Friday, June 27, 2014

The Critical Mom's Take on the Pope and the Mafioso

"So it's somehow cool to excommunicate the mafioso but not the priests who molested children?"  I'm in the middle of a conversation with the smart teenager, whose argumentative skills are being daily honed by a stint as an intern in a lawyer's office.
"Well, hey, I mean . . . for a pope."
Yeah.  There's the rub.  He's a pretty good guy, Francis.  For a pope.  Which is not saying much, but the astonishing thing is that those mafia dudes really do seem to care about being excommunicated.  Is this a my-dick's-bigger-than-yours thing or a help-Mommy-I-don't-want-to-end-up-in-the-tenth-circle-of-Dante's-inferno thing?  And yeah, if the Ultimate Dad excommunicates them, they'll be stuck asking Mommy for help.  And all she's ever been allowed to do in the Mafia world up to now is bake ziti, eat popcorn in front of the TV with the priest, and screw open fake cans of Campbell's soup to get Tony's cash.  Okay, she gets to do more in Prizzi's Honor, but she almost never runs the show.
Now it really would make some kind of statement if the mafia returned to the matriarchy, at least in religious matters.  I am already imagining something like the struggle between Henry VIII and Pope Leo X, with whom Henry was on fine terms while he was writing his Latin treatise on the Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which earned him the title of Defender of the Faith.  But then, as we all know, Henry wanted to dump his wife and marry somebody else, and when the pope said he'd had enough of annulments, Henry said "I'll go make my own church, so there!" and Pope Paul III said, "and I'll excommunicate you, so there!"   At which point the goddess wrung her hands, put Henry in the tenth circle on earth, what with the wives, the decapitations, the indigestion, the x-linked genetic disorder or the syphilis, not to mention the obesity and leg ulcers.  No happy camper, this.  Pope Paul didn't do so hot himself, what with the assassination of his son and all. 
Now, why do these mafia dudes care about being excommunicated?  I always thought they lived to break the rules.  Lacking expertise in matters mafia, I turn to frequent displays of superstition on The Sopranos, which was said to be so true to life that crime rates in New Jersey plummeted on nights when the show was aired, since the mob was home, glued to the set.  I recall a Sicilian mafiosa carefully collecting her cut fingernails, so that nobody could perform, what, witchcraft with them?  And I recall Chris, who is eventually murdered by Tony, being spooked by a raven landing on an open windowsill during his ceremony of becoming a made man.  Which has some bizarre elements of a twisted Catholicism--they're burning pictures of Saint Peter while he's swearing he'd like to go to hell if he ever betrays his buddies.
Ah.  That's where the priest part comes in.  It's convenient to be able to go to a priest, and confess everything, like maybe even "uh, I did just get wired by the FBI but I don't really want to do it and all. I'll say a zillion Hail Marys to feel better about this one."
Now, why doesn't the pope bother to excommunicate me?  Because I'm nobody, and by the way did a pro forma conversion to Catholicism a few years ago.  Not because I believe in any deity of any kind, even though from time to time I make half-hearted attempts at prayer, usually when I'm desperate.  Because I love my husband, and we were at the time considering a move to Bavaria, back when the pope was German and very involved in the running of the university where I would have been applying for a job.  There I was, unbaptized, and of Protestant descent.  It wasn't looking good.  So I did what the Jews did to get through the Middle Ages.  I got baptized into the Catholic faith, after a conversation with an open-minded priest who wanted to find some "common ground" between his belief and my atheism and was willing to settle for my occasional Wordsworthian sense of feeling at one with the universe while swimming.  More like it while having an orgasm but I knew that part would embarrass the guy, so I didn't mention it, and he did baptize me, and is there some cosmic significance in the fact that all this occurred on Al Capone's birthday?
Maybe, just maybe, there is.  Meanwhile, stay tuned to find out whether Tony rises from the black screen to phone Dr. Melfi again, panic attack resurging at the thought of . . .  not being able to go to confession and get it all taken care of.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Older Son, the Younger Son, and the Critical Mom

"Why did you fart?"
The son  to whom my eldest had put the question had retired, hermit-like, to his room, and was pleased to be presented there with some cupcakes.
"I'm was just asking him a question, Mommy.  That's all!"  The elder had said to the younger, who had favored him with a fishy stare.
"Hey, please don't put your toe on the table.  That's not polite," says my husband to our oldest son, who, with four guests sitting around the table for a traditional coffee-and-cake, had introduced his toe into the conversation.  There it peeked over the edge of the tablecloth as if it, too, wanted some cake, while the teenager lounged with that inimitable air of "I'm gonna get away with this because you're not gonna stop me in front of other people."
"Besides," the older son added, gesturing to me, "She isn't polite either, right?"  There's nothing like distraction to derail the parents.  Why wasn't I polite?  Because I had asked if he would play Tequila on the clarinet for our guests,  when I was supposed to know perfectly well that he doesn't like to play in front of guests and by the way I shouldn't be pushing his sister (who was about to execute a Marcello piece on her violin with considerable charm) when she didn't want to play either.
  How well I remember the younger son, age three, getting even with our eldest.  The eldest had teased him and then gone upstairs to read.  And if you hadn't known that he'd teased the youngest, you'd think the youngest a completely psychotic devil.  Here's what happened.  By chance I was going up the stairs right behind the three-year-old, who, unbeknownst to me, had plans.  And we got to the top of the stairs and lo and behold, instead of heading into his own room, he went down the hall to his brother's room.  Hmmm, thought I, following him.  He was in fact so intent on his brother that he didn't notice that I was right behind him.  He walked right into the eldest's room and here, though I did not see it, I can imagine the gloating look on the youngest's face.  There sat his eldest brother, deep in a book, quietly facing the window, oblivious to the small person right behind his chair and the mother standing in the doorway.
Up went the small person's fist.  Before I could even open my mouth to yell, "Stop," down came that little fist, right between the shoulder blades.  WHAM!!  The results must have been most satisfying to the younger brother.   I could tell it hurt a lot and ran to the eldest to see if any real damange had been done, but apart from having the wind knocked out of him and a bruise that would fade in a day and considerable scraping of his dignity, he was fine.  I proceeded to the room of the younger son, who was whistling a happy tune.  He greeted me with a look of alarm.  "You know, Mommy, it's the funniest thing," he invented.  "I, like, came up the stairs, and somehow accidentally I went into, uh, you know, his room.  And then like by accident my arm just happened to swing around and by accident it landed on him."  He smiled.  By the end of the explanation he believed everything he'd said.
Well, now that he's twelve and the other one is fifteen, I can leave the house without worrying that the two of them will kill each other.  They'll play video games together about people killing each other instead. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Beyond Sin" and Me

The ballet, that is.  Personally, I haven't even tiptoed anywhere near anything the pope might be inclined to categorize as sin (which would be most things, now that I think of it.)   Boris Eifman's marvellous ballet, Beyond Sin is, according to program notes, about The Brothers Karamazov, but you could have fooled me.  Within the first five minutes of spectacular dancing, Russian style--and nobody does melodrama like the Russians--I knew it was about how tough it is to be gay in Russia, and my husband was murmuring, "Hmmmm . . . is this about repression?"  There is that final scene of a lone priest hauling a large crucifix up a tortuously winding staircase.   Official program notes say something along these lines:

Amid global crisis of values of the beginning of the ХХI century the choreographer turned to secure moral foundations and created a ballet about warring against God and seeking after God, about unbelief and belief, the nature of human depravity and spiritual salvation.





By intermission, it was obvious that the rest of the audience did not get it . . . that is, laughing loudly at one particularly histrionic moment, I realized I was the only one to have made any sound at all.  So I followed the mood of the ballet and, well, repressed further giggles.  In the intermission I just couldn't help myself and, for my husband's entertainment,  imitated one of the frequently repeated overemotional pas-de-chat-like movements, resulting in my tumbling down the stairs and only slightly bruising my menopaused hip.   Which is now fine, after a glass of red wine.  Exiting the ladies room, I overheard the conversation of two dames who were approximately my age, but fancier: botox and bling had fixed them up.  And what were they saying?  "It's very . . . spiritual," said one to the other.  Her friend nodded with an air of seriousness that was hilarious.  If that's "spiritual," bottle the stuff.  I'll take a little blood-and-thunder any day, the way I shake Tabasco sauce into my meatloaf, buy bigger jewelry, smear on redder lipstick, and rub in even more Oil of Olay.  Give me Sensational, give me Stagy, give me Theatrical, give me Cloak-and-Dagger, Overdramatic!  Bring it on, because believe you me, there's nothing like any of the above when the Russians are dancing it to the tunes of Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff, according to program notes . .  . music doesn't get bigger than that.  Could have sworn I heard some Khachaturian in there--a dramatic waltz somewhere, but I was probably thinking of Spartacus, of which this ballet reminded me.  
The piece didn't get great reviews in New York--probably they'd have had to call it Beyond Purity for that.  That might at least arouse curiosity.  I do believe it got better reviews where I am, but alas, where I am really does not matter in the international scope of things.  Just to illustrate:  to get to a really good ballet class, here's what I have to do:  get to my local tram stop more than three and a half hours before I want to be home again, settling down by the TV with my husband, watching the news.  So I got there and whaddaya know?  A delay.  Which meant arriving at the local Hauptbahnhof three nanoseconds too late for the regional express train that takes 12 minutes to the city with the good ballet class.  Which meant taking the ICE, which also takes 12 minutes, but they found me and insisted I pay them an additional fourteen euros and some cents (never mind the three euro ten cent ticket I'd already purchased).  I ambled off to class, but had to leave five minutes early to make the regional express back to my town.  Never mind, it was a great class and all I missed was the reverance at the end.  But I had to run, I mean really run, I mean, gang way, bulls of Pamplona run to get to track 11 in order to just make it to my train.  Never mind.  Ballet is lovely, the Russians endlessly inspiring.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Critical Mom's Stormy Weather

I write to the sound of buzz saws cutting off the branches that are still hanging from last night's storm.   Mother Nature was not feeling maternal.
Yesterday evening my husband barbecued and we ate on the patio; it seemed moderately cooler out there.  When the clouds came, we were not alarmed, but we did bring in the laundry and the guinea pigs.  By the time the lightning started and the sky turned green, it was raining so loudly that I could hardly hear myself think, and the trees bent alarmingly out my second floor window, to the point where I began to wonder about our roof tiles.  
In the morning we could see the house next door a lot better . . . but it took my middle child to realize why:  "Mom!  The tree's not there anymore!"  But it was . . . in pieces all over the street . . . and it's now been chopped into logs that will burn nicely in our fireplace next winter.
It took a trip to the grocery store to let us know how bad things were.  On our way home from getting our rabies shots for our trip to Peru, we thought we'd buy dinner.  But the grocery store was closed.  Edeka, the local supermarket, had lost a big chunk of its roof, which lay in a tarry mess on the street in front of it.  Across the street, I found a big plastic piece of what used to be the "A" in "Edeka."  Trying to make our way home, we entered streets so clotted with fallen branches that we had to turn around, and saw a number of uprooted, large trees, one of which had crushed a blue car.  Dazed, we finally got home via roundabout routes, and when I said the weather was "interesting," my daughter pointed out that it was "disastra-mazing," and my husband remarked, "This is the kind of weather you only see on the news."  I thought of Robert McCloskey's Time of Wonder, the beautifully illustrated Caldecott-Award winning children's book about a storm, and the calm with which the inhabitants of Maine handle it:  "We're going to have some weather," they say, and "It's a comin'!"  By the time the storm hits, the folks in Maine have already rolled towels and placed them by doors and windows.
But we didn't know it was a-coming, and we still don't quite know what hit us--a typical June storm, or a global-warming climate-changed storm?  Some of those fallen trees were awfully big.  I haven't seen anything like this since I was a ten-year-old inhabitant of a Vermont summer camp for girls.  One July night it stormed, and the crack above our wooden cabin was so loud that three girls on the other side of the shack vaulted out of their beds, ran across to our section, and climbed in bed with us.  We thought a tree had fallen on our roof.  It turned out one had been split in half by lightning, but a ten minute walk from us, down by the lake. 
Signing off, to the tune of sirens:  the forestry and fire departments are busy today and tonight.  Tomorrow, the kids have a day off school, and even the day after that, since apparently we're going to have some more weather.  It seems to have been a really good time to get those rabies shots.  I do have that very third-world feeling about what happened today:  would not want to live in the land of Panem; hope the politicians will address global warming in a significant way, and that the five deaths in our region will be honored through significant changes in policy.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Forbidden Grand Plié

One of the things I miss the most about New York is the ease with which I could fit a ballet class into my schedule--there was always one somewhere, seven days a week, at all hours . . . and I could choose my teachers:  if I wanted placement, I'd go to Maggie Black and if I wanted movement I'd go to David Howard.  If I wanted Russian I'd go to Mme Nemtchinova, whose ballet studio in Manhattan's Beaux Arts masterpiece, the Ansonia hotel, was a homage to imperial Russia.  Since most ballet schools took the bare bones approach (grungy linoleum, complete with cockroaches) occasionally I developed a longing for glamor.  Then I'd go to the fantastically ornate Harkness Ballet school, to take class in rooms of such gorgeously glaring gilt-trimmed baby blue and pink that it was as though Barbie had designed the pavilion at Brighton.  
The small city in which I now live cannot offer such varying delights.  We do have a ballet school offering graded classes in the English system to children, and a very few evening classes for adults.  The children look good--especially for kids who are not going to become professional dancers, they have nicely trained legs and feet and dance prettily in a style strongly influenced by Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor that remains elegant and vivacious, although too prim for my taste.  
In the sort of gross generalization that is sure to be knocked down somewhere, English dancers are known for their effortless precision of placement, while the Russians are known for spectacular displays of hitting the  position with unmatched melodrama (remember Pavel Dmitrichenko, known for dancing Ivan the Terrible,  who just got six years in prison for hiring somebody to throw acid in the face of the Bolshoi director).  If you want pyrotechnic power, take the Russians, but if you want "flow," head west.  The East is all about extremes, just the way it is in politics.  The West has a certain democracy:  you don't have to have the perfect straight leg or the perfect arched foot.  You might end up in modern or jazz or contemporary dance, or just dancing as a hobby, but nobody's going to do what the wonderful Mme Vera Nemtchinova did :  she  grabbed my not-too-well-trained teenaged and hyperextended legs with her still very strong eighty-three-year-old hands and tried to pull them into a perfect position.  She genuinely believed that she could say:  "Let there be a perfect position!"  And in her universe, there would be one, because my leg would actually change shape under her hands.
The thing was my knees.  They did not like this.  As soon as I felt sure her myopic eyes could no longer see my feet, I resumed the slightly incorrect position that is possible for a dancer with hyperextended legs:  the kind that didn't play back in Imperial Russia, but it'll do here in the democratic west.   But we of the imperfect bodies all loved (at least a few classes with) Mme. Nemtchinova, because who else would have you link arms with two other students and dance a spirited troika across the floor?  Who else wore their hair in a bun that dipped over the ears like Alexandra Danilova, like Carlotta Grisi, we muttered when she couldn't hear us?  Who else wore an elegantly transparent floral chiffon ballet skirt in which was allegedly concealed a little flask of vodka?  Who else provided the legacy of the Ballets Russes, of Diaghilev, of Nijinsky, of Pavlova?  Who else, according to legend, stopped onstage in the middle of doing thirty-two fouetté turns and announced:  "You wait.  I do again.  Better."  She did do them again, and got a standing ovation.  She took the same gutsy approach when applying for American citizenship.  Asked to name three American generals, she answered: "General Electric, General Motors and General Mills." 
 It was great to watch her, to hear her accent--but in ballet, as in all fields, one must ultimately think for oneself, no matter what the teacher says.  Perhaps the only stereotypically American quality she possessed was her ability to say "no" to age:  from the legs down, you'd clock her at under thirty, and she had the spitfire energy of a teenager.  Most important for a teacher, she had a vision--hers was delusional, but inspired:  by molding imperfect legs in her tough little hands, she'd make them straighten out.  After a while I went to teachers with different visions:  a vision of how you get the feeling of being completely on your feet.  For this, I'll bless Maggie Black forever.  Another vision:  of how you never stop moving, especially when you are standing absolutely still.  For this, I bless David Howard.  
Now, none of these folks had degrees.  They had their eyes.  They were, all three, observers of the highest order: they knew what they wanted to see and they did everything in their power to see it, by making us students perform a series of exercises at the barre designed to bring that vision to fruition.  They also watched us--they geared comments to individual legs and feet, and thought up exercises just for those particular legs and feet.









Nowadays, I have teachers who--never rising to the visionary brilliance of my former instructors--did have some wonderfully original ideas which they now seem to be polluting with academic theory.  One of my teachers insists on an aerobic "warm-up," justified with the notion that the "heart rate" must be raised in order to begin barre work.  How often I have wanted to ask her whether she would enjoy this so-called "warm-up" which she forces upon us, and which just jerks my muscles around.  Her partner subscribes to the latest scholarship on pliés (did you know they're bad? Because the quadriceps this and the patella that and too much strain according to. . . some dude who never did a plié but who has an advanced degree).  A little learning is a dangerous thing:  my teacher has glommed on to scholarly theory like a Calvinist to his dogma; has he noticed that I am not a statistic?    He's actually gone so far as to ban the grand plié, substituting it with a demi-plié into a roll up.
But you see, I can't get on my legs unless I do a grand plié.  Especially now that I am fifty-seven and have had three C-sections.  So now I do them in the dressing room before class, after a bunch of tendus and about sixteen cloches.  And I do them at home.  Don't let them bean-counting rule-makers get you down, girls!  The Critical Mom does a grand plié: 



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Here I'm almost on my legs.  Two more pliés followed, by which time I had my tailbone down and was able to keep my stomach in.   Next time I'm in New York, I'll enjoy classes with Richard Marsden, whose calm, placement-oriented approach reminds me very much of my former teachers.  Surely grand pliés will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of my New York ballet teachers forever . . .