.

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Cry, “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war!

Fuck the system. You do you, kids. Now finished your goddamned poetry projects and let’s raise hell.

Dangerously Beautiful

He spat out blood.

He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his dress shirt, grimly admiring the red stains mixed with spittle as it quickly soaked into the fabric, darkening the soft color with a crude, rusty tinge.

There, his lifeforce, coagulating with cotton fibres; himself oblivious to the hustle around him as he quietly took in his precarious situation, ignoring the masses as they jockeyed around the tight corridors, focusing intensely upon the wonderful colors he himself had expectorated from the numerous unidentified sores within his squalid mouth.

Crouched over the dribbling water fountain, he brought himself to drink. With a gentle nudge upon the aged and well-worn plastic button, fresh, cool water came springing forth from the soulless steel, and he dipped low to take a mouthful.

Slowly swishing it about, he quickly identified the coppery aftertaste of a fresh wound. The longer the water remained, the more he could feel his mouth fill with tendrils of blood, the life-giving liquid encouraging the other to flow freely without recourse.

It was a unique taste – one he secretly enjoyed – but one he recognized as something out of the ordinary. This wasn’t normal for him, to be spitting up blood without cause, and a part of his mind feared the absolute worst. Was this how it begins, he thought. The end?

But the more sensible side of his mind urged caution, to not jump to conclusions, and to merely accept that he was ill. That’s all. Sick.

He spat out blood.

He watched as the wine-colored water splashed across the sterilized fountain; a fetid mixture of saliva, water, and burnished blood happily pooling across the fountainhead, a macabre rainbow he himself gave to Creation.

With delicate care, as if knowing he was watching with utmost amazement, the mixture slowly ebbed toward the drain, dawdling as it went along its course – its ultimate demise – to disappear forever down the unhallowed drains of yet another sterile fixture. The only thing living within the dull, polished steel of Man was the very elixir he himself had spat out, an ironic situation not lost upon him.

Pushing once more upon the machine, a stream of water sprang forth; he did not move to meet it.

The unmolested water splashed against his sanguine pool – scattering droplets of scarlet and pink and red and rust across his trousers and sleeves – adding fresh stains to his already dirtied attire. What didn’t collide with his unflinching form spread across the once-pristine machine or fell to the dull tile beneath his feet, another life lost in the misery of a constant shuffle, a dedicated rat race, and he, a bloodied sentinel paying no heed to those around him, merely watching with a mixture of abject curiosity, a tinge of horror, and a zealous fascination to see this latest ordeal through.

The more he pressed upon the lackluster polystyrene, the more ferocious became the constant jet of water, attempting to eradicate him completely from its polished-steel surface, as if the machine itself was crying foul at being used as a crude spittoon. It hummed as it pumped still more water through its spigot, desperately wanting to rid itself of his stains.

Slowly, the charnel mixture began to clear as the machine continued its cleansing operation. Where once a massive, red spatter was splayed across the drainage system – a bloody Picasso – it gave way to the clearness of the swirling water. Before long, the last droplets of blood were washed away from the surface.

He released the button and the process instantly ceased.

Standing straight, his hands still perched upon the fountain, he drew a long sigh.

This isn’t normal, he thought to himself (for the corridors were still crowded with proles, lest they think him mad). What is happening to me?

For several moments he stood there, frozen in pose, reflecting upon what had just transpired.

And there, at the back of his mouth, he tasted the sweet copper once more, feeling the vessels give way to another bout of blooded introspection. He quickly squeezed his mouth tight and sucked the mixture from its barrows, before stooping over the machine – feeling the bulge of his cigarettes as he did so – and releasing a parting shot.

He spat out blood.

He was dying – but he found it dangerously beautiful.

Penultimate Pain; Ultimate Life

Hey there folks,

A year ago to the day, my grandfather passed away in the quiet of his adopted home in Virginia.

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One time he cut his finger open, so he dipped it in schnapps to “prevent infection.”

Having left the devastation of post-WWII Europe, he settled in the United States where he spent his days as a salt-of-the-earth farmer, siring a large family in the process. Every time we attended Lutheran services with him and Grandma, the two of them would beam with pride as we took up our own pew. Lutherans: always sticking it to the Catholics, right?

Ever proud of his new home, but never keen on forgetting his roots, he instilled in us the nationalistic and cultural pride of both Switzerland and America. Been confused ever since: am I Swiss American or American Swiss?

Tough old man, that’s for certain: stubborn (like all Swiss men), punctual, dedicated, and unrelenting. The kind of role model kids need these days. And now he’s farmin’ with Jesus.

His passing, though expected, was still quite the shock for the family. First death in the States for the Ruch clan – how do we deal with the inevitable?

I’ve never been very good with expressing emotions – apart from writing them down – and penned a short piece following the funeral. Dreadful things, those – all the black clothing, tears, and somber attitudes. You would think I would be more at home in an element like that.

But no. How I detest laying the dead to rest.

He taught me many things in my youth – some brilliant, some good, and some casually racist and a bit outdated – but he was always an inspiration. The kind of guy you want to make proud and see that wrinkly smile of his light up across his face. And his final act was to teach me about Life through pain.

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July 4th, years and years ago. Drinking beer and smoking cigars with the proudest immigrant to the States.

I wouldn’t say I penned this in his honor (indeed, far too much profanity), but after the services, I felt compelled to write exactly what went on in my mind during those moments. A year later and this piece still rings true.

Thanks for the lessons, Grandpa. Swiss dominance.

Continue reading “Penultimate Pain; Ultimate Life”