Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Critical Mom Writes

"Writing is easy," Robert Benchley remarked.  "You just stare at the blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."
Or you escape to your blog, slap up a recipe or a cute thing one of your kids said, and call it a day.  But the thing I've been writing for so long keeps vaulting into my head and giving me nightmares.  Unless it's the diet that's giving me the bad dreams in which someone is being chased or terrorized or drowning.  Computers make you lose track of revision.  Writing the whole thing longhand might be the way to go . . . writing it out by hand slows you down, although it doesn't necessarily make you think more clearly.  The story shifts in your head.  It makes no sense.  It was never any good.  It's ridiculous.  Tear up the printout and toss it over your shoulder where it lands on the other balled-up papers and makes no sound.  
It seems less awful than yesterday's version, but it ain't there yet.
I am not as funny as David Sedaris, whom I once met before he was David Sedaris, in a humor-writing class at the 63th street Y--the old McBurney Y.  I sat around a table with smartly dressed women who had just come from work.  In crept a dishevelled guy with a three-day growth who seemed peculiar.  I sat at the opposite end of the table from him.  The teacher--a jolly Englishwoman--asked everyone to read something.  Four people read highly forgettable things.  A serious woman with a deep voice read a parody of Sylvia Plath that made me laugh out loud.  She looked disgusted.
"That's the crowd-pleaser," she said, radiating disappointment.  
The disheveled guy read.  He read what soon became known as The SantaLand Diaries.  He was riveting.  
"Can I touch the hem of your garment?" is what I thought.  He left and never came back to class, but I remembered him when I read his wonderful description of being a Santa's elf at Macy's.  Last year I assigned that in a class on dystopias in American literature. 
If only I could be as funny as Sedaris.  If only touching the hem of his garment could transfer his brilliance, and make it all easy.
I like the story in Bird by Bird, Anne LaMott's guide to writing.  Students sit in a writing class clamoring for the trick to getting an agent.  The speaker just picks up a legal pad and pencil and starts writing.  They ask again.  Mutely, she picks up that pencil and that pad and writes.
Write, write, write.  Maxine Hong Kingston talked herself into it with the idea that no-one but she herself would ever read it. 
That is, of course, my greatest fear.
So once in a while my husband reads some of it.  He, too, finds it less awful than it used to be.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Unmanning of Bradley

Will apparently happen soon.  If he has his way.  But not in the way he imagines.  
If he really wants to be Chelsea.  And what a load of associations the average reader makes to that name.  The New York neighborhood.  The Clinton child whose parents had just visited the London, not the New York, neighborhood and who had so fallen in love with the the Joni Mitchell song, "Chelsea Morning," that they decided they wanted to name their child after it.
But oh, Bradley, what gives?  Your timing is lethal.  For you, I mean.  Those creeps down at the prison will eat you alive and I am very much afraid that you could end up like Jeffrey Dahmer, and although I do not believe that he got what he deserved, I can imagine folks thinking that he did.
Here we all are thinking you've been revealing something that Edward Snowden exposed in what seemed to me a more responsible fashion, and now your story is ending the way Tootsie ended, if anyone remembers that spectacular Dustin Hoffman comedy of 1982 whose climax involved an on-screen unveiling of a real sexual identity in a soap opera.
A soap opera is what we've been having, Bradley, ever since they said you had fetal alcohol syndrome because your upper lip was peculiar.  And started interviewing your mother.
And I, who had imagined you were young and tortured because they were making you stand around naked and because you were spending time in prison in the first place began to wonder if you were sane.
All power to your sex-change operation, if you are granted the means to get one.  But you are entering a place whose walls ooze testosterone, whose employees sweat ball-busting hairy machismo, and who will feel challenged, threatened, at the very least exceedingly startled, by your revelations.  They will feel as sympathetically to you as Hitler to the Jews.  Why tell them now? 
I would have told you to keep that hat on Chelsea until you are outta there.  Chelsea doesn't get to date until then anyway .  But now that you are in prison, she's even more likely to get raped.
Unless all this revelation is part of some exceedingly bizarre plea bargain?
POST HOC: Okay, Chelsea's been sprung from the clink, and hurrah! What about Edward Snowden? Let's save him, too!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Another Dieter's Dinner from The Critical Mom

What do you feed three starving people who are beginning to think that tofu tastes "really good, Mommy!"  These are meat-eating German men, too, chowing down on Tofu marinated in garlic, rosemary, and thyme with a little egg and stir-fried in a teaspoon of vegetable oil.

Okay, a square meal for these guys without anything fattening:

First, chop up a zucchini or two and a yellow bell pepper, and enough garlic to make James Beard roll over smiling in his grave.

Throw these into a large frying pan into which you have place a carefully measured tablespoon of olive oil.  Preferably the greenest kind, since you're no longer supposed to fry anything in the stuff but if you do, at least use the green kind.

Set aside.

Pre-heat your oven to 190-200º C or around 375º F

Wash a chicken big enough for three hungry eaters.  Put in pan.  Stuff with the vegetable mixture.  Once it is stuffed, squeeze a lemon or a lime over the chicken, and sprinkle on garlic salt and Lemon Pepper.  Put in oven for an hour.  About fifteen minutes before you take it out, pour over it water in which ginger has been soaking all day.  (This is instead of the white wine I would normally use).

While the chicken is cooking, make some healthy whole grain.  I used large-grained bulgur, the kind from TEMA,

The "fine importer of Arabic foods," as their website accurately remarks, and alas the German housewives won't set foot in the one in our town.  The place needs a facelift, that's why.  The food inside is gorgeous, so ignore the walls that need a paint job, etc.  You never saw fresher vegetables, fresher lamb, and I'm sure it's Halal, or a better selection of inexpensive, high-quality grains, a tamer and more expensive version of which may be found at EDEKA.

So I used large-grained bulgur from Turkey, and I rinsed it in a sieve and dumped it into a frying pan in which was sizzling a diced red onion turning transparent in one tablespoon of olive oil (I won't lie--it wasn't the green kind, but it will be the green kind when I get around to buying the green kind).

Olive oil has a nicer flavor than plant oil.  Rather, it has a flavor, and plant oil doesn't.

So you put in the bulger and stir it around with the onions.   If you were making this dish the non-dietetic way, you'd have added more olive oil so the bulgur really browned.  Anyway, you add grated carrots instead, and pour on chicken broth and simmer on low heat til the bulgur is fluffy.

We ate.  Oh, did we eat.  When my husband cut the chicken the gleaming vegetables with rosemary (forgot to say, added a bit of fresh rosemary) looked like something the Good Housekeeping kitchen would have liked to photograph.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Happy Birthday to Blog": The Critical Mom Turns One

A year ago to the day, my then thirteen-year-old doctored around with my computer and set up this blog, following a stroll down the beach during a disconcertingly disappointing vacation.  It was hot as blazes and humid as New York, although we were in Nantucket, which was supposed to be the breezy antidote to the unbearable city air.  Instead, we had to smear anti-tick essential oils on ankles, wrists and necks before we went out, and I had to dribble peppermint oil all over his bed to dispel bedbugs.  On the beach I used to go to as a child, Dionis, I had promised his younger brother and sister that maybe we would find the clay cliffs that used to be there, near a rock in which quartz pebbles spelled out "Sachem Springs."  I found not the rock but the cliffs, scooped one small handful, and got screamed at by a man who then belted out the perils of cliff erosion.
I thought he was exaggerating until a friend, a native, said, "I have seen a house fall off a cliff."  
As my elder son and I strolled down the pebble beach observing the blue, and still lovely horizon, he came up with the idea that I could write a blog.  And I thank him still, from the bottom of my heart.

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday dear Blah-blah (keep blah-blahing on) Blog
Happy Birthday to you

The year has proved anything but uneventful, and I'm delighted to have two followers. Several readers whom I don't know drop in and comment from time to time and several friends regularly read the blog.  I invite you all to invite your friends to read, and to click on those ads, too.  The Critical Mom would be more than delighted to hear from readers about issues they'd like for her to cover.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Critical Mom's Diet

After the glorious vacation comes the moment when your jeans feel very, very tight--in fact, you really can't wear them anymore, and a trip to the scales shows the dreaded 2.5 kilo gain (over five pounds).   The spectacular food on that cruise--the cheese platters, the shrimp with a dash of sesame oil, the hot waffles with chocolate sauce, milk chocolate, white chocolate, and dark chocolate chips plus the mound of whipped cream . . . that I ate every day.  I used the cross trainer on the ship, which made me feel virtuous and provided the illusion that I was burning "a lot" of calories.
So now comes the diet, and because my husband gained the same amount, as did our fourteen-year-old, we have all decided to suffer together, me on a reduced calorie diet involving loss of fats and wine, and my husband on the same, with a nod to certain favored dishes on the Metabolic Balance diet ( German thing, but American versions of it exist.  
So for breakfast I go wild:  two or three pieces of toasted bread with a spread mixing vegetable oil with butter; a huge cup of café au lait with two tablespoons of sugar; an orange.
Things get tougher around lunchtime.  Yesterday I had a soup made of pulverized cauliflower, chicken broth (the fat-free kind), and scallions, over a plateful of spaghetti.  Dinner was broiled fish (covered in tomatoes, scallions, herbs, and a half-tablespoon of olive oil, a huge helping of steamed broccoli, and less than a cup of brown rice.
It was good.  I felt full for a few minutes.  Crabbiness, occasional headache, slight nausea, and sleepiness are all side effects.
I dream of chocolate-covered waffles and piña coladas.   I dream of hunks of cheddar on water biscuits with a glass of red wine and a few slices of perfectly ripened pear.  I dream of coconut chicken ("Put de lime in de coconut"--also the ginger, the cilantro, the garlic).
On weekends, I will have one glass of wine.  Not two or three.  And maybe on little gob of dessert made of frozen berries, a dab of sugar, lemon, and yoghurt.   See the food network for low-calorie videos.
First world problems!  And they seem so very severe, too!

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling and The Critical Mom

It's a great read, and I read it in exactly the place one enjoys such page-turning "Krimis" as the Germans call detective novels:  the sunny beaches of Stralsund.  Even though I figured out the identity of the killer somewhere around page sixty (or earlier--no spoilers here; I'm not going to tell you exactly on which page I determined this) and even though I correctly guessed the identity of the body that got recovered from the Thames the moment I read that a corpse had been retrieved, I can honestly state that I loved this book as much as I detested The Casual Vacancy--although, curiously enough, some of the same types whom I found tedious in The Casual Vacancy populate this far more successful whodunit.  Robert Galbraith--aka J.K. Rowling--loves to write about low life: models and street people on drugs or booze who lie and cheat, slip into tawdry one-night stands, and exploit anything that breathes.  But in The Casual Vacancy, my problem was my sense that Rowling loathed these characters, that the only reason they existed on the page was that she wanted to vent her hatred of them.  I couldn't find anyone with whom I wanted to side.
The Cuckoo's Calling had me rooting for the underdog detective who just got dumped by his girfriend and whose hugeness and hairy stomach recall Hagrid--except that he's much smarter than Hagrid.  
Cormoran Strike, The Lord Peter Whimsey of Rowling's first published detective novel, is no Lord Peter.   The illegitimate son of a Mick-Jaggerlike figure and a groupie, Strike has, well, many strikes against him in class-conscious Great Britain, but parries them with equanimity.  Favorite moments of mine occurred whenever some irrepressibly curious character inquired about his paternity. 
"So the DNA test said," was one laconic reply; on another occasion he suggested the questioner call him herself to find out.
He is described as a "pube head," no complimentary definition of which I have been able to find. 
How come I was so sure I knew the killer's identity?  I followed a standard formula:  the killer must be the least likely person.  Apart from the detective himself, there seemed to me no character less likely to commit the crime.  Now, in certain other detective novels I have read--but I'm by no means a connoisseur--I've attempted to apply this formula with dismal results.  I never guessed right before, in other words.   Plotting is less strong in Rowling's detective novel than writing, which remains delightful, especially in snappy dialogues.  
I remember sitting beside a friend who was just reading the last third of the seventh Harry Potter book, knew that I had just finished it, and said, "I want to know whether Severus Snape is a bad guy or a good guy--DON'T TELL ME!"  Now, I couldn't have figured out what made Snape tick until Rowling told me, and I found the answers to his personality and behavior that she provided illuminating and satisfying.  I did not have quite the same sense of satisfaction with The Cuckoo's Calling, although I found the detailing of all the motivations leading to the crime--as well as of motivations of other characters--ingenious and entertaining.  A great beach read, but without the powerful originality of the Harry Potter books.  I'm glad to see J.K Rowling stretching herself as a writer, providing us with a detective with, well, magical powers of intuition, but his handicap feels too contrived as a means of making us sympathize with him, and I have a hunch that crime will not be the genre in which Rowling establishes herself,  I know she's sick of Harry Potter and does not wish to write more sequels (Am I the only one who wants second-and-third-generation tales of Ron's and Harry's and Hermione's children and their exploits, and maybe even another dark wizard?)  
I wonder if fantasy is the chief or the best source of Rowling's inspiration--could she write about another magical world, invoke something as different from the world of Hogwarts as, say, Philip Pullman, and produce another epic?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Critical Mom's Perfect Vacation, Part Two

Binz.  Rhymes with Prince, although Americans tend to pronounce it to rhyme with "spins," and your head does do just that, when you realize that this particular beach enjoyed a reputation as the East Hampton of the unacknowledged aristocrats of East Germany before the wall fell, and is now--oh, democracy!--a Coney Island for the hoi polloi.  They are now Prince.
Witness the big yellow rubber thingamajig vaguely reminiscent of a Viking boat, holding ten foolhardy persons in life jackets and hauled . . . rapidly . . . by a motorboat.   Crack the whip until the ten passengers fall out, vomit, or both . . .  a rollercoaster-waterskiing combo.  I saw no signs of vomit, but I did see a convocation of extremely tatooed men waving around beer bottles and speaking a Slavic language.  I did not understand a word, but the object of the game seems to involve the kind of dares your mother told you never to take.  (How far can you pee?  Chug that beer?  How big a . . . never mind).
The water, however, is nice. You can swim for hours.  Which we did, while I looked to my left and contemplated not the great white chalk cliffs of Dover, but those of Rügen, painted by Caspar David Friedrich, the German landscape painter (i.e. of The Sublime).
  Those cliffs are something out of a fairy tale,

 and a fitting opposition to the big (Jugendstil?) style buildings that reminded me of the pavilion at Brighton, and which must have been spas for the upper echelons of the Communist party.  
But now everybody gets to build their own sandcastle, and I saw quite a few lovely ones, complete with shells all over their towers and drawbridges paved with more shells.  
Bathrooms?  We entered at "Angang 27" or ramp 27.  A little arrow pointed toward the "WC" and tiny writing informed me that it was 87 meters away.  There's nothing like the Germans for precision.  I walked my 87 meters (about 286 feet) and encountered the bathroom, complete with signs warning the visitor that responsibility for items forgotten there lay with the person who had forgotten them.  And just as I was discovering the bowl in which I was required to put my fifty cents payment, a relic of the DDR reared his head--Cerberus, as I like to think of him, could be smelled from outside the door.  He reeked of ancient pee.  He emerged from his little office behind the bowl just as I had found it and growled at me, and I put in my money and he sank back gratefully into his cave, and pushed around the papers on his desk like a true bureaucrat.
Rügen is a pastiche of politics and style--on the way home we listened to the skeptical German commentator's ideas about why the U.S. is currently closing so many embassies.  Obama--on his birthday, no less--says it is necessary to avoid terrorist attacks.  But the Germans--see The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) have lived through surveillance too recently to swallow the idea that a surveillance state is necessary at all costs.  My husband remembers this same beach, this same place, in the early eighties, when he, a West German, managed a weekend visit with another Westerner.  In the hotel, they were segregated from Easterners.  They had to change marks into Eastern money every day, and if they didn't spend it, they lost it.   Lives of Easterners who talked to them--none did--would not have been worth the proverbial plugged nickel.
See The Lives of Others, and then then re-think the NSA's position. Snob that I am, I'll take today's Rügen over the DDR's Rügen any day. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Critical Mom and the Perfect Vacation

"If there were no if," says a German proverb (Wenn das Wörtchen wenn nicht wär) everything would be perfect.  If only I hadn't bruised or cracked a rib while on board The Good Ship Might as Well Be a Palace.
Back up and I'll trace that line of thought while a pancake browns on one side:  I can highly recommend TUI Cruises, in fact, TUI the travel company.   They have a way of installing German efficiency in the most mañana of Mediterranean or Latin ambiences.   Everything is on time, hot enough, properly cooled, and radiantly polite, even in Mallorca.  The curious thing is that the way they do this is by hiring non-Germans.  The entire housekeeping staff of "Mein Schiff" (My Ship--every guest enjoys the illusion that the ship belongs to him or her personally) hails from a Latin American, Central American country or from Southeast Asia (mostly the Philippines).  
"You know, Mommy," said the eleven-year-old, "the white German workers were paid for being nice, but the Philippino workers were already nice.  The Germans were being paid for being extra-nice."  Now, the kid grew up in Germany and I do believe he's overlooking standard Northern-German reticence:  it's impolite to seem overly interested in one's neighbor in the chilly reaches of the Teutonic world.  But the nice lady from Nicaragua who cleaned our cabin, and the Philipino guy who took care of the unbelievable mess that only three children can create in a tiny cabin with bunk beds, behaved as though they loved us, as though, in fact, nothing could have pleased them more than wiping surfaces globbed with toothpaste, finding clean glasses, making beds . . . when my husband shoved together the un-romantic twin beds and made them up as a cozy double bed, the nice lady from Nicaragua--Isabel is her name--popped in and inquired, in shocked tones, "Who made your bed?"  Clearly she was out for blood and moved toward the bed as if to shield us from the sight of such shoddy workmanship.  
"My husband," I admitted, and she giggled and re-made the bed, and you could have bounced a dime off it. Within the first nanosecond of our acquaintance, Isabel--and Rüel, who took care of the kids--had memorized their names and seemed to know their quirks and to be as fond of them as I am.  The staff aboard TUI were almost pathologically friendly and helpful.  And the German faction of the staff--mostly in concierge and maître d' positions--were as friendly as Germans ever are to strangers, that is, icily polite on the surface, but they'd probably lay down their lives for you if called to do so.
The other thing I bet you would never find on an American cruise line is the German Sauna--temperatures run to 85º C (that's 185º F) and the custom includes dumping ice and buckets of cold water over your head and back after you're roasted, sweating, and red as a boiled tomato in what they call an "Aufguss" which roughly translates as an infusion, but that makes it sound like a tea bag submerged in boiling water.  
No.  You're the tea bag being submerged.  Here's what happens:  You sit on wooden benches atop your towel--your feet must be placed upon your towel, so that your sweat never dampens the wood--among all the other happily expectant naked German people, all looking past the hot sauna rocks through the picture window at the sea with its whitecaps.   It soothes the soul to see the wind whip the waves while you, broiling, remain indoors.  Into the room comes a gorgeous young man or woman from the fitness center, draped in a sarong, and he or she explains that today's Aufguss will be Lemongrass.  Or Citrus-Honey.  In their hands they are carrying a wooden bucket and huge wooden ladle.  The young person--in stark contrast to us blobby, overweight, middle-aged persons, is slim and lithe and walks like a dancer.  The young person ladles the Lemongrass or Citrus-Honey infusion over the hot rocks, which sizzle and belch forth an aromatic, and searing hot, steam.  Taking a towel, the young person whirls it athletically over her or his head, flapping the hot aroma at us, and then flips the towel toward each now profusely sweating person.  
Want to know how Gretel felt when she peeked into the oven and told the witch she didn't know how to climb in?  Try that last flap of the towel during an Aufguss.
After the Aufguss, your husband pours a bucket of cold water over your head, and you yell, "YEOWWW!"  He's coming up behind you now with some ice.  The second time around you try it yourself, without screaming, and it feels like the pleasant tingle of diving into very cold New England water and swimming vigorously.   
But you'd never get this experience on an American cruise. (The American Heart Association tut-tuts: "People with high blood pressure should not move back and forth between cold water and hot tubs or saunas. This could cause an increase in blood pressure.")  
Try telling that to Germans.  I can imagine the look of astonishment.  But "Schwitzen ist gut!" they will say.  It is the way, the truth, the Om.  Sweat your way to health.  And be sure to pour on the ice cubes after.  You'll feel limp, but fine, and after what an American might deem a shock to the system, you get to lie in a 45º C (that's 113º F, and by this time it just feels cozy) sauna whose air is flavored with lavender or rose petals.  Or you can sit in a salt steam bath.
And now we are in Stralsund, and if only I had not aggravated my bruised or cracked rib by turning over in bed and bending over to pick up groceries and reading internet accounts of How It Could Be Broken and Puncture Your Lung (although the ship's doctor was pretty sure it was just bruised) and if only (Wenn das Wörtchen wenn nicht wär) my daughter had not woken up with what would be appendicitis if it were on her right side (but now she's sleeping and probably just needs to go to the bathroom) everything would be dandy.
We are reading A Wrinkle in Time.  She is so mad at The Man With The Red Eyes (the one who is hypnotizing Charles Wallace) that she would like to kill him. If I want to, she adds, I may write that she is not aggressive.  I must say, I was shaking my fist at the Man With The Red Eyes myself.
It is lovely and sunny and everyone but my daughter has consumed blueberry pancakes.  I had some Ibuprofen so now can cough without it being excruciating.  It is a sunny, lovely day, and even though the very complicated German washing machine turned on its own dryer and threatened to shrink up the fourteen-year-old's Nike T-shirts, the day promises to be lovely and sunny.  Friends are a phone call away, the beach a few kilometers, but we are too lazy to move.