Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Me in "Me, Too."

Can you say "I was a victim" and feel empowered at the same time? I think you can. The victimhood, the part where some guy forced you into a position or a state of mind that poisoned your life for decades, is ameliorated by the confession: here's what I did or did not do to stop him, here's what I did or did not say to change my situation. Here's what happened.  
But the best--often the most excruciating--confessions are the ones you make to yourself. You can confide your experience to the world, and the world should know these confessions, but looking yourself in the face is the part that comes before, the part that often makes you wince. Was I that dumb? Was I that naïve? Was I so scared that I couldn't shove or hit back hard enough? Was this rape/assault/intimidation somehow my fault? Since I know it wasn't, why do I feel that it was? 
In my case, did I want to admire him that much? When I ought to have known better? 
When you still feel like he grabbed you because you were pretty, and "this is the way of the world," confessing your experience won't do much for you.
At twenty, I sat in my esteemed professor's office, in a chair right by his desk. He liked to swing his legs up on the desk, lean back in his swivel chair, and cock his head ironically. He'd written a book I thought brilliant at the time. He knew much more than I did, and I believed he knew much more than he actually did know. From my current vantage point of sixty years old, I can see how easy it is to get a twenty-year-old person to feel how little she knows and how much you know. If I sense from any student of my own the kind of admiration I must have broadcast to my professor, I leave my office door wide open and try to indicate that I am only someone who has lived long enough to have read much.
My professor, however, lived and breathed admiration. Looking back, I realize how much he needed it. Napoleonic in height, he looked up, literally, at girls of average height like myself, and his gaze roamed. At the time, I pretended to myself that his gaze wasn't roaming, because I wanted to continue admiring him and I didn't want his gaze to be roaming over my breasts. I wanted him to be interested in me and my ideas, the ones I'd typed and re-typed on my IBM Selectric, the ones on those pages he was now holding in his hand. I practiced the "it's not there" form of problem-solving and went gamely into his office with the thought that I had to retrieve my paper and I would learn something from him.
Then there was the nagging fact that I found him very attractive. My blood raced when I saw him. Brilliant and handsome, he made my palms sweat.  
I cringe when I remember how witty I thought him: when I ran into him in the checkout line at the local grocery store, he was buying ice cream and I was buying broccoli. He stared at my broccoli, sniffed, and said, "I win!"  
But he was my teacher, and I never thought of pursuing any personal relationship with him. Had he actually laid a glove on me, I'd probably have felt terror. Even disgust. Not that I'd never been with a man before, but the men I'd been with were boys my age. Here was this revered gray-templed scholar, bookshelves sagging with tomes, desk piled with manila folders filled with his research. Part of my attraction to him lay in my ability to keep him way up there on that very sturdy pedestal on which his big old clay feet continued to be well-hidden.
So I sat by his desk as he looked through my paper--I imagined he was finding my ideas interesting. I assumed he wanted to tell me what he thought of those ideas. Instead:
"Ya know, I'm finding out a lot about all of you from the papers you write!"
"You are?" I was completely startled.
"Yeah!" He winked. "Your personalities."
"What do you mean?"
"Yeah, Ms. __________, you're spread-eagled on the page!"
I remember time stopping. I remember staring straight ahead, rising to my feet without quite knowing what I was doing, heading down the hall to the classroom, for his class was about to start--I'd been one of the last students to see him right before class. I pulled out my chair at the long seminar table and sat down. It seems to me now that I'd actually managed to entirely forget my conversation with him by the time I'd retrieved from my bookbag my notebook, pens, and other materials for the class. Shame and shock flooded through me, and something else I didn't recognize at the time--extreme disappointment. But I was--oh, this is the excruciating part!--determined to feel exactly as I had before about my professor. I wanted to go on admiring him--I would soldier on as his admirer, because how else would I exist? I needed an example of scholarship, and he was it. The understanding that typically comes with age--that here was a pathetically flawed half-drunk guy who'd been through several wives and whose children had landed in mental hospitals and unhappy relationships, who was probably drunk during that brief encounter in his office, who was randomly trying to make himself feel better--none of that occurred to me. I need a god to worship in order to get through my studies, and he was it. 
How silly it all seems, how shameful, now. 
Is this the worst that ever happened to me? No, of course not. Had I been in a healthier frame of mine to begin with--as were many of my fellow students--I'd have seen through this pathetic professor whom I continued to defend. The more I saw what a jerk he really was, the more I defended him. Because I needed a god, and he was the one I'd chosen. Once you've picked your god--once you're in that sad mindset in which you need one--it is awfully hard to find a different path. 
I wish I'd known anyone in whom I could have confided. I did have, like most women of my background, a psychoanalyst on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who listened to my every confession. And with whom did he side? The professor, naturally. I must have done something. I was a slut--the shrink's definition of slut being a girl who felt attracted to boys--and I should forget all this and buckle down and study. 
Is there a moral to this story? Learn to be wiser when young, not when you're my age. When a situation smells wrong, don't let your longing for perfection do you in. It does seem to me that young people have a very hard time getting over the need to admire the imagined perfection in some one or some thing--one of my kids was just talking to a (thank goodness!) wise older person about his longing to be "the best!" and the wise older person said, "You shouldn't think of being the best but of being yourself." I might not have taken that advice as a twenty-year-old, but now I love it.
Yes, I feel empowered by my understanding: how young and silly and ignorant I was, how pathetically a grown-up who should have been helping me demanded the admiration I was all too willing to give him. How much perception could have helped me--had I been able, or willing, to perceive what he was. But at twenty, I could not do so. 
So, tell your stories! As Emily Fox Gordon has observed, and I'm paraphrasing: confess them to yourself--then confide them to the world. Once you have understood what happened to you.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Harvey Weinstein's Mom

How well I remember a time when one of my greatest concerns was to make sure neither of my sons (then about ages one and three) grew up to be anything like George Bush (junior). Or his dad. I can't help but wonder, watching the continuing drama of the bullying, predatory Harvey Weinstein, whether his mother could possibly have influenced him to be a decent person. 
Am I blaming her? How could I, when I think of Roy Cohn's desperate mother keeping on a piano teacher (a colleague of my dad's) in order to know, for a single hour, the location of her wayward son.
It is a curious oddity of life that women have so little agency--are so often prey to men of power, money, and influence--but that mothers have the power of life or death. If your kid is born a basically decent human being, his loving mother makes him a wonderful person. If he's a high-forceps delivery, or weirdly hateful from birth, what's a mom to do?
I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in the Weinstein home. But I wasn't, and all I know is that Madame Weinstein lived to be 90, and seems to have been thrilled when her sons, Harvey and Bob (yes, the son whose kicking his bro out of the company) named Miramax after her and her deceased husband, Max. Did she love Harvey? Did she intrude into every bit of his life, make inappropriate erotic advances, beat him up? Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's horrorshow of a mom, doing everything in her considerable power to destroy any happiness he and Eleanor may have had. But FDR didn't become anything like Weinstein--or Trump. 
An old New York magazine article quotes Weinstein as follows: 
Of course, they always ask me about my mother, Miriam. And the trick about Miriam is, my brother and I love her. She was widowed maybe 30, 40 years ago, so we grew up, you know, with Mom. She was incredibly supportive and tough on the both of us. She’s still, you know, the one person you, we have to toe the line with, you know. 
So she was tough. Too tough? Who knows. 
My sons are well on their merry ways to being very different indeed from anyone in the Bush family. 
Thank goodness. I'll take credit for that. Even if credit is due only to a favorable constellation of genes.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Five Household Hints for The Kid Who Flew the Coop

Oldest son on his way to college? As his siblings declare that they miss him (while he's still on the road toward his new student apartment) his mom thinks up recipes and tips:

(1) "Soft" kinds of rice, like Jasmine and Basmati, should be cooked in only slightly more water than the rice. Tougher kinds, like whole grain rice ("Natur," for Germans) or brown Basmati or parboiled Uncle Sam's take twice as much water as rice. Never open the rice cooker for the proverbial nanosecond while the rice is making. Do stir your rice with a wooden or plastic paddle before you cover it and turn on your rice cooker.

(2) Bulgur is a great, simple meal. Chop and sautée a red onion and a bell pepper; feel free to add other vegetables. While the onions are getting transparent, boil water and add a heaping teaspoonful of powdered chicken broth to a cup. Pour the bulgur into the pan first and let it brown a little before adding boiling water to the cup and pouring that over the bulgur, while stirring continuously. You will need to add another mug of water. You can add cheese once the bulgur is done.

(3) For really stinky clothes, add about half a cup of vinegar and an envelope of baking soda ("Natron" for Germans) to the washing machine, in addition to the laundry soap. 

(4) Here's a fancy-seeming meal for two or three that takes about an hour to make: 

4 chicken breasts, with the bones
Plain white mushrooms (if you can get them already sliced, great.) Slicing takes about three minutes, though.
Cream
Canned mushroom soup
Salt and pepper.

Rinse the chicken breasts, pat dry with a paper towel, and arrange in a buttered baking dish.  Add salt and pepper. If you've got that extra nanosecond, add a dash of paprika. Dump the mushrooms over the chicken. If you don't have time to slice the mushrooms, that's okay. Dump the cream over the mushrooms. Dump the canned chicken soup over the cream. No need to stir. Put in oven, bake at about 190º (about 375ºF) for about an hour. Serve with rice and a steamed vegetable. A fast sophisticated dessert: pour either Cointreau or Kahlua over vanilla ice cream. Not both.  

(5) Don't forget to buy a toilet brush and toilet paper. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Seven Tips for When Your Eldest Child Soars from the Nest

Hint, Mom:  you are the one who is sad around here. Or if the kid is, he'll never tell. But here are seven of the 7,000 things you know you'll want to tell him:

1. The Golden Mean is actually pretty cool.  Extremes can seem more fun, but they tend to make you come down with hangovers, mononeucleosis, or bad colds. 

2. A Back-to-Basics philosophy cures you from those interesting moments when you've deviated from that Golden Mean. Which basics? Oh, a healthy breakfast, including things like whole wheat bread or muffins, scrambled eggs with toast, yogurt; enough sleep, warm socks, regular habits, staying hydrated; an habitual method of grounding oneself after an unsettling day (regular practice of musical instrument; regular trip to gym; regular morning dance class, for example). While I'm at it, the usual stuff: brushing, flossing, showering, footcare.

3. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," and you won't regret losing your guitar to your best friend, or your own loss of that twenty euros somebody loaned you.

4. Find humor in worst-case scenarios. Remember Dorothy Parker:

"A heart in half is chaste, archaic,
But mine resembles a mosaic."

If she could laugh at a broken heart, so can you. Statistically speaking, sooner or later you will endure one, and it will bring you as much fun in later years as it brought torment in early ones. Yes, "the worst returns to laughter."

5. Select friends who are deeply engaged in their work. These will be with you for life. Drinking buddies come and go. 

6. Enjoy your studies, and don't cringe when older people insist "these are the best years of your life!" They've forgotten. But these early years are the ones that launch you, and they can be thrilling. 

7. Contemplate the meaning of George Bernard Shaw's axiom: "Youth is wasted on the young."

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Who Trump Isn't

A CNN commentator mentioned we were still asking who the guy is, months after the election. But that's not the question to ask. The question is not who Trump is, but who he isn't. What wouldn't he do? Say? Think? Oh, don't assume he thinks. But don't assume he doesn't. The idea that Donald Trump has a fixed identity is lame. We thought we knew. We know he lies, cheats, steals. Maybe he murders; I wouldn't be surprised. Does any limit to his personality exist? To his actions? He's just announced that the hermit kingdom's dictator is on a suicide mission. Can we take that as a projection? A prediction? A random blast of ego? See, none of us knows. From the get-go, we've wanted to know whether Trump was crazy like a fox or just crazy. Why not both? He wouldn't be the first. Hitler. Stalin. The Hermit King. God help us all, but God's probably on the side of the bigger battalions. Does it all come down to a question of comfort? When the president's had a glass of wine, he doesn't push red buttons under silos deep in the heartland, releasing atomic energy. When he has a hangnail, he does. Yes? No? Maybe? 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Critical Mom Does London Fashion

If you're looking for a little excitement in the form of gorgeous design, lovely blends of colors, originality, quality, movement, then the heart and soul of London fashion is located in Camden Town. Everywhere--from the store selling Bakelite Betty Boops to the tiny booth in the worst corner of the outdoor market hawking a certain Italian wool make you'd drop $800 or so for on Madison Avenue--the place rocks. Oooh, those long, lovely jackets in vibrant colors--I can tell you the label says "Mr. A" but it doesn't pop up online. I can't think of a better antidote to the horrors of Belgravia, that antiseptic, cynical, overpriced set of fashionista folly. As I believe I've already said, you couldn't pay me to wear that hairy newsboy cap with the bolts that I saw in the window of Prada--well, unless I took the money, ran, tossing the cap in the gutter, right back to Camden Town, where I'd buy yet another aesthetically envigorating bag or scarf. For elegance, harmony and quality, my favorite places there include Araucaria, filled with the aroma of jasmine and polished wood, vintage Kantha jackets and bags, brightly patterned shirts and Carpe Diem MMVIII, which features beautifully tooled leather, both located in the Camden Lock Place Market Hall. Stroll by the Gekko stall too. Long velour coats in greens or purples or blacks, leaf designs sewn in. Slightly reminiscent of Desigual, only nicer. Across from the hall, check out Gohil& Co. Handmade Leather Goods. And enjoy the food and the eternally lively ambience! In the Dantesque circles of women's clothing, the Camden Hall Market is paradise. You can guess what hell is, and we've all seen clothing purgatory, somehow worse than even that.

Friday, September 8, 2017

An American Hears London

Bussing in from Stansted, we saw a sign in an apartment complex yard: "No exercising of dogs." A more elegant euphemism for "Leash, gutter, and clean up after your dog," My son leaned over and said, "Hmm, how about roasting of dogs?" I'm more accustomed to directness, as in:
Language can be more lyrical here. Consider this bus announcement: "For Great Ormond Street hospital alight at Russell Square." Sounds more poetic than "Get off at . . . " 
"You'd never hear that," I said to my son. "In Romantic poems, Sparrows alight on branches."
"Gimme a light," he replied. As we ambled toward the British museum and I explained the controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles, he summed it all up: "How the Greeks lost their marbles." Around here, the F word is pronounced with an "o" instead of a "u," that is, rhymes not with "luck" but with "cock," as in "Cockfosters." Wikipedia suggests family names or "chief forester" as the origin of that one, but it sounds like a Prince Albert to me.  We walked through (should I say "trod?") Knightsbridge, Piccadilly, Belgravia, and the best of all, Camden Town ("Help a punk get drunk" said the sign around which sat certain inebriated young persons with neon hair, braying same message). In Belgravia I kept muttering, "my God, Prada is no longer Prada (hairy newsboy hats with bolts, day-glo felt handbags) and "Laura Ashley is no longer Laura Ashley," (synthetics, synthetics, synthetics) but in Camden Town I bought a gorgeous vintage Indian Kantha and some wool-and-silk Pashmina scarves. While listening to Joy to the World (or was it "Hot Child, summer in the city . . .") at a jewelry stand and Dinah Washington while scooping up a sturdy leather knapsack for my son. Amazing leather.  A-whole-lot-better-than-Coach-bags-leather. When I asked for help with a scratch on the perfect bag I'd bought in Rome, I heard Imperial British English, the kind German gymnasium teachers swoon over, from an elderly gentleman of Indian descent. Oh, enjoy Camden town. Belgravia is all snobbery and repression (burquad women in Dior sunglasses being shepherded from limo by driver to butler-in-store). Wifi didn't work as we sought a Chipotle, which we obviously weren't going to find around there. 
The languages, from neighborhood to neighborhood, are fun, but London is the loudest city I've ever been in: street noise in Westminster and Bloomsbury, from drills to horns to sirens, is enough to make you plug your ears with your fingers and howl in pain. But when the British speak, they are so interesting. It's not just the accents. I asked for Miller and Bens tap shoes in five stores, and the clerks (that word rhymes with "harks" around here) seemed genuinely sad they couldn't help me: "I'm so sorry!" they chirped.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Nine-Bucket Bail: Climate Change in Germany

While I was stuffing the eggplants this afternoon, my daughter, who had checked her cell phone and promised no rain, rushed downstairs, opened the patio door, and started hauling in the racks of laundry that had been drying so nicely a few minutes before. I hadn't noticed the downpour--I was distracted by the need to grate the cheese that was going into the stuffed eggplants and peppers--and the sun was shining brightly outside. But it was Noah's-floodlike out there. Hail started clattering down.
"Should we bring the guinea pigs in?"
"I dunno--the cage is covered. If it stops in five minutes . .  ." I stuffed another pepper and stuck it in the tray, ready to go into the oven.
The rain didn't stop. With a doorman-sized umbrella, I went outside to retrieve two slightly damp, indignant guinea pigs, who looked as if they were wondering what took me so long. Having taken refuge in one of their little houses, the piggies were dry until I had to chase them to get them into their carrier.
When we were in Italy a few weeks ago, staggering around the Villa Torlonia and the Colosseum in 101º-105º-degree heat, we got hit with a storm in Venice, fortunately after we'd already taken our gondola ride. The clouds unfolded, rains of Biblical proportions slammed down, we huddled in a doorway watching the shopkeeper next door poke a broom into the awning over his shop, letting gallons of water slosh out. 
On the way home, uprooted trees lay all over the road.
This afternoon the hail stopped, and I went down to our basement to check laundry. The storage room often floods, but this time the water was an inch up around the wall. 
Nine buckets full. Nine. 
Ten, actually. If you count the one I filled.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Remembering Dick Gregory in our Trumpesque World

I woke to the sad news that Dick Gregory--a favorite comedian and activist--had died at 84. 
"We don't serve colored people," said a waitress to Dick Gregory. "That's okay," he answered, "I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken." I remember, as a child, laughing in front of our family's black-and-white TV as Gregory revealed the ludicrousness of race prejudice:

 

Dick Gregory nudged the United States toward racial harmony using tactics similar to the delightful Tom Lehrer, who is thankfully still among us but, alas, silent in the age of Trump. Lehrer's 1965 classic, National Brotherhood Week (“Step up and shake the hand / Of someone you can’t stand. / You can tolerate him if you try”) attacked the absurdity of trying for racial healing with a single week's devotion to tolerance and "brotherhood: 



Return the worst to laughter: that's what these comedians teach us. Don't react to Trump or Nazis with rage and despair: laugh them into the ground. Trump deserves our constant ridicule. If we must fight, we should fight over statutes, not statues. Statutes, the ones that prevent gay people from getting married or transgender folks from using the restroom. True, statues are fun to pull down--the satisfying clonk of Saddam Hussein's metal counterpart hitting the ground in Baghdad back in 2003 was an occasion for joy--like the dismantling of the Berlin wall, pieces of which you may still buy as a souvenir. Walls were made to be breached, not built, and the likes of Dick Gregory and Tom Lehrer were made to send that message entertainingly. Ellen DeGeneres, get busy. 
In one of his last interviews, Gregory became a prophet who wears his gravitas lightly, like the fool in King Lear:



But we're still not really listening. We're in despair, we're sending petitions, we're marching in the streets, we're doing everything but laugh. Trump is ridiculous, and the more we see him as the two year old misbehaving, the more the powers that be shake their heads and chortle, the better off we'll be. It took months for senators to abandon Joe McCarthy, months to see the nuttiness of the man and his paranoid claims. What fools we mortals be! We need magic--someone like Remus Lupin, waving his wand, shouting, "Riddikulus!" to remind us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, that we're best off laughing, or ruefully shaking our heads at our foolishness:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Death of a Washing Machine: So Unexpected

We were in total denial thinking our sturdy Miele (Americans: think GE, Speed Queen or Maytag) was in vibrant health. Looked the same. Sounded the same. Until one afternoon when an agonized crunch of metal followed by a distinct burning smell catapulted me to the basement, where the machine's lights were blinking in all the wrong places. I unplugged the washer and sniffed around, trying to determine whether that burning smell (I'd hauled out the wet wash, which also reeked of smoke) was coming from within our walls or the drum. The drum. Yes, that would be the case. Drum rolls seem to go with death, or execution, and our machine had worked itself to death, as the repairman confirmed when he paid his call.
Attaching a gizmo with a cord to his computer and plugging the other end of the cord into our machine, he determined that the washer built to last around twenty years was actually--if one measured its life in terms of wash loads--a whopping thirty-six years old. Plus, now that I think of it, we'd really tortured the poor dumb creature. All those grains of sand I hadn't completely shaken out of the kids' blue jeans back when they were in kindergarten and grade school. All those very full loads of sheets and comforters and pillows that had been vomited on (and worse) by sick kiddies. And just when we were starting to do a little less laundry, our loyal machine called it quits. We've combed Amazon and Otto and have settled on a more environmentally-correct model, and we think we got our money's worth from this one. RIP, Washy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Adventures with the Italians and Stamps

Where do you buy stamps? And how many stamps does one need to send a postcard from gorgeous Italia to serious Germany, or from sunny, carefree Italia to Trumpesque America (or what's left of America--congratulations, ye of the chicken balloon with T's head on the White House lawn). 
Ask three Italians, get three answers. 
One is usually sent to the "Tabacchi,"a little shop selling stamps and the knowledge of how many to use in addition to newspapers and tobacco.
At reception in our hotel (run by teenagers) I got the vaguest of answers. But very sweet, polite answers. For examples, 
"Oh, to USA? I think, maybe two euro. But you ask at the Tabacchi."
Where was this Tabacchi? https://www.tripsavvy.com/what-is-a-tabacchi-in-italy-1547549
"Oh, easy, five minute!" Yes. Five Italian minutes. I did question the teenager in detail--I all but asked for a map. I walked in the directions she'd suggested. No Tabacchi. An old woman rode by on a bike, crooning in a raspy voice to her orange cat, who was in a cage affixed to her handlebars. The cat seemed eager to be taken to a party.
I had no idea where I was, and asked a bus driver if he spoke English. 
"Leetle beet," said he. The standard response. But he pointed me in the right direction. When I got to "Stop," I should turn left. At least, that is how I understood his instructions. I also thought he meant "Stop at the next street." But what he actually meant was "Stop at the big STOP sign at he end of that very long street." And turn left. And go through twisty, turny alleyways until the sign "Tabacchi" appears and the shopkeeper lets you know someone sold your husband the Italian equivalent of Federal Express stamps for Germany ("He only need one euro! Not-a one euro thirty.) Plus you do get the right number of stamps for the USA--a whopping 2 euros 20 for a post card. Where do I mail them? 
"The Lotto place!"
I looked. Finally a little old lady showed me the red post box, which was down the street from the "lotto place."
I shot my postcards into the Italian post box. Will they land? Anywhere?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Best Stovetop Chicken When There's No Oven

I love to bake chicken. Plain, with salt and pepper, or covered with mushrooms and mushroom soup and cream, or slathered with some nice mix from Oil&Vinegar, but when you have one of those vacation rentals with no oven, you've got to find a way to render crispiness, or at least flavor, unto chicken. 
The basic rule: a ton of garlic and the very best olive oil. Easy for me, since I'm in Italy. Details:

For a hungry family of five: about nine chicken thighs or breasts. WITH the bones

At least two cloves of garlic

At least one shallot

Pack of very fresh mushrooms 

Two packs of baby tomatoes, one red and one yellow. But feel free to substitute. You could use peppers or zucchini or both.

A massive bunch of fresh, washed, chopped parsley. But you could substitute fresh rosemary (and if you do, use less. A little rosemary goes a long way).

The juice of one lemon

Salt, pepper, oregano 

Dry white wine, one cup, or red

Potatoes (I'll get to their preparation)

(1) Put around half a cup of extra-virgin Dante Olive oil in the bottom of a very large pot. (In the supermarket I asked a couple of gigantic Italian women whether they spoke English and got the answer I always get around here: "leetle beet." What was the best olive oil? Their eyes lit up and they said, "il migliore," and I knew they understood. They pointed to the Dante and I must say, that stuff is so flavorful I could almost drink it out of the bottle).

(2) While the olive oil is heating, salt and pepper the chicken. Drop it into the pot. The oil should be hot--you should hear a sizzle. Stir and turn the chicken every few minutes, letting it sizzle on high heat for around ten minutes. Cover.

(3) Meanwhile, yell at your teenagers to chop that garlic and shallot. Add these. (The garlic, not the teenagers, although by this time you'll feel like adding the teenagers). Add chopped, fresh, parsley--loads of it. A bunch the size of a small child's head. 

(4) Wash and add the tomatoes--stirring--and the mushrooms--same. Realize you haven't added all the mushrooms. Do so, after rinsing and removing dirty parts of stems. Shake in the oregano, if you haven't already. Lots. Enough for a huge pizza. Squeeze in the lemon. Try to keep the seeds from entering the pot (you can strain through a small sieve)

(5) Meanwhile, you've also washed and boiled (do not peel, but do slice) some potatoes. When you can poke into the potatoes with a fork, drain them and add them to the pot with the chicken.

(6) Slosh in wine. Around a cup. I used red because we didn't have white, but white is more traditional. I must say, the red added a delightful flavor. My fifteen-year-old, who normally detests the aroma of wine, said, "Gee, that smells really good." The dominant flavors--wine, garlic, oregano, parsley--are what got him.

Let the pot boil, covered, for a good 25 minutes or more--stir occasionally. When the meat is easy to cut and not pink inside, everything's done. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What Small Hotels in Rome Can Do to Attract German-American Families: Five Tips

We travel with children. We do laundry. I don't mind trotting around the corner to the laundromat, but the lack of folding dryer racks tends to be a problem. Most hotels have a little retractable string over the bathtub, adequate for drying two bras and a pair of underpants. We need more. Much more. We also need to get in touch with our teenagers. When the WiFi's down and the phone has a constant busy signal, we worry. And because we worry, and we constantly sight see, and we don't get as much sleep as we need, we want coffee. Perfect coffee. Coffee strong enough to walk on. Ground Illy beans, and more of them than go to make the average cup of coffee in this hotel. I have a feeling the powers that be think Americans like weaker coffee. But we like our coffee very strong indeed. So:

(1) Provide drying racks. Don't go blank in the face when asked.
(2) Keep that WiFi up
(3) Strengthen your coffee
(4) Gladly provide stamps along with the mail service. Don't tell me to trot round to the bar at the next corner. I want one less errand to run on my vacation.
(5) The Biggie: let us redeem VAT tax refunds at your hotel.

Visiting Vatical City: the Pope, Shoulders, and "Free the Knee!"

We barely made it to our papal audience--by the time we'd snaked through the long lines, fending off vendors of tours and rosaries, Francis was already lyricizing about baptism and hope on several Jumbotrons. If you stood on your chair you could still make him out in the distance, but not near enough to get any good images on your cell phone. We had been warned not to expose shoulders or legs, so as the mercury crept toward 104º F (40º C) we left our hotel in blue jeans, not shorts, and in long-sleeved cotton shirts. At Vatican City, we were herded into a large building, possibly Castel Gandolfo, where I observed plenty of women wearing shorts, mini-dresses and spaghetti straps. Many a bare shoulder sported herself at the Angelus. No Swiss guards tried to cover those shoulders, and it occurred to me, when I saw folkloric national costumes from all over South America and Africa, that many of these get-ups have an off-the-shoulder component, and the church does not want to turn away the faithful.

The very-covered look
What I hadn't expected, when nature called and I wanted to answer, was a lack of toilets. Predictably, lines for women's rooms were longer, but a total of eight toilets--missing toilet paper and soap--is hardly enough. With all the Vatican's money, not much goes into the basic amenities for women. Those monks I saw striding across Vatican square, with their dark cowls and their lean and hungry looks, those priests in their black cassocks and magenta cummerbunds, do they ever consider such things?
I had to rip up the paper bag in which my postcards had been stashed to take care of business. 
What had I expected? A bunch of guys who think that Mary was a virgin apparently can't imagine her needing to pee. Think again, guys. Adoration of Mary is not the same as respect for women. Or respect for Mary. If a woman's basic needs are not met, if she is only "adored," she's not happy.
Why would I imagine that a bunch of men in black robes who don't have sex and who don't believe the virgin birth involved the passage of a baby's head through the vagina would make sure there was enough toilet paper in the women's toilets? Incidentally, bodily functions seem to be something the Virgin Mary is not supposed to have. An orgasm during the annunciation? ("God had one, presumably," says one blogger, another adding, "Where do you think the expression, 'Oh, Gawwwd' comes from?")
Once we got to Saint Peter's, the dress code police got stricter. Women in shorts had to buy scarves from street vendors to conceal their shoulders. Or wrapped them around their thighs, since the signs required "respect."
Yes, they were turned away at the door without the scarves.
Since when do naked shoulders and thighs denote lack of respect? Oh, we know the answer to that one, having just seen the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Adam and Eve, tempted by a "snake"--really a pretty woman growing a snake out of her backside-- are getting kicked out of Eden by an angel with a flaming sword. By women came evil into the world! Well. If you'd call a little curiosity, a relaxed sense of the rules, which are made to be broken, and a healthy appetite "sin."
If the sight, smell, and consumption of that luscious fruit is sin, folks,  bring sin on. Here's a gigantic breast, courtesy of Michaelanglo and with apologies to Instagram:

My daughter quipped, "Free the knee!" and pulled at her jeans. She flipped out both shoulders.  
P.S. S.O.S. to Vatican: buy some toilet paper and build some toilets to put beside it. Plus soap dispensers, complete with soap. And how about towels? Or even hand dryers? One thing is for sure: the pope can afford to do this. Make it so!

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Critical Mom's Cauliflower Casserole

This is adapted from a German children's cookbook featuring Bugs Bunny. But the Bugs Bunny version has no garlic and no cauliflower. I prefer my version:

Ingredients:
One large head of cauliflower
About 250 grams noodles (rigatoni or spiral noodles)
About 5oo ml cauliflower-water, i.e. the water in which you've boiled the cauliflower
About 200 ml cream (more is fine)
About half a tablespoon of nutmeg
A pinch or two of cayenne pepper
A block of  Parmesan cheese (enough for a family of five)
Butter--around 100 grams, total. More is okay.
Many cloves of garlic. Sixty, if you have the energy. But never mind. I only use one or two myself.
Five tablespoons of flour

PRE-HEAT oven to 200º Celsius (around 425º F)

(1) Boil noodles, drain and set aside in a colander. Lean toward al dente--they'll be baking too, and if you cook them for the "twenty minutes" the original recipe recommends, they'll disintegrate. 

(2) Grease a largish pan with butter. Around fifty grams of butter.

(3) Cut apart a head of cauliflower. Boil, including the little crumbly bits, for about ten minutes or until you can easily poke a fork in.

(4) Put the noodles in the greased pan. With a slotted spoon or small sieve, airlift cauliflower from pot to pan, leaving water intact, with all the little bits of cauliflower that were so small they stayed in the pot when you lifted out the rest.

(5) Mix noodles and cauliflower around in pan.

(6) On a small cutting board, slice up your garlic. Thin slices, but it doesn't have to be diced. Put these in a small pot with at least fifty (but if you use more I'd jump for joy) grams of butter, and put on low heat. Gradually add, stirring constantly, the five tablespoons of flour, and add the nutmeg and cayenne pepper. NOW add 500 ml of the cauliflower water, and you can include all the little piece of cauliflower that didn't yet make it into the dish. Stir. Add the cream. Keep stirring at low heat until the mixture thickens. Pour over the noodles and cauliflower.

Grate the Parmesan and sprinkle over the noodle-cauliflower casserole. Bake for thirty-to-forty minutes. Enjoy with red wine. Or white.


Friday, July 28, 2017

"Pop!" Goes the Palbociclib

I was thinking of getting off the clinical trial, gentle reader, because my white cell count spent a week hovering at the levels of a patient in the final stage of AIDS. During this hand-sanitizered time, when I went through gallons of the clear antiseptic fluid in the little plastic bottles, bottles that always got lost at the bottom of my purse, and when I put on rubber gloves when I had to pick up dishes my feverish child had eaten off of, I worried. Is taking this drug just good for the clinical trial or is it also good for me? Nobody knows, of course. That's why the clinical trial continues. If your white count rises, you get to go on a slightly lower dose of the medication. I went to the hospital twice to have blood drawn--sometimes they can't find a vein. 
"What did you drink this morning?" asked the nurse. 
"Coffee! With lots of hot milk," I said. She shook her head. I was supposed to drink water, lots of water, eight glasses of water.
"But then I'd have to pee all the time," I said, and she rolled her eyes. 
The American hospitals seem to think you should always swallow your pills with "a full glass of water."
After my nightly glasses of red wine? And when I'm about to go to bed, hoping not to wake before four a.m. when I always have to pee? I don't think so. 
The American hospitals say, "No Seville oranges." I don't know if the navel oranges I've been gobbling hail from Seville. They might actually come from Florida. But I stopped eating them until my white count climbed again. I've had to renounce grapefruit for the duration of the study. Also grapefruit juice. It's a good thing they didn't ask me to give up chocolate, red wine, or curry.  They did, however, make me stop taking the pills while my white count remained in the toilet. When they called in with the first blood count, I could tell from the nurse's tone of voice that the news was going to be bad. Hesitant, shaky, doubtful: "Well, we hope that your count will go up," she said, but her unsaid warning seemed to be that if it did not, I'd be residing for the rest of my life in one of those huge plastic bubbles, like the boy in Paul Simon's eighties ballad:
I came in for the second blood test that week, and the nurse beamed and said, "I understand you are on a drug holiday?"
Now, she used the term perfectly correctly. It really does mean a required break, or a legitimate break, from a medication. But (1) I've only heard the term used by women who go off their antidepressants for a week so they can have orgasms with their boyfriends and (2) I can't help picturing a "drug holiday" as mainlining heroin or something equally evil.
My white blood cell count climbed again, so my "drug holiday" ended. Of course I don't have anything like a normal count. Just better than bad.  I continue to use enough hand sanitizer to send the stocks of various companies soaring. (Check this out: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/health/washing-hands.html) And I pop a smaller pill, one with only 100 mg, down from 125 mg. The twenty percent chance of cancer returning is still supposed to be diminished, even with the smaller dosage.  But oh, ye Pfizer gods, what exposures to which ailments occur when you're inhibiting cancer cells while inadvertently lowering white counts?
I've had four different answers to this question so far, none of them satisfactory. Weigh in, pharma, big and small, weigh in.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Breast Cancer Girls: to Out Oneself at Work or Not ? Pros and Cons

If you don't tell the folks at work, you have the fun of being the local Rorschach test. 
I just met up with a colleague who hadn't seen me since my wig--we had to give an exam together. He's a scholarly Irishman, entirely buried in his work, so much so that I was counting on him not noticing anything different about me. But he glanced up from his coffee with that startled look--followed by a look of horror--the one typically preceding a remark from one of the secretaries about what a nice new hairdo I have. With frozen politeness that belies the shock they can never quite hide, they say, "Short for summer, right?" and I smile back and thank them. 
This guy said, nervously, "Well, now, you've really remade yourself completely!" His eyes flicked me over and the scholar in him took over--having processed the data, he felt driven to assess: "Was it a mid-life crisis, now?"
I smiled. "A mid-life crisis is as good a name as any."
He smiled back as if he now knew just what the situation was: "Well, now, don't worry--it'll be over soon!"
See? Rorschach test. He looked at the ink blots and thought "menopause." I'm kind of flattered. Yeah, as in, "Gee! I look young enough to be just starting menopause?" 
If you go ahead and tell the folks at work that you had cancer, you never get to hear stuff like this, and I must say, I enjoyed hearing it. 
I didn't tell because I didn't want people rushing up and asking how I was, with a look of tragic fear in their eyes that screamed, "Are you going to get so sick I have to teach your courses for you or give your exams, or worse yet, clean up some mess created by your cancer-riddled brain?" Or maybe they'd do what I would have done, in fact, did do, when another colleague came down with breast cancer. I wondered what she'd done to deserve this. Not that she'd done anything. But she must have had an unhappy this or an angry that or taken too much whatever. I would much rather have thought she'd done some preventable thing than feel the full force of how unpredictable life is. Only I am predictable: must have been the clomid I took to increase fertility. Or the red wine. Or drinking out of plastic bottles. Or using lipstick and hair dye. Or . .  .
So, for me: tell your family. They will help you through an illness. But the folks at work are unpredictable. If they're like me before I had cancer, I wouldn't tell them. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ask Three Doctors, Get Three Answers: The Palbociclib Blues

I feel fine, but my white cell count is slightly above that of a corpse. I'm in the range where, according to my physician friend E., I should retire to a bubble: "Don't travel! Don't go outside! Don't be in crowds! Avoid anyone with a cold!"
But I want to live
Today, I went to the main railway station, took a train, while surrounded by people, all of us squishing past each other and angling for seats, to a neighboring city, where I took a ballet class. Steamy, sweaty people gripped barres and little droplets of perspiration flew around the room. After class, I got back on the train, came home. Every step of the way--after I pushed the button to open the tram door, after I gripped the back of a seat so as not to fall down, after I opened my locker--I slathered on hand sanitizer, to the point where my skin is really, really dry, so then I get out the Eucerin. Hand santizer is my holy water--and I'm not even religious.

I didn't go for my friend E.'s answer--even though she's a really hotshot doctor--so I asked another doctor, who said: "Nooooo, you don't have to stay home. Just take the precautions you are taking, and don't kiss anybody who has a cold."
My husband doesn't have a cold. We do a lot of kissing. My daughter does have a cold, so I haven't hugged her for a week, but I do bring her cups of tea and jump back when she coughs. So far, I'm not sick.
Doctor number three reminded me that I'm better off sticking with the Palbociclib if I can tolerate the side effects, because otherwise the cancer might come back. "It does with a lot of women," he reminded me. 
I may go for doctor number four pretty soon. Anyone with a cheerful word and a new idea would be fine by me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Trans Plans? Thinking about Transgender Lives

Heading home today via the station named after my German region of residence, I was startled to see, neatly affixed to the wall above the escalator, a new enamel plaque indicating a change of station name: elegant white letters on a deep blue background proclaimed: CHELSEA-MANNING-PLATZ, or Chelsea-Manning-Square. Really? Are Germans that cool, or was the sign just the work of a politically-inclined prankster?

City of openmindedness or lone wolf? Wolverine?


Presumably the latter--my son couldn't believe how gullible I was ("They don't use that font on signs here, Mom!") and since I find no information about new names for stations in our local news, but I admire the taste and resourcefulness of the person who put the sign there.  In my defense, I've seen that font elsewhere. Quite nearby.
Looking quite professional and really hard to reach, the sign gleams with a certain cocky pride at the skinheads who can't pull it down. I bet someone made an effort to get that thing on the wall in such a way that it'd be hell to remove. I imagine that someone dangling, Mission-Impossible style, from the ceiling to place the sign. 
My students have been reading Jennifer Finney Boylan's entertaining exploration of her transgender experience, so the new name struck me as the universe's stamp of approval for acceptance and tolerance. A long time ago in a galaxy far away, there was a country, the United States of America, that had a real president. Not the thug with economic tentacles running so deep that even if they all got sliced, he'd pop out new ones faster than the many-headed hydra. Not the guy who could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still get elected.
But here, in a small city in Deutschland, we've got a Chelsea-Manning-Platz. When will be get an Edward-Snowden-Square? Listen, my clever ideologue, you who puts up signs: this time pick a place where everyone will see your sign. How about Hauptbahnhof?

Post Hoc, 15 August: I came down the escalator and glanced over at the wall, and alas! No more Chelsea-Manning-Platz. Damn. Put back that sign, please!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Training the Narcissistic Mom: Five Tips

Well, you can't, really. But you can manage her, sometimes, if you decide to remain in touch at all. 

(1) Two massive handfuls of praise can result in a droplet or two of money. I dolloped out the "you-are-wonderfuls" as much as I could because my son needs a few expenses covered at university and my mother loves playing Lady Bountiful. We thanked her. Profusely. And we'll do so again.

(2) You have the right to remain silent. Tell her nothing. Rule of thumb: if you don't really care about something, you're safe discussing it at any length with her. What's dear to your heart should stay right there--nowhere near her.

(3) But she's asking! She wants to know? What do I do? You make something up, or you omit whatever would make you sad or nervous to talk about with her, and you send her something she wants. A photo of your kids to put on her wall and brag about. A box of stuff she likes to eat from Amazon Prime.

(4) Keep a journal. When she sends a letter or she keeps you on the phone and you read the letter or you listen to her and your head starts to spin, just write down everything that trots through your mind. And if you're at all like me, plenty of thoughts will stampede through your head after a five-minute conversation with Mom. I write on trains. I find recollecting what I wish I could say to her soothing. Writing these things down also helps prevent you from confiding in her. 

(5) Find out as much as you can about her. This helps more than you'd think. After digging through family letters and photos, listening to her, and delving into my own recollections, I really do have a good sense of how she became so awful. I can sympathize. I can see how she never had a chance, even as I ask myself, "My God--couldn't she have developed a tiny bit more sense than a newborn?"