Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Empress's New Clothes: Who Is Lena Dunham?

Don't let the apparent exhibitionism take you by surprise. What makes Dunham's Not That Kind Of Girl so dull isn't just the vapidity.  Dunham's hiding the real story.
What made me buy her memoir--the stratospheric praise of Judy Blume and David Sedaris--had me flummoxed as soon as I'd read a paragraph. I closed the book again and read those blurbs: Sedaris says calls this a "fine, subversive book." Blume calls Dunham "always funny, sometimes wrenching," adding that Dunham is a "creative wonder." (Because Dunham reminds Blume of her fictional character, "Sheila the great?" And Sedaris--maybe it's fun for a brilliantly funny man to enjoy the company of someone trying to be as funny as he is? But here imagination fails me.)
Meanwhile, my revered book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, with whom I cannot remember disagreeing, loves Dunham, comparing her to Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, and Helen Gurley Brown. To be fair, in her review, Kakutani quotes two or three snappy remarks of Dunham's but not snappy enough that they staple themselves to your thought processes, the way Dorothy Parker does. You'll never, ever, get Parker's  "Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses" out of your head. Try it, you won't. 
Parker, Ephron and Brown sink in like chocolate melting in a crepe. But Dunham's more like a piece of Bazooka bubble gum: you're glad you found that childhood pleasure you remember, but now that you're no longer a child, the pink chew has lost it's charm--the stuff is too sweet and loses its flavor. The gum's still wrapped in a waxy comic strip, but the comic strip's no longer funny. You can still blow a bubble or two. Big whoop. 
That's Dunham--a bubble or two.
 Surely Sedaris, Blume and Kakutani, whose writing delights because it's really about something--surely they don't genuinely believe that Lena Dunham is a talent? But clearly they do. They've said so, enthusiastically, in print. The evidence is out there that Dunham's got something: a show on HBO that's won golden globes, plus the honor of being parodied by Tina Fey,which you may see here. 
I like the Tina Fey version. I don't like the original. What has memoir come to? 
If you've read Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Mary Karr, Susannah Kaysen, Jeannette Walls, Cheryl Strayed--to name the first that come to mind--you've read tales of girls and women facing challenges and struggling to overcome them. The closest to Dunham in the exhibitionism department is probably Daphne Merkin--but Merkin is fascinating, readable. Merkin reveals--a cold, almost sadistic mother, a household of regimented, unloved children, a longing for love. 
Dunham doesn't. I find many hints--she hopes to find a mother in her psychotherapist, to whom she offers a portrait with "big Keane eyes" and a poem in which the therapist "will never be my mother." The comment that matters the most to Dunham--I'd bet my bank account on this--is her mother's. And here is what the mother says, via Amazon: 

“I’m surprised by how successful this was. I couldn’t finish it.”—Laurie Simmons


Maybe the two of them cooked up this blurb together--that's sadder. Either way: Dunham's mother is surprised at her daughter's success--and she does not want it. She does not want it so much that she won't finish reading the book. No wonder Dunham is a mess. Her father's paintings of penises and vaginas, with bodies and backgrounds as backdrops, established the narrative focus for his daughter.  No, he didn't show her his, but he might as well have done so. But the poor kid had no other interests. Her mother's art--photographs of women with strange, elongated eyes; selfies of her own vagina, doll house figures in kitchens--suggests disgust with all things domestic, or perhaps with all women who like domestic pleasures like cooking or cleaning. Mothers--who needs 'em? asks her art. 
Clearly her daughter needs one. But she won't write about that. Or will she? Have we yet to hear the real story from Dunham?
I wonder what Dunham would have been like with a passionate, all-consuming interest. What if she'd thrown herself into ballet or clarinet? Archery? Sculpting? Helping refugees? Working for a political campaign? 
There's still time, Lena. There's still time. 

P.S. Somebody get this girl to take "The Rules" seriously.
P.P.S. Or at least listen to Adelaide singing "Take back ya mink! Take back ya poils! What made you think that I was one of those goils . .  ."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Christmas Eve Cha-Cha

Waiting for Santa
I got up to bake Christmas cookies around five this morning; by seven, my daughter was so eager to load them into cute red tins that one cookie leaped to the floor.
"Only one died, Mommy," she said.
"R.I.P. cookie, 2015-2015," intoned her brother.
She gave him a candy cane. It broke, so he gave it to their older brother, who crunched down on it, commenting: "I like my candy canes with a broken neck . . . just the way I like my brother."
Then in church, as I was singing "Gloooorrria, in excelsis deo!" my daughter asked if I were singing, "In egg-shells-is deo."
Nope.
 My husband's cooking the goose, the aroma of which is making my stomach rumble. Yum. Raisin-apple stuffing. Dumplings. Red wine.
Christmas Goose, Bavarian dumplings, red cabbage, gravy, gravy, gravy . . .
It won't be a silent night--it will be lovely. 
We were amused by some of our presents: a certain relative re-gifted a 2015 weekly planner with her name on it in gold leaf--which she'd magic-markered out. But it doesn't even have the last few weeks of December 2015 . . .  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Last of the Turkey

Since we didn't celebrate Thanksgiving until Saturday, November 28, our leftovers lasted until a few days ago. . . turkey sandwiches, lunch after lunch, but fortunately the boys love turkey sandwiches. We had an 11.73 kilo bird and when my eleven-year-old daughter saw it she remarked, "it's as big as me, mommy!" 


BEFORE

What I hadn't known, but which my bible, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, confirms, is that a bigger bird takes less time to cook than a smaller one. If the turkey weighs sixteen pounds or less, it needs fifteen minutes per pound in the oven at 325ºF or 165ºC. If the bird's over sixteen pounds, and ours was closer to twenty-four, it needs twelve minutes per pound.  I was wondering if some physicist might tell me why that is so. Could it have been the bacon covering my turkey, the greater amount therefore of hot fat? I had a brand-new cooking thermometer that I found at our local TK Maxx.
I can't compete with Robert Benchley's wonderful recipe, which you may read about here--for one thing, I'd never be able to drink that much while preparing a turkey, although I do believe a cook should be "well-oiled." Makes you spontaneous. A little wine, but gee, Mr. Benchley, your capacity was amazing. And now for my recipe, which is considerably easier:

Rinse the bird in cold water. Pat dry. Then, depending upon your mood, do one of the following:

(1) Cover the bird with strips of bacon. You can stretch them a bit, and for a turkey over twelve pounds you'll definitely need more than one pack of bacon. Maybe two or three. Hardly any of the turkey skin should show--all should be covered in lovely bacon.  
.
AFTER BEING DRAPED WITH BACON
(2) Gently--using a small knife if necessary--work your hand under the skin, creating a large pocket. Fill this pocket with thin slices of butter. Lots of them. Pat down. Rub more butter on the legs and any other part of the skin that has somehow failed to come into contact with it.

Then, salt and pepper the bird. Here's the stuffing I make: Let two bags of a very ordinary supermarket bread--Pepperidge Farm white bread, or even Wonderbread, if it still exists, dry slightly in an oven set on low heat. Load the slices into your food processor and make breadcrumbs. While the bread is being processed, melt a large amount of butter--at least two sticks (Germans, at least 250 grams) into a pot or pan. Wash and chop fine many stalks of celery. Add at least one onion, chopped fine. Let the celery and onion get soft in the heating butter, but don't turn the heat so high that the butter burns. You can't turn away from the pan for a nanosecond. Add breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and combine all, mixing until it smells and tastes good.

If there's anything left over after you've stuffed the turkey, and there should be, put the leftovers in a separate baking dish. You'll bake it when it is almost time to take out the turkey. Now, the bird should be accompanied by the usual--see below: corn muffins (the dry, Fannie Farmer kind), cranberry sauce (an orange, some cranberries, some fresh ginger, a half cup of sugar, a dash of cinnamon go in your food processor) and the vegetables and gravy of your choice. Pies follow . . .  but here's the main course:
DONE!
THE FEAST


 

Monday, November 23, 2015

American Hysteria and Syrian Refugees

About 75 Syrian refugees have settled in the state of New Jersey since last January. Now, Governor Chris Christie won't admit any more--"no, not even orphans under the age of five!"
Because you know these people. They might grow up to be terrorists, and some of them won't grow up to be Christians.
I have nothing but shame for my citizenship, and incidents like this make me think hard about whether I'll keep it. 
75 refugees pose a danger? Because we're all scared of what happened in Paris? Governor Christie, the German city of Passau is taking in 75 refugees every fifteen minutes. We've got around 500 in the neighborhood I live in--30 or 40 new ones come daily--and several hundred more near the university where I work. They are cold, scared, hungry people, many of them young men who did not wish to be pawns in this Pyrrhic war that will end in annihilation. 
Why does America rush to repeat its awful isolationist past? From before the hint of a republic, with the Salem witch trials, we had periods of mass hysteria during which the blame game destroyed lives. The Japanese internment camps. The Joe McCarthy Years. The 9/11 panic that destroyed, and continues to destroy, Arab-Americans. Donald Trump. The excuse has always been national security, and the reality has always been that panicky measures produced far worse situations than the inciting incident ever did.  In all of these situations, hatred united people. Nothing is easier than to unite a group in hatred of an enemy, and politicians who succeed in doing this, the demagogues of the world, rise and fall like shooting stars. The rare politician manages to unite a group in shared love, a far more difficult task, love usually uncovering vulnerability as well as strength.
 When will we get another politician who inspires people to understand that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? When will the Statue of Liberty lift her lamp beside the golden door again? Why is Mad Magazine still one of the most realistic commentators on the American attitude toward the refugee crisis:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,
And we'll send 'em right back
We'll send 'em right back
We'll send 'em right back to you.

When panic and racism overcome optimism and pragmatism--when America loses her foundational goal of being the city on the hill, that the eyes of the world may be upon us, then there is no more American dream. President Obama protests "this is not who we are," but until he can stop the fearmongers, Americans are indeed the bad guys. When a country that fits into the State of Texas and feed, clothe, and offer education to thousands pouring in while the world superpower sucks its thumb and pleads security issues, my world ends, and any faith I still had in the United States.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Paris Is For Friends

The moment I heard about the attacks, I felt cold, and I haven't warmed up since. My sixteen-year- old son spent a day in Paris a few weeks ago.
"Mom, if it makes you feel better, we weren't anywhere near the eleventh arrondissement." 
I feel no better knowing that he was nowhere near the site of the attacks.  But I'm not going to change my life, and if I were invited to Paris tomorrow, I'd go. 
During a moment of silence  at a local school for the victims of the Paris attacks, a ten-year-old boy yelled, "Allah is greater!"
He's supposedly not a bad kid and allegedly not much of a student. He's a kid who gets into trouble and who needs support. Police arrived. Questioning took place. Piles of paperwork needed to be filled out.
These are the kids who get approached by terrorist networks. These are the kids whose vulnerability to promises of a paradise filled with gorgeous virgins makes them down cocaine or psychoactive pills that release inhibition and increase aggression--firing a gun becomes easy.
A boy who doesn't do well in school? A girl whose classmates make fun of her? A brilliant teenager who's unsure about "everything?"
What could feel more reassuring than absolute certainty, unity in hatred? 
But how to find these children and help them to know that life with all its oddities, its disappointments, its bad jokes, is the thing worth having?

I have my mantras for these times:

(1) Keep them talking

(2) Being full of fear, and making decisions because of fear, will get you nothing.

(3) The worst returns to laughter. Watch out for a humorless person. 

(4) Be brave, and never lose hope.

 Paris is for those who love her--Paris deserves her friends. Paris is not for those who want to incinerate her for her secular palaces. Paris deserves all of our support today.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Gardasil Concerns, Part Two: A Conversation with Dr. Ian Hector Frazer, Developer of the HPV Vaccine

Dear Readers, I believe in going to the very top with the tough questions, so I wrote with no hope of an answer to the physician who developed the HPV vaccine, Dr. Ian Hector Frazer, Professor of Medicine, of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Chairman of the Board of the Translational Research Institute. He wrote back right away, answering my questions thoroughly. Here is our e-conversation of November 12, 2015:

The Critical Mom:  I write as a lay person trying to assess the risks of HPV vaccine for my
eleven year old daughter. I've already read the CDC page and the Merck pages, and of course discussed the vaccine with our pediatrician, who tells me his daughter has been vaccinated, but I can't ignore the reports of adverse reactions from a number of young women, even though the CDC seems to think there's no pattern to them and that they therefore remain insignificant. I also wonder why, when only 1% of women in the developed world are affected, I'd want to assume that my daughter is at risk.

I pasted in my blog post of November 10, 2015 with the remarks of Dr. Diane Harper. 
Dr. Frazer: Most of what Dr Harper writes in response to your questions is true.  However,  unfortunately,  12,000 women continue to die of cervical cancer in the USA each year where PAP smear screening is supposedly routine. 




While only 1% of women infected with HPV will develop cervical cancer, more than half of all sexually active woman (even those in a monogamous relationship with only one partner ever) will become infected with a cancer causing HPV virus.  PAP screening is not a perfect test, (50% of precancers are missed  on any one PAP sampling) and it therefore only works to reduce the risk of cervical cancer  if a pap is done regular every 2-3 years - even then, some women have disease that progresses from undetectable to invasive cancer within 2 years.

In Australia where about 80% of girls have been vaccinated over the last 10 years there  has been a dramatic reduction in abnormal pap smears (yes we still do them,  because Gardasil 4 only prevents about 70% of cervical cancers - those due to HPV16 and HPV18 - this will be less of an issue with Gardasil 9 which covers over 90%).  
However from next year we’re  going to test for the viruses that cause cervical cancer, rather than looking for cancer cells, and testing will be done less   frequently because the virus test catches cancer causing infections earlier than the pap smear test.   

The HPV vaccines have proven safe - the US and European regulatory authorities have stated that there are no long term problems attributable to the vaccine - just sore arms for a day or two in a small number of girls and boys, and a 1 in a million chance of an allergic reaction (that's the same odds as for all the other vaccines your daughter would be likely to have had as a baby).  
See for example this recent report from Europe that two diseases that have been said to be associated with the vaccine are not.

Another incentive to vaccinate is prevention of genital warts, not lethal, but common, difficult to treat, and can be passed from mother to baby to cause a rare but distressing and sometimes lethal disease in the child. 

In Australia genital warts and abnormal pap smears in young women  are now occurring at less than 10% of the rate that was observed prior to the introduction of routine vaccination of girls in 2007 – modelling predicts that with universal vaccination the infection will eventually be eradicated from the community altogether (maybe in 50 years).
In the meantime, personal protection through vaccination is effective at reducing the risk of cancer, and safe.   

It's also worth pointing out that  the studies in Australia have shown the greatest benefit has been in girls vaccinated at age 12 – those vaccinated at age 14 or older have had significantly less reduction in disease.  The most likely reason for this is that by age 14 a significant number of girls have had contact with the papillomavirus (contact does not need to be penetrative sexual intercourse – other forms of genital contact are sufficient to spread the virus).   The median (average) age of first sexual contact for girls  in most countries in the developed world is between 14 and  15. 

The Critical Mom:  I have a pap smear every year--actually my doctor recommends every year. Why isn't a yearly pap test enough? You mentioned "every 2-3 years."


Dr. Frazer: The recommendation in Australia is that unless you have had an abnormal pap in the past you should have the test every two years.  In Australia this strategy works as Gabrielle Medley did a chase back on all women over a period of years who had developed cervical cancer in Australia, and found that each of  the women who had had cervical cancer had not had smears according to the schedule, or had had the smear but had had no treatment for an abnormal one. . I.e the women who followed the pap smear schedule and had treatment for an abnormal smear when it was found did not get cancer.  Unfortunately like the US we still have deaths from cervical cancer because only 50% of women follow the PAP smear protocol. 


The Critical Mom: If so very few women develop dangerous cancers when so many are infected, and when so many infections seem to clear by themselves, how wise can it be it to vaccinate when the person might never be in danger to begin with?



Dr. Frazer: No one has died as a result of the vaccine (with 80 million women immunised world wide), whereas 12,000 women die of cervical cancer each year in the US and 250,000 worldwide, and 70% of those deaths would be avoided by prior vaccination.   So I’d suggest that the risk without vaccination is much greater that any perceived risk with vaccination. 



The Critical Mom: The vaccination is said to be painful. Is that not in itself possibly a bad sign?



Dr. Frazer: Its a sign that your immune system is reacting to the vaccine – your immune system needs a kick start to make a new immune response, and the sore arm is the physical manifestation of the kick start that the vaccine gives. This occurs with all vaccines. However, we don’t remember the pain of a vaccine that was given when we were 2 years old (fortunately)!


If you doubt the virtues of vaccination, you might want to  look at a graveyard that was in use in the 19th century and count the number of children under 10 who died of infectious diseases that we now vaccinate against like measles, chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough. 



This gives me plenty to think about. Point by point:

Girls, get your pap test! Every year! Here in Northwestern Germany, my gynecologist recommends a yearly exam and pap smear.

No one has died as a result of the vaccine (with 80 million women immunised world wide)
 
 • According to a group known as the National Vaccine Information Center--whose beliefs are generally rejected by the medical profession--deaths have occurred as a reaction to the vaccine. Wikipedia identifies the group as a "public charity" and an "anti-vaccination advocacy group."
Be aware, readers, that by quoting their opinions I'm giving equal time  to the highly respected Dr. Frazer and to a group that is considered by many physicians to be the lunatic fringe. This group disputes not just the HPV vaccine but many vaccines; some doctors associated with them are against all vaccines. Some believe in a different vaccine schedule.

I don't buy the idea that all vaccines are bad and I would not need a visit to a 19th-century graveyard to convince me that many children died of diseases now prevented by the standard childhood vaccines. 

 The website publishes the claim that the following girls and women died or were disabled after receiving an HPV vaccine: 

Even if I remain uncertain about the reality behind these stories, I'm still bothered by two things: 
(1) The rate of reported  adverse reactions to HPV vaccines seems higher than the rate of reported adverse reactions to any other vaccine.

(2) Why should there be "a pattern" to reactions in order to consider them legitimately reactions to the vaccine?  You can go on the Snopes.com discussion of the vaccine and find an explanation, the gist of which is: a man gets a vaccine, happens to hit his vaccinated arm with a hammer the same day, and complains of an adverse reaction in that arm.

If only it were that simple. Are all these reactions really something that science can measure? To say yes means to assume that there must be a pattern to a reaction. 

Doctors and concerned citizens, continue to weigh in. I'm a tough customer. Before I consider this vaccine for my daughter, I'm going to be damn sure I think she'll be helped, not hindered, by it. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Guard Against Gardasil: The Critical Mom's Research

If you are the mother of a nine-to-twelve year old girl, your pediatrician is sure to recommend the Gardasil or the Cervarix shot for HPV--human papillomavirus, otherwise known as the cause of genital warts, a condition that can (but does not usually) lead to deadly cervical cancers. The only surefire way to avoid HPV, which the vast majority of the population has, or will have, is never to touch another person's genitals. 
But the alternative to these infections--there are many types of HPV, and in most cases they clear up by themselves--is the shot.  Is the shot safe?

When I Googled the virus and the vaccines, the name Diane Medved Harper appeared repeatedly, because Dr. Harper, now at the University of Louisville, was one of the physicians employed by Merck to evaluate the vaccine and to run clinical trials. You can read about her here and here.

But I decided to write to her myself, and she very kindly wrote back, and since she had no objection to my sharing our correspondence of November 5, 2015 with my pediatrician, I am also sharing it with my readers.

The Critical Mom: How wise is it to give a vaccine for a condition that may never develop? (If I am correct in assuming that only 10% of infected people develop cancer, that is).

Dr. Harper: Only 5% of infections develop CIN 3 lesions (precancer).  Of the CIN 3 lesions, only 20% become cancer within 5 years, and only 40% become cancer within 30 years -- so less than 1% of HPV infections become cancer after a very long period of time.   How wise it is is a judgement that only you can make:  it weighs the knowledge that you have a screening system in place to detect the CIN 3 precancer and then treat it. Our treatments are nearly 100% effective (LLETZ, usually).  HPV4 or HPV9 only protect against about 47% of the CIN 3 lesions regardless of HPV type;  HPV2 protects against 93% of CIN 3 lesions regardless of HPV type.  Neither prevents all CIN 3, so screening is still necessary.  HPV2 lasts at least 9.4 years.  HPV4 lasts at least 5 years.  HPV9 lasts at least 3.5 years. ​Screening has few side effects -- the worst side effect is being told you were positive for HPV 16 and going to colposcopy and having a biopsy and having the results of the biopsy be normal. You can see the Gardasil Girls videos on the internet.​

The Critical Mom: Would you give your daughter this vaccine? (Side effects reported by parents on forums do seem worse than those reported for the standard childhood vaccinations).

Dr. Harper:  I would give her the option of choosing whether she wanted it -- but I would suggest that she wait until she was at least 16 years, and maybe even 18 years if she had not yet begun any interest in any sexual activity.​

The Critical Mom:  Isn't a yearly pap test enough after my daughter becomes sexually active? My kids know all about condoms and barrier protection and seem like responsible people. 

Dr. Harper: Yes, screening is enough.  And screening has moved to every 3-5 years depending on whether your doctor uses HPV genotyping as a screen.

The Critical Mom:  Is family history important? (We have no family history of uterine cancer--that is, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my husband's mother, never came down with it).

Dr. Harper:  No -- this is an infection that is transmitted by skin to skin contact -- not hereditary​.

The Critical Mom: Is it important, in making a decision, to note that more side effects for Gardasil appear to be reported on the Merck website than are listed for standard vaccines like those for polio and diphtheria?

Dr. Harper: I would think that you would want to consider all possible side effects. I would also think that you should want to know whether one vaccine offered better protection and fewer side effects.  In my opinion I believe that HPV2 is superior.​

The Critical Mom: On a related subject: Anaïs Nin, the diarist, died of cancer of the vagina. As she detailed in her writings, she had sex four times a day with four different partners for a number of months.  A Gardasil vaccine might have been good for her--but when I read around on the net, and listen to some genuinely alarmist videos, like this and this, I wonder if the vaccine is predicated on the assumption that most girls will pursue sexual activity at the same rate that Nin did.

Dr. Harper: Yes, the adolescent pediatricians promoting the vaccine see only the segment of the adolescent population who indeed are having sex at Nin's frequency.  The vaccine may not have helped her as HPV infections causing vaginal cancer are not necessarily covered by HPV4 or HPV9.​
  
I am very glad to have Dr. Harper's opinions and for the time being have decided not have my daughter vaccinated. Folks with a history of cervical cancer in their families may well feel differently.  I have watched a number of videos of young women who claim that their health has been damaged by the vaccine--Gardasil girl videos referred to by Dr. Harper above; I've also read and seen video accounts that discredit the girls, or that claim no distinct pattern has emerged explaining the girls' idiosyncratic reactions: the implication is that the girls who got sick were already sick, or that their reactions are too rare and unusual to worry about.

So far, I don't agree.  I've decided to continue questioning experts--I've sent an email to Dr. Marcia Angell, the professor of medicine at Harvard who was the first woman editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. Haven't heard from her yet, but hey--how many experts are going to get around to writing some obscure mom?

That is why I appreciate Dr. Harper's response--and, should you read this, Dr. Harper, know that I did forward your remarks to my pediatrician, who thanked me, then insisted that the vaccine offered significant protections, that his thirteen-year-old daughter had already had the first shot, that his wife is a gynecologist who approved it. When I asked him why a pap smear wasn't enough, he rolled his eyes. When I asked if he'd seen any of the Gardasil girls videos, he smiled and said, "Not yet."  He told me his daughter had been vaccinated. But that's not what I need to know. I need to know what percent of women are afflicted by cervical cancer, what kinds of screenings exist, and how to assess the side effects when the mothers and the medical authorities appear to differ. So, Moms, do your own research.  Since the manufacturer of the vaccine, Merck, lists significant side effects on its website, I will wait.  Compare that Merck page to the ones for polio and other standard childhood vaccines.
Personally, I'd wait on a vaccine about which so many side effects including death, continue to be reported.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Nutcracker Season is Upon Us!

Will the sugar plum fairy in the NYCB production of the Nutcracker black out her two front teeth at the end of the season? What other innovations are in store? I've been watching dress rehearsals at our local ballet theater, since my daughter is in three scenes. As she said, "Mom, it's really fine--except for the costumes and the choreography." I said: "What choreography?" 
So we had a good MEOW.
I wish the director were as mean as Jerome Robbins, so that I didn't feel guilty running down his complete lack of imagination. But the truth is, he's so nice!--took us parents backstage to show us the sets, offered me a hand as I came down the rickety stairs. Reportedly he is also a dream of a ballet teacher, and that's saying something in our little village of some 700,000 souls, where good ballet teachers are rarer than hen's teeth, and it's best just to traipse off to Düsseldorf if you want a real class.
But if the criteria is interpretation, I'd take an inconsiderate so-and-so like Jerome Robinson or George Balanchine. They might wreak your knees or grope your heinie, but they can make an audience gasp with delight.
Since I'm not about to identify the director, I might as well say everything I think, as a cautionary tale for anyone who might want to produce The Nutcracker:
(1) Pick one interpretation, not two, or six. Clara is an enchantingly pretty eight-year-old, sweet as a sugarplum, who has enough technique to point her toe.  She's a girly-girl, delighted to be whirled off to candyland by decrepit Uncle Drosselmeyer, who provides a prince.
(2) Alternatively: Clara is on the verge of adolescence, and Uncle Drosselmeyer is the seducer who makes sure she enjoys it--versions of this story go back at least to the nineteenth century. In one, Drosselmeyer himself turns into the prince.
(3) Don't have two Claras onstage at the same time--one a grown-up Clara mothering a tiny girl barely old enough to walk, let alone dance, who goes to sleep in her scallop-shell while grown-up Clara dances with the prince.
(4) In the party scene, select EITHER 18th century restoration costumes OR Punk OR Morticia Addams and consort, but not all three.  Leave out the butler tripping over the tiger's head stunt; that belongs in one place only, Dinner For One, and besides, the rug crumpled up onstage.
(5) The Waltz of the Flowers should not begin with a couple of roses flopping to the stage from the rafters, after which the tiny Clara picks them up and then is nearly run over by dancers.
(6) A massive glowing red rose projected against the wall is not an ideal background for The Waltz of the Flowers. 
(7) Vibrating lines reminiscent of discotheque design c. 1972 don't look like they support Clara's boat or sleigh.  How about real waves?
(8) Costumes: Drosselmeyer should not look like Flash Gordon. The  red lightning jutting from his head and the Zebra stripes on his cloak look great--they just don't say Mr. D. The party scene girls seem attired in first communion dresses. Must the rats, who crouch like gorillas, look like them too? Happy Halloween! The Chinese dance costumes are great, but why are the dancers wearing wigs that make them look as though they'd stuck their fingers in light sockets?
This production is saved by the music. The dancers look depressed and no wonder--they have nothing to do: the children in the party scene stand there or rattle presents; the Arabian arrives in a sling from above, flips her arms Goddess Kali-style and does a walkover. The Spanish dancer gets a fouetté or two and a then with a whirl and a balancé, she's out. 
If I were a dancer, what would I want for a director: a really nice dude who makes sure the orchestra doesn't rush the dancers--or an S.O.B. with a brilliant choreographic mind? Are these the only two choices? Great creative minds are not always known for being considerate sweeties. But surely there must be a nice guy or gal out there with talent.

Friday, October 23, 2015

True to Trudeau?

This guy Justin is his mother's son. I know they're all braying his father's name, and they haul in some grandpa on his mother's side who was in the cabinet, but that's hooey. Anyone old enough to remember the grand romance of the twentieth century--the dashing blade of a mature man with the cutely graying sideburns, chasing the lovely teenager, who was born to be wild, knows what I mean. They met at Club Med in Tahiti when she was in a manic phase. Margaret Sinclair wanted to be left to her hippie ways, but Pierre Trudeau led a magnificent chase, and when the couple finally wed--he was 52, she 22--perhaps the hound had momentarily exhausted the hare. She was just starting to wake up when she said, "I want to be more than a rose in my husband's lapel." 
Here's my favorite Wikipedia moment about the two of them:

Though the couple initially appeared to have a very close and loving relationship, the marriage soon began to fall apart . . . Beyond the normal extensive publicity that her high-profile position brought, on a few instances she made her own headlines. Margaret smuggled drugs in the prime minister's luggage, made scantily clad appearances at Studio 54 and tore apart a tapestry in the prime minister's official residence in Ottawa because it celebrated "reason over passion." 

That's the part Justin inherited. The passion. Blandly, Wikipedia catalogs the disintegration of the marriage, to the point where 

Margaret had an affair with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. She was also associated with members of the Rolling Stones, including Ronnie Wood, and (according to Keith Richards's autobiography, Life) Mick Jagger. Suffering from stress and bouts of bipolar depression, separated from her husband in 1977 and became a much talked-about jet setter. She gave many "tell-all" interviews to Canadian and American magazines . . . 

 But for the real fun go to YouTube and see the one where she announces, "Oh, well, Prince Charles is my buddy.  We haven't every really been alone for a single moment but, well, we hid behind a menu once--I'm the older woman, I'm a month older . . . "

Oh, she's gorgeous--breathtakingly alluring in that, as in so many other interviews. But, now that she's still a month older than Prince Charles, she's become a wiser woman of a certain age. I wish I'd been half that gorgeous when young but I still have energy, maybe because--like Margaret--my grandmother had what was then called manic depression. Doctors didn't know how to treat the illness back at the turn of the twentieth century, but when grandma got to screaming around the house, her family took her to alka lithia springs, somewhere in the piedmont of North Carolina, and she calmed down for a while. Lithium in pill form wasn't much used until about 1949--too late for her

Now, here's my theory: the children, the grandchildren, of folks with this disorder may just have a surplus of energy.  I may be perky, but I'm not so whacked out that I'd spend til my credit card cracked in half and then wake up to notice that I'd purchased  . . .  twelve snakebite kits, a taxidermized fox, precious stones. Kay Redfield Jamison, in An Unquiet Mind, her memoir of manic depression or bipolar disorder as it it now called, details these episodes. Margaret Trudeau's got her own book, Changing My Mind, but she was more a beauty and a performer than a writer. And it's the gorgeousness, this intensity that forces you to look at her face and soothing voice and complete sense of conviction, that she has passed on to her son. Politicians need charm, and Justin Trudeau has it by the bucketful. Let's see what the man does with it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Syrian Refugees, the Nazis, and the Slowly Bubbling Racism

Shocked by the evening news, I asked my sixteen-year-old what he'd heard about neo-nazis working as security guards in refugee housing. He rolled his eyes.
"Mom, what demographic likes to wear a uniform and carry a stick?"
Young men who post on their Facebook pages--Sagt Nein zum Heim--say "no" to the home for refugees--feel invigorated by statements like "Keep Germany White." They crack skulls during their spare time, which is most of their time, since they're jobless. They look like good bouncers, except that they're the ones you'd want bounced.
Aren't the authorities doing background checks? Yes, but only in one state, fortunately the one in which I am living. Why only here? Because here we have enough applicants for the job to be selective--and enough budget to pay them. Those with desirable political attitudes--Welcome, Refugees!--are not, in enormous numbers, signing up to be security guards. Guys who want "no foreigners in our town! In our back yard! Near our kindergarten!" instead apply, and abuse refugees when they can get away with it. A photo of a right-wing extremist working as a security guard in Bielefeld, his foot on the neck of a refugee man lying prone and handcuffed, showed no isolated moment.

It's not just right wing guards--it's the middle class. My son brought home a story: a friend's daughter, studying a technical field, switched degree programs from the "teaching" degree ("Lehramt") to the B.A. She therefore had to take the same courses all over again before taking exams that will probably ask the same questions. The university system has a Byzantine quality, and there's no getting around the problem. She blanched when she discovered that Syrian refugees whose studies were interrupted by war will be allowed to take the exams without repeating courses they've already taken. Anyone should be allowed to take the exams, in my opinion, and I teach in the system. You'll either pass or fail, whether you've taken the course or not. What really got the goat of the young German women was that Syrians are exempt from the tiresome requirement to repeat courses, but Germans and Austrians are not. 
"Austrians!" said she, in outrage. If they can't and she can't, why should the Syrians get this special treatment?
My answer would not please her. But I think it obvious. I'll pose it as questions: Haven't the refugees been through enough? Lost enough time? Why not let them try the exams and get on with their professional lives when they pass, instead of dragging them through an extra three or four years of university courses they have already taken?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What Can Germans Do For Syrians?

Lots.
I keep wanting to answer the question of my nervous student, who wondered, "Can we take a whole country into Germany?"
Yes, and here's how we're doing it.  My local church (denomination unimportant) has a parish hall that seats around 100. So a lady active in various church groups invited 70 refugees from the recently-erected tent city, people who trekked and were smuggled and walked and God knows how they finally got here, but they did, within the last few weeks.
I got to the parish hall around three in the afternoon, with my daughter, who was deciding whether she'd play the violin. I brought my tap shoes and a chocolate cake. By the time I got there, so many cakes lined the tables that I had a hard time finding a place for mine. There must have been fifty cakes there. German ladies know their cake, believe me. Also coffee, of course, and tea. About thirty Germans, mothers, a few fathers, children, were sitting having their cake and coffee and wondering whether the Syrians would come. 
What if they had no transportation? What if they didn't get the invitation? Security's tight at the tent city--so tight that the grandmotherly lady who made up the laminated posters inviting refugees was not cleared to enter the tent city. She had to hand over the posters to somebody who, she discovered, did not put them up. 
But then the Syrians arrived! Almost all were young men and not all were Syrian, although to a man they were refugees. I counted one or two women. Once everybody was seated, the German ladies got really busy handing out cake.
The minister welcomed everybody and detailed services, religious and otherwise, that the church can offer--young peoples' groups, German lessons, computer services  . . . . then a volunteer translated everything into Arabic, and after that I translated everything into English. 
Then it was back to entertainment. A girl played the violin; her sister accompanied her on the piano. Then more announcements were made about the weather--Gee, it's getting cold here! We know you're used to warmer weather, and Germany isn't usually so cold in October! So eat cake, please, and drink your tea or coffee, and by the way, containers of warm clothing can be found at the local school at the following hours . . . . that announcement was translated into Arabic and into English.
Then came more entertainment: a local troupe did some hip hop.  That woke up everybody! The guests cheered, whipped out cell phones and took pictures.  I got up and tapped the shim sham shimmy. More cheers--then the Syrians took the stage and did some dancing of their own. The minister was very happy about all this--he wanted intercultural, he wanted everyone welcome regardless of religion, and all this was happening.
Only one or three pieces of cake were left over at the end.
Guests left happy.
Guys who arrived looking stunned, blank, and continued to look stunned, blank, through the serving of the coffee and the cake and through the first several announcements were smiling by the time the dancing was over.
So, Germans--and Americans, you too, please:  if every household baked one cake, if every church, synagogue, mosque, house of worship of any or all denominations, offered a friendly afternoon with good eats and good tea and coffee and friendly offers of help with the local language plus donations of clean, seasonally appropriate  clothing--all this would not cost anyone a lot of money, and it would make the world a happier place.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The World's Unlikeliest Couple? Fran and Kim Hit It Off

Did the pope really shakes hands with Kim Davis? (He says. She says he hugged and and thanked her for her courage.) Say it ain't so. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” said Francis about a year ago. Has the spinning of that question been too liberal for the pope's tastes? Did he want to show the intolerant the same tolerance he's been showing the damned? The meeting has all the trappings of the illicit--both sides admit the two met, but their go-between slunk back into the shadows.  Did his Holiness hope Kim would re-join her parents' Catholicism? I'd like to think that he wants to show friendliness to the misguided and pities her, and that he thought the story would be a bigger one if he declined to meet her. Kim, who wants attention very badly got to grope the hem of his garment and dream; Francis probably sighed, asked God to send her some wisdom, and took a nap. But don't forget, he gave her jewelry: two very pretty rosaries, and those rosaries got plenty of photo ops. They're darling! So tasteful! Kim can go home starry-eyed and have vivider dreams; Francis can go home and forget all about her, and really--the thing did just end like an illicit tryst.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

If Donald Trumps, Should I Become a German Citizen?

Ask Francis Underwood. Or Machiavelli. Or Edward Snowden who, I  am pleased to see, has a Twitter account. Maybe I'll get one, just for you, Edward, and I'll think about acquiring a smart phone, too. But I still write in ink, in a Moleskine notebook. That gives me a feeling of privacy, even if people dig it out from where it's well hidden and read it, and shame on you if you do. 
Kevin Spacey has just revealed that when Francis Underwood breaks the fourth wall, he's talking to "one person, and one person only: Donald Trump." Clearly Trump, for whom life remains a game, is taking notes, unless that's too scholarly an activity for him. He grins, glues his comb-over down, and vaults back into the ring after each gaffe, leaving us all gasping and wondering how he gets away with it.
The land of the free and the home of the brave isn't America. America is the land of the NSA and the home of the rich. Angela Merkel, aka Mutti Theresa, if you've seen a recent issue of Der Spiegel, is setting an example that Americans would do well to follow by electing Hillary Rodham Clinton. Women really should rule the world, and besides, Bernie Sanders just doesn't cut it for me. He's full of dreams, and he loves to tell the truth--ambitions I applaud entirely for persons like myself who aren't politicians. If you want to be a writer, you've got to dream and tell the truth. But if you want to be a politician, you absolutely must learn to lie, and Bernie can't quite do that, at least not obviously. Trump is over the top, right up there with Joseph Goebbels who notoriously--but alas, truthfully--remarked: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic, and/or moral consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State. And Trump is the State, the old plutocrat.

Hillary knows how to lie just enough to fix things. Bernie doesn't, in my opinion. Trump isn't nervous, unlike the other two, because he's just enjoying the game. He dines with Francis Underwood, Machiavelli and Joseph Goebbels in the finest restaurants in Hades. As he would probably tell you himself, the climate there may be warm, but the company is better than that of Heaven.

Monday, September 21, 2015

When The Syrians Came to Dinner . . .

They came bearing a gigantic bouquet, so gorgeous it could have graced an altar in a church wedding. They came bearing chocolates and they came bearing wine. And they came bearing stories: the Arab Spring hadn't been great for Syrian Catholics--about 2.6 percent of the total population. Assad was a dictator, but he left them alone, apart from protecting them. Before the protests started, the different religious groups all got along, and Syria was a rich country. 
"We lost everything," said one woman matter-of-factly, counting herself lucky: she and her husband had been able to apply for a visa as soon as they landed at a major German airport, a possibility no longer open to the tidal wave of immigrants coming in. Our city has published no list of when the next group is coming--about 400 are already here and many hundreds more expected--possibly to protect them. At our local tram stop there's a new anti-Nazi sticker on the Plexiglass shelter, and yesterday at the main train station I saw policemen in riot gear surrounding a large group of angry young men in T-shirts with Gothic script. Neither I nor the native speakers standing beside me could understand what the men were shouting, but we heard the rage, distinguished the word "München" (Munich) and assumed the worst--namely that the protesters were letting it be known that they didn't want refugees here in our town the way they were taking over Munich. Things were ugly enough so that I was very glad to be standing on a different platform.
Our Syrian guest and her husband have now been in Germany nearly three years, and in that time she has achieved a level of competence in German that will soon make her employable. Another guest, here for a year, finds German too difficult. He will not be employable anytime soon, although he is willing and able to work, and like many an immigrant, will probably find work using his hands rather than the degree in political science he had nearly finished when he had to flee. I'm lucky, in the sense that I need not have more than passing competence in the language--I can talk to the butcher, the baker, and the pediatrician, but I get to work in English and speak it at home. We had a lovely dinner. To the question of my student who wondered whether we could "take an entire nation into Germany," I'd answer: Listen to Mutti Merkel: Yes, you can. Wir Schaffen das!

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Brothers, Normally Grim

But they weren't!
I knocked on the sixteen-year-old's door, and the thirteen-year-old was in there. In a rowdy voice, the older one said, "Mom! He's being nice to me!"
The younger one: "I promise never to do it again, Mom!" They smiled at one another in a conspiratorial fashion.
Wouldn't it be great if things were like that all the time? 
How well I recall a conversation between a young colleague and our then-glum four-year-old about my older son, who was already in first grade and lording his superior knowledge over the younger one. We were in a café, and the colleague sat with us, turned to our little one, said, "You know, I had brothers too."
"You did?" 
"And the older ones tricked me and hit me all the time."
"You had brothers?" Brothers, at the time, must have seemed to our younger son alien beings who appeared capriciously at inopportune moments to torment him.
Smiling, our young colleague detailed the heinous crimes of his three older brothers ("I had three, remember that! You only have to deal with one!")  but explained that now his brothers have become good friends. "When we all grew up, we became friends."
Our younger son gave him the fishy eye.
But now maybe my sons really will be friends. How nice that would be. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The 800,000 versus the 10,000

There's really something to be said for German efficiency in a millennial refugee crisis. Obama says he can only let in 10,000 and gee, isn't he generous. Those Germans are out there with welcome signs in English and Syrian, handing out apples, water, home-baked yummies, and medical care to the 800,000 who are here or on the way, including 40,000 children. Future Lehramt (teaching) students, this is great for you! You'll all get jobs. When the Neo-Nazis tried to horn in at the Dortmund main station, the good guys drowned them out with smiles and balloons and slogans and friendly remarks. At the Munich main station, a big banner flew: No Place for Neo-Nazis. The bad guys are in a minority here in Germany--Idaho has more Aryan Nation types than Germany--but Germany is trying so hard to live down its dark days that it will use its natural efficiency to the good. Not to ship people to their deaths but to build housing and get them medical care. Germany still carries the burden of its enormous guilt.
"But can we take a whole nation into Germany?" asked one of my students.
"Oh, why not? Ever since masses of people walked across the Bering Strait eons ago, migration has been happening. Nations are so temporary. Each private home can help."
"Yes, I see," said my student, who seemed dazed, and did not wish to disagree with the teacher. I'd rather she not question my assertions or use the critical thinking skills I've been insisting on because in this particular instance she, like most Germans, is anxious. Anxious Germans look to a leader. Let's go for a good one: "Let 'em all in! Help them! They need friendly moments, good food, medical and emotional care, and a laugh--and some music." All of which I hope to offer to the five or six Syrians who will grace our dinner table next weekend. Stay tuned.