Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Critical Mom and The Champagne

So far, I'm only anticipating it.  While we were watching Dinner For One, Germany's traditional New Year's Eve ten-minute tribute to Carpe Diem, we had sherry, because Miss Sophie, in the film, has sherry with her mulligatawny soup.  Then we had a little red wine with the appetizers and the baked nachos (my husband makes them with grated Gouda, chopped scallions, and salsa).  A few people are shooting off firecrackers already (yes, you can just buy them at your local Aldi's here . . .) but we're waiting until midnight.  And it's only 9:52 as I write, and two children have said, "Wake me up before midnight, Mom," and my husband is snoozing on the couch.  We did watch The Lord of the Ring and a little CNN, but now I'm just answering e-mail and reading one of my favorite blogs, "Little Earthling."  And I'm remaining upright, although I may just take a little nap.  Our eldest is in China, and sent a Whats App of himself and the other members of the choir singing "Clementine" in Chinese and wishing us Happy New Year.  It's already 2015 in China!  I'll top off the evening with a return to my blog as soon as I've had my champagne.  But now I've got to get the laundry out of the machine.  Oops, didn't manage that--we were watching 2012, apocalyptic enough for the end of the year.  
And now midnight has just come and gone.  I've had my share of champagne, oh bubbly!  Bubbly!  It goes superbly with the fireworks, some of which, thrown enthusiastically by my twelve-year-old, landed not in the road but the neighbor's garden.
"Not in the neighbor's garden!" we yelled.  But that's where the next one went, too.  The neighbor came out on his balcony.  Good thing he wasn't in the yard.
Now, one more sip of champagne, and then I'll toddle off to bed.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Critical Mom's Post-Christmas Moods

It's lovely, the tongues of light on the windowsill from our tree--the electric candles flickering away, and on the table a forgotten glass of white wine, from which, yesterday, someone sipped.  I take a nap, and when I wake up, two of my son's friends, ages eleven and thirteen, have shown up hungry.   They're on a court-mandated weekend visit with their dad, who lives up the hill and who forgot to buy food or didn't bother, and is on his second or third volubly cantankerous relationship with a mail-order bride from a desperately poor country somewhere in Asia.  His first wife, the boys' mother, is in another city with her very wealthy new spouse ("my husband is well-situated," she said timidly, translating from German into English.  In German, that sounds normal but in translation it sounds like a line from a mid-Victorian penny dreadful).  I wonder often how she ever ended up with the boys' father, that ex-football professional whose charming smile is a dead giveaway.  But maybe it wasn't so obvious to a naïve and very Catholic sixteen-year-old who got knocked up.  This is how I imagine things.   But I can't ask and she'd never tell.
We gave the boys pumpkin soup, Bratwurst, and rice and they seemed very cheerful and stuck around to play computer games.   Their new stepfather, whom they hate, provides a lavishly luxurious separate apartment for them and their mother, and spirits her away to romantic getaways while the boys are visiting their father.  When I asked my husband whether we should tell the mother that the dad hadn't been feeding them he thought no.  She may know, but she'd resent it if we did, and the boys don't look underfed.  Back when the mother and the estranged dad were still living in the same building, the dad used to drop them off here and forget to pick them up   Then I wouldn't be able to reach either parent. 
We've got it good.  Our Christmas proved remarkably peaceful.  Long ago in a galaxy far away I belonged to an internet forum that provided humor to anyone who knew they had to invite a certain relative for Christmas or pay big.  You'd pay big anyway, but you'd pay bigger or sooner if you didn't invite her.  I've been over the river and through many dark woods seeking a substitute forum, but nothing else is quite to my taste. 
A Hallowe'en card in which said party joked about haunting us put me on edge:  she's in her nineties (but will probably outlive me, especially if I spend too much time with her) and I'd like for the kids to inherit something.  So we invited her.  Never mind that during the last visit she started squeezing my then five-year-old daughter's thigh in some trancelike return to her own abuse as a child.  Never mind that my eldest, in a rare moment away from her during that exhausting visit said, "Mom, you grew up with that?  You know, I kind of admire you."  Never mind that the minute I invited her I came down with bronchitis.  I've been planning dinner parties for when she's here--her visits are always easier when I pad the room with plenty of other people.  
But there's been a stay of execution:  she can't come, because of an ailment I decline to disclose.  Isn't that awful?  Isn't it the worst thing in the world?  Where's the champagne? 
 P.S.  Happy New Year, Danu Morrigan

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Ketchup

I wasn't around for the show--I was in the ladies room--but by the time we were in the car, I was learning that "if they did find your cell phone, the mess was such that they would probably throw it away," and "now, Mom, just let me tell you my side of the story," accompanied by the twelve-year-old's hysterical giggles.  It was worth the giggles, but I guess we'll never dare set foot in that restaurant again.  Apparently, during those few moments when I was answering a call of nature, the twelve-year-old squeezed on the plastic ketchup bottle, "not because I wanted any on my Schnitzel, mom, but I just thought it was like only half full and I was bored."
Hee, hee, hee.  Hee, hee, hee.  He has to stop talking because he's laughing so hard he can't breathe. 
"And then what happened?"
"Well, then I really just squeezed as hard as I could!  I mean, I REALLY thought it was empty!"
"And then the fireworks happened?" asks my husband.
"Did you see it?" I asked, ready to inquire why he hadn't stopped our little force of nature.
"No, but I saw the results.  Quite impressive.  The white tablecloth.  The wineglasses."  An entry might have been made in the Guinness Book of World Records on ketchup-squirting.  But we are all safe and sound, and it's almost Christmas, and there are good detergents out there among the Bavarian housewives, "and REALLY, Mom, IT WAS AN ACCIDENT!"

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Critical Mom's Seasonal Bronchitis

At least I hope that's all it is.  Six years ago I went through pneumonia and occasionally I have a touch of asthma.  Besides, I have already consumed more than my fair share of antibiotics this year . . . what with the revenge of Atahualpa in Peru, the trips to the local botica where they handed out Cipro like candy the moment they saw that I was 
(a) a non-native speaker and 
(b) writhing with embarrassment as well as the need to use body language to tell them what was the matter with me.  
Then I got over that bout, but at the end of the trip there was all that campylobacteria that I apparently consumed in the local cilantro . . .or the ice cubes . . . or something; anyway Cipro down the hatch again.
So I'd like to avoid a third round of antibiotics now, especially since the Internet tells me that even if you're coughing up yellow goo, it's probably viral rather than bacterial, so probably won't be chased off by the Clarithromycin that I do have some of, but haven't yet ingested.  (I read all the possible side effects . . . oh, is that ever a sign of middle age, and they are scary.)  Maybe the onion poultice I tried will work.  (All ya gotta do is chop an onion or two, simmer them in water until they're soft, lift them onto a clean kitchen towel or cloth, fold them in securely as if you were wrapping a tortilla around a gooey mess of chicken and vegetables, and slap it on your chest for as long as you can stand).  I did that twice today.  I'm going to add fresh ginger next time.  I'm taking Sinupret and Umckaloabo.  My chest is marginally clearer; I hope I don't have to go for the hard stuff, but it is nice to know it's there.  I'll try a little red wine, too.  Any reader know of any other home remedies?  

Day 2:  (Actually, I've been sick for five days, but at first it was "just a cold.") I caved in and took the Clarithromycin.  But before I did, I tried  yet another onion-and-fresh-ginger hot poultice.  And it did have some, minor, effect.  As did the gallons of fruit tea with honey, hunk-of-ginger-in-boiling water, coffee (strong) and breathing exercises.   Yes, I did give the natural way the old college try . . .  meanwhile, two hours after 500 milligrams of the magic bullet, my chest already feels clearer.  Well, what would one expect of somebody who grew up practically teething on antibiotics?  That was just the way New Yorkers did things back in the sixties when I was growing up.  Every cold was accompanied by a bottle of syrupy, green Chlorotrimeton, an antihistamene, plus Penicillin.   (I remember those Pen-Vee tablets.) Strep throats, ear infections . . . as our jovial pediatrician said, "Ear infections pay the pediatricians rent."   I had a childhood of asthma and generally poor health, which may have had something to do with all that green syrup and antibiotics, but my immune system, pampered, or weakened, seems to need the stuff now.  Go figure.  Now that I'm feeling better it seems so very unfair that I'll have to relinquish my evening glass of sweet red wine for the duration of the antibiotic regimen!  But okay, yes indeedy, of course I'll do it . . . especially since I ought to be well by Christmas, when I plan to indulge in cookies, too.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Critical Mom and Richard III

Now, folks, what I have in common with Richard III---drumroll:  I do have something in common with His Majesty--is scoliosis.  He of the twisted spine!  Yes, that was one of the characteristics that the anthropologists trusted the most when they identified that fifteenth-century skeleton found beneath a parking lot and said to be that of Richard.  Then there's the intriguing find that he was illegitimate.  There's a trait I'd like to share with him.  Could I really be the child of my mother and my father?  I'm afraid neither of them had the energy for an affair during their marriage, which took up, really, absolutely all of their time.  But it would have been so nice to have discovered some noble, or in Richard's case ignoble, but at any rate, different ancestral line, in my case.
In Richard's case the different ancestral line . . . the one apparently proving that he seems not to have been of the royal house from which he claimed to be descended  . . .  hmmm, did he know?  And was that why he was always so evil and grumpy, at least in Shakespeare's version of him?  Shakespeare really knew how illegitimacy could disappoint one.  Think of Edmund in King Lear:

Thou, nature, art my goddess. To thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why “bastard”? Wherefore “base”?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With “base,” with “baseness,” “bastardy,” “base,” “base”—

Who in the lusty stealth of nature take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth within a dull, stale, tirèd bed

Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops

Got ’tween a sleep and wake? Well then,

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.

Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund

As to the legitimate.—Fine word, “legitimate”!—

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed

And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper.

Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Just think what being a bastard can do for you:  you worship Nature, instead of God, and that, back in sixteenth-century England, was probably a hanging offense.  (Nature was after all female.  And pre-dated Christianity.  She played chess with the pieces of Stonehenge).  Plus marriage ruined sex, Edmund was claiming.  Bastards were the only ones, he believed, whose parents had enjoyed producing them.  Which leads to his final line:  "Now, Gods, have some erections in support of bastards!"  So to speak.  A line which "No Fear Shakespeare" glosses most bowdlerizingly as "Three cheers for bastards."  Yes.  Well.  
Back to Richard:  Oh, What if?  What if not only I were illegitimate, like Richard, but what if he were the current queen's great-great-great-somethingorother?  Would the descendents of Mary, Queen of Scots, if she had any, get to charge in and claim the throne?  Or some other even rowdier ancestors?  Stay tuned.  Hala Gorani just trotted us all through the basics on CNN, but I can't wait to hear what happens next. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Critical Mom and Her Mink

Nothing says warmth like mink.  And the moment I found my mink, hanging there in the Second Hand Store for 249 euros, approximately my clothing budget for the year, I scooped it up.  A long, sleek, dark thing in which--were I taller, younger, and far more glamorous, and it a bit longer--Helmut Newton could have photographed me.  Even better,  I can indulge in imagining him photographing me frolicking about in it . . . which is almost as much fun.  So today, a very cold day indeed, a cold that goes to the bones and frosts the air the moment it leaves your mouth, I put it on and wore it as I walked up the hill to the tram stop . . .  now mink is elegant but sweat is not; it was almost too warm then . . . as soon as I had to stand around and wait for the tram, however, it reverted to coziness.  And I can even imagine that I look beautiful in it, when I'm not worrying that some animal rights activist will come up from behind and slosh red paint all over it and me. 
But I tell it not to worry.  We're pals.  It wraps me up, and I love it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Down by the English Teacher's Pronunciation with The Critical Mom

When my kids come home from school with their stories, I wonder how anyone ever learns English around here in Deutschland.  At a good gymnasium too--in fact, they're losing students because parents say they make the kids work too hard.  I don't think they make the kids work too hard . But I wish the teachers would work a little harder on their English pronunciation.  For example:
 "Guess how the teacher pronounced the word "pet," Mommy?"
As in,  "Do you have pets?"
"She pronounced it "pat." 
 I could see how that would lead to confusion .  . . with folks patting their pats instead of patting their pets.  Or even petting their pets.  Or pats.
But the one I liked the most, recently, was "Bowel" for "Bowl."  As I said to my kids, "you really would not want your bowel anywhere near your bowl."
But I do wonder, sometimes, hearing "wizards" for "whistles," and "cloth-ehhhs" for "clothes" and so on, why nobody ever uses their online dictionary, which gives you (YOO-HOOO, GERMAN TEACHERS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE!) and I do mean YOU, a little recording of the word of your choice being pronounced by a native speaker.  You get to choose between British and American pronunciation.  Take the latter, it's cooler, and for your information, does not (and never did) sound like chewing gum. Actually, all ya gotta do is Google "pronounce raucous" or "pronounce espy" or even "pronounce lettuce," which I've noticed grade school teachers pronouncing "Let-oooooss."   It wouldn't hurt to go to English language websites for information about commas, either.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Critical Mom's Pre-Thanksgiving Jitters

There's always the moment when I finally find the fresh cranberries.  One year my husband brought home two jars of "Preiselbeeren" and I said "Noo! Nooooo!" but then somehow we found fresh ones.  Ocean Spray!  Without the logo.  I guess the only source in the world for fresh cranberries is that big bog on Nantucket.
This time at least nobody had to drive for an hour.  I found them, actually, on my fourth try, and that ain't bad.  They weren't in Lidl.  They weren't in the Edeka at Kaufhof because it's no longer there--they seem to have dismantled that particular link in the chain of a very popular grocery store.  They weren't in the Edeka on Gemarkenplatz.  But there they were in Rewe!  The expensive store that has everything.
No McCormack's Vanilla.  That's always an expensive purchase on Amazon, or a gift from friends in the States.
But once I have my fresh cranberries, I stop hyperventilating.  Then the only other thing to worry about is the size of the turkey.  Every year I order a 10-kilo bird.  Every year they say sure, they've got one.  Last year they gave us a 6-kilo bird, which was okay, because we only had a bout ten people, total, but this year we're having 16 or 17.  Not tomorrow, the real Thanksgiving, because Germans never heard of that--last year when they sold me a turkey they said, "Happy Advent!"  We're celebrating this Saturday, so I'm still planning.  And one of my guests, a young Italian, asked, when I invited him, whether Thanksgiving was "a Catholic holiday." No.  I promise to make it make it as pagan as possible.  You'll be comatose after the corn muffins, the bird baked in bacon, the stuffing with celery and onions and butter, butter, butter á la Fanny Farmer, the gravy, the cranberry-orange-cinnamon sauce, the new potatoes, the sweet potatoes, the Swedes-'n-carrots, the Brussels sprouts, the peas, the champagne, the wine, the pies (pumpkin, apple, cranberry-apple) the cookies (oatmeal) and somebody is bringing chocolate mousse.
That oughta do us. 
Mouth watering yet?

P.S.  So now it is The Day Of.  The rest of the world is immersed in Black Friday and Saturday or Advent and my turkey--15 pounds American or 7.5 kilos--is incubating . . . 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Twelve Year Old

Twelve is what is cunningly known as "tween" or pre-adolescent,  Or not so pre.  I'm the one who thought the kid had a sore throat, and no wonder he gave me a fishy stare.  That voice-changing business can take a mom by surprise.  But I'm so busy being taken by surprise all the time that I'm in almost as complete a state of flux as my pre-and nearly-post adolescent kids.
"Mom," asks the twelve year old, a paper airplane in one hand and a lighter in the other, "Can I light this and throw it?  Please?"
"Why not?  Why not?"
This is the most exhausting part, when you're explaining why not and then caving to some compromise, "Yes . . . outside, in the yard, where the grass is still wet, and only if you make sure that you know where it's landed and put it out."
So he starts to open the glass door to the back patio.
"And not in your socks!"  I yell.  "Don't dream of going outside without shoes AND A COAT!"
"Ah, I'm not going."  That was the last straw . . . he really hates to put on his coat.  The one he picked. The one we bought him on a frozen Bavarian morning when he'd lost his other coat.  The one that looks great on him, and is warm, and cost a bundle.  That coat.
The one I insist he wear when the temperature dips to 8 or 9 Celsius  (that's about 46-48 Fº).  And when he didn't, I removed his computer.
I hate taking away his computer.  Someday, when he's forty, I should live so long, I hope he's glad that I made him wear his coat.
P.S. And now back to my novel.  Almost at 30,000 words, though the plot is getting a bit less plausible.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Critical Mom Writes a Novel

It's one of those things I've always wanted to do.  And I've tried, in a half-hearted way, always with results that now seem to me disastrous.  But November is National Novel Writing Month (how?  what?  Who said so? A presidential decree?) Better not question too fiercely.  April, the cruelest month (you know, the one breeding lilacs out of the dead ground or the one where folks are just longing to go on pilgrimages) is Poetry Writing Month, one-a-day, like your vitamins.  Now, I did do the poetry one . . . a poem a day sounds a lot less scary than 50,000 words in a month.  But if you join National Novel Writing Month (and hey, if you're a speed writer, you still can!) you get, for free (but in a burst of enthusiasm I sent them ten bucks) a nifty little word-counting website that charts for you how many words you've done that day.  You get little electronic badges for producing your first 10,000 and your first 25,000 and for selecting a writing buddy.  I find all this delightful.  

Here's what it all looks like:

I am, in other words, now that I'm up to my 27,000th word, just too dang busy to pay attention to my blog.  Which, as a result, now has a readership of about four per day.

Folks, there is nothing more fun than writing a novel, I have discovered.  It's like telling yourself a story.  I love putting my heroine (actually, she's more of an anti-heroine) in Norway and Bavaria and Amsterdam.  It's a gas.  I'd almost say it's better than sex, but then nothing quite is.

The Critical Mom highly recommends National Novel Writing Month, and promises to bring you more news by the end of November.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Critical Mom's Jack 'o Lanterns

Even though Hallowe'en is barely worshipped here. . . yes, a few stores have plastic pumpkins or lamps in the window . . . I managed to find a couple of very large ones, the kind out of which Germans make massive pots of soup, and carry them home, where my children carved them.  They are sitting, glowing with candlelit flame, on plastic chairs in our garden, because last year when I put them out in front of the house before Hallowe'en they were stolen.  They may get stolen again, but we'll enjoy them for one night at least, gleaming on our relatively untravelled street, innocent of trick-or-treaters.  I've harvested the seeds, and they will become wholesomely toasted snacks.  My children used to trick-or-treat with one neighbor, but this year we'll have a few chocolate bars at home and then dance around the jack 'o lanterns.  When the kids say, "When do we have to go to bed?" I'll say, "Oh, whenever you feel like it."
Now that's Hallowe'en.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Critical Mom's Nosebleed

I thought nosebleeds were for kids!  And I never had one in my life, until about two hours ago, when I wondered why, as I was reading Mary Antin and preparing tomorrow's American Immigrant Writers class while telling my daughter to start her violin practice, that my nose was running.  And then I thought of the moment in the 1970 French thriller, Le Boucher, when the children are at a picnic with their nice, but it turns out not so nice schoolteacher, and one of them says, "Il pleut! Il pleut rouge!" ("It's raining!  It's raining red!") and then all sorts of complications develop.  Fortunately my nose did exactly what the website said it would do if the blood was coming from only one nostril and if I sat up straight, pinched my nostrils together for ten minutes, and applied a cold pack to the back of my neck.  Which I did, while instructing my daughter to keep playing scales, and dabbing at the flow with a Kleenex.  I have to admit I also remembered the opening death from a nosebleed in one of the many unusual scenes supplying corpses to the funeral home in Six Feet Under (they were so inventive!  Remember the compacted waste from an airplane hitting a woman standing in front of her front door?)
But, gentle reader, my nosebleed stopped after ten minutes.   Why would somebody like me who eats right, gets plenty of exercise, and a reasonable amount of sleep have a nosebleed at fifty-seven?  Is it that I'm using too much garlic and fresh ginger in my cooking?  They're blood thinners, you know.  Maybe I should just go back to globs of butter on my bread and hunks of cheese and meat on rolls.  A traditional German Abendbrot, that is.   Feel free to advise me. 
P.S. My blood pressure is normal: 125 over 80, and I just checked, yes, and pulse is fine.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The School Tests and the Critical Mom's Kids

When I pick up my daughter and ask, "so how was school?" she says, "We had the math test today."  And she looks either worried or thrilled, but has gotten very good at not showing her hand. 
"So how did it go?"
"And by the way we had to do our timetable in English for English class, too."
"Yes, and that's 'schedule' in American, by the way."
"I know, Mommy! So I read 'math or mathematics' and she said, 'Yes, that's mawths."
"She's correcting you?"
"Moths are funny little insects that congregate around light bulbs.  How was the math test you took?"
"Well, Mommy . . . ." and I cannot for the life of me tell whether the look is one of suppressed glee or dejection.  We're walking out the school door and she wants to go the long way, but I'm carrying her seven-ton schoolbag and it's raining, so I insist that we proceed as quickly as possible to the nearest tram stop.
"If we go my way, I'll tell you right now.  Otherwise, I'll tell you at home."
"So, okay, tell me at home."  She looks murderous and is good as her word.  The minute we're in the door and the schoolbag lands with a resounding thump, the muscles in my shoulder buzzing, she says, "Well, Mommy, only one person in the class got nothing wrong," (with a very convincing look of despair.)  "There were ten ones, five twos, three fours, and about six fives.  Only one person got nothing wrong. . .  AND THAT WAS ME!" With a tooth-sparkling grin and a high five.  Wow.  So we're very happy.  Then her brother comes home, and all is straightforward:
"Guess what Mom I gotta one on the Chemistry test!" 
"You could do pre-Med!" I say, with my usual over-enthusiasm.  The poor kid's only twelve.
"Nah, I don't wanna be a doctor.  What else can I do with Chemistry?"
"Oh, research, or---"
He's behind his door immersed in Minecraft by the end of the sentence.  Later, he's correcting his English exam.  The teacher is not a native speaker.  I am, and my husband might as well be, having lived in Southern California for seven sunny years.  Our son had written, "For how long did you live in Paris?" The teacher had marked that wrong.  My husband didn't see anything wrong with it and neither did I.  This may be the very same teacher who pronounced the word "lettuce" as "letooose." We all sat around eating pumpkin soup, listening to the rain, missing the eldest child, who is having fantastic time in Southern China, and wondering what unexpected pronunciations of common words our kids might hear from their English teachers, none of whom seems to have come across this handy guide:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola and The Critical Mom

No, I don't have it.  But our son just flew to China and we got him to buy, in addition to the anti-smog facial mask he was planning to pick up anyway, a few latex gloves and a largish bottle of hand disinfectant.
This is in the wake of Texas.  Of the second sick nurse and her flight on a commercial jet with 131 other passengers.  Of plague running wild in Liberia, in West Africa, in Liberia, in Guinea, in Sierra Leone, in Nigeria.  Our son, who thinks the gloves are overkill, was willing to use the hand disinfectant, and Whats APPed me a photo of the sign at the Beijing airport,  a billboard reading:

WEST AFRICAN PASSENGERS ONLY: Incoming travellers from Ebola heaemorragghic fever outbreak countries. . .  or having been to the above . . . during the last 21 days, please pass through the WEST AFRICAN PASSENGERS CHANNEL.

Ebola may hit China in three weeks.  But the Chinese seem to be concocting an anti-viral, and Chinese medicine has developed over thousands of years of practice with plagues and pestilence.  A formula provided by includes the following for such pestilences, including, presumably, the present one:

Shui Niu Jiao (Bubali Cornu)
Xuan Shen (Scrophulariae Radix)
Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae Radix)
Mu Dan Pi (Moutan Cortex)
Chi Shao (Paeoniae Rubra Radix)
Da Qing Ye (Isatadis Folium)
Zi Cao (Lithospermi seu Arnebiae Radix)

It's a comforting thought to know that my son will be in the same country as folks who know where to get these things and how to use them.  My husband and I drank to his health tonight, were delighted to hear that he is having a good time and has a nice room-mate, and wish, like anxious parents everywhere, that travel was a sure thing and that all his experiences will be good ones.   I still think the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but I know that there's nothing people lie about more than their bodies.  Illness, sexual experience, age--these are the things we expect people to lie about and about which people delude themselves.  If we could win the war with these lies--this subset of our fears--we'd have a better chance of containing Ebola sooner. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

"It's a trifle," and The Critical Mom

Trifle, my dears is no trifle.  The bombastic British dessert with the name that remains stereotypically British in its understatement is, however, delicious.  A calorie-bomb, as the Germans would say, guaranteed to clog every artery.  But only if you eat it every day.  (Was it Ben or Jerry who had quadruple bypass?  But he was tasting this stuff hourly, not just daily).

The most fun I ever had was tasting the mascarpone when I was trying to figure out how to contrive a stand-in for the required "double cream."  As far as I know, the only place in the world where you can buy "double cream" in a supermarket (or anywhere else) is the United Kingdom.  So I considered sour cream, cream whipped until it's almost butter, and mascarpone, which tastes like the creamiest cream you ever tried, except that it's solid.  And I decided on a mix:  about 200 ml of regular old whipping cream, plus about three fourths of a 500 gram container of mascarpone.  I put the cream in the bowl first . . . . oh, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.  Here is the ordeal of making trifle, the most non-trifling labor I have ever endured in the kitchen, and believe-you-me, entirely worth it, worth it to the point where The Guardian is willing to review a British cookbook entirely devoted to recipes for "Trifle."  Five hundred of 'em.  Now this is just one:

Get a big glass pyrex dish with a cover--the kind that is good for making enough shepherd's pie to feed a family of five or six.

Line the bottom of the pan with ladyfingers (Löffelbiskuit or"spoon cookie" if you are German, and let me tell you, the Wikipedia article on names for this delicacy is entertaining)

If they are big thick ladyfingers, slice them in half first.  If they live up to their name, don't.

Spread over the ladyfingers a layer of the jam of your choice.   Often either raspberry or strawberry jam is suggested, but there are folks who use fresh fruit or jello or some mix thereof.  I used about six tablespoons of raspberry jam.

Pour over the mix about 150 ml of sweet sherry.

Repeat!  That is, another layer of ladyfingers, another layer of jam, another slosh of sherry.  Lots of sherry!  Enough to soak them, but not so much that you can hardly see them under the sherry.

Cover the concoction and let it sit there for at least an hour while you're working on the next layer, which is the custard layer.  If you're pressed for time, I supposed you can use some vanilla pudding mix, but the more interesting way is the following:

Put three eggs in a bowl and add three or four little packets of vanilla sugar. (about 25 grams of vanilla sugar) If that's not available, try sugar and McCormick's vanilla extract.  Mix well.  Pour into this 300 ml (half a pint) of milk which you've microwaved to slightly more than lukewarm, but not hot (some British recipes say "blood heat"which sounds a lot gruesomer than the 98.6ºF or 37ºC normal body temperature that it is.)

Strain this mixture (a sieve will do) into a double boiler or any contraption you've rigged that works like one; the mixture should be over simmering water and you should stir constantly "until it coats the back of a spoon," says the recipe I used.   Until it thickens a bit, that is.   When it does, pour the whole yellowy concoction on top of the ladyfinger-sherry-jam mix.   Let it cool and keep the closed container in the fridge for AT LEAST four hours.  When it's cooled its heels for that length of time, be ready with--if you have access to the British isles, that is--300 ml (or one half pint) of "double cream," which is around fortysomething percent fat instead of the usual around thirty percent that you can get in regular old whipping cream.  So here's what I did, having zero access to the British isles as I do:  I poured 200 ml (the amount in about one coffee-mug sized cup) into a bowl, added a little vanilla extract and a dollop of sugar, and beat that until it was frothy.  Then I dumped in that three-fourths of a 500 gram (around 17.6 oz. size) container in and whipped the mix to a creamy consistency.    Spread all that on top of the custard and then you get to decorate!  I washed and pushed gently into the cream mix a box of raspberries; I noticed we had a pot of Moroccan Mint in our kitchen and found a few leaves untouched by aphids which I washed thoroughly and added to the center of the masterpiece.

Yum, Yum.  And this is why I now weigh sixty kilos (I don't even want to know what that is in pounds) instead of the svelte fifty-four that allows me to easily don the lovely knife-pleat Irish tweed walking skirts that I bought back in 1985 . . . .

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Critical Mom's Continued Existence

Once upon a time three pizza parlors set up shop on one block.  The first called itself "The Best Pizza In The World."  The second called itself "The Best Pizza In The Universe."  The third called itself "The Best Pizza On the Block," and sold more pizza than either of the other establishments.  My blog needs a new domain, or my old domain.  Sometime in the next thirty days, it is just possible that whomever purchased TheCriticalMom domain will identify him or herself and offer to sell it back.  But for the twelve bucks for which I purchased it when I thought up the term?  Or multiples of that?  Assuming the fee turns out to be out of my range, I still want to be the best critical mom on the block.  So I welcome suggestions from readers.  (The New Critical Mom? The Advanced Critical Mom? The Better Critical Mom? Well . . .  .)
I do keep going to the old domain.  And what do I see?  A blank page, topped by laughing persons at a bar drinking what appears to be Windex.  The latest: within thirty days, I should know whether whomever purchased the domain is willing to sell it to me.   So I'm dreaming of domains. . . 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Critical Mom and the "But You SAID, Mommy" statement.

While I was out, two cases of beer were delivered.
"But my friends paid for them!"
According to my fifteen-year-old, I said that anything under fifty bottles of beer was okay for his upcoming overnight party in which he and about seven friends will play computer games all night.   Having vetoed the Red Bull, I might have expected the bull.
Since the legal drinking age is sixteen on planet Germany, I said the sixteen-year-olds could have maximum two beers apiece, and that my son could have the same too, but that else anyone under the legal age would have to get his parents' permission.
The fifteen-year-old is open-mouthed with resentful astonishment.
Then there's the twelve-year-old, who, when told to put on a sweater, because it is fifty degrees (that's ten degrees celsius, Europeans) says, in a profoundly annoyed fashion, "That's waste, Mom, because I'm not cold, and I'm not gonna get cold, and I'm not gonna catch a cold . . . "
If I have had enough sleep, I explain the importance of warm clothes and the prevalence of viruses in a peaceful fashion while handing him a sweater.  This is however never the case.  I usually bark: "put it on, or we're not leaving," and today, he did. Now, the ten-year-old presents another picture.  She is very sweet.  And even when hormones begin coursing through her, and acne sprouts on that smooth forehead, she will not, I believe, address me with any four-letter words.  The worst so far:  "I didn't ask for that, Mommy," with an indignant stare (as though looking down her nose through an heirloom lorgnette at a peasant over whose neck she will shortly step ) when I hand her a favorite sandwich.  At least, the sandwich that, last week, was in favor, although she might not admit that.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Critical Mom Hopes to Stick Around

I am among the technologically challenged, and when I went to my blog settings . . .  and to many other places, electronically, logging into this and then logging in to that, I found myself unable to figure out how (are you listening, GoDaddy and Google?) to renew my domain ownership of this here blog.  Which I want to renew and somehow forgot to do last month when it was due.  So this morning, I asked my technologically sophisticated child to help me figure this out, assuming he'd be better at it than I am, and indeed, gentle reader, this is usually the case (I just learned from my ten-year-old how to use WhatsApp).  
Well, the fifteen-year-old tooled around, bouncing from this to that to this to that again and said HE couldn't figure it out.
He tried again, and said, with a mad grin, "Kill me."
"Aw, come on, sweetie, is it that bad?  Sorry.  Maybe that kid at school who helped set up your computer?  Isn't there some smart kid you know who might be able to do this?"
With a leer and chuckle, he said, "Satan."

You hear that, techies?  I want to renew this website!  I have my credit card out right now!  Whyohwhy is it so very complicated?  I want what I had before, which I think is the "annual" plan and when I tried, and my kid tried, we kept getting directions for the "flexible" plan, which is something entirely unknown and therefore quite possibly bad.  So I hope some nice, sympathetic Google or Googlemail or GoDaddy or somethingorother blogspot (or one of the others we tried) employee lets me renew soon.  Wouldn't want my little blog to evaporate.  It's been fun.  
P.S. Well, now I've talked to GoDaddy tech support twice; the first guy sounded very perky and positive and I paid 69 euros and something cents to try to buy the domain name back from whomever has purchased, but that can take up to thirty days.  My second conversation with GoDaddy tech support was, it seemed to me, less optimistic:  "THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO" said the voice of doom, or so it sounded to me.  So I will either purchase a new domain or wait to see if I can get this one back soon.  I think readers can access this through

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scotland Rising and The Critical Mom

I'm imagining the sound of bagpipes and my despair is dissipating.  I checked the vote at 5:55 a.m. today and the final tally still hadn't been called.  The Scots didn't fight the bloody battle of Culloden--and a host of others--for nothing. 
The day before the vote, I went to the office and there, in the hallway, my Austrian colleague stood in a kilt, not a tartan but a black punk-style one, that showed off his shapely legs nicely, although he doesn't hold a candle to my husband.
"So, you'd be in favor of Scottish independence?" I asked
"No!  I'm in favor of wearing kilts!" I got quite a piece of his mind about nationalism and its evils, how a Yes vote would increase UKIP's power, how it couldn't be good for the Ukraine . . . and I thought no, no, no, it all depends on what we're calling nationalism, and Scotland's efforts to free itself from England is not German nationalism in the 1930s or even Quebec's struggle.  It is just the Scots wanting some peace and quiet, the end of interference, and the right to enjoy their riches in peace.  The deal they signed 300 years ago--well, the American colonists didn't keep theirs, did they?  
My American colleague from the South was too reminded of the South seceding from the Union . . .

Scotland's burning, Scotland's burning
Look out, look out
Fire, fire, fire, fire!
Pour on water, pour on water . . . .

As these traditional lyrics show, the Scots are pretty good at imagining rational solutions to big problems.  And they'll find a way, I am confident, to shake the dregs of English empire off their honest boots.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Critical Mom votes YES for Scottish Independence

My name, which I'm not going to publish here, is so ethnically identifiable as to have been an occasional problem, once upon a time when I was employed by a Catholic college.  One of the priests kept trying to find out if I'd been related to a certain Catholic theologian who just happened to have a Presbyterian name. I'd be voting day after tomorrow, had my ancestors not left the tors and crags of their native Scotland for a dubious future as mercenary soldiers to one of the Williams of Orange, who allegedly stiffed them with non-arable lands in Pennsylvania (but here the story grows murky, for the land may well have been evolving into Philadelphia Main Line, while the wanderlust of my ancestors pulled them toward the Carolinas).  Still, few walk that far just for the beauties of the landscape and the sense of adventure. 
And if I were still a Scot, I'd vote yes.  David Cameron's speeches have the ring of a desperate patriarch hanging on to the shreds of a relationship outgrown by his children--who are no longer children.  There are sons out there who still live with their mothers; Norman Bates comes to mind.  The nail in the coffin for me was Cameron's rant:  "There'll be no going back!" as if he were speaking to a naughty two-year-old.  And as every mother knows, if you want the kid to follow you instead of stomp around and say, "I won't go!" you smile, turn away from him, and walk slowly away (he doesn't need to know that you've got the tiny mirror from your lipstick case trained on him for the bad guys who couldn't possibly appear in the nanosecond it takes for him to realize that yes, he does still need you.)  But it remains his decision to follow, and that becomes a part of his independence later on.  
Then there are parents who really don't want for their adult children to move out.  Excuses are made, apron strings tightened.  And England, the sun set on your empire long ago, and it is time for Scotland to build its own future.  As a canny old fisherman remarked, "It won't be the land of milk and honey.  But it'll be better."  I agree.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Critical Mom's September 11th

I remember everything I did on September 10th, 2001, which was, blessedly, an outrageously normal day.  We went to Bloomingdale's because I needed nursing bras and the saleslady, a gigantic, friendly woman, talked me into two different sizes based on how much bigger my breasts were going to get.  She turned out to be right, but I wouldn't know that for another few months.  We found and bought mattress pads that we're still using.  I called a friend and took my then two-year-old son for a play date with her daughters, who were a year older, and expressed their affection for him by sharing their boxes of raisins and then sitting on him.  I was about to rescue him when I realized that he didn't mind having two pretty little girls sit on him one bit.  But eventually all three children wanted to go to the playground, and ran around there, and the other mom and I chatted about what to feed them and how one ever got them them to go to bed.  The ordinariness of the day has stayed with me:  the next morning her husband, who worked in one of the towers, was missing, and only by late in the evening when she had almost given up hope did he finally make it home.
That morning, September 11, our two year old was watching Barney the Dinosaur, which got interrupted by a news flash showing a plane hitting the World Trade Center.  My husband scooped up our son, who was very angry about the disappearance of Barney, and took him to the playground because the phone had rung:  a friend of mine was glad to hear I was home, because had I heard?  I was just beginning to hear, and thanking my lucky stars that I no longer worked in New Jersey and took the PATH train from right under the World Trade Center anymore.  I'd missed the first bombing, in 1993, by about ten minutes, and students of mine who worked in the Wall street area told me they'd been blown out of their seats by the force of the blast.  And back in 1993, everyone assured us that nothing like this could ever possibly happen again.  
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was three months pregnant and asked my husband what kind of a world we were bringing this child into.  
"The only world we have," he pointed out.  
When, this past August, we saw the memorial fountains and museum, when I chatted with a friend who said, "oh, yeah, I was in fifth grade then," when I looked at children running around downtown New York, I felt, probably, the way everyone who has witnessed something new and horrifying feels:  that it should be remembered, that it cannot be told, that as indelible as it is to people who were there, it can never mean the same thing to those who were not, or those who were too young, or those who were not yet born.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Critical Mom's Orange Is The New Black Mood

This, I thought, surveying my hair--which, the fifteen-year-old observes, looks "like something orange fell on it"--is what you get for not really speaking German all that well.
"Hallowe'en," says my husband.
"I wish I had something to put on my head," I muse.
"How 'bout a burqa?" says the kid.
What happened was I grabbed off the shelf of the local DM a box of stuff that seemed like it was the same color as the stuff I usually use, which they didn't happen to have.  This new stuff added "Glam Lights," or streaks, as far as I could make out.  I didn't read the information at the bottom of the box, which warned, "Glamouröse Strähnchen-look in einem Bürstenstrich," which means, "Glamorous streaks with a brush stroke."  So I was supposed to use the little plastic brush provided to comb through selected tiny portions of hair, instead of dumping the bottle over my head, the way I usually do, and until now it's always come out much better than when those over-eager stylists at the hair salon do it.
Black is about the only color I can wear now.  Or white.  Hallowe'en.
"You look like you're fighting with the rebels," says the kid, before bursting into gleeful chuckles and assuring me that he means it in a nice way.
The other thing is that the older you are, the less you should go for orangey-blonde.  Dark blonde kind of makes you look marginally less older.  This (fortunately unique) shade that is now mine definitely does not give me a youthful look.
"What will your sister say when I pick her up from school?" I ask the kid.
"She'll say, 'where's my mommy?'" he replies.
My husband reassures me that really it's not so bad.
But he loves me, you see.

P.S. What she actually said, my ten-year-old, was, "Sorry, Mommy, but with that bright make-up and the circles under your eyes, you really do look like a zombie."

My appointment with the hairdresser--who glanced dubiously at my orange head and said, "we'll see what we can do!"--is tomorrow morning.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Critical Mom's Domestic Dilemmas

If I wrote about race, class, gender and ISIS I'd probably have more readers, but inside this academic is an Erma Bombeck screaming to get out.  What I'd like to know at the moment is how to get the twelve-year-old to like his new crocs, which will otherwise be taken back to the store because they are not absolutely pure black and have a slight indentation on the heel, a stylistic subtlety so tiny as to have remained unnoticed by me, but clearly a critical one.
Now,  I remember the days when I, age thirteen, carefully explained to my mother that I hated polyester and please not to buy me anything made of it.  This always seemed to inspire in her a delight in things polyester, and she'd come home with armfuls of blouses she "just thought would be lovely on you" until one day I shrieked and burst into tears.  That did stop her for a while.
I don't believe I've been quite so unable to hear my son's wishes as my mother was to hear mine, but nevertheless, I'm willing to take those crocs back.   It always gets me when he says, "when I'm eighteen I'm moving out!" until I remind myself, and I constantly do, that some of that sentiment is fueled by all those freshly pumped-into-his-veins hormones, and that some day he will be all grown up.  Friends with grown children smile when I worry and assure me that "around age sixteen it all gets much better."  But that does leave me with the next four years to be losing my temper about discipline around my husband, and then, just as child #2 is hitting sixteen, his very sweet (at the moment) younger sister will be right about where he is now, hormone-wise.  
Fact:   I have gone gray.  It could be age, but I do prevent people from realizing the true color of my hair with bottles of potions variously labeled, shades of medium-blond that are never called that but always something that sounds much more romantic, and as though it could instantly transport you back into your late thirties. 
Now, yesterday was my sixteenth wedding anniversary, and my husband and I got to go out, something we get to do only on birthdays and anniversaries.   I had to waste the morning delivering, well, waste, to the doctor in order to get off the no-fly list, and I do wish the German ministry of health would re-allocate its resources from harassing persons who had traveler's diarrhea three weeks ago to combating outbreaks of ebola virus in Hamburg or anywhere else in Europe.  W.H.O. needs you.  I don't.  I'd have had a much more fun morning with my husband, but we did have a sweet sixteen evening.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Critical Mom's Wasabi-Ginger-Coconut Chicken

For some time now I've been agonizing over new ways to bake salmon, and one discovery, Oil&Vinegar Wasabi-Ginger Dressing jazzed up a dish of which my diet-conscious husband and eldest son had begun to tire.  I'd been lining up the bell peppers and tomatoes under the slabs of salmon, shaking on the dill and/or garlic salt/and or the European equivalent of Lawry's seasoning salt, and they'd started to yawn.  So I bought a bottle of this:
and I dumped it over the salmon, and baked it for about twenty minutes, and it all went very nicely with sushi rice and steamed broccoli.
But my son kept saying, "Why don't you make it with chicken, Mom?"  So I did--we had two small whole chickens, enough for four big eaters, and I dumped the bottle of wasabi-ginger dressing over them.  But I saw right away that it wasn't quite enough to cover the chickens.  And I looked around for a can of coconut milk, which was not to be found, although I did have a pack of Thai dried coconut powder (just add water!) that I'd never gotten around to using.  I did just add water, and the stuff really approximated coconut milk.  And I poured that over the chicken.  Worried that everything would burn, rather than caramelize, I draped half of a large, fresh banana leaf (also cheap at the local Asian store) over the chicken and tucked it in, the way you'd tuck a blanket around a small, sleeping child.
That took care of the chicken.  Now how to wrap sushi rice in a banana leaf and cook it all in a rice cooker?  I found no recipe on the net suggesting this method, but am happy to report that it all worked fine, and the rice had a pleasant flavor that complemented the wasabi-ginger-coconut flavors in the chicken.   Fifteen minutes before taking the chicken out of the oven I removed the banana leaf in order to let the sauce caramelize a bit.  Now that I've told you what I actually did, I'm going to write out the recipe with suggestions, improvements:


Two small chickens, washed, dried, and placed in baking dish
1/2 to 1/4 cup grated fresh ginger
1/2 to 1/4 cup grated fresh garlic
1 bottle Oil&Vinegar brand Wasabi-Ginger dressing
1 14 ounce (about 360 ml) coconut milk
About half of a large banana leaf

Mix all but the banana leaf together and pour over the chickens.  Then take the half of banana leaf, tuck it around the chicken, and put all in an oven pre-heated to 200ºC (about 392ºF). Bake for about an hour and fifteen minutes, the last ten or so on whirling heat without the banana leaf.  Watch the chickens as much as possible during these last few minutes so that the sauce does not burn.

Once you've got that chicken in the oven, take the other half of the banana leaf and line your rice cooker with most of it.  Rinse and pour in sushi or basmati rice and fold the banana leaf over the rice.  Turn on rice cooker.

I served all this with a sweet ("lieblich") white wine and snow peas that had been very briefly steamed (they should remain very green; tell everyone dinner is ready and THEN start the snow peas, because they really do only take a minute).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How The Critical Mom Made the No-Fly List

It wasn't my politics, which veer to the left of the Green party.  No, it was my poop.  
On our last night in Lima, Peru, I consumed the sprig of cilantro decorating my tamale.  Also the ice cubes in my drink.  The very next day I woke with fever, chills, and Atahualpa's revenge, and got through our plane ride with coke, Ibuprofen and Imodium.  The fever dropped the day after we got home, but I still felt incredibly weak, and thought I should go to the doctor.  My husband thought I should stay in bed--I should have trusted him:  he grew up in the shadow of German bureaucracy--but I staggered off to the doctor, where I was handed a plastic container and asked to deposit a sample of a substance that I found all too easy to produce.
Now, that sprig of cilantro is the cause of all our history . . . . the next thing I knew, I woke up fine the morning after the stool test to the tune of an anxious phone call from the doctor.  I had a communicable disease, you see, and there was so much campylobacteria in my sample that they had to tell the ministry of health, which now wants another stool sample. . . and another . . . . one doesn't get the all clear until one has produced two containers of samples that test negative.  And no, you can't just bring in two containers produced fresh that day.  You have to wait a whole week before bringing in the next one.  During which time you are on the no-fly list.  Hope I'm not invited to any weddings or funerals next week.
So they just cleared my first negative sample, "but theoretically, something could happen, and didn't I want a written excuse to get out of work?"  Most folks jump at the chance, and it seems to have occasioned suspicion that I did not.
Now, government health agencies make it their business to assume that someone like me--with an entirely run-of-the-mill case of traveler's diarrhea, now completely cured, thank God--is not a person of normal habits who bathes and washes her hands before cooking and after using the facilities but rather a lunatic who enjoys sharing her bodily substances with any available surface or person.  But folks, I am not Patient Zero and this is not Contagion.
So I am rather perturbed by the very formal letter from the local Gesundheitsamt entitled Meldung von Krankeitserregern und übertragbaren Krankeiten gemäß Infektionsschutz, which asks reassurance that I have not infected anyone and wants to know where I got this illness.
I just got home on the tram from picking up my kid at school (yes, little old quarantined me) and there on the tram platform screens news flashes informed the public of a case of Ebola virus in Hamburg.  Wouldn't the local health ministry's resources be put to better use taking care of that rather than insisting on yet another stool sample from a healthy, conscientiously clean, hand-washing lady who consumes garlic and ginger and fresh vegetables with gusto?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Ugly American

We enjoyed a glorious day at Machu Picchu climbing the ruins of the sacred city and hearing spicy comments from our guide about conquerors ("You all--Egyptians, Romans, English, Americans, write about killing to make civilization.  You have to kill to create civilization.  But Incas don't write about it.  For Inca, is personal information!"  Here he brought his fist to his chest in a heartfelt way, and the academics from the Decolonization conference laughed in relief.)  But on the train ride from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo, we encountered a well known-type:  the Ugly American.  He strode into the car opening windows and slung himself into his seat, just as my husband began to request that he change his seat from aisle to window so that we could talk with our friend.
"This here's my seat!" he bellowed in a Texas accent.
Our friend, crushed at the window seat by his imposing thigh and sitting across from his terrified-looking wife and daughter, looked alarmed.
"You got a problem with that?" the Texan yelled at my husband, who answered, "A gentleman would allow a lady to change seats."
"Well, I'm gonna get the conductor now, 'cause I might get violent.  A gentleman would let me sit in my seat."
At this point my eldest son announced, in German, "Everyone burn your American passports!  We're going around the world as Germans from now on!" 
"Are you talking' 'bout me in a foreign language?" asked the Texan loudly, squinting at us.  He fetched the conductor, who began to talk to my husband in Spanish, advising him to calm the man down. 
Meanwhile the man leered at our friend, saying, "por favor, darlin'" and she then explained in her perfect Spanish to the conductor that of course the man could have his seat and there was no problem.   The man looked murderous and stuck his other leg out into the aisle, claiming as much space as it was humanly possible to do.
I've encountered this type so frequently that I sometimes tell people I'm Canadian and was grateful when one of the Indio vendors on the street in front of our Cusco hotel asked me if I were Argentinian.  At the National Library in Ireland, years ago, hordes of Americans lined up to find their ancestors, and had no patience with the relaxed attitude of the Irish, who never got angry when red-faced, huge Americans banged the bell repeatedly, expecting instant service. 
We sat through the ride to Ollantaytambo wishing we could do something for our friend other than pass her Kleenex--she wept throughout, being a sensitive sort, and after the ordeal was over imagined the man as a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie who gets murdered at the end.  "And his daughter runs away!"
The daughter was the one for whom I felt the most.  The mother seemed catatonic, the daughter eager to defend her father.  When she overheard me telling my younger son, who asked why the man acted that way, that he was drunk, she shrilled, "He is not drunk!" as if she desperately wanted to convince herself of the fact.
Our friend later reported that he spent the ride making racist remarks about mestizos and abusing his wife and daughter, ordering drinks for them and then drinking them himself, and I urged my husband not to remonstrate, because I knew that the man was capable of punching someone out or much worse.
When I went to the bathroom, I explained to the conductor that I was worried the man might try to injure my husband, and could he please just be around as we exited the train.  He did so, and I was most grateful to him.
But I longed to take aside the daughter, who was about seventeen, and apparently on a pre-college trip with her parents, and tell her: "Listen:  you don't have to stay in your family.  You can leave them behind and make your own life.  I had a father like yours--a man who got drunk and made scenes in public and insulted people.  I had a mother who ignored his bad behavior and like your mother showed her fear of him all the time.  And it took me a while, but I left them behind and made my own life, and you can too."  I thought about my situation  at seventeen with a father like that--the original Ugly American--and I felt extremely grateful for my husband and my three children and how we can laugh together and enjoy a ride on a train even with a drunken yahoo across the aisle, because we can leave him behind.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Critical Mom Goes To Peru

We landed in Lima late last night and discovered that in Peru you have to put all your suitcases and bags through the security machines in order to exit the airport.  Our driver, Pablo, had not minded waiting and was right there at two in the morning when we finally emerged from baggage claim.  On the drive in from the airport the sight of a truckload of live chickens attracted my children, who wondered where they were going, and I had to explain that they were on their way to a restaurant.
Our hotel has hot showers and we are very careful not to open our mouths under the shower head.  Which, once upon a time, one of my cousins did, and found the resulting diarrhea so discomfiting that at the local train station--where one had to pay for toilet paper by the square-- he barely made it to a toilet.  We are brushing our teeth with bottled water from the plane.  On the inside of the bathroom door, a list of rules includes the following:  "The hotel reserves the right of admission and of requesting the guest removal in case he/she carries out or promotes acts against public order and morals."  The following rule reads:  "Animals are not accepted in our accomodations."  I don't think they are worried about lap dogs. 
Our hotel has the best coffee I have ever had--yes, even better than Paris and Monaco.  The eggs were delicious and the employees very friendly.  When we wandered out to find a laundromat, we happened upon tiny cafés serving ceviche, big bottles of beer, and rice with frijoles for the equivalent of three to ten euros.  Many free tasting dishes appeared:  delightfully flavored boiled potatoes decked with something like Hollandaise sauce and decorated with slices of boiled egg; a substance that looked like black beans, tasted something like liver, and was accompanied by tiny shrimp and spicy, pickled red onions.  Rarely have I longed so much to shout, "YOU OUGHT TO CHARGE MORE!" at a waitress.  Everyone seemed to understand, despite my inability to communicate in Spanish, that I was running laps between the laundromat and my meal, that my husband would settle the bill, that one of us had to remain with the clothes and the dryer while the other accompanied our ten-year-old daughter.  A wandering minstrel strolled through playing a guitar and singing in an incredibly good voice and I thought, as I finished my beer, Hollywood, where are you?  Plus, we've discovered Pisco Sours, the national drink, and here's the rule for consuming them:

One is good
Two better
Three enough
Four floor.

I can tell you that my second was a mistake.  One is plenty!  Two made my head spin and I knew I had to stay vertical in order not to lose my dinner.  But maybe it's too bad that I can't tolerate more than one, because today I have a touch of Atahualpa's revenge.  I just had a Greek yoghurt from the local supermarket; if I can stomach a Pisco sour I'll have one later.  I didn't let a drop of local water down my throat but I did eat some ceviche that tasted old.  But today I went to the Indian market and bought a wonderful soft red poncho which is, I am told, and it feels like, baby alpaca, for 110 soles or about 35 euros.  Now that was a deal.  My daughter got a lovely dark blue alpaca shawl for 40 soles, that is, around 14 euros.  And a pair of soft alpaca slippers for the same.
Tune in next week for more on our upcoming trip to Macchu Picchu and the jungle. 

P.S.  Well, I am sorry to report that the usual remedies--banana, dark chocolate, and pisto--did not work, and a trip to the local Botica proved necessary.  There, one has to describe one's symptoms (in my case with sounds and gestures) and then one is handed Cipro, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and a sympathetic attitude.  I'm in my hotel bed, coke and saltines by my side, having spent the morning doing laundry and buying the most beautiful tablecloth in the world, blue with Inca designs, for only 70 soles or about $25.

That's part of the cure, too.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Critical Mom Comes Home To New York

Even before we got here, my husband made sure we got a foretaste of paradise--the Saturday before our Monday flight we drove to Cologne to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.   The smaller stage at the Philharmonic barely cramped their style--they danced ecstatically, gorgeously, and seemed happily astonished by their effect on the Germans during the inevitable showstopper--Revelations.  I've been watching Revelations since the 1970s and it seems to me that certain sections--"Oh, Sinner Man," have gotten faster and louder, but the spirit of the piece remains.  And now here I am in New York with the family, and my daughter and I took a ballet class with Richard Marsden (Very Beginner Ballet, slow but strenuous) at one of Alvin Ailey's homes, City Center--and enjoyed ourselves immensely.  Step off the plane, take a ballet class!  We have enjoyed a nonstop schedule since arriving, and while the family sleeps, the mom types.  The air conditioner is on, the sounds of the city muted, and the sense of having everything I want right in front of me, or just a New York minute away, is growing by the moment.
We flew Düsseldorf to London on British Airways, which was its competent and slightly stuffy self.  Seating myself, I pulled out the barf bag "just in case" for my youngest, whose stomach is susceptible to airline travel.  But I found that someone had left a moldy old cookie and some gum in there, and my oldest child asked the stewardess if it would be too much trouble to find us an unused one.  Eyebrows vaulting to her hairline--we had not yet taken off--she barked, "Who was sick?"  I assured her that it was none of us and she disappeared, returned with blue rubber gloves halfway up her arm (the kind the border guards at Kennedy routinely wear) and removed the offending item with a very British sniff. 
Yesterday we got tickets to Les Miserables and felt miserable when the subway had delays and we got there only after hacking our way through hellishly loud stores and crowds twenty minutes late.  But they let us in!  Even though we missed "I Dreamed A Dream" we loved the show and of course I cried when they were singing "To Love Another Person is to see the Face of God!!" We arrived home in a moistly sentimental state and baked some expensive but delicious organic chickens, which the children were almost too tired to consume.  And we watched the part we'd missed, the Susan Boyle version, on YouTube.  A perfect evening.  Day Three is dawning--Shakespeare in the Park?  Good thing we didn't go last night, because the "Blow Winds And Crack Your Cheeks" part of the show was accompanied by just that kind of weather--the thunder and lightning nearly drowned out Susan Boyle.  We hoped for tickets for the Bolshoi, which was sold out, but we did get discount tickets to Pippin.   Now I remember the Ben Vereen version from the seventies, which had a certain elegance: this new production is faster, racier, and louder, but most enjoyable, and the actor who had played the original Pippin (the prince who doesn't want to be a prince) in 1972 now plays the king. We wandered lower Manhattan and managed the free ticket night at the 9/11 museum, whose recordings of memories of people who lived through the catastrophe, and memorial quilts, are very moving.  I was less happy with the movie, which seemed to me an assertion of the rebuilding of empire:  the new tower loomed onscreen such that we had to crane our necks to see the top, and I thought of the John Winthrop sermon on board the Arabella in 1630:  building a city upon a hill.  New York is our city upon a hill, as long as fortunes can be made and immigrants can be welcomed and everyone can just get along.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Critical Mom's Kid Meets Angela Merkel

So they just both happened to be in China at the same time, my oldest son with his Chinese class and Frau Merkel.   And he got to shake hands with her and even talk to her.
"What was it like!  What was it like!"  
I'm bouncing in my seat in the car on the way home from Düsseldorf airport, and even my exceedingly patient husband can hardly wait to hear.  We are big admirers of Merkel.
"Well, we were all shaking hands with her and I thought why not talk?  I said hi or something.  We talked about what it was like to learn Chinese.  And she asked how many Chinese characters we had to know for the Abitur.  And I said, like, 800.  And then she said something like there were 24 letters in the German alphabet, right?
Here I interrupted him.  "She was kidding, right?" No, she was just really every bit as jet-lagged as the tenth-graders were.  
"And MOM, she's a physicist after all," said our tenth-grader.
He doesn't have to defend her to me.  I think she's great.
"But what was she like?"  Well, as I imagined.  As her face shows.
"She was really just like a regular person.  And also, you could see, yes, really the Mutti," he added--she is Germany's mommy, and oh, this country needs a Mom.  Probably every country needs one; let me rile everyone by suggesting that women leaders have a natural instinct for diplomacy.   Our son is home and gets to sleep off his jet lag in front of the Germany-Argentina soccer game, which is on right now.  But Frau Merkel has to be at the stadium in the flesh, telling reporters how much everyone in Germany loves soccer, and sitting next to the probably inconsolable President of Brazil.  My hat is off to her.  You go, Mutti.  Three years older than I am, and with fifty times the energy.