Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Nanny and the Critical Mom

"This woman is unique," said The New York Times.  It's more likely that a mother will kill her children than that a nanny will murder her charges.  Reading the story of the nanny who apparently knifed the children--a six-year-old and two-year-old--in the bathtub--it occurred to me that the murderous nanny appears in novels, films and stories more than she appears in real life.  In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's ghost story, a child dies in his governess's arms, and it's not even clear whether she's killed him.  How the nanny who killed the Krim children didn't get stopped is a question I'll never stop asking.   Did the parents not notice changes in moods?  Did the children say nothing?  I have a long history of hiring babysitters and au pairs.  So far, they've always behaved just as I expected they would.  There were women who applied for the job--and some men--whom we never hired.  First I thought we'd go through agencies, until a former student who had worked for one of the most expensive American agencies told me no one ever checked her references.  That, on top of being told by a woman at one agency I called--who confided, "Listen, I'm leaving tomorrow to start my own agency," that all kinds of stuff, from stealing to prostitution, happened all the time.  That checks by the agency were invariably superficial.  That I'd do better checking things out myself.  And just as I was starting to phone every name on the list an au pair candidate had given me, our friend who'd worked for the American agency weighed in with another story:  the family who had hired her had just received another au pair from the very same agency.  Who left the baby locked in the car while she went to the gym, then absconded with the family's credit card.  And was on a plane back to Poland the next day, and thank God the baby was okay after his three-hour sojourn in a car in sub-zero weather in Chicago.
No one knows enough about what drove the Krim's nanny to murder their children.  Will we ever?  The report that stays with me is that the nanny looked sick and distraught before the killings, and that for days she was visibly losing weight.  Did the family notice this?  Did the children?  Did the people to whom the parents recommended the nanny and who did not hire her, finding her "a little grumpy" have a reasonable hunch that something bad might happen?
This case has made me review everyone we ever hired to care for our children.  I remember the more comically unsuitable rejects--websites with apparently desperate Russian men who described themselves as follows:  "I Boris.  I truck drive.  I like kids."   A crazed mug--Tony Soprano on steroids, or Jack the Ripper with huge, poorly sewn scars across the neck and forehead, stared out of the ad, and I'd click on the next one, hoping to find something better.  And I'd find glamorous sex kittens with silicone lips purring: "I require _________ (fill in the outrageous sum) for my services, because I am well trained."  It was enough to make me check the website:  had Google somehow accidentally jumped me to a porn site, or to one for mail-order brides?  But no, it was the same standard "" site I'd been combing all morning.
We're all waiting for the one clue that will make sense of this, but none of the clues add up to murder:  "Oh, the babysitter looking wierd and losing weight," or "Oh, the babysitter having money worries and requesting extra hours."   That might have been enough to make me want to replace her.  But not enough to make me suspect her capable of doing what this nanny did.   If Sherlock Holmes could appear and find a fingerprint proving that no, she didn't do it--she was threatened, there was an intruder who got past the doorman by swinging through the window, he was a drug dealer, he did it and the nanny only felt responsible--well, then, the world could make sense again.  But the hurricane, the monster hurricane following these murders feels like nature in revolt against the unnatural behavior of humans.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Critical Mom and the English Teachers

The critical mom is American, as you probably know.  The critical mom has on previous occasions grumbled at the locally-held delusion that British accents sound good and American accents sound like chewing gum.  The critical mom enjoys hearing her children imitate the accents produced by their classmates, especially when those classmates have been singing.  As in:

Old Meck-Tonald head a farm
Eye-eye, eye-eye, oh! (alternatively, "Ay-yi, oh!)
Und on zis farm zaire vas a pick,
Eye-eye, eye-eye, oh!

Those "th" sounds defeat them completely.  The "d" sounds so much like the "t" to them, and vice versa.  Also difficult is the hard g, also the soft g, so that "pig" becomes "pick" and "Sponge" becomes "Spunch" and Sponge Bob becomes "Spunch" (rhymes with crunch) Bop, as in bopping along, not much listening to language become global.  Another favorite often brayed lustily by my sons:

Heppy Burs-day tow you!
Heppy Burs-day tow you! . . .  

Sometimes the "H" gets that gutteral, I'm-coughing-up-a-hairball sound, too.  And we know a little girl named "Chenny."
"You mean Jenny?" I asked her mother.
"Ja!  Chenny."

If you want to erase your accent, or make it possible to hide your German identity, all ya gotta do is:

(1) Get that "th" sound--YouTube has lots of pronunciation exercises on this one, but basically, to make the sound at the beginning of the word "this," you have to touch the tip of your tongue to the backside of your two front teeth.  And if you want the word "think," you blow out a little, as if you were blowing a big bubble with your bubblegum.

(2) Learn how to pronounce "J" as in "Jack," and this one is harder.

(3) Learn how to pronounce "V" and "W" and don't get them confused.  And if you do all that, I just God-damn guarantee you that folks will guess you are from somewhere in Europe, but they won't know where.  And they will think that you sound "so sophisticated."  Take it from me.  How well I remember the Bavarian restaurant owner who catered our wedding.  His dream was to marry a rich American.  He heard--from an American friend of mine--something about a rich Guggenheim, and wandered around the whole wedding dinner murmuring:  "Guggenheim?  Guggenheim?"  I assured him that he could pass himself off as a count in New York.  None of those folks would ever guess that in Bavaria his accent betrays him as a peasant.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Recipes and the Critical Mom

I love fancy ones.  But I'm a Fannie Farmer cookbook kind of a gal.  My ideal is Ruth Reichl; my reality is somewhere between Peg Bracken and inspiration.  I'll take the tried-and-true cookies and banana bread and scones and cakes from Fannie Farmer--also the meatloaf, if we're still eating meat--and in a pinch I'll go very nineteen fifty-three and pour a can of Campbell's mushroom soup over four chicken breasts salted and peppered and paprika-ed and then a few fresh mushooms over that and then a container of heavy cream.  In the oven that goes at 375ºF (190ºC) for an hour.  When true guilt about cholesterol hits me I fry tofu in vegetable oil, drain it, stir fry bok choi or ming choi or any Chinese cabbage that looks good with baby corn cobs that have been boiled for five minutes, Chinese scallions, the kind that are really skinny, all with lots of finely chopped garlic and finely chopped fresh ginger.  Then throw the fried tofu back in, heat and stir, and at the very last minute add a few drips of very dark (the very aromatic kind) Sesame oil, and a dash or two of soy sauce.  Voila.  Forgot to mention you serve that with the Basmati rice you've been cooking.  It should be the very good kind, which means the kind you need to soak for half an hour before starting it boiling.  This kind of rice has a lovely aroma.  
Now, my mother hated cooking.  Following recipes meant some restriction on freedom that reminded her of her parents putting metal caps over her hands when she wanted to suck her thumbs.  They did that to babies in the olden days, and they put nasty stuff on her thumb, too, so she wouldn't want to suck it.  In revenge she made mud pies whenever the recipe told her to add precisely this or that, imagining that you could substitute honey for corn syrup or that a Sachertorte could be made from angel food cake with a little jam smeared on it and some chocolate sauce.  Or maybe it was just the joy of mixing that did in her cooking:  creating textures and colors--the perfect technique for painting portraits, her greatest talent--did not work well with cooking.  My father adored cooking, and though his recipes tended toward the extremely eccentric--boiled cucumbers, one time--they were always delicious.  He favored cholesterol-high foods and my mother cholesterol-free foods, except when she's wolfing down chocolate ice cream in the middle of the night.  On days when my father comes to mind, I cook shepherd's pie with globs of butter and cream in the mashed potatoes.  On days when thoughts of my mother ascend, it's more likely to be tofu.   A smorgasbord of memory and food.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Critical Mom and Baby Talk

On the tram today my friend was bouncing her thirteen-month-old daughter on her knee; the little girl produced such a sociable string of babble that I wished I could have understood her.  She untied her shoelaces for me and seemed very pleased with herself.  I started remembering when my ten-year-old first started talking:  he uttered long strings of sounds earnestly and I tried to transcribe them:  "Bah, bawa wuppah bu muh nuhbubbbaa . .  ." complete with serious nods and sweeping gestures, or he pointed energetically at his red truck and grunted appreciatively.  I knew that meant "Bring it here now!"  But I said, "Oh, you'd like the red truck, wouldn't you?"  since language specialists think that conversing with the child increases his urge to use language.  He responded with increasingly urgent grunts, jabbing his finger insistently at the truck, his eyes bulging.  Even though I knew perfectly well that meant, "Give me that truck instantly or I will scream, scream, scream," I said, with a smile that I believed at the time was encouraging, "Can you say truck?"  I was afraid he'd never speak.   He did reply, on his own terms, naturally:  Grunt, grunt, with a few growls thrown in.  I handed over the truck and he gave me the look you'd give to a waiter who hands you burned food with a smile.  I was telling the ten-year-old about his infant communications about his truck, and he said, "Aw, Mommy.  I was trying to say 'fire truck'--just without the f, the i, the t, the u, the c, or the k.  Got it, Mommy?"  Yes, I did.  And I do.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Critical Mom and the Awful Sit-Com

If it's not "I Love Lucy" I hate it.  What passes for humor in the sit coms favored by my children--and I find them hard to tell apart, the sit coms that is, not the kids, is a guy peeing in his pants during his own wedding, which the kids found hilarious and I didn't, or the dumb rich girl (London on Zack and Cody, the only one whose name I remember) bribing her teacher with a suitcase filled with cash in order to get a good grade.  Which she gets.  This particular turn of the plot brought home to me its probably creators:  grad students who have abandoned the dissertation for Hollywood, and are remembering their favorite nightmares.  I just heard another version of this not infrequent story:  the principal told a young teacher in a high school somewhere in this small city in which I live that she couldn't give her students less than a grade of B minus, because otherwise the school would receive less money from the wealthy parents who were bypassing the teacher to bribe the principal.   While the TV is spewing canned laughter and London is bribing her teacher, the kids are laughing, I am making dinner while bustling around hissing, "This IS NOT funny!"  and naturally that makes it even funnier.  Meanwhile, the usual track is playing in my mind:  "How come we even have a TV?  Why didn't I stick to the let-them-watch-DVDS-that-I-choose mode?  Think how many books they would have read by now if they had never seen one of those dumb shows . . ."  Well, but they're doing okay.  They're reading cookbooks and building dioramas out of old wooden wine boxes and holding Lego pirate and soldier battles . . . and when I was the age of my middle child, ten, I used to rush home from school to watch--of all things--Dark Shadows, which I found scary and sophisticated.  What was my mother thinking, letting me while away hours in front of the idiot box?  I should have been shuffling off to a tap dance class or ballet or recorder lessons or violin lessons.  But I watched Dark Shadows instead, which I now think of as a sit com, and learned to do vampire imitations the way my children are now learning to do Zack and Cody imitations. . . plus ça change . . .

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Critical Mom and Planet of the Apes

So, Marky Mark crash lands back on earth . . . he thinks he's in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but it's a little dark at first and you can't see the secret.  Is it a bird?  A plane?  No!  It's Ape-ra-ham Lincoln.  It's a statue in the shape of Lincoln with an ape's head.  That's the end of this weird re-make of the 1968 Rod Serling Planet of the Apes, in which Charlton Heston finds himself unexpectedly facing the statue of liberty poking out of the sand, and realizes that he's home, only home isn't home anymore.  Liberty is sinking back into the sand, but in the Tim Burton version, the slaves have been freed by Ape-raham Lincoln?  So the humans are the bad guys again?  Is this Hegelian?  But Tim Burton first supplies Helena Bonham Carter with an ape costume rendering her a dead ringer for Michael Jackson.  Michael Jackson as a man who wanted to look like a woman?  A black person who wanted to look white?  Is that the kind of ape the movie wants to promote?  Dressed up as Roman soldiers, the apes batter, torture, and brand the humans, who can all speak, but who are tied up in chain gangs and sold on the open market.   In her Michael Jackson apesuit, Helena Bonham Carter plays a combination of Mother Theresa and Booker T. Washington, gibbering away about "separate but equal."  She falls in love with Marky Mark, who plays a U.S. air force pilot blown off course, who lands on the Planet of the Apes, which is actually, because of "let's do the time warp again," turns out to be our very own earth, only the apes who had taken over on his space ship have now evolved their own society, and become the masters, no longer the slaves of humans who send them off in rockets on missions deemed too dangerous for themselves.  Yes, it's all here--the sensitive, female, ape Michael Jackson; the harsh racism of the apes complaining about the way humans smell, and oh, yeah, the world trade center wreckage done up to look like a rocket.  If you're into Dystopia, it's all here.  But me, I'll watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers next time.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Critical Mom and the Bored Child

"Mommy I am so bored . . . will you read to me?"  This I love to do . . . especially when it is something I enjoy reading.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and the radish cure, the one about the little girl who won't take a bath until the radish seeds planted in the rapidly thickening topsoil all over her arms and forehead sprout big leafy green leaves.  Or the madcap adventures of the "children of the lamp," who at the moment have been turned into camels by their Uncle Nimrod in order to see the pyramids at Giza.  Or Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow changing places, the Stanley Fish character chewing the large cigar on his way to England, the timid Philip sipping orange juice on his way to San Francisco in 1968, where all his inhibitions will be dissolved in the student riots.  Now that last one had some raunchy bits--should I read this to the 13-year-old, I thought, as I was reading it to the 13-year-old, who had been eager to hear stories about why England is dumb and America is better, since the teachers back at his gymnasium keep telling my little native speakers to change their accents to British?  I read.  He gets worse on You-Tube.  As my daughter said one day coming home from English class, "Mommy, I was so bored I put my head down on the table."  But degrees of boredom vary:  "Mommy," she also said with surprise, "It's amazing how much fun school can be when Frau X isn't teaching."  Frau X is the one they apparently can't fire, because of inertia or regulations or she's tenured or who knows?  She's the one who told a nine-year-old who asked why his painting wasn't pinned up to the wall (she would have to ruin art class for them) "Because your painting is shit!"  She's the one who won't let first-graders out to use the bathroom and they wet themselves.  "The only thing they get out of her," one mother said, "is good handwriting."  And boredom, when they sit, stiff with good behavior, hoping she'll just calm down.  Never have I been more aware that education happens at home.  As a matter of fact I am home-schooling them.  Back when they were babies it was all CDS of American folk songs that they'd be missing since they went to German kindergartens.  Now it's reading, reading, reading, and me yelling "Speak English!!!"  The schooling that occurs from eight to two every day is almost incidental.  It's the thing they have to get through in order to come home, have a decent meal, and then "Let's see what the children of the lamp are doing now that they're stuck in the bottle." or "Next we'll read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cure for the show-off," or "This part is about this thing called the Berkeley Free Speech movement, back when Mommy was eleven years old . . ."

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Critical Mom and the Debate

America buys youth, but will it buy Paul Ryan?  He's ethnically identical to Joe Biden, but younger, cockier, and more earnest.  It's the overly earnest part of him that may have done him in.  I'm banking on Obama, but I know his youth was part of the ticket to his success.  Biden and Ryan have in common their Catholic identity, which makes them want to take care of people--but their ideas of doing so diverge, especially when it comes to medicare.  Biden could barely contain his contempt for the "malarky" and "stuff" coming out of Paul Ryan. What, the moderator wanted to know, was "stuff?"  Chortle, chortle, we all knew from the note of contempt exactly what "stuff" he meant--the stuff you hope you don't have to scrape off your shoe if you've walked through any area where dogs relieve themselves.  Biden's benevolent patronage of Ryan--"my friend," he called him, may have won him a few points.  The bald spot on the back of his head didn't.  The schoolboy manner of Ryan, taking careful notes and guzzling the water from which he was supposed to sip, like English people nibbling at their cucumber sandwiches, got him a few demerits.  I'm still betting on Obama, have just filled out my absentee ballot in his favor, and, as I head out to the post office, envision some office in lower Manhattan, on Varick street, where (I imagine) a League of Woman Voters lady will open the envelope, put my ballot through the slit in a ballot box, tag the envelop in which it was stowed carefully, and wait, fingers crossed, for more ballots to come in for Obama.  Then she'll go out for dim sum at some little hidden place unfeatured on the web, the best kind of place, where nobody speaks English and there's no menu--they just keep bringing little plates to the table.  When you're done eating, they count the dishes and hand you a check.
Like something out of A Cricket in Times Square . .  .

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

J.K.Rowling and the Critical Mom

I thought Michiko Kakutani tasteless for saying she couldn't find "narrative sorcery" in J.K. Rowling's new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, because a world-class critic shouldn't make it even more difficult for a writer to deviate from every reader's favorite subject.  Rowling's fabulous children's fiction, the Harry Potter series, is what everyone wants to read, but she's done with that, and wants to write a novel for adults, and wants readers to anticipate a novel written entirely for adults.  She's asking the impossible, but I think we owe her reviews that don't suggest that she ought to be writing more Harry Potter books just because we want to read them.   In the spirit of wanting to prove Michiko Kakutani wrong, I started The Casual Vacancy and liked the first few pages, which begin with an unexpected and very sudden death.  After that, the book loses momentum.  I kept reading--and I re-read the first thirty-nine pages because I was having trouble keeping track of characters--and I'm still plowing through the thing, but really plowing.  I'm enjoying it less and less.  At least now I can give you one reason:  Rowling hates these people.  And they're hateful, the main characters, most of the secondary characters, and the minor characters.  Denizens of a small, and small-minded English village, every last one of them, with the possible exception of the man who dies in the first scene, is riddled with petty prejudice or the object of petty prejudice.  A father calls his son, "little shit"and "pizza-face," ridiculing the boy's acne; a mother can't forgive her daughter for being less than brilliant, and the daughter cuts her arms routinely, under her physician mother's nose.  Teenagers whose families fill them with boredom or despair, parents at sea in their marriages and relationships . . .  I could see anyone making a good novel out of these people, and the novel is very well written, filled with precise observations, but there's no real story:  the plot feels jerry-rigged.   We're supposed to care that the death of Barry Fairbrother leaves a "casual vacancy," an empty spot in the lowest rung of British government, and that bad guys may rush in to fill it and get rid of the methadone program and other socially conscious enterprises.  But I don't give a damn, because I have the constant, uneasy feeling that Rowling's main purpose in writing, or what gave her pleasure in writing, was to reveal how horrible and petty the people in the village of Pagford are.  But I already know how horrid and petty people can be--and there's got to be more of a story than that.  The difference between the appeal of Harry Potter and the failure of this novel is that Rowling loved the characters in the Harry Potter series.  Even the worst villains strike some sympathetic note--not that she offers any explanation for evil on the scale of a Voldemort, but she does make the character an orphan.  Choices, especially moral choices, remain important to her, but what carries the story is her love for the characters, and her good humor.  I can't help thinking that she can't stand most, if not all, of the characters in The Casual Vacancy, even Krystal Wheedon, who, because she makes an appearance in the thoughts of the man who drops dead in the first scene, and because she's clearly an underdog struggling to do the right thing, is bound to have some great reward by the end of the novel.   But she's not someone Rowling seems to like much either.  I'd like her if Rowling liked her.   
The Harry Potter books were so good that I allowed myself a pleasant delusion:  J.K. Rowling was writing an autobiography:  she's really a renegade Hermione Granger who decided to spill the secrets of the magical world, and expose her alma mater, Hogwarts, to the world.  And ever since she did, all kinds of new enchantments have been cast to prevent muggles like me from finding the place, situated as it just must be somewhere in the northernmost reaches of Scotland.  (How could I believe otherwise?  My children sit around drawing up the Marauder's Map and pretending that they are on their way to the shrieking shack.)  But the truth is likelier to be that The Casual Vacancy is the autobiographic novel, that it spills the beans about life as the young Rowling experienced it in several small-minded British villages:  she can't forgive these people for their bigotry, their cruelty, their stupidity.  And neither could I.  But that's one reason--one of many, no doubt--that I'm no novelist.  She's the novelist!  She's either got to write a story that makes it interesting to hate these folks--supply us with an excellent reason to do so--or she's got to love them.  Somehow.  I wish I had something better to say.  I'll buy anything she writes, and I'll read some of it, and, now that I see I'm in the same camp as the rest of the world, I'd like another magical world, please.  With lots of sauce and a cherry on top. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to A German Vacation Or the German Birthday, Part Two

The spa is the way to go.  My husband chose it for his birthday and has wisely decided just to take the family.  We chose a spot that two of my children have enjoyed since before they were born, judging by the mother's influence on the child and the happy face of the mother in photos of her eight months pregnant self at this very spa . . . Bad Salzuflen in NorthRhine Westphalia.  When I was eight months pregnant with my second child, who happened to be exceedingly large at birth, my hips felt as though they might crack.  Nothing soothed them like a swim in a salty, warm waters of Bad Salzuflen.  Boiling salty water geysers out of the earth, is controlled by feats of German engineering and then pumped, in various shades of temperature from pleasantly toasty down to freeze-your-booties-off cold in a variety of pools.  No American could possibly afford this if indeed it exists in the States and I would bet you, dollars to doughnuts, that it does not.  You can swim laps in a large outdoor pool, even when there's snow on the ground.  You can soak in a hot pool and have your ankles automatically massaged by hidden jets of water, and then jump into a freezing pool.  Then there's the sauna.  You park your bathing suit in a plastic cubbyhole and enter the coyly designated "textile-frei" sauna area:  clothing is verboten here and patrons wander naked or draped in towels which are immediately removed to lie upon in the very hot saunas.  There's the "fire" sauna, which at 95º Celsius (that's 203 ºFahrenheit) is quite warm.  There's another one that's only 85º C. but I could hardly tell the difference.  I was sweating buckets within minutes, and found more than minutes unendurable.  But sweat is what you are supposed to do, and then you're supposed to run outside and dive in the cold pool, or rub crushed ice over your neck and chest, and/or consume little conveniently placed cups of vanilla and chocolate ice cream.  Now all this was just the outdoor saunas.  Inside, a little halo of saunas in designated themes ("Colore," "Rustico," "Nebbio") radiate off the main room like chapels in a cathedral.  Each delivers what it promises:  in "Colore" the lights flicker becomingly in shades of yellowy-orangey-red to blue and purple and then green; that's the least hot sauna, at 55º Celsius or a mere 131º Fahrenheit.  In "Rustico" you're treated to herbal aromas emanating from the hot brick walls.  The hottest one here is "Silencio" at 100º Celsius or 212º Fahrenheit, and you're silent because speech involves inhaling and you're too baked to do it.  "Nebbio" turns out to be a steam room, but it seems as hot as "Silencio."  Germans believe that all this is very good for something that they call your KREISLAUF, which literally translates as circulation but actually means quite a bit more . . . the sine qua non of health is your Kreislauf.  If it is going, you are in good shape.  If you are dizzy, fatigued, anemic, overweight, depressed, or feeling a general lack of energy or enjoyment, then your Kreislauf is out of whack and you better get yourself into the sauna, where you sweat, sweat, sweat and then go out and plunge into freezing water.  Sometimes the staff leaves herbally-aromatised rock salt around in bowls, which you rub onto your skin.  Then more freezing water!  By the time you are done with this process, you are lobster red and pleasantly tired.  If you are American, you're ready for dinner.  Same if you are German, but if you are German you also feel that your Kreislauf is now ticking away, utterly recharged.  You feel virtuous; you feel that your body has been exhalted to healthy heights.  It is sort of like finding out your HDL and LDL are perfect.  Then you go eat pizza or Greek food and stagger off to bed  . . . . in rose-covered sheets.  The Haus Cecilie, a charming little place, has hallways filled with stained glass windows and an imposing porcelain guard dog, a proprietress eager to make sure we have internet access.   Now, off to another day in the hot tubs and saunas . .  .

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to the Sacred Animal

We are in the land of the pig, the great and powerful pig, whose juices infiltrate almost every food item . . . when I first moved to Germany more than fourteen years ago, a guidebook advised me that when it comes to the pig, Germans make use of "everything but the squeal."  Whenever we took the kids to the supermarket they were invariably handed a slice of a bologna-like substance called "Gelbwurst," for which, alas, they developed a taste.
Now that I am trying to go meatless, that is.  I've been buying soya sausages and soya burgers and lots of tofu; the thirteen year old assures me that these do not cut the mustard, or as he says: "I'm German.  I like MEAT!"  But I like stir-fried tofu delicately flavored with ginger, lots of garlic, sesame oil, and the fronds of some fern-like Chinese cabbage that I found at the Asian store.
When my brother in law had his fiftieth birthday party, he followed German custom and hired a hall complete with banquet.  And invited the whole village.  This is standard procedure, as is the alternate:  I phoned a friend whose sixtieth birthday it was, but it took quite a bit of sleuthing to reach her at all; various friends indicated that they weren't supposed to tell anyone where she was and they were informing me only because my birthday happens to fall on the same day.  So I reached her in the hotel in Switzerland, where she was hiding out.  "I hate birthdays," she confided, ashamed.  German custom dictates that one invite all one's friends to a big party.  Or all one's colleagues.  Or both.  There's no such thing as the birthday girl or the birthday boy being taken out to a restaurant by his or her friends.  He or she throws the big party, and the party, traditionally, boasts pig in every form that pig can be cooked, baked, boiled, fried and fricasseed.   When the Brazilian dancers zumba-zumbad in to my brother in law's birthday . . .  he was almost too filled with pork and too plastered to enjoy them:  I thought that was the high point, but oh noooo!  The great god pig had to be brought in, first even more of it on our plates and then in real life:  a squealing, thumping piglet.  The piglet's name, "Terminator," he earned by sturdily resisting being enclosed in a crate, in which he was carried, on a litter, by four strong guys in Bavarian Lederhosen.  He made his presence thoroughly known; he was even allowed out to skitter around the dining hall in a spirited, but futile attempt at escape.  As my daughter, entirely in tune with local custom, said, after patting him, "First he's sweet--and then he's meat!"  And she made up a German version of this, too:

Erst ist das Schweinchen süß,
 Dann isst man schon die Füß.

(First the piggy is sweet, and then you eat his feet).  And I do believe that she enjoyed eating the sausages made out of little Terminator as much as she enjoyed scratching his cute little ears.  Which were probably eaten by somebody, possibly even me, since on cold Winter nights I find sausage an appealing food.  But I just like it; I don't worship it.  Nothing gets my husband going like reminiscences of the delicious pig's feet he had in . . . various locations . . .  nothing makes him more indignant than a Northern German's incorrect answer to the question of how one cooks a Bavarian Weisswurst, a delicacy properly consumed around eleven in the morning, with beer:  my husband, standing on line at a grocery somewhere in Westphalia, heard the woman ahead of him, another Northern German, ask how one cooked this interesting Bavarian sausage, Weisswurst.  The clerk waved her arms around, saying, "Oh, you can fry it."  Which, incidentally, makes it explode, usually on the ceiling.  Weisswurst has to be placed in boiled water and left there for a certain precise time, which varies slightly according to whichever region of Bavaria you might be visiting. 
Mmmmmm, mmmm good.  First he's sweet . . .then he's meat!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Critical Mom and the Diplomatic Dad

The critical Mom yells.   She yells whenever the energetic ten year old throws a ball around the living room.  She yells because he has a basketball hoop in his room, and plenty of balls in there.  She yells because she had told him this ten thousand times before and sometimes when she actually sees the tennis ball smacking the wall, she takes away his computer.  She yells because we have a perfectly nice yard outside, where he can throw a ball around.  She yells because once, a long time ago, one of those balls hit the Diplomatic Dad's favorite beer stein, which smashed, leaving glass shards all over the living room floor, and children in socks, who had to be shooed out, nearby.   She yells because she feels guilty that she and the Diplomatic Dad have never managed to summon the energy to clear out and re-model the cluttered, spiderweb-decorated basement where a dart board hangs forlornly, hardly used in cold weather, where you can see your breath down there.  
The Diplomatic Dad returns from Mexico laden with presents, and the most expensive, and also the most beautiful, is the carved obsidian head of an Aztec sun god, lapis lazuli disks complementing his blazing white eyes, a malachite and glittering orange jadeite design forming his imposing headdress.  He  is a protector of the family, the Diplomatic Dad explains, and he came all the way from Teotihuacan, the huge archeological site, complete with pyramids, of pre-Columbian America.   The middle child's eyes grow round.
"This one cost the most," says the Diplomatic Dad matter-of-factly.  "So I would be really angry if someone were, say, playing ball in here and it broke."
The ten year old asks, "If I broke it, would that mean that our family had no more protection?"  A pregnant pause ensues, in which the Critical Mom and the Diplomatic Dad exchange a glance indicating our temptation to allow this convenient delusion to prevent further breakages in the living room.  But we shake our heads.
"No," the Diplomatic Dad concedes, "We still have plenty of protection."
But the Aztec God is so beautiful and he stares ahead so resolutely.  It is good to have him peering out across our living room from his perch above the TV.  The Critical Mom is sure that he is protecting us.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Critical Mom and The Girl from Ipanema

It was always a favorite song, and last year my husband and I were on Ipanema beach together, and I was the girl and he was watching me and we went swimming.  I am not tall, I am not tan, I am not young, and I would never in a million years consider looking straight ahead not at him, so he still thinks I'm lovely.  
     Rio, a fun house mirror version of New York, as if  built by the architect of the Bizarro Superman series, boasted extremes of wealth and poverty: the homeless man in rags selling bananas in front of the gorgeous, gated apartment buildings, and contrasts:  the contemporary art museum, itself a flying-saucerlike apparition, jutted over a gorgeous beach with its pathologically polluted bay.  The scenery out the window far surpassed the art, except that you knew the people foraging in that incredibly polluted bay were exposing themselves to toxic waste.  And the ever-present vultures overhead knew it, too.  But the girl, the lucky girl from Ipanema, is somehow untouched by all this.
     I used to hum "The Girl From Ipanema" daily with my first room-mate out of college:  every day we scooted off to our jobs in publishing that led nowhere with our pearls in place, scones and coffee in hand, and that song on our lips.  And when we went up to Columbia in the evening on weekends, to take graduate courses in order to get away from the jobs in publishing that led nowhere, we were greeted every time we stepped off the platform at Broadway and 110th by the guy who sang, 

As she waits for the One IRT
She looks straight ahead not at me . . . 

And now I find, reading my middle child the Skulduggery Pleasant books, that the hero, Skulduggery, while enduring torture from the evil wizard, Nefarian Serpine, fills the interludes between Nefarian's torments by singing "The Girl From Ipanema," which I began to sing, nostalgically, to my ten-year-old.
"All right, all right, Mommy!  So you know some songs and I know others.  Enough."

Okay.  Stephen Sondheim having provided a boy from Ipanema ("Whyyyy are his trousers vermilion?  Whyyyyy does he claim he's Castilian?") and somebody, Frank Sinatra, it seems,  even a girl with emphysema, we've ended up with Loose Bruce Kerr's "The Guy from Al Queda":

Short and fat and bearded and flapping
The guy from al Queda in Iraq goes Jihadding. . . 

 I wonder what the homeless guy at the 110th street subway station is singing now . . . on my last two trips to New York, he wasn't there and nobody was singing a New York version of the girl "who waits for the One IRT."

Oh well.  My husband and I will always have Ipanama.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ten Fun Facts from The Critical Mom

1. A Mormon friend just called to invite me to her baby's blessing and delivered this enchanting tidbit:  "None of the Mormons I know are voting for Mitt Romney."  Her mother seconded the motion, adding "I don't trust him."

2. Home schooled children are sought after by American universities:  universities find that they are far better prepared than other applicants.

3. The German title of "Bringing Up Baby" is "Leoparden küsst man nicht" (One Doesn't Kiss Leopards).

4. A pregnant goldfish is called a twit.

5.  Obama's favorite book is Moby Dick.  But he has read all the Harry Potters, and can bench-press 200 pounds. (about 91 kilos)

6.  There are over 300 kinds of bread in Germany, and gummy bears were invented by a German.

7.  The United States has no official language--even though English is the language of government.

8.  The first soup ever made was hippopotamus soup.

9. Buckingham Palace was built in 1702 on the site of a brothel.

10.  In Greece, voting is required by law for everyone age 18 and up.