Friday, September 27, 2013

Another Low-Calorie Fish Recipe from the Critical Mom

So you're starving, it's Friday night, and normally you let yourself go and have wine, a cheese course after a sumptuous dinner, and then a hunk of chocolate or two after the cheese course.  And more wine.  Here's one method of avoiding all that, but feeling fairly full:

Set your oven to broil.

Slice up a bunch of miniature tomatoes.  Enough to comfortably support two or three six-ounce pieces of salmon filet.

Line the baking dish with the halves of tomatoes.  Rinse your two or three slices of salmon filet and lay them gently across the tomatoes, so that the latter support the fish.

Sprinkle the fish with The Herbs of Your Choice.  I used the MultiCulti blend from Oil&Vinegar containing rosemary, basil, a few other green things, and sea salt:
Plus garlic powder.   But Lemon Pepper and plain ole garlic salt would do just fine.  Squeeze half a lemon over the fish.  

Cut up a red bell pepper into thin strips and lay them over the fish.

Set aside. 

In your steamer, put freshly washed broccoli or string beans.

 Put the fish in the oven and turn the heat on under the steamer.  In about fifteen minutes you can eat.  One glass of wine is okay.

Of course I went off the diet completely after the fish course, gobbling a few hunks of cheese, a few Zwieback, another glass of red wine, and one-and-a-half milk chocolate bars.  But I just had a two-hour tapdance rehearsal so it's okay.

So long as I don't actually gain weight by tomorrow.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

First Position is Last

First Position, the high profile ballet documentary by Bess Kargman, has been out long enough for me to see the trailer a few times on You-Tube and stare at the poster advertising the film taped to the door at our local ballet school.  So we finally bought the DVD.
But much of this film is not really about ballet--not ballet as I knew it watching Makarova, Kirkland, Gregory and Van Hamel back in the seventies.
In those days, too many dancers were cocaine addicts or anorectic or both.  Or married to people with drug problems. 
Nowadays, the problems differ--to a degree.  What First Position reveals is a generation of dancers shaped by brutal overwork--children dancing roles created for mature dancers.   The results of this excessive training--which often starts as early as age three and continues seven days a week--is, for instance, the twelve-year-old Miko Fogarty dancing Kitri from Don Quixote:  Ms. Fogarty, technically driven and musical, has gone on, now that she is sixteen, to greater glories.
But does she menstruate?  Has she ever developed breasts?  At twelve, the bones in her chest were prominent.
Will her feet function when she is twenty-five?  Pointe work should begin around age eleven.  But Fogarty was already dancing Kitri at age twelve, so she must have started pointe around age six.
Will her hips disintegrate before she is twenty-five?
Will she still be able to dance at all at that age?
What kind of strength will this prodigy have after all the hours of excessive, damaging stretching? 
It's one thing to have hip-replacement surgery in your sixties.  Or even your fifties.  But for a dancer to have it in her twenties--that's a bad, bad, sign of the times.
Highly evident from this exceedingly disturbing film--all the more disturbing since so many regard it as an uplifting tribute to dedicated young dancers--is the destruction of ballet as an art.  What is ballet today if not a mix of contortion and acrobatics? Ballet today is hypermobility, or extreme stretching of joints.  It's thrilling to see a leg extend way above the ear, and a degree of hypermobility has always been a part of ballet training.  But First Position shows a turbo-charged, stepped-up training, in which young limbs are stretched daily, young, developing feet go into toe shoes prematurely, and God knows what happens to the mature dancer.
No twelve-year-old was meant to dance a role as technically and emotionally demanding as Kitri, a girl in love.  The role of Kitri requires feisty independence and sexy-know-how--joyfully as Ms. Fogarty danced, she does not have the experience--at least we hope not--to make this role what it should be.The hypersexualizing of children that beauty pageants promote is now evident in ballet competitions.
Miko's mother burst into tears talking about her son quitting ballet.  I have to admire this little boy--thrust, at age ten, into dancing the role of the Swan Prince--having the guts to say no to the mother who is filmed, in a classroom scene, forcing his leg into a stretch that does nothing but destroy the strength he might have had as a mature dancer, should he have chosen to continue his training.  It's not thrilling to see a ten-year-old boy doing tours en l'air (and here's what they are:
  No ten-year-old can do these turns well, and even if an exceptionally coordinated, strong boy manages to do so, the risk of injury or permanent damage is great.  What would his and Miko's stage mother do if her daughter quit?  One of the most chilling moments of First Position occurred when Fogarty described the feelings of a character she was dancing:  "Like a bird struggling to get out of a cage."  Is ballet a cage for her--one that she does not acknowledge?  Is her mother's longing for stardom the fuel keeping the talented daughter going?  Audiences are thrilled to see highly trained children doing tricks on stage.  But this film is about child abuse:  forcing children out of childhood into a version of adulthood that ensures they'll never reach the real thing.  Their emotional life must remain stunted and physically they'll be wreaks.   
Portraits of parents run the gamut from stage mother to supportive.  Or one of these under the guise of the other.  Miko Fogarty's mother pushes, tells her to smile, seems entirely obsessed with the idea of her daughter as a ballerina.  Other parents seem astonished that their son wants to dance, but do all in their power to find him the best teacher available.  Still others see dance as a road out of poverty.
The boys in ballet have it easier than they did a generation ago.  Ballet is filled with masculine, heterosexual boys:  it is no longer exclusively the refuge of gay men who have landed there because they have few other places to be themselves.   But ballet teachers seem, in this film, to live through their students vicariously, to place young students in dangerously demanding roles in order to satisfy their own desires for fame.
The boy from the military family profiled in this film struck me as a victim of a childishly sadistic, possibly pedophilic personality in his teacher:  footage showed the teacher chain-smoking, making bizarre, grinning faces, and slapping his prodigy on the belly and elsewhere whenever he felt like reminding him to pull in his stomach or turn out his thigh.
There are better ways to correct students.
The film showed two very different personalities who had in common their difficult beginnings and their longing to excel in order to remove financial burdens from their families, or even support them:  Michaela de Prince and Joan Sebastian Zamora come from impoverished backgrounds--she was orphaned as a young child in Sierre Leone and adopted by an American couple; he is supporting his family back in Colombia.  These dancers struck me as the most artistically developed of the personalities portrayed in the film--she is a radiant powerhouse, a sort of African-American Melissa Hayden, and he is a gorgeously lyrical, strong dancer whose style lends itself to the Royal Ballet--and he's won a scholarship to their school.  Ms. De Prince has had serious injuries--and no wonder, she is very hyperextended and routinely stretches her legs to what I would consider extremes.  
The brutality of contemporary training--the rush to build muscle and start pointe work young, the grotesque stretching--is one that I will make sure my daughter, a young dance student, avoids.  We'll stick to the basics:  a schedule that includes rest (never, never, seven days a week) and I'm not letting her put her feet in pointe shoes before she's eleven--and probably twelve.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ten Ways Not To Write Memoir

First, think you know the story.  Tell it to yourself several times.  Read and re-read old journals going back to 1977 and then read excruciatingly painful old letters and look at faded old photographs that you think, mistakenly, will reveal clues to character.

The only clues to anything lie in your own memory.  And if you can't believe that, and though I know it is perfectly true I can't, then you're sunk.

The finer points:

(1) A memoir must be either poignant (Maxine Hong Kingston, Helen Fremont, Mary Karr) or funny (David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs).  Or both.

(2) Try to write poignant.  End up with maudlin listen-to-my-tragic tale.

(3) Try for funny.  End up with sicko slapstick or worse.

(4)  Remember the formulae: "Emotion recollected in tranquility" or "Inspiration counts" or "Write and re-write."

(5) Read The New York Times, write a blog post about not writing, unload the dishwasher, re-load the washing machine, feed the guinea pigs, feed the fish, eat something, close your eyes for a few minutes, oh, it's almost time to pick up a child and then--

(6) Lose your keys.  A daily practice.  Be sure to lose them in a different place every day, so that it always takes you fifteen minutes to find them, and by the time you do you are out of breath, sweating, and late.

(7) Write in your journal about how you're wondering what the real story is, since you've now told it to yourself and found that when you're downstairs with no access to your computer making macaroni and cheese you know the story but by the time you've rushed upstairs to write it down it's fallen into pieces in your hands, confetti, and the confetti turns into mist and evaporates.

(8) Sit down and write the completely fabricated Science Fiction story about the character being chased by God.  In whom you don't believe.

(9) Think about the story more until you suddenly feel very, very sleepy and "have to lie down."

(10) Do I really have to re-live it all to write it?  Really?

Follow these principles daily and a sufficient amount of nothing will happen.  However, if you think about the topic enough to give yourself nightmares, some version of a story will eventually emerge.  I think.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Grocery Shopping, Casual German Racism and the Critical Mom

The Critical Mom--New York born and New York bred and when she dies she's New York dead--can't resist a bargain.  "Why pay more?" is my mantra.  Always on the hunt for delicious bargains, never forgetting the sight of two determined women struggling over the last porcini mushrooms at the Fairway on West 74th (shoving behind them a gay man who was too chivalrous for his own good) I hunt, but in this German town, which shall remain unnamed, I don't often find.  
Oh, vegetables exist here.  Glossy, big bright-red and bright yellow and bright orange and bright green bell peppers.  But not the adorable tiny ones you can throw into a pasta dish.  
Unless, naturally,  you pay through the nose at the local farms where, while handing over 42 euros for three marinated lamb fillets, you can feast your eyes on rows upon rows of "bio," that is, organic, fresh pasta, homemade wines and jams.  Heading back to your car,  you can look at a hen house filled with well-fed, clucking, organic-feed consuming chickens.  Beside them a cage filled with fluffy guinea pigs and their young, the babies boasting the enormous feet of the newborn.  Somewhere in the background the clopping of horse hooves completes the portrait: a world of farm-fresh rosy-cheeked white people in Marc O'Polo jackets who eat fancy sausages wrapped in butcher paper instead of plastic.
On the way home from the farm with the New York prices, my nine-year-old remembered that her friend with the Moroccan mom and the Palestinian dad shopped at a different store, and we pull up to a friendly, shabbily genteel place bursting with fresh vegetables, every kind of dried bean you can imagine (much cheaper than Edeka!)  endless varieties of Bulgur, a cornucopia of risotto and sushi-style rice at a fraction of the price you pay for the "bio" kind.  Finally I felt at home.  It was like being at the West Side Market, but the prices were New York c. 1952.  
So I mention this place to my German lady friends and they say, "But it's not clean!" or they say, "But it's dirty!"  Now, I have heard this comment before and I have heard it about an excellent local ballet school where the linoleum on the floor is slightly worn but the instruction is stellar.    But these German ladies feel insecure when surrounded by anything not new, not polished within an inch of its life, and not German.  
The very thing I love about the other grocery store--the fount of spinach, so fresh the earth from which it was ripped is still moist on it, the piles of parsley overflowing the bin--is what they mistrust.  The place isn't neat.  It's not tidy.  Vegetables (according to their cosmology) should be so clean that a city child might believe they were produced in a factory.  It's true, a German chicken will occasionally sport a feather, but a tidy feather.  The zucchini, the German ladies believe, is more aesthetically pleasing in a little net bag or in plastic wrap.  Not sticking up all over the place!  Sticking up!  In every direction!  Reminding one of things that intensive housekeeping tends to make one forget.  The German ladies.  They tidy me up:  Stepping off the tram once I was startled by an older woman grabbing my coat to let me know that my pants leg was sticking into the top of my boot.  She thought I'd want to straighten it out.
I don't like straightening things out, in general.
The patrons of the grocery with the wonderful Bulgur and the fresh vegetables and the juicy, delicious, Halal lamb (far less expensive than that at the fancy farm) are mostly not German.  They are Turkish and Arab and foreign--like me, the former New Yorker, and like my husband, who comes from a different region of Germany.
It's one place we can go, join the other outsiders, and get a good deal. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Critical Mom and the First Day of School

The Middle Child is the ultra-prepared one.  Schoolbag packed the night before.  Dressed in a nanosecond.  Out the door like a shot five minutes before his tram arrives.

The Oldest Child is told that he's got to be the responsible one . . .  a task he sometimes enjoys, and this time it has to do with taking an American exchange student around and translating for her.  She likes math, it turns out, which is most convenient since he does not, and as he translates the problems for her, he finds himself able to solve them.  A hint from her when he's stuck, and it's smooth sailing.

The Youngest Child suffers from her popularity.  The same problems of friends fighting over her have resurfaced with a somewhat more complicated plot (as befits the Tween years--she's now in fourth grade).  The latest troubles involve a potential club and some friendship bracelets that have been dangled by the child who always seems to have a schoolbag filled with apples of discord:  she'll hand out the friendship bracelets to those who will join the club.  Otherwise, they go back in the bag.   And no joking around!  The keeper of the friendship bracelets stalked off, agreeing to return only for the serious business of forming the club.  Which still has not been formed--my daughter suggested they have the bracelets without the club, and has yet to be forgiven by this  haughty child--the one who used to tell our little sweetie, "I'll give you til Tuesday to decide whether you're MY best friend or HER best friend." This girl has a curious hold on ours, who feels responsible. 
"I just don't want any fights," says ours.  And couldn't fall asleep last night until ten, something that never happens, but she says it has nothing to do with her friends, whom she does not care to discuss.
Sometimes people do fight, say I.
It helped when her teacher talked to her.  After her father, her brothers and I had all been told how wrong we were and how we did not understand the situation at all, her teacher told her the same things we had been saying, but now the situation improved.
The teacher told a story.  She, too, had once been eight years old.  She, too, had found herself very unhappy because a bunch of girls were mean to her.  She walked into a new school hoping to find a friend, and the girls dressed differently.  They pointed at her and made fun of her sweater and wouldn't let into their group anybody who dressed funny like her.
"And then I made a big mistake," she told our daughter, who was hanging on her every word.  "I thought, Mommy and Daddy are too busy--I won't bother them.  So I cried all night."
She told my daughter, "When your friend tells you to choose between being friends with her and being friends with your other friend, you say, No, you choose whether you want to be my friend and I'll choose my other friends."
Now that worked just fine for a while, but my daughter is now off to school with Ms. Apple of Discord.  Well.  That led to the Trojan War, but also to the Founding of Rome.  Looking on the bright side.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Critical Mom's Low Calorie Practically No-Fat Meal

When the family members who are dieting really want a no-fat meal, there is a way to do it with an exceedingly small amount of fat.  I would actually not count the "fat" I added as fat, and see if you can identify it in the following list of ingredients.

Two large heads of broccoli.  (Wash, cut stems away from florets, but in pot ready to steam.  But don't steam them yet.)  Set aside.

In a small pot put half a cup of water, a tablespoon of dry chicken broth (chicken bouillon powder), a diced red bell pepper, a grated carrot, one minced garlic clove (or more) and/or grated fresh ginger.  Let boil briefly, stirring, then let simmer.

Arrange slices (about 5 oz each or around 200 grams) of salmon in a dish (rinse first).  Grate fresh pepper over the fish fillets. Then pour the veggie-broth mixture over the salmon.

Put the salmon in the oven, which you've preheated to 220 at least--put the oven tray near the broiler and set the oven to whirling heat.

Start the broccoli steaming at the same time.

Fifteen minutes later, you can eat.

Where is the fat?  A teeny, tiny bit in the chicken powder.  Less than in a tablespoon of olive oil