Monday, December 31, 2012

"Dinner For One" and The Critical Mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

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

My Dear Mr. Burroughs,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Gun Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The NRA, Gun Control, and the Critical Mom

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Sandy Hook Shootings in Newtown and the Critical Mom

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Clackamas Mall Shootings and The Critical Mom

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

Friday, December 7, 2012

Another Onion Recipe from the Critical Mom

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

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

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

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stardom and The Critical Mom

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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Critical Mom's Crisis Management

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