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Today's quote:

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way


You don't have to have read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to have heard this famous quote. And you probably haven't because it's not the sort of book you pick up if you’re looking for some light entertainment to boost your mood.

For those of you who haven’t read this 800-plus-page whopper - and also those who have read it but have forgotten the beginning by the time they got to the end - there is not one family in "Anna Karenina" that is happy. It is as if Tolstoy is trying to set us up: do you want to be happy or do you want to be unique?

I was already unique by the time I was seven years old, as ours was a totally dysfunctional family, which had nothing to do with a French girl and all with the war in which the family had lost everything, including our home from which we were separated then by the 'Iron Curtain'.

Those post-war years were hard; perhaps not so much for us five kids who didn't know any different but for our parents who had lived a life of middle-class-ish luxury in Berlin with a house in the country and a car at a time when much of the population were still pedalling pushbikes.

Living the hopeless lives of penniless and jobless refugees in a still struggling, still bombed-out post-war West Germany in a drafty garden shack with no electricity, no running water, and a long-drop toilet at the end of a long and muddy garden path led to the inevitable conclusion: "Ehescheidung", as nasty a word in German as divorce is in English.

Both parents promptly remarried, perhaps more out of necessity than out of love, which left us children with a choice of where to live, a choice which was more often than not made for us, or at least for me as I was the youngest and still more dependent on parental support which resulted in my spending intervals, repeated again and again, with my father and his new wife, and with my mother and her new husband, and what follows is about my mother's new husband, my stepfather (what a long intro; it beats anything Tolstoy came up with in "Anna Karenina"!)

My stepfather, Erich Deutsch, was a thoroughly decent and hardworking man. "The salt of the earth" wasn't a phrase I was familiar with at the time but it would've described him well. He was a tradesman who spent weeks away from home, working as "Insulierer" in remote powerhouses, wrapping those huge pipes in layers of what looked like plaster of Paris.

It was hot, hard and dangerous work. I know because towards the end of my eight years of primary school and needing to find work, he tried to interest me in the only work he knew by once taking me on one of his shifts away from home. When we didn't work on scaffolding high up under the roof, we slept on the floor in the powerhouse and ate the sandwiches we had brought with us from home. It wasn't just my fear of heights that made us both realise that I wasn't cut out for this kind of work. With my bookish disposition, I successfully applied for articleship with a large insurance company and polevaulted five years ahead as all their articled clerks had done "Abitur", or thirteen years of schooling.

("Where is all this going? Are we there yet?" I hear you ask. Patience, please! This won't be as bad as Tolstoy's 800-plus-page "Anna Karenina"!)

As I wrote, my stepfather was a thoroughly decent and hardworking man but he, too, needed something more than work to sustain him, and his dream was to win the State-run lottery! The German "Lotto" at the time was a game of 49 numbers, and a player had to predict six correct numbers between 1 and 49 to win the big pay-out which was announced over the radio every Sunday night when one could've fired a shotgun down the main street and not hit anyone because everyone who was anyone was sitting by the radio writing down the lotto numbers.

Even at my tender age I knew that this was a game of chance but that didn't stop wily operators selling gullible punters socalled "systems" which were supposed to give this game of chance some sort of certainty. And so it was that every Sunday night my stepfather would sit for hours hunched over pages of tabulations and, based on that particular night's results, try and predict next week's sequence of numbers. It was both an endearing and a pathetic sight which has stayed with me all my life.

What has also stayed with me all my life is respect for hard work and an absolute loathing for any kind of lottery or game of chance, and I can honestly say that I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life other than being sociable by contributing a dollar or two to a Melbourne Cup Sweepstake or picking up a ticket in a chook raffle at the local pub.

Anyway, I have already won the big one! To paraphrase Cecil Rhodes,
"I was lucky enough to have come out to Australia and to become an Australian, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life."

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P.S. I experienced this documentary; you may find it just interesting:
"Life in Germany after World War II"