Thursday, February 20, 2020

At the German Post Office: the Lone Trump-Worshipper

When I ducked into the post office at Hauptbahnhof (the main train station) I was relieved to be getting out of the chilly, windy weather, the gray clouds, into this warm, yellow-walled, tidily German center of efficiency.
But the postal clerk raised his eyebrows at a letter addressed to my American bank, observing, "Oh! Trump! America!" He was smiling. Not frowning.
I said I hadn't voted for Trump. He shook his head, apparently wondering why. "Aber er hat so viel gemacht!" (But he's done so much!")
My eyes widened. Surely the clerk didn't mean this. But then he added, with obvious admiration, "Er hat alles aufgeräumt!" ("He's cleaned up everything.")
I said I didn't like Trump. 
"Und er ist so lustig!" ("And he's so funny!") babbled the clerk. 
In English, I blurted, "He's a gangster." But the only obvious effect (judging by the way the clerk giggled in glee), was that he found me even more amusing than Trump.
"I hate his guts," I added, also in English. The clerk clapped his hands in delight, almost choking with laughter.
It's back to telling folks I'm Canadian.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Cowboy or The Gangster?

Americans have elected a number of cowboy presidents: Andrew Jackson, who fought duels defending his wife's honor and retained bullets in his chest, Teddy Roosevelt, who charged up San Juan Hill with his rough riders and had "a bully fight,"  Dwight D. Eisenhower, with his ten gallon hat, his Zane Grey mysteries, and his five-star general status, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Texan Supreme, whom Jacqueline Kennedy allegedly referred to as "Colonel Corn Pone," and the George Bushes.
We've never had a gangster president before, and I'm hoping Trump is an aberration, not the beginning of a trend. If Roger Stone gets off scot free, then nothing's new. The kind of person who would do business with Roger Stone is the kind of person I'd prefer never to meet in a dark alley. Gangsters never disclose their income tax returns and never pay taxes. Gangsters get away with saying they can shoot someone on Fifth avenue and no one will care. Gangsters grab women wherever they want, and say things like, "if she weren't my daughter I'd date her," the way Trump does. Gangsters bully foreign leaders into doing their dirty work. Gangsters rig elections. If the cowboy was a trend, is the gangster the new one? Will it spread like the corona virus? Or end like this?

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A Maurice Sendak Impeachment

"Because he can," is the reality of Donald Trump, David Leonhardt remarks in an OP-ED piece for The New York Times. The losing side cares a great deal, and I'm still hoping that the motif of the American underdog who, against all odds, wins the day--I'm hoping that motif will weave itself into a story that ends with the would-be emperor being deposed. Even Mike Pence would be better than this thing we call a POTUS. When I listen to the Republicans and to the president's lawyers, I can't help but remember Maurice Sendak's grumpy child, Pierre, who answers his mother's every question with "I don't care": 

The Republican Party these days, is Pierre, but we'll all get swallowed by the lion. Since we're not living in a children's story, the lion's not going to burp us up and give us a chance to say "I care," before politely bringing us home and staying on as a weekend guest. We can care about politics, we can care about issues instead of identities, we can create yet another lone heroic underdog, a Mr. or Ms. Smith who comes to Washington to care, a person who will persuade the wavering Republicans to waver no more, but to care more about the country's survival than they do about their political careers.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

This Doesn't Even Happen on Gray's Anatomy: "Me, Too" or Just a Moron?

I've just been re-watching the scene in which Izzie cuts Denny's LVAD wire so she can document a precipitous decline and snag him that new heart. Operatic tears coursing down her cheeks, Izzie begs Denny to let her "save" him this way, because she'll be all alone without him. Hot sex scenes in on-call rooms (my doctor friends tell me the real rooms have mice and disgusting sheets--you'd as soon sleep in them as slit your throat) get more air time than medical treatments, but the show's got some great drama and a host of medical moments that saved lives; there was the woman who diagnosed her own breast cancer after a Gray's Anatomy episode (her doctor had said "that's just a clogged milk duct," and he was wrong, sisters, he was wrong.)
What went wrong in my medical world today almost rivals what went wrong in Izzie's decision-making. At nine this morning, I went in for my monthly Faslodex injections and felt lucky to get the nurse who gives unfailingly painless ones. I was lying on the table with a large needle inserted in my rear end when a knock came at the door. A physician, male, didn't wait for the nurse to speak, just opened the door--wide--so that I could see feet walking past in the hall, and the heads at the other end of those feet could see parts of me that nobody sees without a medical or seriously romantic reason. He left the door open, appeared either to be staring through me as if I were not there, or having a good stare. He said something about wanting to use the computer. He entered. He used the computer. He complained about his day. Why didn't I scream at the jerk? The sense that I'd better not  disturb the nurse's steady hand--the expression on her face registered the shock we both felt--that needle still buried in my butt, and the necessity of waiting for it to be withdrawn,  the wound bandaged, and the other needle inserted, the irritating reality that I had to remain absolutely still or injure myself, hindered me from leaping to my feet and clocking the guy. 
Incredibly, he remained for the entire process of me getting my shots. I asked the nurse for his name; I asked whether he had a right to enter the room under the circumstances he did, and she assured me that he did not. 
As an American living in Germany for over twenty years, I'm often stymied by German notions of privacy. Sometimes Germans seem to feel that any mention of private life is off limits. In medical settings, however, I've been handed lab results in hallways filled with other doctors and patients who get to hear all about how low my neutrophil count is or whether I need hemoglobin. My name is called in waiting rooms when I go for my blood tests. Today's incident seems in a class all by itself. A university hospital, known for its oncology department, a doctor whose internet ratings seem impeccable--what the hell was the man thinking? "Never assume they're thinking," said an old friend, and yeah, I guess I shouldn't.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Remembering My Husband, Again

When my husband and I had been married for a few weeks, he had to go to a funeral. This was a duty call—an old lady whom he did not know well. When he left our house, he was eager to come back soon and have another champagne-swilling newlywed dinner with me. Instead, he returned quietly, somber, almost in tears.
            “What’s the matter?” I asked.
            “I don’t want to think of the day when one of us will be without the other,” he said. A chill went through me but we were so happy to see each other again that we quickly pushed the incident out of our heads. I knew about the weak lungs but he seemed hale and hearty—was hale and hearty for years. He was far more worried about how I would feel without him than about how he would feel when his lungs failed him, as we feared they might. To the last, the moments in his hospital room when he wanted to tell me what office to go to in Limbecker Platz to discuss my pension and I, watching his oxygen levels plummet from a low but stable seventy to a worrisome fifty-nine, wanted him to rest, his first concern was always me and our children, never himself.
 In Philip Pullman’s amazing steampunk novel, The Amber Spyglass, an angel flies day and night to reach the adamantine castle of the Miltonic commander of a mission to unite worlds a corrupt church is trying to keep apart. The angel struggles to deliver a military secret while an impatient young Lucifer throws herbs on a fire to help this celestial being hold himself together long enough to impart the information. Just as the angel is struggling to get out one more sentence, an orderly knocks at the door. The brief gust of air caused by the orderly’s entrance is fatal: the angel disperses into atoms, vanishing, his last breath offered up to the cause for which he’s sacrificed everything. This angel and his single-minded devotion to his cause remind me strongly of Josef.
            In my husband’s last hours, when he urgently discussed the odd repairs needed for our elderly home, our taxes, we took breaks, during which I urged him to rest; we held hands and told the jokes we always told about our lives, our children, our work. Finally, I promised I’d be back early in the morning. We’d finish discussing these things then. I was afraid for him, and knew that when he lay down and rested his oxygen levels rose. I felt he wouldn’t rest unless I left. “Maybe I can do more a little later,” he said. “I’ll try to get on my side now.” Those were his last words to me before, like Philip Pullman’s character, he dissolved.

            I think of one of Josef’s favorite poets, Walt Whitman, who said this about dying:

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.


Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Very Merry Megxit and a Happy Haxit: Bon Voyage

They really are too good for the Royals, especially that creepy Uncle Andrew--and how could Elizabeth have loved this dilettantish pedophile more than thoughtful Charles?
Naturally Meghan and Harry announced their new role without asking Grandma first. Grannie's a queen, and queens tend to like to do things their own way. The queen's probably not evil, but if there's a grain of truth in The Crown, and I suspect there's at least a grain, then family feeling--all feeling--tends to be hardened into duty. Her idea of duty. During the Aberfan coal mine disaster of 1966, in which over a hundred children and many adults died, the queen delayed her visit to the village for eight days, and then, at least according to version of events depicted on The Crown,  felt unable to feel any emotion-- or to do more than squeeze out a single fake tear. Her emotional life appears limited; she's apparently shut it down in order to do her duty. Meghan Markle, letting go of the Royals, remarked, "I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip. I tried, I really tried. But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.” Exactly. Elizabeth seems to have been willing to pay that price because she believed she had no alternative. What would have happened if Harry and Meghan had followed protocol and allowed her to make all arrangements? Letting her take the lead might have been like letting Tony Soprano sing. All her mechanisms for taking control, and I'm imagining the worst, like making it impossible to fly baby Archie to Canada, could have come into play. All in the service of the gigantically expensive institution that divides Britons the way Trump divides Americans. Harry and Meghan have imagination and talent. My money's on them as global ambassadors. Madame Tussaud's just dumped their wax figures. Petty, yeah--but underscores the point that these two are neither wax figures nor stuffed shirts--they're doers. I bet they'll do something wonderful.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The German Dryer and How We Fixed it

The German dryer (a Miele, long-suffering, going on at least its eighteenth year) stopped drying things. My daughter and I gazed into its slightly malodorous innards, removed the still-wet towels, and tried to diagnose. Could she have forgotten to put in that weird triangular water-holder peculiar to the German dryer? 
Like German forms, German taxes, German, dare I say, personalities, the German dryer is complicated. Could it, I asked softly, be suffering from the pillow that disgorged its feathers? My fault for washing the thing. And trying to dry it instead of hanging it out in the only occasionally sunny back yard.
But I'd vacuumed the dryer's innards. Or so I thought.
Between the instruction booklet, which we perused, and the faintly-remembered directions of a German friend who'd once fixed the thing, we figured out that you have to take a ruler or a screwdriver or some piece of plastic and pop open a rectangular door at the base of the dryer--a door, I hasten to add, that doesn't look like one, has no handle, and cannot be opened by pressing on one corner. We used a screwdriver. Behind that door was--guess what?--another door, modeled like the kind of wall you'd expect to see from the Soviet side of Berlin back in the day. Once we'd unlatched this second inner portcullis, we found a contraption the size of a toaster--in fact, it looked as though it wanted to be a toaster--filled with damp dust bunnies and feathers. 
The manual said one was supposed to empty and clean this thingamajig around every six months. Today was the second time in its very long career, one filled with sand and chewing gum, that it had been cleaned. 
We were calculating dryer prices before I cleaned the thing. I didn't expect our poor mistreated dryer to work, ever again, clean or not. I also thought I'd probably broken the vacuum cleaner by forcing it to inhale damp stuff. But German machines are tough enough to endure American incompetence and forge ahead. And this one has. 
Yay! I wonder how many more years our poor dryer will put up with us? My German friends have calculated a total life span of approximately twenty-five years. That is one tough machine. A Miele, folks. The kind that beats Maytag any day.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Dinner for One: a New Twist

Unlike most Americans, I watched Dinner for One (and its parodies, especially Döner for One) every year with my German husband. This year he wasn't there, and I reinterpreted Miss Sophie, the nonagenarian with the imaginary friends, whose butler manfully assumes both their four different accents and personalities as well as the considerable quantities of alcohol each gentleman supposedly consumes. Heroically, he's prepared to undergo horizontal gymnastics with the energetic Miss Sophie, winking at the audience as he leads her up the staircase and utters the famous question: "Same procedure as last year?" In her dignified way, she remonstrates, "Same procedure as every year, James," and she's clearly looking forward to a good time, even as the audience hopes James won't be incapacitated by the vast quantifies of booze he's drunk. 
This year I thought about Miss Sophie outliving all her boyfriends. But she does just what any bereaved woman naturally does--I've been doing a great deal of this myself--she talks to the dear departed (even gets her butler to talk to them!) I talk to photos of my husband, I talk to him when I feel the urge as I'm cooking or when I wake up or when I'm taking a walk. I still feel mildly surprised that he doesn't answer, but my one-sided conversation reminds me of how nice it felt when he was listening, smiling, answering, asking questions of his own. To have outlived four serious boyfriends and still get a bang, so to speak, out of the butler bespeaks a certain fortitude, a heroism, a feminist triumph even. Miss Sophie was never crushed by grief--one feels that in her quiet comments on the soup and her decisiveness about the wine. She's a woman who has learned to live with sadness and make the most of what she has. My Southern father used to say, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," but what else has Miss Sophie done with James?
And finally Netflix has its own version of this gem. I with I'd bought myself one of those "Dinner for One" coffee mugs I saw on the way home today . . . I can just see pouring myself a little red wine in one of those while watching this:

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

When Advertising and Billing Don't Connect

We're rolling through a lovely landscape on our way to see lovely relatives, but the latest Christmas mail was the last thing I expected. The company that rented my recently-deceased husband his oxygen tanks, which we informed of his death in November, and which sent three servicemen, all of whom offered condolences, to pick up leftover tanks and a breathing apparatus,  just sent a ten-percent-off special with the last bill we have to pay. You would think some office worker or administrator might have registered the fact that we no longer need oxygen products--especially not those featuring a cheerful elderly gent holding red Christmas tree ornaments, apparently thrilled to be offered a whole ten percent off his next set of tanks. His grin radiates the kind of excitement I associate with men and football games. Speaking of which, my husband loved football. I hated it, but loved to watch him watching it. Tossing the ten-percent special into the trash, I think how he'd have found the incident amusing, and I smile instead of crying. He would have raised a glass of red wine with me and laughed. I hope that wherever he is, he can still laugh.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Impeachment Notes

Impeachment was once tried on Trumpster
He burped and transferred to a dumpster
The U.S. of A
Which I'm happy to say
I left when I still was a youngster.

I'm going to bed now, hoping that some miracle will occur, that Republicans will side with Democrats and dump President Unmentionable.
Sweet dreams to all.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Mouse in My House

 A tail glimpsed in the living room. 
"Are you sure that's what you saw?" 
Yes, my teenager was sure. I remember my husband setting traps ten years ago when we'd seen a little brown mouse charge in from the garden. We'd left our glass door open. And the traps snapped on the necks of the little gullibles who'd gone for the sliver of cheese. My husband swung the furry things at me and got a kick out of my scream.
But this time is different. I can't set traps. Doing laundry down in the cellar, I turned to see a sudden brown beady eye. I gasped, grabbed a plastic bucket, and escorted the very tiny critter out to the garden, where I sincerely hoped some predator would consume it in one gulp. 
Today the exterminator came with his orange labels, his plastic boxes, his bait that looks tasty and "contains anti-coagulants."
"They'll dry out," he explains, "but they won't stink." The only thing, he adds cautiously, is that you might, say, find one in a corner. Or pull out a book from the shelf only to discover a desiccated  critter. 
"But, ewwww," I say.
He smiles. Mr. Experience. I remembered a song of my youth:

Friday, November 29, 2019

Comfort Food: The Critical Mom's Recommendation

Comfort Food
There's always vanilla ice cream, there's always chocolate, but for strength, I prefer a hearty, parmesan-and-garlic-crammed pesto (recipe on this blog, c. 2012). Arugula is available in large quantities here so I usually select that, but I love pesto with basil, too--even though basil only comes in plastic Edeka pots, as if it were masquerading as a house plant. 
For this dinner, I made pesto for the vegetarians and, for the vegan, stir-fried Shiitake mushrooms, snow peas, and tomatoes, in olive oil with a liberal smattering of crushed garlic. Whole wheat pasta and red wine make the whole thing prettier and taste great, too. An economic and soul-soothing meal.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Critical Mom's Eulogy: Thinking about the Loss of a Good Man

I met Josef at the MLA convention—a gathering of academics seeking jobs and showing off—in Chicago, in 1990. I wasn’t expecting much. My good friend, like me a graduate student hoping to score at least one job offer, had met Josef at a layover on the way to the MLA. She told me he’d flirted with her.
            “I’m married,” Susan told him, “But you should meet my friend Melissa.”
            As we entered our overpriced hotel room, our feet freezing in the sub-zero Great Lakes climate, Susan confided, “I’ve met the perfect guy for you!”
            Oh, no, I thought, but did not say. Susan, very ambitious on my behalf, had already introduced me to several “perfect guys,” all of whom did not seem anywhere near as perfect to me as they did to her.
            On one occasion at a dinner party specifically arranged for me to meet yet another absolutely husband-material-great-character-smart, kind, just for you type, Susan’s husband took a photo of me and the guy.
            “They look like an advertisement for marital counseling,” he said. Side by side, the guy and I were looking in opposite directions, our legs crossed in opposite directions.
            So I was anything but enthusiastic when Susan announced yet another perfect catch, adding that she’d already arranged for us to meet the following morning.
            “What?” I said. I was hoping she’d just hand me his phone number, which I could discreetly lose.
            Instead, she’d planned a day with him and his friends (oh, good, his friends will be there, I thought, diluting any romance) at the Chicago Art Museum. Susan and I went off to meet them on the lower level of the Chicago Hyatt.
            She spotted Josef at the bottom of the escalators and gestured for him to stay there, but as we descended, he ascended. We passed each other on those escalators moving in opposite directions, and a thrill went through me. He was definitely the handsomest man I’d ever laid eyes on—the blue eyes, the light brown curls, the gentle grin, the beret rakishly tilted to one side, the leather jacket. The voice. I fell in love on the spot. Everyone I knew asked me how this relationship could possibly work. He was a devout Bavarian Catholic and I was a New Yorker without a Catholic background. But we believed in the same things. We just labeled our beliefs differently.
            Unfortunately, we continued to move in opposite directions for the next few years—he was in California and I was in New York. The course of true love never does run smooth, but I’m so glad we finally did get together.
We had a wonderful Bavarian wedding, in which Josef, dressed as Arnold Schwarzenegger, rescued me, his bride, abducted to another building, where I sat around singing American folk songs with his cousin Anton until Josef arrived with a water pump gun, spraying Anton. I remember drinking quite a lot of champagne, dancing until a friend advised me to watch out for a being whom she referred to as “little Siegfried,” who turned out to be my oldest son, who was five months along and did just fine. As did his brother and sister.
            I’m losing my husband, my best friend, my heart. I can’t imagine a better man. Here are some of my favorite lines from Shakespeare about the loss of a loved one:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
If Josef had to die, then his last fully lived day, November ninth, was appropriate as his exit. For Josef, November 9 was the day the Berlin wall fell—and he was a man devoted to breaking down barriers and boundaries, and fostering conversations between different kinds of people. He will be sorely missed. In the midst of mourning, I can celebrate having enjoyed twenty-one years with a guy who was madly in love with me and I with him.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

This is the Way We Say Goodbye: Living Until the Last Minute

It's a luxury, being able to say goodbye at all. I tell myself that it's better to have loved and lost but the losing goes on, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. We hold hands and talk of mortgages, taxes, the damp spot in the guest bedroom wall that needs repair. 
The young doctor comes in, yanks at his stethoscope, asks, "What was your profession?" My husband and I look at each other. The past tense hangs around a man still living, still breathing, still practicing his profession--a dissertation lies on his hospital table. We read the fine print on the pharmacy description of the chemo we've been told has "no side effects," and find listed among numerous "unintentional results" the word "death." We laugh because we're crying.
"It's just death," we say, "just death!"
We talk of the suddenly vegan child, who last week demanded I buy him chicken ("I had to buy a Döner I was so hungry!") but who now does not wish to consume said chicken. We smile. We wish we could go on having our little talks and jokes about things the children are doing, what kind of wine we're having with dinner, and what we'll watch when we've gotten to the end of The Crown. We gloat over the kids again, toting up their successes, reminiscing about them, about the beginning of the romance, about love. We go back to small talk and holding hands, each of us afraid he's going to die tomorrow. 
And then he does, when I'm not there, but at least I'd read him the 23rd psalm in English and in German. I'm told his departure was fast and painless.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Make Chicken Great Again--a Recipe Fit for a Functioning Adult

Serve it with Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label if Nancy Pelosi wins:

Buy a corn-fed chicken or a bunch of chicken breasts or chicken thighs. Salt and pepper them--or add the rub of your choice (I recommend one with sea salt, garlic, paprika, parsley, caraway seeds, Fenugreek, marjoram, nutmeg, chili powder). But anything you like. Salt and pepper are the only essentials.

Put chicken in a baking dish in the fridge overnight, or at least a couple of hours. The skin will be crispier when you bake it.

About half an hour before you want to bake the bird, remove it from the fridge and put it on a plate. Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into the baking dish and add the following:

coarsely chopped red onion
coarsely chopped white onion
at least half a cup of cherry tomatoes
two small sliced zucchini (or bell peppers, any shade. Or both)
slices of lemon--use a whole, large lemon
drained, pitted black or green olives
drained artichoke hearts

Stir the ingredients so that they're covered with the olive oil, put the chicken on top and bake at about 430ºF or 220ºC for about an hour. Enjoy with rice or potatoes. And the hope of a newer, nicer POTUS.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Adventures of the 98-Year-Old Narcissistic Mom, Part One Thousand

So bad it's good: She sent (I give her credit for her handwriting--spidery, but legible) a Get-Well card to my husband. He's Catholic, and it's a Happy Hanukkah card featuring a menorah assembled from dreidels--one she's sent before on numerous occasions.
She must have bought a gross of those Happy Hanukkah cards. Seems to me she sent one as a first communion card to my firstborn.
In this card, she advises my husband that she thinks I must be "stuffing" him with "vitamins" and hopes he's feeling better, but remarks that she thinks "what you need" is a trip to the city in which she resides, because "we have vitamins too!" I did mention to her that he's in the hospital, but I give her credit for probably not remembering because of her age. 
But to tell the truth, when she was forty or fifty years younger, she also didn't remember stuff like this.
She would love a visit from us. In each and every one of our phone conversations of the past few months I have apologized for not being able to visit her right now because my husband's lungs are seriously compromised and I need to take care of him. What I haven't told her is that he has lung cancer on top of two other lung diseases.
She sends "lotsa love," encloses photos of my children as toddlers (they're teens and young adults now) and demands photos from us.
"I hope you'll be feeling better and better," she tells my husband.
Then there's another card. He's had a birthday, and she's commemorating that occasion. Brownie points for remembering at all. This card says, "Long may you thrive!" and is decorated with hearts and exclamation points. If you didn't know, you might think she was his girlfriend. A position she tended to assume with any boyfriend of mine she liked before I was married. And now, since she likes my husband . . . well, thank goodness she's 98 and lives very far away indeed.
I think I'll pour myself another glass of red wine right about now. 
P.S. Finished that one. Reaching for the bottle. I'd forgotten the punchline. I phoned the 98-year-old because lately she's been bragging about a gift she made to Ivy League University X, which she attended in her glory days. "They even gave me an annuity!" she crowed--a remark leading me to believe the gift is large, and indeed it is, she confirms: "They'll get a whole lot more when I die!" 
Here was our recent conversation:
Me: "Mom, since my son B. is applying to Ivy League University X, it would be good to know how much you gave them. Do you remember?"
Mom: "Let me look it up." (absent for five minutes. Rustling, crashing sounds. She returns).
"So, you'd like to know how much money you'll get when I die?"
Me: "No, Mom. That's not what I asked. Since B is applying. . . .  " (I repeat myself).
Mom: "Can I call you back?"
Me: "Sure!" (I assume she won't call)
Ten minutes go by. The phone rings.
Me: "Hello?"
Mom: "I just found my will. You're getting ________."
She gave me the figures, what she's doling out to me, my husband, and each of our three children. It's not enough to cover a year's tuition for Ivy League University X.
Mom. "Of course, I'm leaving something to my nieces and nephews, too!"

Friday, October 11, 2019

In the Wake of the Halle Murders

Many in my Western German city are probably, like me, relieved to be at some distance from the young man who tried to gun down a synagogue. The East has long been known for poverty and trauma. Before the wall fell, the repressive regime did all it could to substitute itself for the family, and largely succeeded. The children and grandchildren of the former East Germany seem to fall prey to racist ideologies at a higher rate than they do where I live. 

Which is not to say that such problems don't exist where I live. I had thought of my city as freer of the tribal divisions afflicting the former East Germany, until a visiting pastor  mentioned the regular weekly prowl of neo-Nazis through a working class neighborhood. He told us that when his parish was preparing for a march on tolerance and acceptance, the neo-Nazis succeeded in blocking it, legally, as a "disturbance of the peace." Neo-Nazis are getting louder in a neighboring city. Another neighboring city is divided into Italian mafia, anti-Western Arab groups, and neo-Nazis. Each of these tribes offers something that feels like family. A neo-Nazi group is nothing if not a substitute for a real family--and therein lies its unfortunate source of power. Try persuading a young man who likes to wear a uniform and carry a stick that better, more satisfying things exist in life than a selfie portraying his boot on the neck of a refugee. 

My children came home from Gymnasium with a few stories. A girl who'd decided to wear a hijab was told it "didn't go" with the uniform required for choir, and she couldn't wear it to performances. The instructor in question got told off by other students, was pressured into apologizing, but the girl apparently quit choir, not wanting to belong to a group led by someone with that teacher's attitude toward her religious identity. Another student from an African nation was asked--by a different instructor-- if she could since a song "in African." This teacher--who has a Ph.D.--referred to Africa as "a country," even when students remonstrated, and when the student whom she'd asked to sing pointed out that she did not speak the language in the song. 
These students did not complain. The teacher is the teacher. Or maybe the students feel they have to put up with these incidents, that they should not make trouble. I think we should all talk more. I know the teachers, know they probably have no idea how much their words hurt. I doubt they remember offending. 

Speaking as a teacher, I would advise any young student who has experienced a moment of mindless racism--which is about how I'd classify these incidents--from a teacher to write up the incident with their own interpretation of it and with pointed, but friendly, suggestions to remedy the problem.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Whistleblower in the Dark: Linda Tripp Versus Our Current Hero

"Whistlerblower" is a loaded buzz word, one destined to be modified by that overused adjective, "iconic." But theories of the success of the current impeachment may well depend on agreement about the definition of "whistleblower," an honorific for a betrayal deemed to be in the public service. When Edward Snowden exposed how much personal data the NSA was collecting from private citizens, he pointed to a serious loss of privacy, whose justification as an aid to "national security" seems questionable to me. But when Linda Tripp, who secretly taped phone calls between herself and Monica Lewinsky, called herself a whistleblower, she was just glorifying all the synonyms the net posts for the term: "betrayer, canary [slang], deep throat, fink, informant, informer, nark [British], rat, rat fink, snitch, snitcher, squealer, stool pigeon, stoolie, talebearer, tattler, tattletale, telltale." Ed Snowden pointed to the immersion of the U.S. government, and no doubt others, in the very private lives of ordinary citizens. As I type my thoughts into this blog, somebody's recording the words, possibly even recording the sight of me, sitting here in my pajamas at my messy table, a measuring tape and my husband's medication at one elbow, my glasses at the other. That information is all going into some electronic file somewhere. For me, that's a serious problem. I still pretend I'm all alone here with my thoughts and my blogs and my very few readers. But my--our--privacy is constantly invaded by people who may ignore it, may laugh at it, may chalk it up to a national security issue if I happen to use a word that could remotely be associated with terrorism. 
What did Linda Tripp expose? A foolish teenager, a randy middle-aged man, and some pedestrian sexual activities that should have been nobody's business apart from the two silly people involved. That one of them was a president and a married man is a shame, but again, nobody's business apart from his wife's, when she found out. The French didn't understand the Puritan rage at the thought of a U.S. President carrying on with a young girl; the Germans wondered why anyone would care, and I marveled at the thought anyone was surprised: A guy who has the balls to run for president has, well, balls. When a woman finally becomes president, sooner or later someone will discover that her sexual energies, like all of her other energies, are stronger than those of most people. Because most people don't have the energy to run for president. A super-sized personality is what it takes.
When a whistleblower is just a professional sneak, like Linda Tripp--a person who exposes something that is no threat to anyone, and least of all national security--enormous amounts of damage can be done. Would the U.S. have bombed Iraq if she hadn't leaked those phone calls? If Clinton and Lewinsky had been allowed to enjoy their private lives without public interference or indictment, wouldn't we all have been better off? Iraq would not be the wreak it currently is, terrorist organizations would likely not have metastasized, as they have. I can imagine someone writing a novel in which 9/11 never happens, because Linda Tripp--instead of fashioning herself as an upholder of morality when she was really just a busybody--kept her trap shut. But the person or persons exposing Trump's mafia-style shakedown of the Ukrainian president--oh, hooray for you. That's the real thing. That's a whistleblower--someone who reveals a malevolent secret to help a nation.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Gangster as a Trumpesque Hero

Robert Warshow's line, "The gangster is a man of the city," chills me when I think of the oval office's occupant. Warshow's seminal essay, "The Gangster as a Tragic Hero," appeared in 1948, and has been read as a founding document of cultural studies. In Warshow's recognition of the need for critics to keep a finger on the pulse of popular culture, in his implicit rejection of a Victorian notion that only texts exuding what was deemed high moral or literary value were worth studying, lay genius: he saw how much of life and politics goes tragically unread. Warshow's idea of the gangster as a product of the city, "with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club," uncannily describes the gangster in the White House. Warshow describes the gangster as a man who makes his way independently, makes his life, imposing it on others. It's as if Warshow had heard America's top gangster brag that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters, or grab women "by the pussy" or ignore all requests to hand over his tax forms.  The gangster (usually a "he") embodies a perverse form of American individualism. The flip side of America's innovations in medicine, technology, art, is this nihilist--examples might include Julian Assange and certainly Roy Cohn.

Warshow's essay offers real answers to the question of how this shady thug rose to political power and remains at the height of it. One of the traits America traditionally honors is individualism--we love our inventors, our Edisons, our Singers, our Bessie Blounts, our Mary Andersons. The gangster, instead of inventing the sewing machine or the cotton gin or gadgets to help amputees feed themselves or the light bulb or the windshield wiper, invents an evil self. He becomes an asocial criminal personality, usually a murderer, who allows us to identify ourselves with him until the moment he is shot or, in the case of Tony Soprano, the screen goes black. We enjoy a guilt-free vicarious experience of his larcenous, scandalous, and cruel life but not of his ignominious death. For that part, we tell ourselves, "He got what he deserved--thank goodness it wasn't me." The lights go up, the popcorn container's empty, we go home with a clear head. Again, Warshow's spot-on: "the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans." 

Try reading Warshow's amazing essay here:
and thinking about the monster in the White House.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Mock Impeachment Song (with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

Did Zelensky leak the provocation POTUS put him through?

Did the trusted staff just have enough of “fake news” ballyhoo?

Could tiny fears be trawling through the Donald’s temp’ral lobe?

Since impeachment’s now the talk of everyone around the globe?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the probe?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the probe?

Will Giuliani make things even worse for Donald Trump?

Will Barr, Maguire, and other dudes exonerate his rump?

If there’s a chance Pelosi’s moxie proves the cover-up

And rids democracy of all that’s Trumpesque and corrupt

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?