Monday, December 31, 2012

"Dinner For One" and The Critical Mom

When I wrote an American friend that our New Year's celebration involved sitting around the TV eating nachos and watching "Dinner for One," she asked, "What is A Meal for One?"
I'd forgotten that since the 11-minute skit has never been aired on American TV, she wouldn't know about this amusing black-and-white comic sketch involving the 90th birthday of one "Miss Sophie," whose attentive butler is asked to pretend that her four friends, to whom he serves an impressive dinner consisting in Mulligatawny soup (served with sherry), haddock (with white wine), chicken (with champagne), and fruit for dessert (with port), are actually sitting around the table.  The thing is, these particular friends--Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby, and Admiral von Schneider--have predeceased the remarkably energetic Miss Sophie, whose butler--of course his name is James--is expected to act their parts ("Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" he repeats in apparent hope that she'll let him off) drink their drinks, and then top off the evening engaging in horizontal gymnastics with the indefatigable Miss Sophie.  That James provides this favorite birthday entertainment is what the oft-repeated lines, which you can hear recited all over Germany this evening, seem to broadcast:

James (holding Miss Sophie's elbow as he guides her up the stairs): "By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"

Miss Sophie (with a look of happy delight): "The same procedure as every year, James!"

James: "Well, I'll do my very best!" (Nod, wink, and--at the top of the stairs--a thumbs up).

Americans do occasionally write about this--there's been a post-Colonial interpretation focusing on the way the butler trips over the head of the tiger-skin.  Okay.  But the usual exegesis is a head-scratching "Gee, I guess those Germans like it because they're used to it.  Power of repetition.  Plus ritual:  it's been a staple of New Year's Eve for Germans since 1963.  Just numbs them into amusement, and those Germans don't have much of a sense of humor anyway."

But I live among them and they do.  Oh, they do.  Besides, the sense of humor in the skit, which is not German but British--written by a British comedian and acted entirely in English by two British actors--gets upstaged by the philosophy of the piece, so appropriate to New Year's Eve:  You Are Never Too Old To Enjoy.  To Carpe that Diem and get it on with the butler--and on your 90th birthday, too. 

I'll raise a glass to that.  The one thing I can't get used to is that Germans call New Year's Eve "Silvester" around here.  Because, see, a certain pope happened to have that name--but it always makes me think of the intrepid but foolish Freudy-cat who chased Tweety-bird, or William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble--and both of these strike me as figures of redemption:  Tweety redeems the idea that smarts trumps bullies, and Steig's Sylvester gets transformed into a pebble but finally recovers and comes to life again!  And that's what New Year's is all about, right?

Now, y'all go watch "Dinner For One" again.   Better than the ball drop, believe me!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"This Is How" And The Critical Mom OR: Happy Holidays, Augusten Burroughs

My Dear Mr. Burroughs,

How delightful--especially while sleigh bells are banging--to come across someone as funny as you, whose history resembles my own.  The cult psychoanalyst.  The parents.  Mine met at a party given by their mutual shrink.  I often imagine my incompatible progenitors whiling away the evening on the analytic couch, consumed by anything but analytic insight.  At least the analyst's folly promoted my existence.

If you've been rolling around in religion or in psychology much of your life, you can find yourself a meaning in my origins.   But I'd rather have a laugh or a quirky insight.  

Which is just what I get from your latest: This Is How: Help For the Self: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. 

Indeed, I'm getting plenty of both, now that I'm dipping into the book--it's fun to dip rather than go cover-to-cover with this one.  And I see how ultra-American it is:

(1) Mr. Burroughs is the ultimate underdog, and America is all about the underdog winning.  What hasn't he overcome?  His dad puts out a cigarette on his toddler forehead--that's the least of it-- his mom gives him away to her nutsy psychiatrist who exposes him to drugs, a pedophile, a filthy home, among other horrors.  And Burroughs lives to tell the tale and to write about nearly all of it amusingly.  He is the real "boy who lived," the avatar of the worst returning to laughter, proof positive of Nietzsche's maxim: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

(2) America continues to be the can-do nation, despite all evidence suggesting that pessimism might be in order.   Mr. Burroughs continues to exhibit an astonishing optimism about what people can overcome--and I'm sure he's right.  Self-help is one of the zanier forms of American individualism, and Mr. Burroughs remains a master of individualizing his own self-help.  An alcoholic who has quit, he's got no use for AA, the crowds and the affirmations dampening his drive to do things his own way.   Wherever you are, Mr. Burroughs, I hope you still have that golden pig head and are following the instructions engraved upon it.   Let me indulge in my own American hyperbole and call you our American Erasmus.  It's not too far off the mark.
Happy New Year.  Reading Burroughs ought to be a New Year's resolution.  More important, it's fun.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"A Good Guy With A Gun" versus The Critical Mom

Finally the NRA has taken a position.  Only to dig its heels in:

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A. vice president, said at a media event that was interrupted by protesters. One held up a banner saying, “N.R.A. Killing Our Kids.”  (The New York Times, December 22, 2012)

With its twenty-million dollar endowment, the NRA easily inflames wild West fantasies, intimidating Americans into believing they need guns to protect themselves, that real men can't leave home without them.  Follow the trail of NRA-inspired bumper stickers:

Guns don't kill people.  People kill people.
Can't outlaw guns 'cause then only outlaws have them.
If Guns kill people, do pencils misspell words?
If guns cause crime, matches cause arson
Guns don't kill people, abortion clinics do

 For centuries, China had foot binding--the systematic breaking of the bones a young girl's foot by folding the toes underneath to make a "beautiful" hoof-like "Lotus foot."  Sub-Saharan Africa has female genital mutilation, which six thousand young girls and women endure daily.

America has gun culture.   The idea that we need more guns, Gail Collins wrote, is "the fairy tale the NRA tells itself when it goes to bed at night."

Just like the fairy tale that a girl shouldn't marry if she's got good feet.  Or a clitoris.

It's easy to imagine Thomas Jefferson spinning in his grave.  He's often misquoted by gun enthusiasts, who claim that he asserted the following: 

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms...disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one."

Jefferson did not, however, write this.  He translated the passage from the original Italian, copied it into his commonplace book, and added the comment,  "False idee di utilità," that is, "False ideas of utility."  In other words, as far as he was concerned, taking along your one-shot flintlock meant good exercise when you were walking in the woods.   He never meant the freedom to pack a semiautomatic wherever you went.  The idea you need to carry an assault rifle to protect yourself is a "false idea of utility."  Likewise the notion that schools and churches and other places we used to go without fear need "a good guy" with a gun standing guard.

Write to the NRA.  Here's their Board of Directors.  Tell them that the Bill of Rights never gave American citizens the right to semiautomatic weapons of mass destruction.  Publicize the sources of NRA funding, and do not support those funds.  Boycott NRA money.  Stalk these people--not with guns, with your opinions--and with all peaceful means of depriving them of their formidable funding:

Frank R. Brownell, III
President and Trustee The Honorable Bill K. Brewster
Vice President and Trustee
The Honorable Joe M. Allbaugh
Ms. Sandra S. Froman
Mr. Steve Hornady
Mr. Eric Johanson
Mr. David. A. Keene
General P.X. Kelley USMC (Ret).
Mr. George K. Kollitides II
Mr. Wayne R. LaPierre
Mrs. Carolyn D. Meadows
Mr. Owen P. Mills
Mr. James W. Porter II
Mr. Dennis J. Reese
Captain John C. Sigler
H. Wayne Sheets
Executive Director
Mr. Wilson H. Phillips, Jr.
Mrs. Sandy S. Elkin


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Gun Control

 (1) President Obama should follow the example of Australia.  After a gunman killed 35 tourists and wounded 23 more at a seaside resort in Port Arthur, Tasmania on April 28, 1996, a newly elected conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, moved rapidly and decisively to ban semi-automatic weapons and to create a weapons buyback program. 

(2) Put an emergency moratorium on semiautomatic sales.  Gun sales, in the wake of the Newtown catastrophe, are skyrocketing, the way they have after every single mass killing in the US.  President Obama, we look to you to stop this.

(3) President Obama, please:  disarm the NRA.  It is a national disgrace, worse than the Ku Klux Klan.  

(4) President Obama, LEAD us--Lead like FDR on steroids, never taking no for an answer, fearing nothing but fear itself, and finding a way for ordinary Americans to significantly impede the manufacture and sale of semiautomatic weapons.

(5) Today is January 31:  I wrote this post back in mid-December, and can't bear to think how many gun incidents and near-misses we have endured since then, as of today, the shootings in Atlanta, Georgia.  The head of the NRA is marketing guns to kids, pretending assault-style weapons are nothing worse than BB guns, which are bad enough.

(6) Which puts me in repeat-fire mode: President Obama, you have to be stronger, you have to be more forceful, you have to find a grass-roots way to disable the NRA.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The NRA, Gun Control, and the Critical Mom

"They were idiots to forbid guns in schools," said the NRA spokesman on local TV, "If the teachers had had guns, they could have shot that guy."  
The hard boiled foolishness of the NRA man --the fruit of moneyed, Viagra-stuffed impotence--is crazier than Adam Lanza.  America remains the only democratic nation in the West to allow mentally ill persons easy access to lethal weapons. What will it take until they start beating their rifles into plowshares and their bayonets into pruning hooks?  Five thousand hours of psychotherapy?  But people only go that way when their symptoms disturb them.  And for the NRA, the symptoms feel anything but disturbing.  They seem instead thrilling.   The NRA never got seduced into making love, not war.  Beware Venus--she'll disarm you every time, and during that post-orgasmic slump, Mars finds his javelin disconcertingly limp.  The NRA takes the position that spears must always remain at attention, unsatisfied but pointed, no matter how frustrating the result.  As long as you can point and repeat-fire that Glock, you'll hardly notice how much you are missing.  It's cold comfort that those who live by the gun die by it.  But here are the stats:  The U.K., Sweden, and Germany endure LESS THAN FIFTY gun homicides every year.  In the "land of the free, the home of the brave," TEN THOUSAND PEOPLE lose their lives to bullets every year.  In Germany, you've got to have a permit to buy a gun, and trust to German bureaucracies to make getting a permit for anything--from marriage to unusual names for your child to buying a gun--a matter of serious endurance, not for the faint of heart.  Sometimes the Critical Mom is particularly grateful to live in an over-regulated, rule-ridden country.  Gun Control extends to kindergartens here, where for a considerable time after the end of the Second World War, children were allowed no toy guns of any kind in school or elsewhere.  So they took the paper bags in which they'd brought their school snacks and fashioned them into toy pistols.  And then some Old Country wisdom kicked in, and the teachers realized that allowing them to play with the paper bag pistols would render the kids far less likely to play with real Glocks when they grew up.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Sandy Hook Shootings in Newtown and the Critical Mom

Is this a copycat killing?  We can't afford another one.
Would any of the founding fathers have written the words "You have the right to bear arms" if he'd known that semi-automatic guns would be invented?  You bet your life not.  Or that a young man who was a "socially awkward loner" with a "personality disorder" would so easily get and exploit these weapons to defend himself against his personal demons?  Common sense--a most uncommon asset--dictates that we lay down these "arms."  Anyone who can make money selling them says no, and so far American government goes along with that.
Why doesn't American law define "arms" in terms of 18th century technology?  Neither a blunderbuss nor a flintlock, two popular 18th century rifles, can fire more than once before needing to be reloaded.  If our constitution granted the right to bear ONLY these arms, the insane or high Adam Lanza could have been stopped before slaughtering 27 people, including his own mother.  Now is the time for the broadest possible measures to exert gun control.  Now is the time for the constitution to mean what it meant to the founding fathers.  But that America no longer exists.  Separation of church and state?  Look how far Rick Santorum got.  Equal rights?  Only if your income is over $200,000.  How far are we from the grim vision of America depicted by the brilliant Russian-American satirist, Gary Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story, in which the rich guzzle alkaline waters, dechronification treatments, and high fashion while the poor set up camps in Tompkins Park, starve, contract preventable diseases and get shot?  Watch the numbers of evangelical bible-thumpers who shoot abortion doctors grow.  Watch George Bush, junior, win voters by telling folks that "God wants me to run for president."  And watch Obama do nothing so far.  Now is the time for our president to take a stand on this breathtakingly important issue. 
Either that, or clear the malls--let's never go shopping again.  And the schools:  let's have universal home schooling.  At the very least, your kids would finally learn something.  Their very first lesson should present the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.  Have them read it, discuss it, and comment on it.  And then let them have a go at the newspapers.  After that, you can get into "appearance versus reality," noting, in all fairness, that no matter how much we pervert our basic rights and laws, we're still--marginally--better off than folks living in the totalitarian regimes of North Korea or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  "Democracy," Winston Churchill remarked, "is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."  Are we still hanging on--by our fingernails--to democracy in America?  Or will yet another nut be able to exercise his or her right to "arms" and shoot up yet another school or mall or bus?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Clackamas Mall Shootings and The Critical Mom

Mall shootings are becoming a holiday habit--we've seen enough of them to justify a Wikipedia entry on "spree shootings."  But are the folks who fled the latest maniac at the Clackamas town mall, which was packed with Christmas shoppers--including a Santa Claus who zigzagged out of harm's way--now in favor of gun control?  Only around 40% of Americans believe that the founding fathers would never have wanted the "right to bear arms" to mean the right to own and use repeat-fire weapons capable of taking out a mall filled with holiday shoppers. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court of the United States interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting the right of an individual to own a firearm for the purposes of self-defense, especially within one's own home, while at the same time reaffirming the constitutionality of a wide range of long standing gun control laws.  Why is the definition of "gun" never questioned in what the historian Richard Hofstadter called American "gun culture?"  Since frontier days, muscular masculinity has meant shooting your own meat--or your favorite enemy.  Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Pecos Bill--in fact every single American frontiersman except for Johnny Appleseed--sported a rifle.  When in 1791 the Second Amendment to the constitution was drafted, the only available form of "gun" was a single-shot fiream that had to be loaded through the muzzle.  In other words, if you were after a deer, a rabbit, or a wifestealer, it helped to be a crack shot, because if the first shot missed, your target had plenty of time to get away from you while you were re-loading.
Money makes the world go 'round, and the folks who manufacture guns are making a lot of it.  And selling to dudes who want to feel like "men."  How many "men" who need to kill to feel strong will it take before we no longer have the right to bear "arms?"

Friday, December 7, 2012

Another Onion Recipe from the Critical Mom

Want to stay healthy?  Lessen symptoms from diabetes, heart disease, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, general malaise, you-name-it?  Here's an easy one.  It can't hurt you, and it might help.

Slice a nice, juicy, organic (or very healthy looking) medium-sized red onion into four or five pieces.  NOTE:  DO NOT wash the onion.  Wipe it off it it looks dusty, and do discard the papery skin, but water will ruin this recipe.
Put the onion in a clean, dry glass pitcher that has a lid.  Pour in red wine--at least one bottle, more if the pitcher will hold it.  Put the lid on.  Let the mixture sit in a cool, dry, sunless place for twelve days.  Decant into another glass pitcher through a sieve.  Discard the onion.  Okay, you can eat the onion, but you sure don't have to. 
Drink a shot glass or two of this stuff every evening about two hours before you go to sleep.  And you will live to be 105.
It is an old Chinese recipe.  Now, I've been drinking this stuff for a week, and it ain't bad.  The onion flavor is not overpowering, and I feel well.  Don't guzzle it, now.  Just one shot glass or two every evening.  As they used to say in the old hair tonic commercials, "a little dab'll do ya."  Drink this faithfully every evening, over many months, and your health will improve.
Me, this is what I do instead of letting them give me a flu shot.  And if I get started on all the symptoms and side effects of that, cure being worse than the disease and so forth, I'll have me two or three more blog posts.  So just stick to your shot glass of Red Onion Special, and everything will be all right.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Saint Nikolaus, The Critical Mom, and the German Holiday System

It's that extra mini-Christmas day today:  Saint Nikolaus Day.  All the way home from school the Critical Mom's eight-year-old daughter was explaining how she was going to polish her boots--'cause the teacher said we should!!--in order to make them ready for Saint Nikolaus, who's supposed to drop by and fill them with candy, preferably great big foil-wrapped chocolate figures in the shape of himself, exactly the ones I'd neglected to buy that very morning in HEMA, thinking it was too early for Christmas and I'd get fresher ones later.
The Critical Mom is often way off schedule that way.  My neurons fire accurately enough on American holidays:  On Hallowe'en, I make sure we have costumes.  Also pumpkins, in plenty of time to carve them before trick-or-treat time.  Also when I want to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.  But getting it together to buy make-up or costumes or those little electronic sticks that substitute for candles in the Saint Martin's lanterns for St. Martin's Day--when is it again?  Sometime in early November?--is something I only managed to do on time this year.   And this year I realized I'd better get Saint Nikolaus day right.  Now, he's not exactly Santa Claus.  He's some fourth century dude, a bishop, I gather, famous for good deeds.  A modest fellow, he didn't want some poor sisters to know he was helping them, so he just dropped lumps of gold down their chimney, avoided being arrested for breaking and entering, and ever since, German schoolchildren have been demanding lumps of gold, or chocolate, in their shoes,  just like whatever landed in the shoes of the poor three sisters way back when.  Take that, Hallmark greeting cards!  There's a romantic tale for you.
As my daughter chattered on--"Mommy, which pair of boots should I take?"--and I got distracted remembering that one pair, the nice one with the rabbit fur around the rim, got moth-eaten and I'd better get it repaired before she grows out of them--I realized we were standing in front of the Very Last Bakery We Could Reach Before Going Home.  
"Wait here," I told the kid.  Now, this was the crummy bakery, but even the crummiest German bakery is better than almost any American bakery.  I went in and was just selecting my purchases when I saw my daughter staring in the window, eager to see what "surprise" would await her in the morning.  I made a little twirling motion with my finger, she turned around so she couldn't see, and the saleslady laughed.  I bought cookies in the shape of snowmen trimmed with chocolate, little chocolate St. Nikolauses wrapped in foil (alas, no big ones--sold out, naturally!) and "Stutenmänner," big hunks of break in the shape of the Gingerbread man, with raisin eyes, that are particularly popular on German holidays.  
Back home, I found my daughter holding her rain boots in the bathroom sink, industriously scrubbing away, and advised her not to get any water inside, since they'd be awfully mouldy if she did.  She was very serious about that and did avoid getting water in them.
When I'd finally managed to get her and her next-older brother in bed, eat dinner with my husband and then get our oldest in bed, i.e. slightly after eleven, I got the goodies in ribbon-wrapped packs, arranged shoes stuffed with goodies in front of doors, and collapsed.  Happy Holidays!  Next comes Christmas, which Americans think of as Christmas Eve.  Germans open all their presents on Christmas Eve . . . but I always say we should keep a few things for Christmas morning, and we do.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stardom and The Critical Mom

For one brief shining second, the Critical Mom felt like a Las Vegas Showgirl.   Her eyelids sparkled with dime store gold and blue glitter, which conveniently concealed a wrinkle or two and which she'd sprinkled liberally through her hair. See, the Critical Mom relished her moment, if not exactly in the spotlight or the limelight, among the girls.  (Now, you know women only start calling themselves "girls" when they're over forty.  Way over.)  The Critical Mom immensely enjoys belonging to a group of mostly menopausal tap dancers.  (Okay, I'll forgive three of them for being younger and lovelier than I am . . .one of 'em is  prettier than Barbie, and another has big beautiful French bee-stung lips, and a third gamin  is actually 23 but looks younger).  The rest of us ladies of the proverbial certain age have a  je ne sais quoi that we are teaching the younger ones.  With our feather boas that we got to wave around--you know what those things can do.  We never say dieA menopausal tap dancer can be quite a gal.  As our little coven watched, from the wings, another group of dancers--girls of fifteen--performing "Let me dance for you!"--Cassie's passionate love song to Zach, her former boyfriend and the rather sadistic director of the chorus line--one among us cracked, "They have never danced for a man!"  Too true.  Besides, Cassie's so full of what she did for love she's practically psychotic.  These young girls have yet to achieve psychosis.  If youth only knew--if age only could!  The kids have the looks.  They have the bodies.  But they don't yet have the moves.  And we crones do.  Our knees may creak, but oh, can we move.  When your hips gyrate, there's something you're supposed to be thinking about, but it's not the next step and it's not "Did I remember my deoderant?" and it's not "I wonder what my grade on my Geography test is?"  It's not a question of any kind.  It's the answer to all of life's difficulties, at least so it seems while you are dancing.  Tapping my way through several chic numbers in a gold sequined headband with a black plume curving over my head and a bright red flapper dress,  I wasn't thinking of my ballet class. Although I find it a pleasant experience, it's nothing to set one on fire.  My teacher, who is handicapped by her natural lyricism and gift for technical accomplishment, cannot imagine what it feels like to want a little technique without having to do the dance of the seventeen-year-old virgins--which is how I think of certain pretty sequences from the nineteenth century romantic ballets, Swan Lake and Giselle, that she she sometimes asks us to do in class.  I don't want to do the dance of the seventeen-year-old virgins.  I want to do the dance of the fifty-five-year-old-been-around-the-block-a-few-times. 
And last night, I got to dance it. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Critical Mom's Crisis Management

"On the whole," said an Oscar Wilde character, "the secret of life is to take things very, very easily."  He didn't, and I usually hyperventilate.  So it was that on a Thursday afternoon when I was mentally calculating that three midterms had to be produced before Monday, that passport photos of the children had to be mailed someplace important, that several classes I teach had to be prepared, and that I thought I could just about manage 85% of all that in the time required because my daughter and I are both dancing this weekend in two performances, and before that there's a day of dress rehearsals .  .  . on the drive home I had just about figured how actually I could do 99% of this by not doing the laundry and getting one of the children to clean the guinea pig cage, when I opened an official looking letter.  Just as I was slitting the envelope thinking, "Oh, it's an assessment from my co-op.  Must be.  Do I have an extra $300 somewhere, because usually that's around how much it is," I got the letter unfolded and it told me that I had to tell my tenant to leave immediately because her lease was up in July.  I folded the letter, observed that although it was dated Nov. 1 it was postmarked Nov. 23, and began to gasp.  Phone calls were made.  The situation . . . her lease is indeed up in July but in July 2013, not 2012 . . . was communicated by me.  What the co-op will decide, since I have no proof, since the e-mails detailing the whole business no longer exist, remains way up in the proverbial air that won't seem to come down into my lungs these days.  Meanwhile, an editor whose slightly wacky e-mails praising the "brilliance" of an essay of mine always seemed slightly too good to be true now mumbles that some other editor, apparently her superior, says the essay is poorly written and poorly structured.  Reader, would I send an editor anything that was either?  But there's no time to think about that, since I have to make the sandwiches and slice the cucumbers for the group of little girls who are trotting out onstage in their tutus to dance scenes from the Four Seasons and then scenes from the Nutcracker about an hour before the mommy of one of them, i.e. yours truly, will dance to "Sitting Pretty" and "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," after running into her daughter's dressing room, handing her her lavender "bon bons" costume, making sure she's not eating the junk food the other moms brought and then racing back to my dressing room to get in my second costume and then hoofing back onstage in "La Cage Aux Folles."  Here's the crisis management part:  the whole time I was dancing I forgot about the co-op board and the editor.  My husband and sons were sitting front row center and if they say they enjoyed it I believe them.  I enjoyed it myself.  That's crisis management.  I guess I took things very, very easily for a few nanoseconds there.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Critical Mom's Turkey

This one is perfect for Thanksgiving--and would be good for Christmas too,  but I'll present some alternatives with Duck or Goose.

First, get a good turkey--fresh or organic ("Bio" in Germany) tastes better than frozen, which tends to have drier meat.  Let's say you buy an 8.3 kilo (17 pounds, in the States) turkey.  Wash it in cool water, pat dry, and put in a big roasting pan.  Salt and pepper it--for best results, use sea salt and freshly ground pepper.  Now stuff it--the Fannie Farmer Cookbook is full of good recipes for stuffing, and here's my version of one of them:

(1) In a large pot or wok melt a generous amount of unsalted, fresh butter.  Yes, butter.  Today you are not worried about cholesterol, and no substitute will do. 

(2) Wash and chop in small pieces a big bunch of celery (this will be about 10-12 stalks or 4-5 cups or a bit more).  Don't bother with the flowery part at the end--we always toss that part to the guinea pigs.   Dump celery in pan and keep on low heat, stirring occasionally.

(3) Dice a large onion and add to mix.  Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, you've let the oven heat up to about 180º C (about 350º F) and in it have placed a pack and a half of very ordinary supermarket white sandwich bread.  For Americans, Pepperidge Farm bread is a good choice.   Once the bread is dried out, put it in the food processor; process until you have crumbs.  You need five or six cups of crumbs.  Add to the mix of celery, butter, and onion.  Stir and let the flavors blend for a few minutes.  Add a cup (or more) of instant chicken broth.  Stir.  Now  stuff the turkey with this mixture and sew it up with ordinary twine, so that it stays inside the bird and does not dry out.  Leftover stuffing should be put in a baking dish and warmed right before you serve it.  
Once the turkey is stuffed, rub the whole bird with butter.  Put strips of thin bacon--you'll need at least a pack, maybe two--across every surface of the bird.  Put in oven at about 165º C (or around 330º F--or put it up to 350º F) and bake.  A bird this size takes around four hours and you should baste it occasionally, and kick up the heat at the end.

Let's say you want to do something like this, but with duck or goose:  I'd recommend substituting apples and raisins for the celery in the stuffing.  Or a few sausages.  And instead of bacon, you might want just butter or a little orange juice on top.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Firing the Cleaning Lady

Not that I want to fire mine!  She is the proverbial treasure.  Also a friend.  She's the mother of one of my children's classmates, and happened to ask me one day whether I knew of anyone who needed a cleaning lady.  Which I did not, at the time, but I wasn't altogether happy with the cleaning lady I had.  Alas, no cleaning lady is perfect.  Perfect would involve reading my mind to the extent that she knew not my secrets--no, none of that--but could experience my tastes, so that she knew exactly which shirts go on a hanger, which get folded (it's obvious, damn it, the idiot!! I mutter under my breath, feeling guilty, because she's so nice and helpful and what would I do without her?  But obviously this blouse is something I wear to work, so has to be on a hanger so it doesn't look all mushed up, and that other old one is just a shlumpy thing I wear around the house, and why can't she tell the difference?)
No, perfection is not one of my very good cleaning lady's traits.  But what's great is that she does exactly what I ask her to do, cleaning-wise.  She doesn't decide to go vacuum the stairs to look busy, when I've said please go clean the bathroom.  
So when Cheryl, my current cleaning lady, asked if I knew anyone I regretted not being able to hire her on the spot.  I waited until I felt exasperated with the cleaning lady I had at the time, who didn't know how to roll a pair of socks (she tied them in a knot instead).  Also when she couldn't find the mate to a sock, she just put it with any vaguely similar sock.  Also she loved to leave a bucket filled with wet, dirty cleaning cloths in our closet, despite my telling her that after every cleaning I soaked them in chlorox and then washed them.  She loved to clean with rancid old cloths that she'd stuck in that bucket . . .  and that was the last straw.  But I still hadn't figured out a way to fire, let's call her, Esmeralda, since she was so nice and her daughter had played with my daughter.  But one day Esmeralda took a vacation and in the course of that vacation my living room got so dirty that a mouse took up housekeeping there . . . my husband set traps and once swung a dead mouse at me as he was disposing of it and I screamed, "Eeeek!" just like Blondie Bumstead.  Yes I did.
And then I hit on a brilliant idea.  I didn't want to say, Esmeralda, here's twenty euros, we just can't afford a cleaning lady anymore because she'd know that was lame.  Also we'd pulled that one before with bad results.  On a previous occasion, we'd had a cleaning lady--let's call this one Hortensia--who liked to chat in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee while goo-gooing with our then two-year-old before she would get down to any kind of work.  Once she finally got going, I'd be sitting in my study typing and hear crashes and slams straight out of Dagwood and Blondie coming from the bathroom, and go in and find her slamming our stuff to the side and also throwing away tubes of ointment and toothpaste that were less than half full.  I remember thinking she must have broken something, going in and not finding any broken item but seeing her scooping up our half-full toothpaste tubes and telling her to take them out of that plastic garbage bag and put them back on the shelf, please.  She did, with a leer, "Oh, your nice things."  (Translation:  "You are a slob and I like to clean, and you should like to clean as much as I do, because cleanliness is next to Godliness or it's a good substitute for sex, which you, I believe, have too much of.") I was slightly afraid of her, and although she could remove all the various bodily secretions spewed by small children, she wasn't much good at anything else.  And then one day, as I was typing away, I heard another crash in the bathroom and a muttered, "Ach Scheisse!"  ("Oh, Shit!") and I didn't dare go in, somehow, I hated her so much by that time.  But then I did go in and found that the adorable swimming fish-and-ducky soap dispenser that we'd gotten in New York at the wonderful and now-defunct Lechter's had a huge crack in it--and we had to throw it away.  So with her we pulled the, "Hortensia, thanks, and here's an extra twenty euros, we won't need you more."  Now, Hortensia had always thought she was doing us a big favor because she was older than we were or God knows why, and she lived in  our neighborhood and she informed all the old hags her age that we had fired her, so that whenever I was walking the kids home from day care, Hortensia's hag friends would come out on their lawns and point and whisper and I'd give them the biggest smile I could muster, say "Guten Tag!" cheerfully and watch them shake their heads and all but spit on the section of lawn I'd just passed.  And I almost forgot the best part.  A week or so after we'd fired her, my son, then three, was at the playground with our wonderful former au pair, who'd come out of retirement just for us (she was at university by then) to take care of him so I could have a relatively calm week at home with his newborn brother.  The au pair informed me that when Hortensia walked past the playground, our firstborn went up to her, greeted her (she had, after all, goo-gooed with him a great deal when he was a baby) and said, "Hello, Hortensia!  You're not coming to our house anymore because you broke something really expensive from New York!")  In perfect German, said our au pair grimly.  With his friendliest smile.  "I didn't know where to look!" she offered, explaining that she'd collared him and led him off to another part of the playground, a good thing, since ole Hortensia would surely have vented her considerable frustrations on her or on our son.  
But the next cleaning lady we wanted to fire (I'm leaving out the ones in between who were okay, more or less) was Esmeralda, and I was desperate about how to do it, since I wanted to start Cheryl.  Finally I hit on this:  "Esmeralda, our niece is coming to live with us because she's going to university here, and she'll be cleaning and babysitting for us in return for our giving her the room downstairs.  You've been so wonderful!  Here's thirty euros."  The end.  And we thanked her for the phone number she offered so that we could call her when the niece was done with school and oh, yes, thank you Esmeralda, whom we never did call.  
And Cheryl is great--downstairs right now getting things ready for our belated Thanksgiving.  And she and I share recipes, too!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Critical Mom's Cranberry Relish

With apologies to Fannie Farmer.  This recipe is very close to the one in her cookbook.  But just one little addition or two  . . .

Two cups washed fresh cranberries
One cup sugar
One teaspoon nutmeg (FF left this out!!)
One hunk fresh ginger--as big as you dare
A dash of cinnamon (as long as your husband likes it)
One large orange.

Dump all ingredients in food processor, after washing the orange and slicing it into three or four pieces.  Naturally, leave the peel on.  Process until it is a mush with a few red dots.  Stir.  Pour into bowl or container--cover it with plastic wrap or a plastic top--and let sit for at least an hour, or overnight.  Serve with turkey.

All this is a bit late for Thanksgiving unless you're celebrating it tomorrow the way we are, because Thursday is not a holiday in Deutschland.

It's good by itself.  It's good with chicken.  I'm sure you'll find lots of things with which it can be served.  Mmmm, mmmmm good.

How to Give Your Guinea Pig Antibiotics: The Critical Mom Tells All

Well, you can try letting the children do it, but a few precious drops will spill.  Or you can try getting your husband or oldest son to hold the piggy still and gentle press her jaws open.  Or you can let her think she's bigger than you.
This is easier than it sounds.  You get an old towel and set her atop it on the dining room table.  Then you crouch down in front of her so that her nose is higher than yours.  She looks sweet, maternal, bemused.  What are these folks up to?
Here's what I am up to:  I am sinking the little plastic plunger--imagine something that you could use to squirt liquid down Barbie's throat--into the little brown bottle of liquid antibiotic.  Incidentally--a thrilling cultural fact--German medicines of all kinds tend to come in little brown bottles.  So that when I gave my best friend, who is American, some eucalyptus bath oil, she thought it was this other stuff she saw me squirting down the throat of my then three-year-old ("But it was the same!  I know it was because it was in a brown bottle!!" said she.  Who then complained of burping eucalyptus oil all day.)  But actually my three-year-old had been swallowing something quite different, a terrific cold medicine called Umckaloabo, whose virtues are detailed elsewhere on this blog.
Anyway, the piggy seemed pleased by my head being lower than hers, so that she continued to look down at me with a superior air while I snuck the dropper up toward her mouth.  As I poked it at her lips, she pulled back in distaste, but then opened for the nanosecond required because she wanted to yawn.  I seized my chance, she swallowed the stuff, and the whole operation took less than five minutes.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

American Music, German Schools, and The Critical Mom

 My fifth-grader came home alerting me to his teacher's insistance that the refrain goes, 
You can hear the wizards blow, a hundred miles
 "Actually, Mommy, the way she sings it is, "Yow can heah ze wizzuds blah-oh, ze hundred miles," 
the last word barked rather than lingered over.
 This gal has a Ph.D. in music and in all fairness conducts the school orchestra with such verve 
that people who are not parents of the musicians actually pay to hear it play.
 But really.  Gandalf and Dumbledore take note:  "You can hear the wizards blow a
 hundred miles!"  Let's hope they're at least blowing whistles, not passing gas. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Critical Mom and the Guinea Pig's Paw

I thought that Sunday could remain uneventful.  Lazy all morning, I had just pulled myself together sufficiently to begin dragging myself upstairs in the direction of my computer and of the midterm exams that still do not exist but which must be contrived sometime between now and next week.  Half-hearted about contriving midterms as always, I felt not entirely annoyed to hear a yell of "Mommy!  Come quick."  The guinea pig, who within the last week produced a brood of three, bringing her total of progeny to 36, had a swollen paw.  I looked her over--her eyes remain bright, she's eating, and she's still nursing that brood, but the paw looks twice the normal size, too pink, and probably painful.  
So it was that we bounced from website to website, tram schedule to tram schedule, until finding an animal hospital open on Sunday afternoon, to which we hastily repaired.  I decided to bring the whole family:  the husband, Harry, in his own carrying case away from the Mom with the swollen paw and the nursing brood.  The vets looked her over and gave her a shot of antibiotics, a shot of painkiller, and a bottle of oral antibiotics to be administered by dropper.  Quite a to-do developed about whether to give an antibiotic and which one, since the piggy is nursing.  (My kids have just named the babies, too--all boys--Barack, Maravolio, and Solomon.  The middle name seems vaguely based on Shakespeare but mostly on Tom Riddle.  Barack, like his namesake, is feisty, but I see no signs of wisdom in our little Solomon.)
"Well, I had antibiotics when I was nursing," said I, receiving a grin reserved specially for idiots from the vet. 
It turns out to be easier to pump the antibiotics down our hapless guinea pig's throat than it ever was to pump them into my children when they were little--I remember that on several occasions, two strong adults were needed to hold down my oldest while the third, me, forced open his mouth and squirted in the bubblegum-flavored amoxicillin.  He liked the vanilla kind, but hated the bubblegum kind, a matter that could not be taken up with our druggist after the fact.
Tomorrow it's back to the vet with our piggy, and I think the antibiotic is at least preventing the problem from worsening, but the foot looks anything but good.  Stay tuned.
Update:  Ginny the piggy is back home, foot bandaged.  The vet pushed out some pus, cleaned the wound, smeared on a salve and a bandage that reminds me of Cassius Clay's boxing glove, but Ginny can walk on it.  She hardly complained.  I remembered the time  all three kids had to be immunized.  The pediatrician said she'd start with the boys, since my daughter was so little the needle might hurt, and then the boys wouldn't want their shots.  So, first the big, husky ten-year-old gets his shot.
"OW!"  The eyes rolled in agony.  "Wow, that really hurt!" he yelped.  Same deal with the big, husky eight-year-old.  Then we came to the little, skinny five-year-old girl, who smiled sweetly and did not complain at all.
"Girls," smiled the pediatrician.  "I should have realized!"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Critical Mom's Chicken-Avocado Salad

This one is great served over Thai red rice, but any rice will do.

You will need:
Garlic--several cloves.  (Me, I always think the more the merrier, but at least six)
Boned chicken cut into strips
Olive oil
A red bell pepper or two
A nice ripe avocado
Salt--a Caribbean seasoned salt is good, or Lawry's salt, but any old salt you like is fine.  I like a dash of Mrs. Dash--either the original or the onion blend
OPTIONAL: Tabasco sauce

This recipe is good when you roast the bell pepper, but you can stir fry it with the chicken if you like.  To roast:  cut in half or thirds, put with outer skin up in a pan under the broiler until the skin turns black.  Remove from oven and put in a paper bag for a minute or two.  Take out of paper bag, and peel off the black skin.  Set aside.
Cut the garlic up and mix it in a bowl with the chicken.  Add a little olive oil, stir, set aside.  
In a wok, stir fry the chicken and garlic.  Put in a bowl, add pepper, avocado, sliced tomatoes, stir.  Pour over rice.  Enjoy.

David Petraeus's E-mails and The Critical Mom

At times like these, I think of Emily Dickenson:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

How nice I find it to be nobody.  How embarrassing to be public--as big and ugly and real and loud as a frog croaking: "David slept with Paula! David slept with Paula!"  And just think:  suppose I were to get nasty e-mails from some unidentified and seemingly unidentifiable person.  And suppose I were to contact the FBI and say, "I think I'm being followed!  I think I'm being stalked!  I'm getting threatening emails suggesting that I'm having an affair with a guy who is really just a casual acquaintance!"  They would surely reassure me--by yawning as I was speaking to them--that I am nobody.  They would politely listen, then ignore me, or they would tell me that they'd look into it, or they would ask me to call my local police precinct.   
A friend and I disagree on the David Petraeus case.  She thinks his sex life has nothing to do with the investigation, but that his failure to hide his IP address, his choice of a G-mail account, are all signs that some military secret could be revealed.  
How public, like a frog.
So far, since they are not asking him, in the Benghazi investigation, about his affair, and since they are not publishing those e-mails, I'm assuming that David and Paula were sending each other the same blandishments e-mailed by nobodies who are carrying on an affair.  Photographs of David Petraeus strongly suggest that even if you startled him out of a deep sleep, or whispered sweet nothings into his ear while he was dozing--"Dearest, what was that top secret code you used for the totally classified !@#$%^&UIO plan again?" he'd sit bolt upright and remain silent.  Before you knew it, he'd clap you in irons.  Even if you got him drunk, he'd hold his liquor, get you into a full nelson, and James Bond you out the door.  A soldier is a soldier is a soldier, and you only get as far as he got by remaining closemouthed.  Unlike me.  I like to write.  Love to talk.  Blah, blah, blah, and again, blah!  And everything you say spreads like a bacteria.  "Two may keep a secret if one of them is dead," Ben Franklin observed.  Now, my friend who believes--as indeed many do--that the Petraeus investigation concerns national security--said that the fear of his being blackmailed is realistic, and that looking into her own past, she'd find nothing that would put her in any danger of blackmail.  The critical mom can't say the same.  Not that she's committed any crimes, if memory, an increasingly unreliable source, still serves.  But embarrassing?  The contents of my mind are embarrassing.  Maybe I should stick with my journal and my fountain pen.  No need for IP code hiding and all those technologies I can't even remember.  Just the metal filing cabinet and my key.  But I'm flattering myself.  If I hung every bit of my dirty laundry out to dry, could I get more than the 36 readers I've had today?  Or my total record, 448?  And would any of them give a damn?  I'm nobody!  Oh, joy!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Critical Mom and the German Mommy

I ran into a friend at the church on the German version of Hallowe'en, which is called "Martinstag," or Saint Martin's day.  Saint Martin is a Sir Walter Raleigh of sorts; Raleigh, you recall, is the one who spread his fancy cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth could walk without getting her Manolo Blahniks in the muck.  Naturally she chopped his head off.  St. Martin handed the poor guy his cloak, and in celebration, German schoolchildren sing catchy tunes while walking through the streets with lanterns, and back in the schoolyard get rewarded with waffles and Bratwurst.  
The friend, who has a small child, came with a quiet young man who had an ascetic, soulful look, and who was introduced as a "visitor."  The "visitor," it developed, was without means, and wants to travel around the world.  So he rings doorbells asking for room and board, in return for which he says he'll garden, do repairs, babysit, perform any household chore.  And he was interested in organic and symbiotic farming, too, said the dewy-eyed mother who was relieved to have somebody else holding the heavy two-year-old for a moment.  And I looked at the young man with the hooded, unreadable eyes and thought "he's probably harmless."  And then I thought of Etan Patz, apparantly murdered by his babysitter's boyfriend.  And of Yoselyn Ortega and the Krims.  And of growing up in New York and seeing all the things that make you realize why you should not talk to strangers or invite them into your home five minutes after they ring your doorbell and give you their spiel.  And then I thought of my friend, the mother, who grew up in the Balkans, probably during the wars.  The rules are different in wartime, I wanted to scream, when I saw her on the tram today.  Instead I said nothing.  The visitor was, after all, gone, the baby is still alive, no stolen silver has been reported, but oh, Dorothy, I don't think I'm in New York anymore.

The Critical Mom's Coconut Chicken

Here's what you need:

A big, deep pot--enough for several chicken thighs and sauce
Vegetable oil
about 6 big garlic cloves
1 red bell pepper (but you can substitute zucchini or another vegetable)
3-4 chicken thighs
1-2 cups of chicken broth (made with instant bouillon)
A handful of fresh cilantro
1 piece of fresh ginger about the size of a big clove of garlic
1 can (400 ml or for Americans, 14 ounces) coconut milk
3-4 fresh limes

Put about two tablespoons of oil in the pot and let the oil heat.  Meanwhile, press the garlic hard with the heel of your hand (the fast way to get rid of the shell) and drop it into the pot.  You can slice it in half if you like; no need to dice it.  Slice the pepper into a few pieces and drop that in, too.  Stir until you can smell it all cooking--a minute or so.  Add chicken thighs and brown them.  Dump in the chicken broth and the coconut milk.  Grate the ginger into the mix.  Stir, let boil, then turn down heat and let simmer for about half an hour.   Chop the cilantro coarsely and add.  Squeeze in the lime juice and stir.  OPTIONAL:  a chili pepper or two.   Let the whole thing simmer, covered, for another 15 or 20 minutes, or until the chicken is oozing off the bones. (so total cooking time is 45-60 minutes, depending on how big the chicken thighs are).

This is very good served over Thai sticky rice, but any rice will do.  If you use Thai sticky rice, it's best to soak it for about half an hour, drain it, then cook as you would ordinary rice. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Savita Halappanavar, Irish Abortion Law, and The Critical Mom

I'll never forget a flight from JFK to Dublin in 1985, when smokers could still puff away behind a plastic curtain threaded across the very back row of economy--which is where I was sitting.  Slightly sick to my stomach from stale smoke and stiff legs in my anything-but-roomy seat, I didn't think I could get more uncomfortable until a conversation started between the two other passengers between whom I was sandwiched.  In the window seat, to my left, sat an earnest, bearded fellow who abruptly inquired, "What's the saddest thing that ever happened to you?"  Before I'd decided whether to ignore him or to retort, "Kindly inform us, first,  about your saddest moment," the gentle, fiftyish Irish lady beside me with the West country accent gave him a thorough, poetic, answer that I felt he had not, and would never, earn.  I don't think she recognized that he was casual, impersonal, arrogant.  She just answered his question:
"Well, I think it was when me mother died," she began, and proceeded to tell us, lyrically, and in a way that made me extremely sad, although she seemed to accept the story with equanimity, how her mother had died giving birth to her seventeenth child.  At the time, our Irish storyteller remarked, she herself had been eleven years old.  The nuns laid out the dead mother "very pretty, with the baby in her arms," she continued.  And, she confided, with a quiet acceptance that shocked me, whenever the doctors or the nuns were faced with the choice between saving the mother's life and saving the baby's life, "of course they always saved the baby."
"Because the baby was not yet baptized, and without baptism the poor little thing would go straight to purgatory."
Here's how the Irish constitution begins:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Éire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

No pregnant woman in the middle of a miscarriage stands a chance, with this constitution, under Irish law, as long as the baby still has a heartbeat--even when medical tests reveal with 100% certainty that the fetus cannot survive and, far more important, when the mother wants the abortion, whether the fetus will survive or not.  Savita Halappanavar began bleeding, but because the non-viable four-month-old fetus still had a heartbeat, she was sacrificed on the altar of the Irish church, dying of blood poisoning.
Medically trained herself, Halappanavar knew the risks of heavy bleeding during a miscarriage, and wanted to live.  The baby, she knew, could not survive.  She was doomed.  She could have been me--like her, I wanted my firstborn child, as I wanted all my children--but I was a good ten years older than she was on my honeymoon.  Ironically, my husband and I chose Ireland over Greece, thinking that if anything went wrong with the pregnancy I'd get far better care.  I was high-risk by virtue of my age, and wanted the best medical care available.  I was extremely lucky that nothing went wrong on that wonderful trip.  During a second pregnancy that did miscarry, I was fortunately in New York, where a D&C stopped heavy bleeding and probably prevented massive infection.  Without that intervention, who knows whether I'd have been able to conceive my second son or my daughter?  Or whether I'd be alive now?
Among Ireland's greatest charms is its folklore--leprechauns, elves, fairies, changelings.   But the superstitions belong in folklore, not medicine.   Savita Halappanavar was a Hindu, and her husband asked the hospital--who said, "It's a Catholic thing; we can't do abortion," why Catholic theology was being rammed down the throat of a Hindu mother.  It's high time the European court of Human Rights challenged Irish abortion law, and it's high time the Irish re-examined their ideas about Jesus Christ--who would never put any woman through the hell experienced by Savita Halappanavar. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Critical Mom and Paula Broadwell

A Broad with Brains.  Is what they're saying.  I'm not the first blogger to let Fatal Attraction float to mind, but Paula Broadwell does seem to have hero-worshipped David Petraeus and charged after him to tell him she was turning her dissertation about him into a book. 
"Go for it," he amiably--cluelessly?--advised.  Opportunity only knocks once.  He could turn water into bottled water!  A month after breaking his pelvis he was back in the swim!  She was embedded with him.  All in!  Doesn't that innuendo just send a chill down everyone's spine?  Then the two of them running together, doing push-ups together, trading sweaty towels together, swatting each other's bottoms with sweaty towels and then one thing led to another.  And she'd worked so hard to get him, done her damndest to seem spontaneous, and now she had him.
Various newspapers have charts, complete with arrows and pictures, guiding you through who said or did what to whom.  But the cast of characters is as old as the hills:  The hell-hath-no-fury scorned wife.  Gang way, Maenads.  When Holly Petraeus gets done with her husband, the vultures won't find any meat on his bones.  Paula Broadwell, a fount of talent, ambition, and despair.  A woman who's graduated seventh grade should know better then to think she can force a man to pay attention to her, love her, by any means--least of all sending HANDS OFF THE MERCHANDISE e-mails to Jill Kelley, whom she thinks she saw playing footsie with Petraeus.  Hasn't Paula Broadwell read The Rules?  Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, come in please!  Send this woman a Saint Bernard with a message in a bottle around his neck:  "If he doesn't call, he's just not that into you.  NEXT!"  And if he's not that into you, find somebody more interesting for your next biography.  I can't believe how stupid smart women are!  
And I can't believe that America can't mind its own business.  The disclosure-of-classified- information-excuse is a red herring.  "National security" is just another word for Puritanism--the idea that we all have to be in each other's business all the time to make sure people will pay for enjoying sex.  Don't forget that mass hysteria was the Puritans' favorite indoor sport, starting with the Salem Witch trials.  Or that this hysteria tends to return, cyclically:  McCarthyism, Anti-Japanese furor during the Second World War, Anti-Arab discrimination ever since 9/11--no, we're still knee-deep in the world Hawthorne documented, adding the "w" to his own name to distinguish himself from his Puritan ancestor, Hathorne, one of the most evil judges in the Salem Witch Trials.  Hawthorne diagnosed our national problem very well:  Young Goodman Brown is still wandering through the woods expecting a devil to jump out from behind every tree.  In the form of some breach of national security.  As if David Petreaus, even in the throes of that proverbial post-coital cigarette, would ever have lost control enough to blab big time to Paula.  No, the man's far too puritanical for that:  look at that ramrod straight posture!  His whole problem was that he couldn't lose control enough for his mental health, but Paula's fixed that.  So the scarlet A has been sewn on David Petraeus, but I hope he lands on his feet at Princeton, and that Paula, Jill, and Holly find happiness.   But good luck, since "puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," H.L. Mencken said.  The generational differences in the pursuit of that forbidden happiness are obvious, but each path seems doomed.  Appearances may be deceiving, but Holly Petraeus, who was a beautiful young girl, does not impress one as someone for whom lust is, or ever was, a priority.  Let me imagine:  she was brought up to accept sexual advances from her husband, but the "lie back dear, and think of our great country," tradition ran so deep in her bones that pleasure never entered her head.  Or quickly evaporated in the wake of what God and Country told her were the meaning of life:  husband, children, home.  Now the other two ladies have been reading their Cosmopolitan and know where their G-spot is; they also know, as good Puritans, that whenever you enjoy yourself you better be looking over your shoulder, 'cause you're not living in Germany, where a scandal means cheating on your dissertation.  We Americans never left the world of Hawthorne.  But girls--you're overachievers and I know you'll land on your feet too!  David's only got a scarlet A--ya'll should try for an A+ now, ya hear?  

P.S.  At an election party in Berlin for the German T.V. station  ZDF, they ran out of Obama buttons and could not sell the Romney ones.  So Obama won Berlin, too, not just Florida.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Critical Mom's Apple Pancakes

This is a good one for weekend mornings.

You will need:  flour, baking powder, salt, two eggs, butter, milk, and apples.

In a large bowl mix two cups (the size of coffee mugs) of plain white flour.  (You can also use whole wheat flour, but the pancakes will have a heavier quality) plus a teaspoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon of salt.  To the mixture add:  two eggs, two cups of milk, and about three tablespoons of melted butter.  Mix well with a whisk or spoon--you don't need an electric mixer.  Set aside the bowl.  Get out a large frying pan or skillet and heat vegetable or corn oil in it.  Wash an apple and cut thin slices right into the pan.  You don't need to peel it--just wash it.  Pour in a ladle of pancake mixture and cook at moderate heat until the pancake begins to bubble.  Flip it over and cook a little more.  My children like pancakes really golden-brown but some may prefer them less well done.  Serve with maple syrup or powdered sugar.

P.S. If you prefer the flat, European variety of pancake, just leave out the baking powder.  I like them fluffy.

The Critical Mom and the Crazy Lady

If she was.  That's what I don't know.  I was standing on a tram platform on a cold, windy day with my daughter.  We were on our way to the local ballet school for her lesson and mine.  For the first time, it was cold enough for scarves and gloves.  But under the shelter, which offers protection from rain, not cold, a young woman sat crouched on the bench, wearing a sundress.  No shoes, and barelegged.  I glanced at her through the corner of my eye.  A wandering schizophrenic?  You know how schizophrenics are . . . always wearing coats and scarves when it's 100ºF (38ºC).  And when it's freezing cold, they wander around half-naked.  Which was what she was doing, or so I thought.  But then I saw how she was crouching on the bench, apparently conserving body heat and incidentally putting her feet in a slightly warmer place than the frozen concrete of the tram platform.  She stared straight ahead, her jaw set, with an expression suggesting to me that she was willing herself to endure the cold, or that at least in her mind she was traveling to a warmer place.  I thought to myself as I pulled my coat around me that a saint would take off his or her coat and wrap it around the woman.  I had on a nice wool shawl, which I fingered, considering removing it and wrapping it around her.  Everyone else on the platform was looking the other way . . . I was actually--but unbelievably--hoping that some tram platform cleaner, or a nun, or a social worker would run up and offer help and a hot bowl of soup.   I looked down into my ballet bag and considered giving her the sweatshirt I wear for warm-ups.  Clean but worn, it's one I've had for years and about which I'm sentimental, since my husband gave it to me.  What if I gave it to her and she started screeching paranoid accusations and came after me with a knife?  And my daughter was there, and when I said, "Listen, I think I'll give that lady my sweatshirt," she said, "Mommy, I'm scared."  I told her to stay where she was, walked a few feet down the platform--but I could still see my daughter, standing a little ways away-- and asked the lady--auf Deutsch-- if she'd like a sweatshirt.
"Ach, schön!" ("Oh, nice!") she exclaimed animatedly with an expression of delight--as if I had handed her my coat--and put it on immediately.  So maybe she wasn't crazy.  Maybe she was an illegal immigrant whose shoes had been taken so she wouldn't run away from the sweatshop or the brothel.  But she had the guts to run away, and the night got colder, and I hope she managed to avoid freezing to death.
Or maybe she really was just a wandering schizophrenic.  But one with the sense to put on a sweatshirt.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Regarding Yoselyn Ortega: Comments from the Critical Mom

Since I've gotten replies regarding my views of Yoselyn Ortega, I'm posting again on this topic:  my response is too long to post as a reply.
I'm not sympathizing with the nanny!  To say she's unhappy is not to sympathize--I'm pointing out that people who kill are not happy people.  They are usually desperate people. I agree with your descriptions of her as a narcissist and a psychopath and a sadist.  I agree that no one could have foreseen a murder.  But I don't agree that no one could have foreseen that Yoselyn Ortega was going to do something bad--and probably to the children.  I don't agree that when the mother and the nanny are having heated arguments things are likely to be okay with the kids.  I do know what it is like to have a situation in which the kid likes the nanny and you don't anymore--then what?  But this is different.  If reports are true (and who knows?) that Marina Krim and Yoselyn Ortega were arguing heatedly and that Yoselyn Ortega, leaving for the day after the argument, said "goodbye," and that Marina Krim ignored her, then I think that's already putting the children at a disadvantage.  The mother's relationship with the nanny defines the nanny's behavior toward the children, at least, the mother must assume that it does, because the mother has the power to hire and fire and the nanny's livelihood depends on the mother's good will.  If the nanny is behaving in some undesirable way already--here it seems to have been, before these murders--acting apathetic and feeding the kids junk food, then the parent has to say to him or herself, okay, SHE'S WATCHING MY KIDS.  Yelling at her, if that is what happened, will make her do something bad to the kids--she won't take it out on you, the employer, if she's desperate for a job and if she is a sadistic narcissist.  She's going to take it out on the kids.  Not necessarily murder them--the murderous nanny is a breathtakingly unusual phenomenon, more common in fiction than in reality--the New York Times called her "unique." But in a situation where the mother feels angry at the nanny, disgusted with her performance, and wants to tell her "shape up or get out"--which had already happened, apparently--then that "shape up or get out" is exactly the mistake.  In this situation, the mother could do the following:
(1) "Yoselyn, you need a vacation.  We'll pay.  Here's ________. Go see your family."
(2) "Yoselyn, things aren't working out.  Here's ____________."

Or just fire her.  But you can't leave anyone with the kids if you think that person is no longer good with them.  I know what happens--you hire someone, they're great for a year or two, you get fond of them, and then something goes wrong in their lives and they're really a different person--now they're depressed, stressed, forgetful, apathetic.  And you want to be fair to them.  But the mother can't close her eyes to the change in personality or behavior and hope that things will improve, nor can she tell the nanny to shape up if she's already got the feeling that the nanny is in a state of permanent sulks or very cold or very sad.  The mother is always in the position of evaluating the nanny's personality.  
I once had an au pair who was a very sweet, young (sixteen years old) girl whose family wanted her to learn English with us.  She sat in her room painting her toenails and I said, "Look, you've really got to go upstairs and tell the boys to get out of their pajamas and into their clothes."  They had told her they were fine and she took them at their word.  She really did not understand that her job entailed standing in the doorways of their rooms and saying, "It's time to get out of those pajamas and into your clothes--now!!"  Once I really spelled out things, she could function and the main thing is she was SWEET.  If I had felt that she really resented me for telling her what I expected, or was angry or depressed, I'd have talked to her at some length just to figure out what I was dealing with. 
I'm not blaming the Krims when I say they failed to see how unhappy a person Yoselyn Ortega was--and is.   The failure of imagination to see Ortega's degree of pathology is a typical failure of normal, happy people.  I don't think the Krims ever experienced pathological people before.  As I said in an earlier post I myself grew up in a family filled with crazy people.  Just about every pathology you list above was there.  And that kind of experience, growing up in a family like mine, gives you a watchfulness, an almost compulsive sense of needing to observe people, that the Krims, with their more normal background, just did not have.  I could say it takes one to know one, but I'll promise you I'm not a murderer.  But I sure have wanted to kill someone.  A thin line of "decency" or "civilization" or "self-control" luckily keeps me and most people from acting on the occasional impulse to kill.  Then there's the lie-down-with-dogs-get-up-with fleas phenomenon in the blanket term "dysfunctional family," so I can say that I saw my father railing that "the communists" were bugging his light bulbs, but I'm not paranoid, except when I am really looking over a person whom I might hire to care for my children.  I saw my mother flitting around pretending she was Peter Pan, grinning like mad when daily conversations revealed she was almost desperate enough to kill herself, and I'm not suicidal, but there's a certain weariness in a person's face that tips me off, if I'm considering hiring them to care for my children.  I've seen my brother holding long conversations with persons that neither I nor anyone else can see, and I don't have imaginary friends myself, but I do always imagine what's going on in someone's head when I'm talking to them.  I'm always expecting the worst, and reminding myself that actually the world can be a pretty good place.  But If the world is pleasant most of the time--if you grew up with parents whom you loved and who listened to you--you don't question things and you don't observe things, unless you're a born poet.  The Krims have met evil face to face for the first time in their lives, and my heart goes out to them.  Thank you for your thoughts, and I'd be interested in hearing from you again.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

After the Election: The Critical Mom

In our small German city, the networks were beating the bushes for Americans to interview, which is how my husband and I ended up on local TV--me looking frumpier than Angela Merkel on a bad hair day. The interviewer wanted to know what I thought, but he wanted to know it auf Deutsch, "Because zen I don't have to over-voice it," he added, in English. 
"Dub it," I corrected sourly.  And told them, auf Deutsch, that we'd gotten up at 3:00 a.m. to watch the polls and that naturally I'd voted for Obama.  Cut to my husband, who discoursed authoritatively, the lucky native speaker--and he's really good-looking, too.
I was relieved when my part was over; I had the usual problem of sounding like an ungrammatical four year old with an accent that--after this election--would not have to be lied about.  I'm happy that I don't have to insist that I'm Canadian, when people ask.  Germans tend to think that I'm English or American, and now I can reveal that I am indeed American--I'm confident I can even do so for at least the next four years.  Yes, my fellow Americans, I denied my country of origin repeatedly during the Bush years, and was all set to do so again should the Age of Romney (known, in some alternate universe, as the Last Age of Humanity or The End of The World) have dawned.   
That evening, the three kids, my husband, and I all crowded around the TV at 7:30 in the evening and saw how forty-five minutes of interview could be boiled down into four minutes.  Gone were the parts where I told them I was so nervous watching those exit polls that I baked a New York state cheesecake--even though I said it auf Deutsch--because I looked directly at the camera instead of conversing with my colleague and my husband.  Hadn't understood those auf Deutsch instructions again.  I usually understand around seventy percent of what people say, but only under stress-free conditions.  Gone were the parts where I told the interviewer--slipping into English--exactly why Romney's humorless, business-oriented, heartless leadership would have been all wrong.  Gone even the part where I walked down the hall and entered my office--because I fumbled with the key.
All this gave me a genuine admiration for people who stand in front of a camera, smile, look good, and make sense all day long on a campaign trail.  Wow.  I saw myself up there on that screen and wanted to shout:  "Sit up straight and don't look so crabby!  And couldn't you have combed your hair?  And of all days to wear your glasses!  AND YOU LOOK SO OLD!"  A phrase I could not stop repeating to myself, so that when my daughter was hopping around saying, "Mommy!  You were on the news!  You and Daddy were on the news!"   I couldn't help mumbling, "But I looked soooo old."  
"Aw, Mommy," she said, waving her little hand, "Everybody has times like that! Don't worry."  It made me think of our good luck: first, our luck with this very close election, since whatever happens in the next four years, we know it could only have been worse with Romney, whose most telling failure is his utter lack of humor (after Hurricane Isaac saying he was grateful to be on dry land, or cracking that no one ever asked to see his birth certificate).  Obama may make mistakes but he loves a joke at his own expense--calling a voter in the west sometime on election night, he said the guy "didn't know who I was."  He loves his wife, loves that America fell in love with her, and says so.  It is just his honesty and freedom of emotion that Romney looks down on.  A lack of humor is the last thing we need in these increasingly desperate times.  Good leaders usually have a good sense of humor.  Think of Churchill's hilarious quips about everything from Hitler to his own old age (when someone told him his fly was open, he said, "dead birds don't fall out of nests.") 
I felt lucky as well that my husband and children are with me and doing so well.  I thought again of the heartache of the Krim family and then of how in the past mothers lived through crises we don't want to imagine:  Mary Rowlandson, the seventeeth century colonial American settler was kidnapped with her young daughter by American Indians whose land had been stolen.  Rowlandson's relatives were tortured and disemboweled before her eyes and her daughter, who was the same age as Lulu Krim, died slowly of her wounds during their captivity in the woods.  And I thought of Mary Shelley, daughter of a brilliant feminist who died of sepsis after giving birth to her (and whose grief-stricken father was unable to love her) enduring during her fifth pregnancy, at 22, a miscarriage that nearly killed her--she'd already written Frankenstein, and she'd already lost babies to illness, dystentary and everything that a quick call to the pediatrician could fix today in a minute.  Her heartbreaking journal chronicles dreams after the death of a baby: "Dreamed my little baby was alive.  Awake and find no baby."  Not to mention the utter failure of Percy Shelley as a husband and father--and it was just her luck that he went and got drowned.  How did these women cope?  In the only ways possible:  Rowlandson convinced herself that her tragedy had meaning--the meaning seems bizarre today, namely that God had planned every horrible event in order to make her a better Christian--but that belief sustained her to a ripe old age.  Mary Shelley, as we all know, wrote and wrote and wrote, making enough to send her surviving son to the best British boarding school.   Faith if you can manage it, work if you cannot:  these are the keys to survival.  I urge all my readers to support the arts education LuluLeo Fund founded by the Krims in memory of their children.