Writers on writing

December 17th, 2011

“Reality – if we use that word to indicate real life, and the way things really are – should always be viewed as a sheet of ice beneath which we, the writers (with our readers in tow) are swimming, trying constantly to punch through, so that we can breathe. With every sentence we write, we must be poised and alert to punch through and make the story better.” – Rick Bass

The end of Konkordanz? What happened in Swiss politics this week…

December 15th, 2011

On Wednesday the Swiss Parliament held elections for the Bundesrat – the Executive Council, I guess, for lack of a more precise translation. The Parliament is directly elected by the people, but the Executive Council is not: it is elected by the members of the Parliament. It’s shown live on Swiss TV and it’s possibly even more boring than watching C-Span because you don’t see any actual voting. For each of the seven seats, ballot papers are distributed; members mark their ballots in private; the ballots are collected and counted out of sight; and then the results are announced by the head of the Parliament. So really on TV all you see is a bunch of people milling about and you hear the murmurings of three different languages and the TV commentators try to fill the time between results. Each of the seven seats is voted on individually and to win the seat a candidate must achieve an absolute majority of the votes cast; in the absence of an absolute majority, a second round of balloting is held, then a third, and so on until a candidate gains a majority. Yesterday only one of the seven votes went to a second ballot – the seventh seat, which incidentally was the only seat that had been vacated through retirement. The other six members of the Executive Council were all incumbents (bisherige) and they were all reelected with a single round ballot of balloting.

There’s a lot of party jockeying and coordination in the weeks leading up to the Bundesratwahlen – party leaders need to corral the troops, to make sure for example all the FDP members are going to vote for the FDP candidate but they also make alliances with one another – if the SP members all stick with the BDP candidate, the BDP will in turn deliver votes for the SP. The actual voting for the council members should be orderly and largely unsurprising, as everything has been worked out in advance and because there is an unwritten rule about which parties should end up with seats in the Executive Council.

Everything is supposed to be run according to two principles: the “magic formula” and Konkordanz. The “magic formula” decrees that each of the four leading parties in Switzerland (Switzerland has a multiparty system and representatives of no fewer than ten parties sit in the Parliament) holds at least one seat in the seven member Executive Council; typically, the three largest parties hold two seats and the fourth party, one. Konkordanz – agreement, collegiality, accordance – is the linch pin of Swiss politics. Everybody agrees, gets along, sticks to their word, works together, achieves compromise. There is nothing more Swiss than a good compromise and there is nothing Swiss politicians like to speak of more than Konkordanz. And there is nothing lower than violating the spirit of Konkordanz. If you want to blast your opponents in Swiss politics, say they violated Konkordanz.

The Swiss People’s Party – the SVP – is the largest party in Switzerland (you can peek at the most recent election results here) but they currently hold only one seat in the Executive Council as a result of an internal party split that saw Bundesratin Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf split from the SVP and help form the BDP. It’s a bit inside baseball, but basically the SVP is becoming increasingly rightist, nationalist, and strident; what used to be a solid conservative party has become increasingly extreme to the point where many of its own members were no longer comfortable with the party’s positions and its Zurich-based leadership. Think Tea Party v. normal conservative Republican. So in 2008 some members split and formed the BDP and one of these members was Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, and when she left the SVP she took her Executive Council seat with her.* It was quite the earthquake in Swiss politics, and the SVP has been under-represented in the Executive Council ever since.

Yesterday, Widmer-Schlumpf was up for reelection to the Executive Council; her candidacy was the second to be voted on and she was reelected with a single round of balloting. The SVP then announced that they would fight vigorously for every remaining seat (even the FDP seat, and the FDP might be the only semi-ally the SVP had left at then point) and oh boy did all heck quietly move about after that. (Hell does not break loose in Swiss politics, by US standards, but by Swiss standards yesterday was quite the political show-down.) At the end of the day the SVP still only had one seat in the Executive Council, they had turned on any potential ally they might have had, their leadership was shown to be ineffective, and this morning most political commentators agree that they were the big losers of the day yesterday.

Them, and Konkordanz. Say what you will about the conservative, nationalistic politics of the SVP, they’ve held the most seats in the Swiss Parliament since 1999 and in the last two elections for the Executive Council they’ve ended up with one seat, the same number as the BDP with only 5% of the vote nationwide. It’s a situation that can’t hold. I’m no fan of the Swiss People’s Party, but if Switzerland is going to have its “magic formula” and its Konkordanz, then the Parliament is going to have to hold its nose and find an SVP member they can vote for. (Admittedly the party leadership does not make this easy – they demanded a second seat in the council while removing possibly the most likable candidate from consideration). And if not, if members of the Parliament can no longer be corralled and parties can no longer come to agreements that will hold – well, maybe it’s time to stop talking about Konkordanz as a guiding principle of Swiss politics.

To add to the bitter blow for the SVP, the Executive Council then elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf President. The Swiss presidency is largely ceremonial – because it’s awkward for a visiting head of state to be greeted by a body of seven, you know? – and the president holds no more sway in the Executive Council than the next member of the Council, her vote is not weighted, she holds no special powers. The title is ceremonial and rotates steadily among the members of the Executive Council but nonetheless: a woman representing a party that gained about 5% of the vote nation-wide holds the presidency. The SVP must be loving that.

What does the SVP do now? Go into opposition? Revamp their national leadership? Can they hold on to their voters? How many of the rank and file members of the Parliament, tired of the shenanigans, will jump ship to the BDP? Swiss politics – which basically prides itself on being staid, orderly, and predictable – is getting more interesting all the time.

* I’m shortening the story here: Widmer-Schlumpf, then with the SVP, was elected by the members of the Parliament against the will of the SVP. They had put up as their candidate Christoph Blocher, who in 2008 was unacceptable to many members of the Parliament. In keeping with the magic formula the parliament did go ahead and elect an SVP member to the cabinet, just not the one the SVP leadership wanted. Political infighting, bickering and party-splitting ensued; Widmer-Schlumpf was essentially forced out of the SVP; the BDP was founded; and Swiss politics has been a bit more interesting ever since.


December 13th, 2011

So, here’s an SMS you never want to get from your husband who you know has taken your son to the ER after a really hard (illegal, unnecessary, infuriating) hit in a hockey game: “SB’s pupils are normally the same size aren’t they?”

“As far as I know. Never noticed otherwise.” you message back. “Why? Are they not the same size now????”

“Nope.” comes the reply “one is larger – the left one – but could just be the light.”

At which point the only thing you can manage to type back is “What the FUCK?”

* * *

One of the small blessings of living right next door to R’s parents is that when this series of messages flew two weekends ago, my mother-in-law was able to walk across the driveway to take over putting The Boychen to bed and I packed a bag with some stuff for R and some stuff for SB – who was clearly going to be held overnight for observation – and drove to the hospital.

* * *

I’ll cut to the chase and say now that SB is okay. It was “just” a concussion; in spite of the most thorough opthalmological exam I’ve ever witnessed and a head MRI, no reason was ever found for SB’s unequal pupils. Here’s another thing you don’t really want, by the way: to watch over the technician’s shoulders as picture after picture of your son’s brain comes up on the screen. Pictures that you can’t read, and so you watch the tech’s body language instead, waiting for the widened eye, the sudden tilt of the head. It doesn’t come, but that doesn’t really make you feel any better until your kid is pulled out of the machine.

* * *

I’ve tried to write this a few times, it’s always a mess, brief paragraphs are the best I can do. Not even seven, a concussion, and though I know hockey players who have played for years and never gotten concussions, I find myself thinking “his first concussion” as if I expect more.

* * *

These recent articles in The New York Times about Derek Boogaard have not made me feel any better.

* * *

Trying to enforce a Sport-Verbot on a nearly seven year old physical boy used to playing hockey three times a week is not easy my friends. Not easy at all. SB has hated missing practice, hated being kept out of gym class at school, hates that I won’t let him play hockey in the driveway. The idea of being calm, and quiet and restful – it sort of makes him break out in hives I think and as a result his behavior at home has been … challenging.

This past Sunday was the Christmas party for SB’s team: a kids v. parents hockey tournament and then an early dinner. It was two weeks after the concussion, the earliest the doctors said he could start back with sports, and we thought it would be a good time to see how he feels – the tournament would be friendly and I would be right there on the ice to keep an eye on him. He played all three games and said he felt okay, but at bedtime he had a headache. He’s back on Injured Reserve and skipping training this week.

I played on the moms’ team and had the best time. I’ve been skating these past couple of years, but not playing hockey and this was hockey, with the full equipment, and even though it was a friendly match against the kids don’t be fooled: seven and eight year old boys play for keeps. They ran us hard. I still skate well, and I’ve got some game sense, but no puck handling skills at all; but I had so much fun that if I could somehow manufacture an additional twelve hours a week (stop laughing) I would run right out and join an adults’ recreational league because I had that much fun.

* * *

This is my new favoritest picture ever of me and the Small Boy. Look at that smile, do you think he was happy to be on the ice again? For all that hockey is a hard, physical, capricious and sometimes violent sport, anything that makes my boy smile like that has a place in this family. At least for now.

Wow. And happy. And wow.

December 8th, 2011

So one day, you feel like giving up. You wonder why the hell you keep writing. Then you read something like this, and you feel a little better, and you remember to be kind to yourself and to just keep going. You start to have days when you think something is going right, you’re not sure what but the words are …better, somehow. You think, yes. Yes, I think I can do this. I need time, and teachers, but I can do this.

Then you open your email and discover you’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

And you know you still have a long way to go, you still need time, you still need teachers, you’re quite sure you’re not going to make the final cut and actually get a Pushcart Prize, but it’s a thing you’ve needed, another push along the road, something to take out of your pocket and look at when the rejection letters get you down.

You think, yes. Yes, I think I can do this.

The One With The Turkey

December 6th, 2011

For the past several years, I’ve almost let Thanksgiving go by without a celebration. For the past several years, I’ve almost given up on Thanksgiving and then, in a last moment fit of determination, I make last minute invitations to Expat Thanksgiving. I recognize, in that moment of decision, that if I let it go this year I will let it go forever and the boys will grow up without Thanksgiving. That most American of holidays. As expats, so much falls aside, so many cultural touchstones pass our kids by no matter how conscientiously we try to pass them on. Thanksgiving, it seems, is my line in the sand. I think I can let it go, but when the moment is upon me I know that I can’t, that I musn’t.

So I threw out last minute invitations, made the last minute scramble for a turkey. R’s family has a long, long-standing relationship with the butcher in the small village we lived in when I first moved to Switzerland – a relationship that spans two generations of butchers and two generations of customers – so we turned to Small Village Butcher for our turkey order and he got us a turkey. Oh boy, did he get us a turkey. An eleven kilo turkey. That’s an American-sized turkey and I’m here to tell you: American-sized turkeys do not fit in European-sized ovens. No, no they do not. The turkey did not fit in our oven. We’ve had some close calls before, but in ten years of varied and sundry families hosting Expat Thanksgiving this is the first time we couldn’t fit the bird in the oven. I suppose it was bound to happen one of these years.

The butcher roasted the turkey for us on Sunday (that sound you just heard was the collective gasp of my Swiss and German readership, followed by exclamations of: he roasted the turkey for them on a Sunday? Mein Gott!) and R went to pick it up in a catering hot-box and when he arrived home with it and brought it inside everybody stood around in the kitchen exclaiming and taking pictures and exclaiming. An eleven kilo turkey is … impressive. Daunting, even. We did our best, pressed second servings on everybody and sent people home with leftovers and still have three containers of turkey in the refrigerator. Eleven kilos of turkey is a lot of turkey.

My mother always made a turkey tetrazzini with Thanksgiving leftovers, and I’m going to have to root around and see if I have her recipe somewhere, because I’ve got a lot of leftovers. And because my mother’s turkey tetrazzini was outstanding. As was her apple pie, which I made again this year. As it was baking, when the house smelled like pie and I had the warm anticipation of expecting guests for Thanksgiving, I saw a rainbow out my kitchen window.

It’s a good thing to hold on to traditions. A little better even, I think, when you have to fight for them a bit.