Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tick, Tick, Tick . . . The German Teacher, the German Kid, and Lyme Disease

Our daughter went on a class trip to a gorgeously woodsy area of Northwestern Germany where, she informed me as she was just about to head out the door, 
"the teacher said there might be some ticks."
Ever anxious, I vaulted out of her room and returned with my preventive measures, namely the following "therapy-grade" essential oils: 
100% Lavender
100% Cedar
100% Rose Geranium 
 100% Citronella oil 
"No, no, Mommy!" she shook her increasingly determined little head.  "She said only maybe there might be some."  Time was on her side.  She was due for the bus right then.
And I figured Germany didn't really have that many bugs.  Surely the teacher would have said something.  So okay.
Well, we are folks who hardly ever use our cell phones.  We're old.  We don't like them.  And they would have been turned off anyway, because we were at the theater seeing King Lear--an astonishingly good King Lear by a Royal Shakespeare troupe performed in a replica of the Globe Theater.  I still can't figure what actors that good were doing staging a  show for the likes of us in . . . from their point of view, the sticks.  Anyway, there we were, enjoying the show, cell phones utterly off.
So we got home at midnight and the babysitter said the teacher had phoned twice.  "Was she allowed to remove ticks that had burrowed into our daughter's skin?"
Hyperventilating, I called her back.  "Yes, please do remove them right away!  You can always remove them!"
By the time she had tweezed out the things with a special contraption specially made for tick-removal, the ticks had already settled down comfortably for the night, having been cozily buried for the previous two hours under several layers of my daughter's epidermis.
Oh, it is so German that the law in these parts requires the teacher to phone us before she removes a tick from our child . . . because technically she is performing "surgery."  Or something.
How long does it take for infected ticks to transmit poison?  How likely are Northwestern German ticks to be as bad as American ticks?  Would a blood test show anything?  Should we dump a load of antibiotics into our little sweetie even before the blood test offers what are likely to remain inconclusive results?  It helped not at all that the New Yorker that I just received--the July 1 issue--includes an essay, "The Lyme Wars," all about how the lyme disease rate of infection continues to grow.
One reassuring statistic--that it takes 36 hours for a bug to transmit a disease--may be entirely inaccurate.
So do we call the pediatrician when the kid seems fine and has nothing to show for her ordeal but the faintest of pink spots where the teacher's tweezers pulled out the offending insects?  Then she checked my kid, and all the other kids, at the hairline, the ankle-line, and every other line except the places where they were supposed to check themselves.  I can rely on the German sense of order and of thoroughness:  there ain't no more ticks on our kid's body.
But what about the two the teacher removed?  Were they sick bugs or well bugs, and how do I find out which?  Probably by becoming God, and that doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Would You Hide Edward Snowden?

Die Zeit ("The Times") Germany's most intellectually engaged newspaper, has a banner headline in the June 27 issue:  "Würden Sie diesen Mann verstecken?"  ("Would you Hide this Man?") complete with a romantically windswept photo melange of Snowden looking soulful.
Yes, Edward, yes, yes, yes!  We'd be one stop on your underground railway!  You could hide in our attic or in one of several rooms in our basement.  The guest room would be fine with us:  it has a comfy bed, a nice little blue rug and some lovely plants on the windowsill.  You could roll down the shade and no one would see you.
Ecuador?  Iceland? Venezuela?  En route to anywhere you want, do call us.  Code Name?  Secret message?  Gee, how do we do that one?  Hmmmm.  I have never done this before, obviously.  But hey, "Espionage Ed," I'm sure you'll find a way, and you know what?  You could even have the clubhouse the kids and my husband built in our back yard.
Now, I know we'll probably find ourselves disappointed, but we do have a well-stocked larder.  My real point: if every little blogger whom nobody reads sends you this invitation--I know, it sounds like that Peter Pan line, every time a child says, 'I don't believe in fairies,' there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead”--but I persist:  if every little blogger with less than 30,000 hits invites you to tea, or to stay overnight, or even two nights, well, then all zillion of us are offering a roof over your head and what can "they" do?
I'm reading The Daily Beast and the New York Times and everybody hysterically speculating that you are not a hero but an egomaniac and are, as we speak, making deals with China and destroying American interests. Or they think you're a schizoid personality.  Maybe you are.  So what.  So was Johnny Appleseed.  Like him, you're a visionary.
I don't get the impression that all this paranoia and fanfare and gasping "The last time a spy defected. .  ." stuff has anything to do with you.  I think you did just want to show that folks out there are really reading my blog.

So, how about a few flash mobs, and everyone will sing (to the tune of "Bye, Bye, Birdie"):

We love you Edward
Oh yes we do-hooo
We love you Edward
And we'll be true-hoo . . . . 

I think you have a network of concerned citizens here who remember J.Edgar Hoover going nuts over the Berkeley Free Speech movement, (I'm not proud of him in general: Joe McCarthy questioning Lucille Ball,  Japanese-Americans herded into camps in the deserts, Arab-Americans persecuted for walking down the street and buying a pack of cigarettes, plus that Ur-event of them all, the Salem Witch Trials.  Right after 9/11 we happened to visit Salem and saw FBI manhunt posters of Osama bin Laden staring out of telephone poles and coffee houses.  And my husband said:  "Salem.  Proudly hunting witches for three hundred years."  That about sums it up.
Edward: We'll keep the light on for ya. 

P. S. Remember Daniel Ellsberg! 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Love, the Lovings, and The Supreme Court Rulings on Gay Marriage

      In March, 1924, the state of Virginia established a "Racial Integrity Act" plus a "Sterilization Act" that brings to mind the Nuremburg laws.  The Virginia laws required that every person be categorized at birth as "white" or "colored" and defined race by the "one-drop rule," meaning that any person with "one drop" of African blood must be categorized "colored."  The laws criminalized all marriages between "white" and "colored" as well as mandating sterilization of any person deemed "feebleminded."  Wealthy first families of Virginia claiming descent from the Indian princess Pocohantas got an exception . . . the one drop rule hardly applied to them.  Even if they had one-sixteenth Indian blood, they remained "white" under Virginia law.
     As gay people finally get to tie the knot, I hope we all remember how American ideas about race interfered with marriage in 1967 and beyond.  And how bizarre our ideas about sex continue to be.  How many folks commenting on the front-page New York Times article on the Supreme Court rulings complained that gay people ought to be content with legal partnerships, not marriage.  Separate but equal, the dismal failure that made a charade out of the right to equal treatment under the law,  continues to haunt us.  And it's all about sex.  Who's having it, who isn't, when it's legit, when it isn't . . . the Christian Right's temper tantrum about gay marriage just won't go away.  Witness: 

So, back to the Lovings, who were charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia, and Section 20-59, which classified "miscegenation"--now, there's an archaic concept-- as a felony, punishable by a prison sentence of between one and five years. The trial judge in the case, Leon M. Bazile, reveling in the archaism, proclaimed: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix. ” On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pled guilty and got sent to prison with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia. They did so, moving to the District of Columbia. 
 "Tell the court I love my wife!" Richard Loving said to his lawyer, who was to argue the case before the Supreme Court. 
 And the Supreme Court did listen. 
 And now, the Supreme Court listened to gay people too. 
 America the beautiful!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Jazz Up Your Chicken (or Fish) with The Critical Mom

If the kids are tired of the same old garlic salt on their chicken drumsticks, or if your husband yawns at the sight of your whole-lemon-stuffed-in-the-bird with garlic and rosemary special, then here's an answer to the problem that is easy enough for Peg Bracken:

The Oil and Vinegar herbs and rubs collection.  Oil and Vinegar is a growing chain--they started in the Netherlands, they're conveniently located at our local train station in Germany, and they have a number of stores in a number of U.S. States.

So here's the latest:

Rinse chicken drumsticks (or breasts, or a whole bird) and pat dry.  Arrange in smallish pan, so that the juices surround the bottom of the bird rather than dispersing and burning while the chicken is in the oven.

Take a spoonful or two of the Oil and Vinegar brand Tzatziki mix and sprinkle it over the chicken.  Add a little sea salt--not much, since the Tzatziki mix includes some salt.
Sprinkle on a bit of Lemon Pepper mix over the bird and shove it in the oven.  

Alternatively:  Instead of the Tzatziki mix (or on top of it) use their Wild Garlic mix. Or their Australian Bush Mix.  Browse their collection; it's way better than plain ole garlic salt.

Try cooking this on fairly low heat--160ºC (320ºF) for 90 minutes.  If you're in a hurry, put the oven to 180ºC or 360ºF for about an hour--the chicken should be crisp, not burned.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Teenager, The Party, The Electronics, and the Helicoptoring Critical Mom

Actually I only helicoptored during breakfast, when I made blueberry pancakes for my three children plus the seven friends of my fourteen-year-old who had spent the night upright and online.  I woke up around four and heard guffaws, realized that they came from downstairs and thought to myself:  they are not outside, they are safe in the living room.  Not one drop of alcohol has been served and no drugs whatsoever, unless you count the freakishly evil characters in the computer game--medieval music spews forth as figures in helmets sprouting antelope horns charge around hacking each other to pieces; blood spurts forth like champagne after a cork hits the ceiling.  Somebody resembling Bill Sykes, complete with big black stovepipe hat brandishes a repeat-fire assault weapon (but then why does he have a quiver filled with arrows strapped to his back?) Bill Sykes goes up in flames just as I hand a pancake to a kid so enthralled with the game that he can barely remember to eat.  
They are all laughing.  They are not drinking, they are not crashing into things in a car, they are not doing drugs.  This is now my mantra.
As the guests began to arrive yesterday afternoon, my fourteen-year-old picked up some gizmo (a gameboy, I believe--we never had one) and said, with an enchanting leer:  "Mommy, you deprived me throughout my childhood!  You only read to me instead of giving me Pokemon games!"
His nine-year-old sister picks up the Complete Works of Goethe lying on the table and reads out a poem she relishes, and has nearly memorized: 

Ein junger Mensch ich weiß nicht wie,
Starb einst an der Hypochondrie
Und ward dann auch begraben.
Da kam ein schöner Geist herbei
Der hatte seinen Stuhlgang frei,
Wie ihn so Leute haben.
Der setzt sich nieder auf das Grab,
Und legt ein reinlich Häuflein ab,
Schaut mit Behagen seinen Dreck,
Geht wohl erathmend wieder weg,
Und spricht zu sich bedächtiglich:
„Der arme Mensch, er dauert mich
Wie hat er sich verdorben!
Hätt' er geschissen so wie ich,
Er wäre nicht gestorben!''

And I think to myself:  yes, that was seventeen well-spent euros.  They are actually reading the Goethe I bought for them.  Thank goodness I got all of Nietzsche on sale for five euros . . . otherwise I'd really be going broke.  Here's a rough translation in modern English:

A young man, I don't know who
Once died of Hypochondria
And was then buried
Along came a handsome ghost
Who really had to go
The way people do
He sat himself down on the grave
And put a nice heap there
Looked comfortably at his poop
With a sigh of relief
And said thoughtfully to himself
The poor guy, I pity him,
How he made things miserable for himself
If he'd pooped like me,
He wouldn't have died. 

It's even more fun in German, a language boasting a long tradition of anal humor.  To which it has no exclusive claim, let me remind you--our own Benjamin Franklin having produced Fart Proudly, available on Amazon:
I must admit, however, that Germans have even more imagination in this department, and if you will take the time to watch their version of Saturday Night Live, you will see what I mean.

P.S. Edward Snowden, don't come home.  Stay safe, now! And continue to save the world from your little eyrie, wherever it might be.  And you know what, PRISM?  You can refract every word of what I've ever written, said, and probably even thought every which way, but you will not find any knowledge of this brave young man's location. 
I hope everyone has read the May 13, 2013 NYRB review of  Seth Rosenfeld's book about J.Edgar Hoover and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: see 
for information about the book, and think of Edward Snowden's lonely battle. Why is a president who wanted a transparent government going after a lone hero who is into transparency?  Why we talking about those cute cupcake photos of Snowden's girlfriend instead of his discoveries?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Data Mining, PRISM, Paranoia, and The Critical Mom

Edward Snowden, I love you.
What the heck do AOL, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Google and YouTube, Microsoft and Skype, and some company I'd never heard of, PalTalk, think they're doing?  Are they picking through my emails, phone calls, conversations uttered while sitting home in my living room for evil thoughts?  Is some lonely government-employed schnook with a headset, an electronic game or a part of his own anatomy in his hand, dully recording the words "Arab," "Terrorist," and "Bomb? on his U.S.-government issued Mac?"  
Do they know about the time I was at JFK returning to Germany with my fifteen-month-old daughter on my back, several suitcases, and my mother trotting along wanting to "help?"  This particular incident would surely make any FBI guy keep an eye on me . . . or at least on her.
 We were standing at the counter.  This was about three and a half years after 9/11 and people were worrying about that and about the guy with the gunpowder in his shoes and the matches.  The woman behind the counter asked to see my knapsack and I handed it over.  As she unzipped it, she read slowly from a list.
"Do you have any sharp objects?" she began.
"No," I said.
"Do you have any--"
My mother interrupted:  "She doesn't have any bombs!"  and giggled, delighted with her wit.  The women questioning me looked very serious.
"I'm sorry," I babbled.  "I didn't say that.  My mother is, is, eighty-eight."  Which is about what she was at the time, but you'd never know it.  She could pass for a spry fifty-six, i.e. my age, and her face suggests something of the glory of the toddler who is always right.  She just sent me a photo of herself, posed appropriately under the Arc de Triomphe, her balletic foot elegantly stretched, her youthful face (she had a cosmetic neck lift at 89) gazing  poetically off into the distance.
You'd never know.
The lady behind the counter did not know, and clearly did not believe me when I stated my mother's age.
"You'll need to come with me, please," she said with the deliberately neutral professional air of someone dealing with a nutcase.
I hauled my suitcases over, my daughter beginning to be tired and howl and pull my hair, my mother keeping up a steady, loud stream of chatter: "My goodness, doesn't anyone have any sense of humor!"  Giggle.
"Please, Mom."
She dug her elbow into my ribs.  "Come, on, lighten up!"
The lady opened my suitcases and looked through the contents, closed them again.  I reminded her that I had not "said that," and that I did not believe the remark to be funny.   I was then allowed to stand online for the metal detectors.  My mother stood with me, discoursing on the lack of humor of folks at JFK.
When I was pulling my suitcases off the revolving belt at Düsseldorf, they looked different.  They had stickers all over them.  I rolled them out the nothing-to-declare door and opened them.  Every folded garment had been unfolded and stuffed back in every-which-way.  All items were topsy-turvy; the contents looked as though they'd been stirred by a Cro-Magnon and thrown back in. 
So yesterday as I sat watching CNN talk about PRISM and President Obama tell everyone their phones were not being tapped, I thought . . . hey!  Maybe someone is reading my blog!  Oh, you, out there underground in Utah, finger held over a button, or oh, you!  Somewhere behind a torn-open bag of potato chips and your own computer deep under the C.I.A. . . . I do hope you're enjoying this blog.  Especially after my teenage son, who was also watching the CNN segment on PRISM made a point of saying, when I asked if the guinea pigs had been brought in from their sojourn in their little cage in the back yard, "You mean the guinea pigs?"  It is hard to convey the degree of insinuation expressed in his tone of voice, followed by every word connected to every terrorist act he could think of.    Just because Mommy is paranoid.  He's a nice kid, really.  He reads Ken Follett and gets good grades.  And those really were little furry creatures who like carrots in our back yard.  Nothing else.  Honest.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Charlotte's Web and The Critical Mom

I have a friend who is a child psychoanalyst.  He is in his fifties, has a great deal of experience in his field, and belongs to one of the most prestigious psychoanalytic institutes in the United States.
When I mentioned Charlotte's Web to him, his face fell and his voice sunk to a whisper.  "I read that book when I was eight years old and I cried for three days."
"Three days?"
"When Charlotte died, I cried for three days!"  He won't be reading that one to his kids. 
When I was in third grade, I read the book after my mother bought it for me at my school's book fair.  I treasured it and Stuart Little because I had selected them myself, because they were hardcovers and came in a fancy box, and because she she actually bought them for me when I was sure she'd say "no."
I loved the illustrations.  I loved the story.  I don't remember crying when Charlotte died, although I know I must have been sad.  I felt sorry when the book ended. 
Armed with my friend's reminiscences, I proceeded with caution while reading Charlotte's Web to my sons, then ages eight and six, ready to reassure them that Charlotte lives a full life, has babies, and experiences the satisfaction of achieving her main goal, the salvation of Wilbur.  I even bought a children's book, David L. Rice's Lifetimes,  
which details the life cycles of a number of plants, animals, and insects, ranging from giant sequoias that last around 2,000 years to mayflies, who live only one day.  I wanted to be able to document that Charlotte lived a long life for her species.

My boys never asked about Charlotte or her death.  Taking me completely by surprise, they asked why the goose lays eight eggs, but one of them never hatches.  

We were all walking uphill to the tram stop when the boys started discussing the scene in the book when the baby geese are born.  Then came,

"Why doesn't that egg hatch?"  I had the answer the goose gives herself all ready:  "I don't know.  It's a dud, I guess."

 But they were not satisfied.

"Why, Mommy?"

 "That's just something that happens in nature sometimes."

"Did that ever happen to you, Mommy?"

Now came the moment where I didn't want to answer.  If I tell the truth, I'll scare them, I thought.  If I don't, I'm lying.   What good answer could I give?  

"Yes," I said.  "It did."  


"That is just one of those things.  Sometimes an animal or a baby just stops growing, and no one knows why."

Is that the answer I should have given?  It certainly had them talking.  "The one that didn't live!"  is a phrase I have heard more than once.  

"Besides," I told them, thinking up a distraction too late, "That goose egg turns out to be really important.  Because of that egg, Charlotte gets saved from an untimely death:  Avery tries to whack her out of her nest with a stick, but falls backward onto Wilbur's trough, under which lies a goose egg that never hatched.  The stink of rotten egg drives Avery out of the barn." A friend of mine leaned toward lying or distraction, disapproving when she learned I'd told the kids the truth.  But my hunch is that children ask questions like this when they already know the answer.  They must have picked up, at some time and in some way, that I'd experienced a loss and felt sad about it.  My younger son had not been born yet when I had my miscarriage, but the eldest was a year old, and I'd had to hire a sitter for the day in order to go to the doctor, and he must have noticed that I wasn't feeling good and wasn't available.  In fact I'd been doubled over with cramps so bad they made me vomit in the bathroom, and he'd been alone for about fifteen minutes of that.  He may have been watching Barney, at the time, but he probably realized something was up.  Death is a shocker and a taboo topic because most people living in Western industrialized countries don't see much of it.  My daughter cried when Charlotte died.  She is almost nine years old, and "it's so sad, Mommy!"  I couldn't find the Lifetimes book the night I finished reading her Charlotte's Web, and had to read her a page of a Beverly Clearly Ramona book--Ramona's endlessly amusing misadventures distracted her.  But my daughter did not cry for three days, and I think it would have been a mistake to pretend that Charlotte comes back to life.  I told her all the things I had been planning to tell the boys about Charlotte, and I told her that death is a part of life.  I could see from the look on her face how unfair that was, so I moved on to Charlotte's babies and life going on.  

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Critical Mom and the Cost of Living

Twenty-three euros and nineteen cents after entering Lidl, a local grocery chain in Northwestern Germany,  I had a 5 kilo (11 pound) chicken, a 50 gram (1.7 ounces) bottle of garlic powder, another of paprika, a third of thyme, and the last of a chicken seasoner that reminded me of Lawry's salt.  I had three large lemons, a bunch of scallions, a small plastic pack of cherry tomatoes, a pack of sliced goat cheese, a pack of sliced Gouda, a small container of spreadable goat cheese, a pack of four small packages of salad seasoning, and five small chocolate bars for an upcoming birthday party.  And a heavy, re-usable cloth bag in which to carry it all home, every bit as politically correct (fair trade!!) as its American counterparts that'll cost ya, cost ya, cost ya.

The same items would run me about six times as much on the Upper West Side at the West Side Market.  Lidl lohnt sich runs the German store's motto, translating, approximately, as Lidl makes itself worthwhile, or Lidl creates savings.

Indeed.  We get on the tram--my daughter and I--me marveling at how much I got for how much I did not spend, she leaning back on the kind of plush seat that hasn't graced New York subways since I was five years old.  Eons ago.

We get off the tram and walk toward our house, which is like something out of a Thomas Mann novel, all gables and high ceilings and enough secret passageways to run several underground railroads--and again it occurs to me that in Manhattan I'd have to be Donald Trump to afford this much space and quiet--plus a gigantic back yard that comfortably accommodates a guinea pig cage, a swing set, a clubhouse built with materials that fell off the back of a truck when there was construction next door, and a small round swimming pool big enough to float in. 

So it is paradise.  The only problem with paradise is that it is here . . . not in New York.  But meals are always entertaining, the children at the moment honing their "diss" skills, pretend-insulting each other, as in: "You're so ugly that Medusa would turn to stone if she looked at you!" and "You're so fat your blood group is Nutella!" and "You're so dumb you order Weisswurst (the favorite Bavarian sausage) in a Chinese restaurant."  And I sit back, relax, take a sip of chilled white wine, and enjoy the show.