Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Window-Washing

It will be in all the local papers tomorrow:  That strange American woman finally washed her windows!  After six years!  
They're standing downstairs, I just know they are, discreetly camouflaged by the woods next door, our small city's answer to Central Park, and they can see her scrubbing away as if she were a housewife.  
Which, technically, I am, but I'm also the proud possessor of a coffee mug sporting a Donna Reed type, in apron and high heels, captioned: A CLEAN HOUSE IS THE SIGN OF A WASTED LIFE.  Usually this is so.  Sometimes, if you're a little down, or you've actually hit most of your deadlines, cleaning is a great way of not thinking about stuff, and the side effect is that everything is so sparkly!  All those mental cobwebs shift sideways, without actually departing, as I whack the spiderwebs off the ceiling with the broom.  All that dust, six years of dust on our windows.  Gone!  Oh, except for those few stubborn streaks that, no matter what, refuse to be ousted.  So I used water, and I used this green stuff called Frosch and after that didn't totally work I used some Windex and some other stuff, and the light came through and illuminated a few streaks . . .  but they do look much nicer.  Also, you can now see the floor in my daughter's room, since she and I threw out torn Barbie clothes, plus many small plastic parts of forgotten toys, and huge chunks of a Playmobil princess house that she's outgrown.  Now the things she loves stand out more:  the obsidian parrot we brought her from Brazil, the two-headed dragon (the perfect gift for a girl with two older brothers) that she demanded for Christmas one year.  The only part of cleaning I enjoy is finding things that had been missing for months, sometimes years.   It is so distracting to find the Alumnae magazine from my high school that I almost start reading it . . . but I kept cleaning.  The more I clean, the more my head empties.  If I keep this up long enough, I'll lower my I.Q. significantly.  I better get back to blogging.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to J.K. Rowling and the English Language

Here is the postscript I just found on a German-language review of J.K. Rowling's new novel:
P. S.: Wer die englische Originalausgabe liest, sollte darauf gefasst sein, dass die (Unterschicht)Figuren nicht gerade feines Oxford-Englisch sprechen! 
Folks do tend to put such remarks in a postscript.  Yes, I'll translate in a second, but first, I want to point out that this form of communication strongly resembles that of the patient walking out the doctor's door after a fifteen minute interview, popping his head back in for a nanosecond to say, "By the way, is it normal that I throw up every morning?"  In other words, both are symptoms of an illness.  Now, here's what that p.s. said:  "If you're reading the English original, you should be warned that the (lower class) characters don't speak the fine Oxford English!"  The reviewer puts "lower class" in parentheses, apparently having figured out that One Doesn't Say That, even in the Fine Oxford English.   The Fine Oxford English is "received pronunciation," a term invariably tied to money, status, and high social class.  But I'll let you in on a little secret.  The Fine Oxford English is barely spoken in Oxford anymore.  Let's have a little perspective.  The only person whom I know here in Germany who really speaks Oxford English is the Nigerian father of one of my younger son's kindergarten classmates.  As everyone knows, Nigeria was a British colony, and as post-colonialist scholars have been pointing out for at least the last thirty years, one of the typical reactions of colonized peoples is to identify with the aggressor, that is, to try to become more English than the English in the spirit of "if you can't lick 'em, join 'em."  For the pure tones of Oxford English, hang out in the provincial regions of the former British India, or in Nigeria.  The metropolitan picture--where the action is--differs.  Considerably.  In Mumbai, population 20.5 million and growing, the big bucks are in American English jobs.  One is expected to overcome that Oxford twang and pick up a midwestern one, in order to hop on to that well-paid computer assistance job, the one where you speak to a native of Ohio in his or her accent, after identifying yourself as Sandy or Susy--never as Baijayanthi or Chakradev. But where there's a glimmer of nostalgia for the former conqueror, there's still respect for Oxford English.  So my Nigerian friend asked me if I'd teach him American black English because his friends were making fun of him--he sounded too "Oxford." Me? With my Annie Hall accent?
Admittedly, a battered version of Oxford English is spoken in German elementary schools:  it would be more accurate to say that a form of English fondly imagined by German teachers to be "Oxford" is taught there.  Badly.  As when my daughter's teacher told her little students:  "Look TO my mouth!"  Pronounced "mouf."    My son tells me that his English teacher once said he sounded a little funny.  She herself imagines that she  sounds British.  She has a heavy German accent--the pronounced hissing "s" in the word "is," the "ch" sound instead of a "j," the uttering of "Sponge Bob" so that it sounds like "Spunch Bop."  She is however able to linger on the "o" in the phrase "roasted fox," in a way that sounds British.  I can ape an Oxford British accent but like Bartleby I would prefer not to.  It sounds funny.  It sounds like girls who grew up on Park Avenue and said "Mummy" instead of "Mommy" so everyone would know that they went to the right schools.  It sounds faintly undemocratic.  And it sounds less lively.  I love, no adore, the endless varieties of American slang.  And I want my son to know all of those things and love them too--not sound like a bad imitation of a Brit.  Do I halfway believe in the superiority of the British accent myself, me with my Annie Hall accent?  Is it only my resentment toward my British colonizing forbears that makes me proud of the way I pronounce an "r" instead of ignoring it or turning it into an "ah," as in "wheah have you been?" 
While the rest of the world was watching CNN and BBC, that is.  Have German teachers of the English language noticed that "radio English" went out with the radio?  In a world where people pick up the news from their iPads, no one is speaking Oxford English, except natives of the small city of Oxford, population about 165,000, located on that tiny island whose nostalgia about its vanished empire seems to have infected the English teachers of Germany.  Besides, the most recent statistics--which are eleven years old, dating from 2001--say that at least 19% of the population of Oxford was born outside the U.K.  Don't bank on Oxford English selling too much longer, when American companies are investing in teaching American accents to the Indians they hire to answer American calls to computer help lines.   Or now that the Oxford University Press is advertising Global English on several websites.   
Now, back to J.K. Rowling’s new novel.  Some are calling it "Mugglemarch," which I'd take as a great compliment, but Michiko Kakutani is complaining that there's no "narrative sorcery."  Aw, come on.  I can guarantee you one thing.  Rowling did not grow up speaking Oxford English.  Hurrah for Edinburgh!  If the city of Edinburgh had conquered most of Africa and all of India in the 19th century, would German children be taught to speak with an Edinburgh accent?  I guess we'll never know, but I can't wait to read The Casual Vacancy.
P.S.  And I'm so glad she didn't bump off Ron Weasley.  

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Speaking American English

I know what my children's English teachers would say, hearing American-accented English:
"Don't try this at home, kids" or "Only while operating heavy machinery"--in which case the accent that those teachers still say sounds like chewing gum is forgivable.  
It all started back when the English King George, frustrated at having lost the revolutionary wars, complained that he'd "just wanted to give them a few bloody noses."  And after those ragtag Americans instead gave his redcoats a few bloody noses and then presumed to write that Declaration of Independence . . . well, The Empire fought back, grabbing India and all the parts of Africa undefended by the Belgians and the French, and the sun never sat on the British Empire until the twentieth century rolled around, but even though it did roll around and even though Colonialism is considered "post" in all reputable universities, the majority of German schoolteachers have absorbed the colonial jingoism about language.  A plummy Mayfair accent is music to their ears.  The dulcet sound of Manhattan is not.  When my oldest son came home from first grade saying, "Mummy, I'm packish," I said, "First of all I'm MOMMY, no mummies around here.  Mummies are dead people wrapped in bandages stored at the bottom of pyramids.  Second of all, you mean 'peckish' not 'packish,' and third of all nobody will understand you back home in New York, where you have to say that you are hungry."  He grinned.  I'd given it all away.  Here was a new way to torment Mommy, who would get called "Mummy" until she refused to answer to it.  And until he and his brother and his sister got annoyed because the teachers kept telling them that "color" had a "u" in it and that they should not say "better," with the "r" properly pronounced, but "bettah."  Then I heard a great deal of "Mommy, I was so bored I put my head down on the desk."  Now, the situation probably worsened during the dark days of the rule of George Bush, the son, that is.  During those dark days I was on the tram one day with my children, speaking to them in English, when a German guy asked if I were American.  Anticipating the typical line, "I have an aunt in Florida--do you know her?" I acknowledged my citizenship, and he said, "Thank you for the bombs over Baghdad."  I snapped to attention, my stop coming up fortunately, and as I pushed the stroller out toward the platform and beckoned for the other to kids to come quick, gave him a piece of my mind:  "I did not vote for George Bush!  I hate George Bush!"  To which he replied--ironically?  Seriously?  I wish I knew: "Ja, my grandma did not vote for Hitler."  Once the children were safely on the platform I realized what must have set him off.  My middle child, then five, had wanted a T-shirt with a flag on it to wear during soccer season, and all I'd been able to find was one with a post-September 11 flag, accompanied by some remark so patriotic that I've repressed it.  No wonder the guy on the tram thought I was the type to like George Bush.  Now, I had taken that T-shirt out of the drawer, had indeed had second thoughts, namely, "I don't like this kind of in-your-face flag waving," and then I'd told myself, "Don't be paranoid.  You're living in a small German city.  What could possibly happen?"  Well, this is what could happen.  Have attitudes toward American accents changed since Obama?  Not that I've noticed, except in universities.   Germans love to put things in categories.  The eighth grade does do a unit on "American" English, and the idea that there are separate accents that can be taught, relatively stable accents that are as immune to change as a date in history, perseveres.   Once, right here in this small city at the university where I teach,  I examined a student who spoke very good English with an accent that was mostly American--Manhattanish--touched by a slight Irish lilt.  One of the other examiners wanted to give her a bad grade because her accent was "a mix" of Irish and American.   So I threw a big American fit.  Over my dead body, I said.  She speaks very good English.  But change--the idea that language is always on the move, like culture, like populations, like life--that's a tough one for the average German schoolteacher, who is, as I write, still irritating my fifth grader with the notion that a "truck" is called a "lorry."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to the Husband's Business Trip

In the Nantucket Whaling Museum, one exhibit shows a series of letters between a sea captain and his wife, who remains home on the island.  It took six months for a letter to reach its destination.  She writes:  "Where did you put the axe?"  He replies, "Why do you want the axe?"  My husband and I were reminded of this exchange when I wrote to him asking when I was supposed to put out the garbage.  Now, garbage in these parts is complicated.  There's a joke that German couples spend more time sorting their garbage than talking to each other.  It's not just paper and plastic.  There's three kinds of glass garbage (clear, green, and red) and . . . but do you want to know the rest?  I've barely scratched the surface.  Have you got 72 hours?
So I e-mailed my husband, who is in Guadalajara, to ask when I should put out the garbage.  The mañana mood enveloped him or he's working very hard or a little of both, and he wrote back that I should put out the plastic trash on Saturday night.  So I did, but what about the other garbage?  He did write back and tell me and then I forgot all about it until Wednesday night, the night it's supposed to go out, when I was making dinner for the thirteen-year-old and myself.  So I went upstairs and found our teenager, headphones on, discoursing about Minecraft.  I told him the garbage needed to go out to the curb.
With annoyed incredulity, he replied, "I'm talking to my friends!!"
"I don't feel like making dinner tonight," I said, and walked out.  That got him out to the curb with the garbage and then we had a nice dinner while watching Ben-Hur, up to the point where Ben-Hur, forced-marched through the desert, collapses and is given water by Jesus, whom the Roman centurion does not dare to contradict.
"Do you think there was a real person named Jesus?" asks my oldest, and I say yes.  And we get started talking about big, influential personalities, Christ and Buddha and . . . but would I print something out for him?  And my printer can't do colors at the moment.  The next morning his sister has a splinter in her heel and his brother needs plastic wrap taped over his English textbook, and while I am rubbing alcohol on her heel and trying to squeeze out the little brown thing, he is slurping down muesli while lustily singing a rap tune of his own devising:  "You will die, you will die, ohhhh, you will die-hi-hi-yi!!" while I say, "Cut that out!" and she is saying "Ow, Mommy," and looking as though she were going to die, oh, die-yi-yi-hi!  until we give up on the splinter, some of which did come out, and I tape the plastic wrap around the book he needs like a hole in the head, but it is required.  Plus,  his teacher dislikes his American vowels, insisting that he try for "British" English, also telling him that the word "toilet" has two ls.  "And Mommy, she says there's no word, 'scissors,' and she pronounces it 'sehhssahhhs.'"  She just hates it that he speaks better English than she does.  He's tolerant of her foolishness, possibly because she's pretty,  And he's been a great helper the last few days, removing the casserole or the chicken or the meatloaf from the fridge, taking off the plastic wrap, putting the meal in the oven so that it will be ready when the babysittter brings his sister home from ballet class--and the mommy indulges in her own dance class.  The first few times I had to remind him about the plastic wrap, and the last time his brother answered the phone, and I heard him in the background yelling "Tell Mommy I already did it!"
And the food turned out great. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Critical Mom’s Guide to Obama’s U.N. Speech

     Apropos his condemnation of the “crude and disgusting” anti-Muslim video that has gone viral on You-Tube, President Obama said, “As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day.  And I will defend their right to do so.”  Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Barack Obama did not elide personal insult with insult to religion:  “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” Jefferson observed.  Skeptic, occasional atheist, always “of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” he foresaw the day when an ever-growing evangelical religious minority would perceive no parody in statements like “Jesus loves me but he can’t stand you.”  He could make sure the constitution mandated a separation of church and state.  He could insist that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom must "comprehend, within the mantle of it's [sic] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination," granting equal protection and equal choice to religious persons as well as to unbelievers.  This proved to be sensible self-protection, for who was the father of our Declaration if not “the infidel of every denomination?”  He'd sampled them all.  He could do his damnedest to keep religion out of politics, but like illicit lovers the two of them jumped into bed every chance they got, and continue to do so.
     American religious and secular togetherness have a long tradition:  in 1835, de Toqueville remarked in Democracy in America that "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention, and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting  from this new state of things."  The fusion of a volatile force, politics, with religion, concerned de Toqueville, who appears to have foreseen the ways in which that fusion would pervade U.S. culture, right down to typical definitions of that hackneyed phrase, "the American Dream"—which Robert Bellah called "the gospel of wealth and the ideal of success." In other words, success goes hand in hand with following the gospel, especially in the deeply influential world of American Protestantism, where to be financially successful means to be saved from eternal damnation.   A similar fusion of religion and politics appears in in President Clinton's reference to the American dream as "a simple but powerful one--if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you."  Apparently, American atheists need not apply, since whatever abilities they may have are not considered "God-given," so no matter how hard they work and how much they play by the rules, they don't fit the cultural requirement for achieving the American dream, having broken the unstated, but assumed, rule about believing in God. George Bush went much further, claiming that God told him to run for president.
     In Obama’s rebuttal to the crudeness of the video, he spelled out  “why we don’t just ban such a video.” Following a pervasive American trend that directly opposes the constitutional separation of church and state, he said that “The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.” It’s that particular verb, "enshrined," that drives his message home:  our holy article of faith is free speech.  Our religion is the political right to free speech.  We do defend to the death the right of everyone to say anything—no matter how personally uncongenial, indeed repulsive, that “anything” may be.  We don’t like insults, we don’t like disrespect, but we don’t consider them destructive to any beliefs, and that is why we have free speech.We are a nation of contradiction.  Politics is our religion and religion is our politics, absolutely because each is forbidden to touch the other.  
     When President Obama defended the right of his detractors to call him “awful things,” people cheered.   Optimism thrives:  the American ambassador in Libya can get blasted by terrorists but our America is still the City upon the Hill, Justice will be done, and the good can expect their reward in heaven.  If only optimism cured intolerance.   I like Rachel Held Evans’s take on tolerance:  “I disagree.  But I’m pretty sure you’re not a heretic.”  If only religion remained where it belongs—between the believer and his or her God or gods.  And if only any important American politician still felt free to say out loud, on TV, to the U.N., what Thomas Jefferson declared in 1814, admittedly in private, in letters: "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law" (Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814) and "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.  He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." (Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Random Recipe: Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookies

This recipe comes from my 1984 edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook--so popular in the U.S. that it is affectionately dubbed "The New England Bible"--which I ordered used on purpose because it's one of the editions that comes with temperature conversions from Fahrenheit to Celsius right in each recipe (no need to flip to the back while your hands are covered with cookie dough).   What I love about this book is the previous owner's carefully ball-pointed jottings of favorite recipes in the back, and this was among them.  (Other beloved recipes include pies, catfish, muffins,stew, fried oysters, and sugar cookies.)

I've changed one or two things, mainly making sure you mix all the dry ingredients first.

Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookies

Pre-heat oven to 180ºC.  (375ºC. or slightly less)

In a big bowl mix:

1 1/2 cups flour (210 g.)
1 cup sugar (200 g.) 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (for Germans, this is Natron)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cup uncooked oatmeal (that is, almost two cups that are the size
of coffee mugs)
1/2 cup raisins

You can also add 1/2 cup chopped nuts--I leave them out only because I'm
allergic to them.

Then add:
1/2 cup melted butter (115 grams) or vegetable shortening ( I used butter, though)
1/4 cup milk mixed with 1 lightly beaten egg
1 tablespoon molasses (I have never been able to find this in
Germany--brought it back from the States.  But it's not a disaster if
you leave it out).

Mix all well!  Then drop by teaspoonfuls on unbuttered cookie sheets and
bake until the edges are brown --about 12 minutes, possibly longer.
You'll want to lift them out right away with a metal spatula; sometimes
they harden and crumble otherwise.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Harry Potter

When I encountered Harry Potter--I had not planned to read those books; they sounded like fluff--my firstborn, not quite two, made it easy for me to lose myself in the plot:  we had our own little garden of Eden, a sandbox in a Bavarian garden enclosed on three sides by tall hedges and on one by a fence facing a barnyard--German langshan hens, with their red beaks and crowns and their long legs, were pecking at corns and a baby pig snuffled around.  I glanced up at my little one from time to time, but since you couldn't even hear cars, and since only one other child, a girl who liked to hold his sand pail for him, was around, I could zip through a page a second while occasionally lifting my head from the page to observe him placidly patting sand down with his shovel.  The one time I jerked myself fully into the present, hearing a something-is-not-quite-right sound, it turned out to be one of the hens, who had escaped and was pecking around by the sandbox.  
By the time my oldest was old enough to read Harry Potter, the first three books in the series had been published.  At eight, he whizzed through Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  And he wanted the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  But I had noticed that he found it scary.  
"I think we should wait on the third Harry Potter for a year or two," I said, putting the book on a high shelf and enticing him with The Wizard of Oz, which he appeared to enjoy.  But then he climbed up on a stool, wresting The Prisoner of Azkaban from its hiding place, and devoured the whole thing in a single afternoon.
That night, I awoke four times to howls of "Voldemort!"  Each time, I went into his room, turning on the light at his request, reminding him that there was no Voldemort, discussing why this wickedest of wizards seemed so scary, how in a year or two it would be much easier to tell the difference between a made-up story and a real danger, and whether he might try just waving his hand at the nightmare and saying, "Pui Pui Go Away!!"  Which he agreed to try.  In the morning we were both very tired.
The second child also wanted to read the third Harry Potter  when he was eight and I told him frankly that I wasn't up for any sleepless nights chasing Voldemort nightmares.  But he, too, managed to unearth the book from what I believed to be a very clever hiding place and gulped it down.  He muttered in his sleep, but did not yell.  My theory at the time was that he had not yet developed the reading skills to render the vividness of Voldemort, and didn't quite picture him in the lurid technicolor vision experienced by his brother.  Plus my younger one loved action:  as long as a werewolf was chasing two kids, he lost himself in how fast the werewolf could go, not who was being chased. 
Now my daughter, who is eight, and finally done with all the Betsy-Tacy books, wants to read the third Harry Potter.  She brought this up as the whole family was walking to a restaurant one day.  And I suggested we wait a bit on that one because she'd enjoy it even more in a year.
"I want it now!"  So then I mentioned the nightmares and said we would wait.  And she did what little girls always do.  She turned to my husband, let her eyes get big and tragic, her lower lip pouty and trembly.  She said--or sobbed--"Daaaah--ahh--ddy!" conveying the idea that no greater injustice had ever been done in the history of humanity.  And then he looked at me with his our-child-is-suffering look.  So then I agreed that if no nightmares occurred, she could read the book.  All smiles.
We're on Chapter Three:  the Knight Bus, not the scariest part, so I'm hoping to get some sleep tonight.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Mitt Romney

So does he ever take off his face and reveal his mask?* But I may be giving the man too much credit.  Maybe he's not planning anything, just winging it.   He'll take the mask his prop man or lady hands him every day.
This week on Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, he appeared with surprisingly orangey-brown skin:  Silvia Killingsworth posted a comment with the aptly cute title: "Hispandering to Univision."  Yeah, the man panders, but he didn't quite hit it this time.  He had the skin, but he forgot the hair.  They didn't dye it black and he didn't really go for border-bending: faking Tex-Mex is beyond him.  Even so, he messes with Texas the way he messes with everyone--increasingly, his own campaign.  The Houston Post commented:
When Romney said 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes, he was apparently tapping the Tax Policy Center, which found that 46.4 percent of Americans in 2011 had either zero or negative tax liability. In other words, people who don't make enough money to fork over anything to the federal government. We think. Tax policy is confusing.
What isn't confusing? A whole bunch of those folks live right here in Texas. The average income per household in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau , is around $50,000 per year. Nearly 70 percent of that group doesn't owe any federal income taxes, says the Tax Policy Center. Which means: Mitt Romney just insulted more than two-thirds of average, everyday Texans.
Them fightin' words.
As everyone now knows, at a private fundraiser in May, Mitt Romney said: “There are 47 percent of people. … who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it. That it’s an entitlement, and government should give it to them.” 
People like his Dad, who, as his mother revealed in a video posted to You-Tube on September 7, was on Welfare for the first few years of his life.
Who is Mitt Romney?  Does he know?  Do we want to know?  Back when Ross Perot ran for president, a cartoon appeared portraying him giving his inaugural speech, as the top of his head flipped open and a bug-eyed, antennaed alien appeared, waved, and announced, "I am Twerlop of the Zingobankeplik galaxy," or words to that effect.  I foresee cartoons like this appearing about Mitt Romney.  Despite all his faces, he's opaque.  Generic opportunist, yes:  but there are so many.  Who is he, really?  Maureen Dowd weighs in: 
We thought Romney was secretly moderate, but it turns out that he’s secretly cruel, a social Darwinist just like his running mate. 
She adds that we're in search of the real Mitt Romney,
but disturbingly, so is he.   
She's mistaken.  Giving him credit where it ain't due.  Searching?  Even soul-searching?  Him?  Please.  She's making the classic mistake of very smart people:  assuming that he--like she--actually thinks.  Cogitates, considers, analyzes, interprets, the way she does.  As opposed to quick conniving.  What if he's just going with the flow, riding on the emptiness of his soul?  He's all things to all people as long as he's empty.  When he's full of your votes, what then?  Don't let him get there.
Buyer Beware:   We don't want a president whose head will flip open revealing some warlord who caters to the 1% and forces the rest of us to build pyramids for him.

*Apologies to Oscar Wilde

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Autobiographies

"Autobiography is irresistible," Oscar Wilde remarked, and explained himself as follows in "The Critic as Artist": 

"When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely."   

Now, here are some books I never want to shut:  I open them again and again.  

Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912) You can read this one online, with pictures.  Werner Sollors, a prominent voice in American Studies, has remarked that Antin "established the genre of the immigrant autobiography," adding that "it's also a great stylistic accomplishment. She's a very good writer, which is remarkable considering the fact that she came here at the age of 13 without knowing a word of English." Arriving in Boston from a Russian Jewish shtetl, Antin asserts that she discards her old self--she is no longer Jewish:  instead, she will be "American."  Her worship of George Washington--which I read as a transfer of her devotions from a religious to a secular sphere--is an interesting comment on how little identity can be changed.

Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?  Being Young and Arab in America (2009) This is not the promised land, but the American nightmare. In the post 9/11 dystopia, Arab-Americans, like Arabs in Europe, are often considered guilty until proven innocent.  The title comes from the question posed by one of the greatest African-American intellectuals of the twentieth century,  W.E.B. Du Bois, who in  in his classic The Souls of Black Folk asked: How does it feel to be a problem?

Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors (2002) Memoirs of crazy families abound in the United States, but this one stands out for its wit, wisdom, utter lack of self-pity, and perspective.  No one could invent this dystopic childhood in which his father, possibly an unknown serial killer, nearly murders him, and his mother gives him to her psychiatrist, whose eccentricities include interpreting his own excrement.  Burroughs lived to tell what turns out to be a very funny tale.

Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying (2007) A Haitian-American writer with a number of gorgeously written novels and short stories to her credit, Danticat records the agonizing choices made by her father and her uncle, and how the choices to immigrate to America and not to immigrate led them both down difficult paths.  The portrait of her 81-year-old uncle's treatment at the hands of immigration officials, which certainly hastened his death, is a sad comment on American policy.

Philip Roth, Patrimony (1991) The best living American novelist describes the decline of his beloved father, and how he cared for him, experiencing coronary bypass surgery himself: "in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting judgment on whatever I do."

Shalom Auslander, Foreskin's Lament (2008) This hilarious and tragic tale of escaping from a dysfunctional orthodox Jewish family has been described as "channeling Philip Roth" but Auslander (whose name, appropriately enough, means "foreigner" in German) is his own man--just foreign to the culture in which he was raised.  His is a tale of overcoming Stockholm syndrome with wit (when he's not torturing himself).

Helen Fremont, After Long Silence (1999)  Helen Fremont grows up saying the "Our Father" in the European language of her choice, discovering in her thirties that her parents, Jewish holocaust survivors, have tried to erase their past--creating a Catholic identity--in order to protect their children.  Despite superhuman detective work, by the end of it Fremont still does not know her mother's real name--or whether her mother had another child as a result of rape while fleeing Hitler.  Set against an extraordinary backdrop of two world wars and several ingenious, hair-raising escapes, this is one of the best-written and most moving autobiographies that I have ever read.  And one of the best testimonies for exploding secrets that families keep hidden from themselves.  Maxine Hong Kingston begins The Woman Warrior (1975)--yet another great autobiography--with her mother's warning, "You must not tell anyone .  .  ." and these remain the secrets that the best autobiographies both expose and interpret.

Lars Eighner, Travels With Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets (1993) This is a gently humorous description of homelessness, written with an elegance of style that has been compared to that of Thomas Carlyle:  "Long before I began dumpster diving," Eighner writes, "I was impressed with Dumpsters, enough so that I wrote the Merriam-Webster research service to discover what I could about the word Dumpster.  I learned from them that is is a proprietary word belonging to the Dempster Dumpster company."  He'll let you know what's safe to eat from a dumpster, and offers --with the insight of an anthropologist--intriguing speculations on how some of that stuff got there.

Frank McCourt, Teacher Man (2005)  Everybody knows his Angela's Ashes, but don't miss this one.  It should be required reading for all teachers from kindergarten through graduate school, especially the sections detailing  what to do when a student throws a baloney sandwich on your first day of teaching (chapter 1) or how to base a class writing assignment on forged excuse notes of the "Mikey's grandmother fell down the stairs from too much coffee" variety (chapter 6) or how to teach grammar by using a ballpoint pen "as a visual aid" (chapter 9).

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice (1997).  The one you must read in this collection is "The Santaland Diaries," about his experiences working as an elf during the Christmas season for Macy's Department Store.  Read all of Sedaris, but start with this.  America's funniest writer.

Alexandra Fuller, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2003) In this tale of growing up with white supremacist parents in the former Rhodesia, Alexandra Fuller braves natural dangers and the challenges of her mother's alcoholism and politics.  The sequel, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (2011) traces her mother's roots in Scotland and Kenya, arriving at an understanding of her family's brilliant, crazy courage.

Alyse Myers, Who Do You Think You Are? (2008)  This one wasn't all over everyone's radar but it's good--about what it's like to discover, after her death, who your breathtakingly unsympathetic mother really was, and why.

Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011).  Everyone loved to hate this but I thought it was great:  a mother describes her extremely high expectations for her daughters, who never got play dates because they had to go home and practice the piano or the violin.  They never attend a sleepover, act in a school play, complain about not being allowed to do so, watch TV or play computer games, or get any grade less than A.  OK, she's a little too tough but OH is it easier to squeeze the toothpaste out than get it back in.  If I'd never let that Wii or those computer games into the house, my kids would have read all of Aristotle by now.

Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers:  An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (2011)  A secular Jew braves baptism to infiltrate the alas ever-growing evangelical church, with his poisonous influence on American politics.  Loathing Falwell's message, she develops a fondness for him, makes many friends, and experiences a conversion that is altogether religious in style, though not content:  coming out as an atheist to her pastor, she decides that she will never lie again about anything to anyone.

Nancy Bachrach, The Center of the Universe (2009) In this hilarious, tragic memoir, Bachrach details what it is like to live with a brilliant and insane mother who is supposedly brain dead after an accident but rises like the phoenix to become crazier than ever.

Daniel Smith, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety (2012)  Anyone afflicted with what your shrink likes to call "anxiety states" on her bill will love this one.  A charming self-deprecation weaves through this narrative of coping with a mind that just won't calm down.

P.S.  Now that I'm writing a memoir myself, I have two more tips:
 (1) Stay in the present tense.  The farther back the memory is in your actual life, the more you write it in the present tense.  You'll be surprised:  it'll help you remember the whole thing, experience it again, to write "I walk into the room . . ." instead of "I walked . . . "
(2) The more excruciating the experience, the more you should try to make it not funny, but perhaps to see in it the absurdity that lurks everywhere in human life.  Looking back at the agonizing, one often finds, if not the ridiculous, the unbelievably absurd.  It is the unbelievably absurd that you wish to capture.  I love Philip Roth's comment, to the effect that for a writer there are no bad experiences.  Oh, what you can make of the tragedies in your life!  This is especially true of love affairs that occurred twenty years ago.  But I can think of plenty of other examples! 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lower Back Pain: The Critical Mom's Guide (Aging, Part Three)

It's not the kind of lower back pain that comes from sitting too long on a flight, or slumping too long in front of your computer, or testing the elasticity of your spine with a paunch, although it might as well be according to your owl-eyed primary care doctor, who is looking at the age written on the piece of paper in front of her and not at you.  You want her to sign a piece of paper that lets your insurance company pay for massage, and she wants to send you to the orthopedist, and hands you a piece of paper for that (Germans will know it as an Überweisung, namely the free ticket to the doctor of your choice.) If you bypass the free ticket you have to pay at least ten euros, but time is money and it all evens out.
You tell the doctor the pain comes from a false step made during tap dance practice or maybe ballet, but when you say that what she visualizes is the kind of smooth swaying to belly-dance music supporting your inner child having a hot flash.  What I mean is we have a performance in two weeks but that sounds embarrassing coming from a 55-year-old so I don't say it.  
I leave with the useless Überweisung stuck into a book where I won't lose it and get the name of a masseur from another woman in my ballet class.  The masseur does the local ballet company so he knows which end is up.  Only I don't.  I go in there expecting gentle kneading and new age music and he looks me over and says, "Well, could do massage but you have a lot of blocks and nothing's gonna work till we get rid of those."  And instead of gentle kneading I'm being thrown around like a hunk of pizza dough and (with my hands around my neck and one bent knee pulled up to my chest while I'm lying on one side) am suddenly making the kind of despairing groan you'd make if a ten-ton ceiling caved in on you suddenly.  The 250 lb. (113 kilos) masseur is throwing his full weight on top of me, while training that knee in the direction of the floor.  
"Hurrrghhh!" I grunt. "Urkkkkahh!"  I hear my spine crack pleasantly, several times.  Then he flips me over before I know what the heck is going on--same procedure as other side.  Then I'm back on my stomach with a warming gel-filled pack over most of my back and some advice to "you know, lie there, sleep a little bit, move around."  And he's out the door.  His technique is spectacular:  he goes for the jugular with no warning so that you don't tense up.  I didn't know what hit me.  Until the next day when the cure seemed worse than the disease.  Every muscle in my back ached, not just the ones that had come in for treatment.  Leaning forward made me gasp.  Getting the children breakfast made this 104-year-old granny crabbier than ever.  But then a few more little crackly sounds came from my spine and I lay down for a few minutes and now my back feels almost normal again.  I'm going back for another round with my torturer next week and assume that within two or three sessions I'll be cured.  At thirty euros a shot, that ain't bad.  Leave me a comment and I'll give you his number.  He's handsome, too.

The Critical Mom's Guide to Shopping

Milan Fashion Week sent its usual message:  grow six inches, drop twenty-five pounds (or 12 kilos) and while you're at it, drop thirty years too.  What if you just want something cute to wear to the Japanese restaurant on one of your two dates per year, something that makes your husband sit up straight and realize the girl he married is still there?  Cultivate any boutique with chic elastic-waisted pants and blouses with vertical stripes, and if none is available, check out these websites:

Plus your favorite hospital thrift shop in a large city.  Or one on a small and very rich island.  The Nantucket island thrift shop is the playground of the middle class:  if you want a gorgeous pair of shoes or a lovely jacket, go there:  a billionaire wore it once and then her short attention span got it to you via the thrift shop.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Random Recipe: Pesto

When I make pesto, I think of James Beard's Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic recipe.  Forty cloves would be my Platonic ideal for this recipe, but not everyone loves the flavor of garlic as much as I do.  For a family of five, and to guarantee leftovers, you'll need about five 250 gram (about two cups) boxes of arugula (or "rucola" as it's known in Europe).  You can also use bunches of basil, if available.
Take all the dirty dishes out of the sink and wash it.  Put in the plug.  Dump all arugula in and fill with cold water.  Gently swish the arugula around and then lift it out into a colander.  Empty the water and rinse the sink, in which you'll find several teaspoons of sand, even though the arugula has supposedly been pre-washed.  Re-fill sink and wash arugula two more times.  Drain and set aside.
In your food processor put anywhere from six to twenty or more cloves of garlic.  The more the merrier I always say.  Add one or two wedges of fresh parmesan or asiago, sliced in chunks.  Pour in the best quality olive oil you can find--at least half a cup, perhaps more.  Process until it's all a big white mush.  Add the arugula--you won't be able to get it all in at once, so as you're processing, keep poking handfuls in through the top. 
I make it without nuts, since I'm allergic to them, but if you are not, you might try a handful of walnuts or pine nuts.
Serve over warm pasta.  A salad with lots of cucumber and tomatoes on the side is a pleasant addition, as is some freshly grated parmesan.

Decant all leftover pesto into ice trays or into small plastic containers and freeze them.  Microwave whenever you need a serving--not in the plastic!  To get the pesto out of the plastic container, run a little hot water over the bottom of the container, then up-end on a plate.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Aging, Part two

The Duchess of Cambridge:  her worries I would like to have!  It's not gonna happen.  ("Topless Critical Mom spotted behind R.V. laundry line rubbing suntan lotion on hubby's back.  They both look fat!"  Backstory:  she hid the C-section scar but our reporter knows it's there, so we'll just photoshop it in) Phyllis Diller knew how to get a laugh out of age:  she could have yakked this into the Spot that Got A Million Clicks on You-Tube.  I cherish my anonymity, and despite my envy of the Duchess and her perfect figure, I do see the political point:  the Future Queen Has No Breasts and The Future King Does Not Bleed.  Otherwise--human, fallible, not so admirable--he's harder to idealize.  Kipling's anti-heroes, Peachy and Dan, venture, appropriately enough, to a part of the world now known as Afghanistan and set themselves up as kings.  One of them wants to marry, and the girl forced into marriage with him bites him in public when he tries to kiss her--she draws blood.  Exposed as human, the idols fall!  One falls literally--headlong off a bridge.  The other is crucified and when found still alive after a day, considered miraculous (kingly qualities returning but not there yet) and begs his way back to civilization, a broken man.  Now, the Obamas are seen in public at ball games and the daughters are spotted at the Strand bookstore in New York.  But they're not Royals.  Royal means you have to pretend you don't bleed, but then inconvenient things happen, like the fact that you do, so you have to be hustled out of Camp Bastion in--there's that country again!  Afghanistan!--because the Taliban knows that you bleed and even the British public has discovered this, but only refers to it nervously, as when Princess Diana received the congratulations of the press upon producing "an heir and a spare."  Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is currently being advised to produce same.  But let's look the other way because we need our goddesses and our gods!  They save us from our worst impulses.  When we can't see their clay feet we don't have to look at our own.   When they remain invulnerable, they can protect us from the bogeyman.  When will we all grow up?  Once upon a time, when we grow up, the Duke and Duchess will get some privacy, and they won't have to be royal anymore.  They won't get to keep those palaces but they'll probably keep most of the money, so we don't have to worry about them too much.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Aging

"I'm getting younger every day."  This is my preferred answer to friends who ask me how I deal with birthdays.  And don't I get depressed?  I say "consider the alternative," or I answer the question of how to deal with a particular round number, one of the decades, by saying  that I use the following methods:
(1) Denial
(2) Denial
(3) Denial
Also I go to ballet class twice a week, plus tap dance, plus I walk my daughter home from school, plus I run up and down the stairs, and I am in better shape than most of the mothers I see, especially the one who lost an amazing amount of weight and, when I admiringly asked her how, told me that she had eaten nothing but one roll a day for months on end.  For German readers, that's one "normale Brötchen" per day.  It's not hard to be in better shape than someone like that, until one day your back hurts and your foot feels sore and there's this strange ganglion on your ankle, which did finally go back down again.  And so you go to the doctor, who warms your back with some electric gadget that looks like the sort of cure you'd find in the typical European spa, the kind where you'd also find water therapy (standing naked while being hosed down by a fat lady in a uniform, first with hot salty water and then with freezing salty water.)  The warming gadget--I was told it would be good for my kidneys and do me good--absolutely worked.  There's still a kink or two in my back but I did make it through ballet class, and had enough energy to come home and make dinner for my husband and oldest son, and to continue discussing the unpleasant all-day school situation into which my youngest has been thrust.   She came home crying that she had to do six pages of math homework.  I remember never doing my math homework, finally being put into a room to drill multiplication tables, and eventually being rewarded with Mary Poppins, the movie, when I finally achieved a passing grade in Math.  I still count on my fingers, I don't balance my checkbook, but I do read my bank statement, and I think my daughter will get more out of the Betsy-Tacy books than she will ever get out of Math.
Because I'm getting younger every day.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Critical Mom's Experience of Weltkindertag or World Children's Day

"Hey," said my daughter, "It's Weltkindertag!" (The German word for "World Children's Day").   An indignant look crosses her face:  "You didn't buy us presents!"  Her big brothers chimed in, explaining that it's not like a birthday, it's just a fun day for kids with games and balloons and performances.  World Children's Day has so many incarnations in so many countries that it barely resembles its original purpose, when it was established by the UN General Assembly back in 1954 to prevent or at least limit child labor and to offer all children access to an education.   That perennially recurring effort--currently appearing as CNN's Freedom project, a far more ambitious endeavor aimed at almost every abuse under the sun, is laudable, but who can stop China?  Is it remotely possible for an economy to grow at the fantastic rate of China without the assistance of every abuse under the sun?  These thoughts were not on the minds of my children, who clamored to be taken to the local park for a dose of food and entertainment.   At our first stop, the band shell, a well-intentioned dance performance was taking place.  I was curious to see my daughter's reaction, that is, whether she'd know to comment separately on costumes, music, choreography, acting ability, and dance technique, and when, after the first number, she wrinkled a nose and cocked an eyebrow, I saw that she'd become as critical as me.  Which in this case was a good idea: she's developed a discriminating taste.  
"Mommy, they weren't even pointing their feet."  Yes, I agreed, but they were smiling, and the costumes were nice, and they did move well to the music.  Her expression showed plainly Yes, but why stop at that when you can also do it all with technique?  She just passed her Royal Academy of Dance exam with distinction, and she knows whereof she speaks.   For me it's nice that she can tell the difference between all of these things, and notice that the performers had a lovely sense of being onstage, and could act even if they couldn't do much with classic dance technique.  Besides, she got to see variety:  jazz dance, Hungarian folk dance, and a cute little number to the Mary Poppins "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" in which a girl from her school class danced.  My ten year old son, meanwhile, had wandered off to see a juggler who could juggle twenty balls, said my son, while telling off-color jokes--my son wouldn't repeat them but his hand gestures suggested something he wasn't supposed to know about, and that he'd encountered just the type of personality that World Children's Day is supposed to Keep Away From Children.  I advised my son to come and get me the minute he sees anything like that and he rolled his eyes:  "Mommy, the other parents were giving him dirty looks."  We saw another juggler, had some plum cake with cream followed by pizza, rode a contraption that takes a swing on a pulley along a metal wire, got to see Venus fly traps and creatures the size of several grasshoppers that Hagrid might have pulled out of the woods near Hogwarts, and on the way home everyone remained in a very good mood--and that was the best part of World Children's Day.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Random Recipe for a Dinner Party

I like to cook what the Betsy-Tacy books quaintly call a "company dinner"--something not too difficult to make but festive, something everyone will enjoy.  A good option is Feijoada, the Brazilian national dish, which my husband and I enjoyed on a trip to Rio.  It's the kind of recipe that--like meatloaf--tolerates substitutions well, although if you have all the Brazilian ingredients (but you can't easily get ALL of them in either Western Europe or the U.S.) it's extraordinary.  As it is, it's nice. 

So, first:  soak dried black beans overnight.  Goya black beans are a tasty option if available; otherwise an African brand.

In the morning:  dice and sauté in olive oil one or two red onions, a red bell pepper, and some garlic.  Chop and slice some sweet Italian sausages and some fatty strips of pork.  Bacon will do, although it's not ideal.   Rinse the beans and pour them into the pot with the onions and meat, etc.; add enough water to cover all and stir.  You may wish to add a little powdered chicken broth--not more than a teaspoon, because the sausages are usually salty.  Add a bay leaf or two.  Stir.  Bring the whole thing to a boil and then simmer on low heat, stirring, for most of the day.

You'll need to make a pot of rice to go with the beans.  

All this is the most basic part of the recipe.  If you want to get a little fancier,  you'll need:

•more diced garlic
•casava (manioc) flour (if not available, use Goya canned manioc)
•collard greens, if available.  If not, fresh spinach and/or diced zucchini will do.
•sliced oranges

Put the diced garlic and collard greens in a wok that has a tablespoon of hot olive oil in it.  Stir fry.  Meanwhile, put the manioc flour in another pot with a little olive oil, garlic powder, and butter, and heat over low heat, stirring constantly, to toast the flour.
If you're stuck with the canned manioc, you can warm it, mash it slightly, and make a little sauce for it with garlic sautéd in olive oil, and a little fresh lime juice--that particular sauce is often on the label of the Goya can.

Serve all on separate dishes:  the bean stew in a pot, the collar greens in another, rice in another, and you should have three or four piles on your place, including a slice or two of oranges, which you can bite into after a forkful of the rice-and-bean stew mix.  Or dip into the flour, or sprinkle a little of it over the rice or bean stew, or both.  Serve all with beer or red wine.

I made this today . . . was stirring with an old wooden spoon, when to my horror, a fourth of it disappeared into the stew.  My husband, who has unlimited patience, strained through the stew and didn't find it.  Luckily it showed up on my plate--so the guests never knew.

P.S.  I now find that you can make this dish delightfully in a slow cooker (or "crock pot")--after sautéing the garlic, onion, peppers, etc, and adding meat--and you can now get carne seca, the official Brazilian meat, plus the black beans on Amazon--just put all in the slow cooker with chicken or vegetable broth for eight hours.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Gender Difference

"I hate you, Mom!"  yells the ten-year-old son whom I have just compelled to put on his leather jacket as he races down the steps toward the tram.  Outside, the temperature has dropped to 40ºF (4ºC).  His eight-year-old sister, who has the sniffles but nonetheless prefers the Summer blazer to the Fall windproof jacket, howls with despair:  "Mommy, you don't LOVE me," as I grit my teeth and insist she put her arm in the jacket.  Which one makes me feel more guilty?  You decide.  If the weather warms up and it's sunny when they come home, I almost feel like I deserve their baleful looks.  If my son yells, "But it didn't rain after all!" at the top of his lungs, I feel less sympathetic.
"Did you iron my shirt?"  yells the thirteen-year-old son when I wake him up in the morning.
"How should I know?"  
"And my shoes?  Did you polish my shoes?  YOU SAID YOU WERE GOING TO!!"  He has a concert in the biggest concert hall of our small city tonight and is required to wear a suit, tie, and formal shoes.  He picked out and purchased a fabulous pair of shoes, discounted, last week, and I went around telling the whole family, "The kid knows how to shop!  The kid can find a bargain!" and it must have been somewhere in there that he'd said he didn't know how to use that spray that weatherproofs leather and I'd said I'd help him but then he forgot all about reminding me to do that. And you know what, Mommy?  THAT'S YOUR FAULT!  Which he did not actually say, but only because he knew that he had delivered the message telepathically, for what on earth else would I have to do other than categorize neatly his every wish and demand and see that it is met pronto?  Even as I am telling myself that when he addresses me in this loutish manner he is only anxious about playing the clarinet in front of 100 people, I am not letting him get away with rudeness, at least not without telling him how  rude he is.  Now, my daughter is not demanding, usually.  She is usually quite considerate and responsible, remembering to bring her dish into the kitchen after she has eaten, and usually remembering to flush the toilet.  But here gender differences tend to break down:  they all three forget about flushing the toilet and then I DIDN'T DO IT HE SHE DID!  The boys yell more; she cries more.  And when I invited her best friend's family to dinner . . . something she clearly wanted, but had not actually stated, she said, "I didn't ask you to do that, Mommy . . . but I am okay with it," a phrase that (like "I didn't ask for THAT," whenever a food item is presented) all three of them picked up from some loathsome TV show that we let them watch.  What were we thinking?  Why can't I be like those unbelievably capable homeschooling moms who make crafts with their children that you could sell at a fair?  Really gorgeous carved woodwork, Christmas ornaments, candles?  And who never let them watch TV?  On the other hand my friend Anna* told me she knew a couple who had vigilantly avoided all TV and computers, raising the kids on whole grains in a cabin in the woods, reading them no children's classic published after 1960, since, blcccch, then you run into stuff like Captain Underpants, and those kids had not turned out well . . . nobody went to college, one of them lives with a criminal and the other. . . is not in touch with his parents.  So maybe I am not doing so badly?  Ours do tend to like to be at home. 

*not her real name

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ganztag, The Critical Mom and the Criticized Headmaster

Are we the only faintly normal parents around here?  Is what I ask my husband at the elementary school, where we are due for a meeting with the headmaster, who has just extended the school day by several hours, including a supposedly unrequired, and yucky, lunch, which does our eight-year-old daughter no good, since I want to pick her up between 12:30 and 1:15, if not at 11:30, take her home, give her lunch, let her do her homework at leisure and climb a tree in our garden so she can toss pebbles or pine cones at the construction workers next door, before we zoom out on our exhausting and exhilarating round of afternoon activities, namely, ballet, recorder, and violin.  Oh, and maybe tap, too, if we can manage that.  Now that the headmaster insists on several teaching hours AFTER lunch, we're sunk.  In Germany, "Ganztag" or all-day school is supposed to be a free choice.  But you can't avoid Ganztag if you can't remove the kid before lunch.  The lunch is tacitly required. Having combed the laws of my particular Bundesland (state) I know it ain't supposed to be so.  But again--nobody's exactly up in arms.
Besides, the other parents, two thirds of whom, at a conservative estimate, are single and on the poverty line, love it that they can dump the kid at school by seven in the morning and grudgingly take it home at five.  Most parents want this.  99% of parents want the kid there at least until two, so the school has now structured the day so that one cannot remove the kid from school during lunchtime, unless one is prepared to charge home in a taxi, serve the kid a preheated grilled cheese sandwich, and then throw it back at the school for another hour before one is allowed to pick it up again.  All of this appears to be not exactly legal but no one is complaining.  Except us.
The typical German school day for children in grades 1-4 ends between 11:30 and--at the very latest--1:15.  But a school providing a "ganztag" or "all-day" service tends to be popular among the majority of parents in our neighborhood--our neighborhood being a cross between Riverside Drive and 113th and Lexington Ave and well, East New York.  Or is Dumbo more dangerous now? The kind of neighborhood where you look over your shoulder at night and even in the late afternoon.  I look around the schoolyard when I go to pick up my daughter.  There's the dad with so many tattoos that I can barely see his skin, plus stark black earrings curling--no, jutting--out of his ears like lighting trained around curlers.  His wife has the same earrings in pink.  Hairdo by electrocution.  Punk chains and black boots.  And a baby carriage with an incredibly adorable pink occupant who will doubtless follow her sibling to the all-day plan.  Then the massively obese moms shift from foot to foot discussing How Many Windows They Washed or Stress.  I am the only human being carrying a book; I can't go ten minutes standing on a tram platform or waiting to pick up a child without a book, but I know they find me antisocial, so I do say hi.
Well, the headmaster.  We got ourselves an appointment, told him we wanted to take our daughter home at 12:30 every day, listened to him discourse on how wonderful a his program was according to a psychologist, told him what we'd heard about him from other parents ("If you don't like this program you can change schools;" "If you don't pay, your child won't get lunch.")  He insists that he had no idea why anyone would say such things.  He never said any of this.  And I guess that he is 
(1) Unusually forgetful
(2) Lying
(3) A victim of a personality disorder, which is a nicer way of saying (1) and (2).  So there we remain with our increasingly exhausted eight-year-old who would like to come home and see Mommy and Daddy and have lunch but who doesn't want to be the only one leaving early.  So we're stuck, at the moment.  Any recommendations, out there in Blog land? And a postscript:  Our pediatrician, my colleagues who teach students who are training to become teachers, and even one of those students, have all weighed in with their opinion of how things are going:  in a word, badly.  My twenty-year-old student is currently employed as a "Betrauerin," or babysitter, caring for the children after lunch and throughout the long afternoon for those whose parents cannot pick them up before five o' clock.  She is often alone with sixty children in three rooms, running laps between rooms to make sure no one is killing anyone else.  She tells me she is "not allowed" to help them with their homework at all--they ask her to explain directions, or clarify them, and she is supposed to say she will not do so.  A recipe for disaster.
The headmaster sent us another bill for lunch.  We are ignoring it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Boys and Cold Weather (The Scream, Part 2)

"You have to wear your leather jacket!" I yell, "it's going to rai--"  But he is already running down the steps and the foliage blocks my view.
"I've got it on, Mom," he lies, and I console myself with the thought that at the speed with which he is hurtling toward the tram stop, he will stay warm.  The perpetual motion son stays warm that way in weather that gives everybody else a cold; the older son has a little fat to fall back on, which, when I tell him a T-shirt is not enough under the cold clouds of North-Rhine Westphalia, he insists protects him.  No matter how many times he does get a cold he tells me this.  When I go out to the tram myself I see hordes of boys--always boys; girls seem to like to wear jackets--in T-shirts when I'm shivering in my scarf and sweater and wishing I had a raincoat too.   I did get some preparation for this situation years back when I was single and invited two young cousins to visit me in New York as part of their graduation present.  They hailed from a hamlet in North Carolina, a one-street job with a post office, three churches, and a drugstore ("Now don't blink!" their Mom had said when she drove me through.  One blink and I'd miss the whole town).  Before that Southern twang ever emerged from their adolescent lips, small town blasted itself all over the Upper West Side.  We came out of the subway at 110th and Broadway and before I knew it they were nodding, smiling and waving--I thought like returning dignitaries--but no, they were being polite:  back home you waved and greeted all your neighbors on the street.
"You can't do that here," I said, nodding in the direction of a floridly paranoid homeless man yelling in the opposite direction, "you don't know any of these people and a lot of them are crazy--see that guy?  NO, don't look in his direction."
"Yes, Ma'am," they agreed, but it was like my kid and his leather jacket.  They were just much more polite about defying me.  And when the temperature dipped to 45º F (7.5ºC) they went out in their T-shirts, worked out at the gym and got all sweaty, and walked back to the apartment, glistening in slowly freezing sweat.
"Oh, we're fine, Ma'am.  We do this all the time."  If it were only the rain and the cold and they didn't come down with pneumonia I'd heave a sigh of relief.  But that's only the beginning.  They wanted nightclubs.  I printed out directions and gave them cab fare and told them under no circumstances to walk home or anywhere else at two a.m., which was when I told them they had to be back.  Around four a.m. long after I'd repeatedly restrained myself from calling their mothers to say they might be dead, in they came with sheepish grins.
"We saw a guy get killed."
What?  Where?  They had emerged from the Red Parrot around two and decided to take "a little walk" in Hell's Kitchen, which was, in those days, still plenty hellish.  Into a dive they had gone, sat down and ordered a drink, when some predecessor of Tony Soprano had knifed a guy at the next table.  The guy had staggered out onto the sidewalk, bled all over it, and died.
This was my training, my practice run, for screaming at my sons.  Hadn't I told them to stay in cabs?  Hadn't I printed instructions?  Hadn't I made sure they had enough money?  Hadn't I--I was shrieking by now--warned them?  They nodded, smiled, yes-ma'amed.  After all I wasn't their mother.  I couldn't do a damn thing, and we all knew it.  But I thought they were scared enough to follow instructions, having apparently seen an actual murder.
The next night they did not come home at midnight; they did not come home at one, or at two, or at two-thirty or three . . .  Once again, I heard them tiptoe in around four, sat bold upright, and strode into the livingroom where they were trying to be silent as they thumped open the foldout.  Booze and cigarettes whirled around their startled-looking faces.
"Well, you're gonna kill us.  We was robbed." 
Robbed?   Uh, they had lost their wallets and one set of my keys.  Because, like, there'd been this gal on the street (What street?  You were walking on the street again at night?  Oh, only on Broadway near the house, they thought that was somehow all right at three a.m.)  And out of nowhere a woman ran screaming into their arms, saying her boyfriend was trying to kill her, help, help, and then of course the boyfriend flung himself into the fray and by the time the two bad guys had vanished, my little cousins--Hogarth would have loved to draw them--were just realizing their pockets had been picked.  A police car brought them home, after giving them a tour of the fleabag flophouse into which the robber had allegedly fled.  
The next night I took them out for Chinese food, and wondered if maybe they'd be glad to stay in North Carolina for the rest of their lives.  I was sorry they had had a bad time.
"Oh, we loved it!  We'll be back!"
My sons are ten and thirteen.  I do think they have the sense not to go to tattoo parlors--another adventure my cousins wanted that I did, as far as I know, nip in the bud.  I know that my sons hate the smell of pot and have been indoctrinated by their schools and by me and by their father not to take drugs.  But what other hell can they get into?  None, I tell myself--if only they would just wear those jackets when they go out.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Your Kids' Friends

"Andreas* has been acting even weirder than usual," said my middle child.
"Well, that's not surprising," said I, "his mother just remarried two days ago."
"Yeah--he wanted her back with his father and now she's married to this old guy, seventy years old!" 
"Why is that?" says my eight-year-old daughter.  "Are you and Daddy going to get a divorce?"
We are sitting around the table together eating chicken curry. 
"No," I say.  "I love Daddy.  We are not getting a divorce."
"But Andreas's parents did.  Prove that you love Daddy.  Kiss him."  So I stand up, walk over to my husband, who is chewing a mouthful, and wait so he can swallow.
"You should kiss him now!" yells the eight-year-old, for whom only a kiss is proof positive that the prince is still in love with the princess.  The ten-year-old has figured this out and one eyebrow creeps up.
"No, Mommy doesn't love him!  They're getting a divorce!  She just wants his money!  She married him so she could use him out!"  The latter is a makeshift translation of a German verb, "ausnutzen," which means to use a person.  The eight year old looks worried, so, having already kissed my husband, I get to kiss him again.  The eight-year-old looks reassured; the ten-year-old bored, since he had been hoping to get his sister into a snit. Meanwhile, Andreas invited our middle kid, his best friend, to the wedding, which Andreas had announced as something "really boring."
Then there's Gina.  Gina's Dad is a single father on welfare who appears to have attention deficit disorder; he's constantly in motion and when we once talked about him going back to school he said he could never sit still that long.  He dumps Gina at school by seven a.m. and picks her up at five p.m.--the latest possible, and if the school had aftercare until six, he'd leave her there until then.  Gina clutches the arm of any available adult and has the saddest face I've ever seen on a child.  She told us her mother left her after her baptism.  Once I picked her up at the school's aftercare program because my daughter had invited her to play at our house.  She was in the middle of a drawing, apparently very concentrated, surrounded by crayons of every color, and I hardly wanted to interrupt her.  But when she saw me she sat straight up and asked, "When can we go?"  When I answered "Now," she crumpled her drawing, tossed it over her shoulder and gave a happy sigh. 
Justus was the one who acquired a scar through my middle son.  Before the scar, my son was invited to Justus's seventh birthday party, which consisted in letting little boys run around the garden until they dropped from exhaustion while the mothers enjoyed coffee and cake.  Justus wandered in after a while and said, "I need the bathroom."  His pants were completely soaked with pee.  His mother just laughed, "So how come?" she asked.  Apparently Justus made a habit of peeing in his pants, and his parents made a habit of finding this amusing.  When Justus was invited to my middle son's birthday party, his mother wouldn't let him come, because my kid had boasted that plans involved watching a DVD of one of the Star Wars films geared for older children, 12 and up.  No such plans existed, but Justus's mom would not back down. 
The fattest children always arrive for a play date with huge plastic bags of gummy bears and chocolate-covered marshmallows.  And I thank them, offer them sliced apples and cucumbers sometime during their visit, and once they've gone upstairs to play, the candy goes right in the garbage pail.

*no real names