Tuesday, October 31, 2017

It's Reformationstag: Happy Halloween!

Among Martin Luther's vast writings, his 1543 treatise, "Jews and Their Lies," remains among the more shocking, and not remotely atypical. His latest biographers claim that he probably didn't actually nail his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, but just sent them round the way you'd bang out a staff email: "the hammering episode," writes Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, "so satisfying symbolically—loud, metallic, violent—never occurred. Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened."
Acocella highlights the constant presence of  bowels in Luther's imagination, a theme that dominates German comedy to this day: she recounts his proud moment when his little son "crapped in every corner of the room.”  That brought me back to the days when some of our German friends recommended their foolproof method of toilet-training: just let the child run naked in the garden, poop in the soil, and then somehow, miraculously, the kid will develop a longing for nice, clean indoor toilets and plumbing.
The more fools we, trying that method on our firstborn, who was only around eighteen months old, but big enough to have grown out of the largest size of pampers. While we weren't looking, he went back in the house, pulled on his nice new Lederhosen, and came back out to the garden, slyly making his way to the hole he'd dug and into which we assumed he would relieve himself. And he did! While wearing his Lederhosen.
“I am like a ripe shit,” Luther said when he was about to die, “and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.” I can never read that--one of the more pungent quotations offered by Acocella--without recalling a few scenes from the German version of Saturday Night Live: rows of comedians seated behind closed toilet cubicles, their feet tapping away. Stefan Raab playing a farmer who is considering using a shovel to wipe himself.
 Happy Halloween! You can buy, for less than three euros, a playmobil Martin Luther. The little figure smiles in a friendly fashion you can't imagine ever appearing on the face of a man with the tummy troubles afflicting the real Luther. Quill in one hand, golden Bible in the other, open to a Gothic-lettered Das Neue Testament, translated by Doktor Martin Luther. 
Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take the jack o' lanterns carved by my kids; when lit, these orange faces glow with real menace. 
But hey, Luther's notions of conscience and bible-reading have enjoyed a certain heyday. If we credit him with increasing the desire to think for oneself and read, read, read, then I'd be happy to see him ascending, complete with halo, to the heaven of his choice.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What to Do When Your Teenagers Hate Each Other

(1) Take a deep breath. Remember they won't hate each other forever. How do you know? Well, you've seen this pattern before. Teenager A gets mad at/insults/ignores Teenager B. Then the two insult each other ("!@#$%^&*()_!!! ")
Very unprintable.

(2) If you're a praying type, pray. Otherwise, just take another deep breath and hold your ears.

(3) Lurk upstairs in your study trying to write, until you hear Slam #1 (Teenager A is in his room) and Slam #2 (Teenager B is in her room). 

(4) Wait. But probably you won't. You'll rush downstairs, knock on Teenager A's room because it happens to be nearer to your study. You'll beg him not to use the F-word and tell him doing so is "absolutely unacceptable." You'll tell him to apologize to Teenager B.

(5) Knock on Teenager B's room. Tell her you just told her brother his language is totally unacceptable. Explain that she wasn't all that nice to him. ("What, Mommy?") Telling your bro, you say, that he can only have a single cookie and then has to wait a long time is not very nice. 

(6) Don't be surprised when Teenager B, a young lady, cannot understand (or feigns not to understand) why telling her fifteen-year-old brother he can only have a single cookie "until later" is not all that friendly. 

(7) What to do about the cookies that were thrown and now reside on the recently cleaned kitchen floor? Along with the body parts of the water filter that accidentally got knocked off the counter? When Teenager B (now sobbing) indicates that she is "not going to clean it up when it's not my--extra sob--fault!!!"

(8) Lurk in your study, part two, for another hour or so.

(9) Come downstairs, talk to Teenager A in his room and ask him to apologize to Teenager B. He will, Mom, but later.

(10) Same procedure with Teenager B. 

Meanwhile, Mom, get over your cold. Have a glass of red wine. Sleep.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Me in "Me, Too."

Can you say "I was a victim" and feel empowered at the same time? I think you can. The victimhood, the part where some guy forced you into a position or a state of mind that poisoned your life for decades, is ameliorated by the confession: here's what I did or did not do to stop him, here's what I did or did not say to change my situation. Here's what happened.  
But the best--often the most excruciating--confessions are the ones you make to yourself. You can confide your experience to the world, and the world should know these confessions, but looking yourself in the face is the part that comes before, the part that often makes you wince. Was I that dumb? Was I that naïve? Was I so scared that I couldn't shove or hit back hard enough? Was this rape/assault/intimidation somehow my fault? Since I know it wasn't, why do I feel that it was? 
In my case, did I want to admire him that much? When I ought to have known better? 
When you still feel like he grabbed you because you were pretty, and "this is the way of the world," confessing your experience won't do much for you.
At twenty-five, I sat in my esteemed professor's office, in a chair right by his desk. He liked to swing his legs up on the desk, lean back in his swivel chair, and cock his head ironically. He'd written a book I thought brilliant at the time. He knew much more than I did, and I believed he knew much more than he actually did know. From my current vantage point of sixty years old, I can see how easy it is to get a twenty-five-year-old person to feel how little she knows and how much you know. Granted, I might as well have been five, in terms of self-awareness. 
 If I sense from any student of my own the kind of admiration I must have broadcast to my professor, I leave my office door wide open and try to indicate that I am only someone who has lived long enough to have read much.
My professor, however, lived and breathed admiration. Looking back, I realize how much he needed it. Napoleonic in height, he looked up, literally, at girls of average height like myself, and his gaze roamed. At the time, I pretended to myself that his gaze wasn't roaming, because I wanted to continue admiring him and I didn't want his gaze to be roaming over my breasts. I wanted him to be interested in me and my ideas, the ones I'd typed and re-typed on my IBM Selectric, the ones on those pages he was now holding in his hand. I practiced the "it's not there" form of problem-solving and went gamely into his office with the thought that I had to get my paper that he'd just graded, and I would learn something from him.
Then there was the nagging fact that I found him very attractive. My blood raced when I saw him. Brilliant and handsome, he made my palms sweat.  
I cringe when I remember how witty I thought him: when I ran into him in the checkout line at the local grocery store, he was buying ice cream and I was buying broccoli. He stared at my broccoli, sniffed, and said, "I win!"  
But he was my teacher, and I never thought of pursuing any personal relationship with him. Had he actually laid a glove on me, I'd probably have felt terror. Even disgust. Not that I'd never been with a man before, but the men I'd been with were boys my age. Here was this revered gray-templed scholar, bookshelves sagging with tomes, desk piled with manila folders filled with his research. Part of my attraction to him lay in my ability to keep him way up there on that very sturdy pedestal on which his big old clay feet continued to be well-hidden.
So I sat by his desk as he looked through my paper--I imagined he was finding my ideas interesting. I assumed he wanted to tell me what he thought of those ideas. Instead:
"Ya know, I'm finding out a lot about all of you from the papers you write!"
"You are?" I was completely startled.
"Yeah!" He winked. "Your personalities."
"What do you mean?"
"Yeah, Ms. __________, you're spread-eagled on the page!"
I remember time stopping. I remember staring straight ahead, rising to my feet without quite knowing what I was doing, heading down the hall to the classroom, for his class was about to start--I'd been one of the last students to see him right before class. I pulled out my chair at the long seminar table and sat down. It seems to me now that I'd actually managed to entirely forget my conversation with him by the time I'd retrieved from my bookbag my notebook, pens, and other materials for the class. Shame and shock flooded through me, and something else I didn't recognize at the time--extreme disappointment. But I was--oh, this is the excruciating part!--determined to feel exactly as I had before about my professor. I wanted to go on admiring him--I would soldier on as his admirer, because how else would I exist? I needed an example of scholarship, and he was it. The understanding that typically comes with age--that here was a pathetically flawed half-drunk guy who'd been through several wives and whose children had landed in mental hospitals and unhappy relationships, who was probably drunk during that brief encounter in his office, who was randomly trying to make himself feel better--none of that occurred to me. I need a god to worship in order to get through my studies, and he was it. 
How silly it all seems, how shameful, now. 
Is this the worst that ever happened to me? No, of course not. Had I been in a healthier frame of mine to begin with--as were many of my fellow students--I'd have seen through this pathetic professor whom I continued to defend. The more I saw what a jerk he really was, the more I defended him. Because I needed a god, and he was the one I'd chosen. Once you've picked your god--once you're in that sad mindset in which you need one--it is awfully hard to find a different path. 
I wish I'd known anyone in whom I could have confided. I did have, like most women of my background, a psychoanalyst on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who listened to my every confession. And with whom did he side? The professor, naturally. I must have done something. I was a slut--the shrink's definition of slut being a girl who felt attracted to boys--and I should forget all this and buckle down and study. 
Is there a moral to this story? Learn to be wiser when young, not when you're my age. When a situation smells wrong, don't let your longing for perfection do you in. It does seem to me that young people have a very hard time getting over the need to admire the imagined perfection in some one or some thing--one of my kids was just talking to a (thank goodness!) wise older person about his longing to be "the best!" and the wise older person said, "You shouldn't think of being the best but of being yourself." I might not have taken that advice as a twenty-year-old, but now I love it.
Yes, I feel empowered by my understanding: how young and silly and ignorant I was, how pathetically a grown-up who should have been helping me demanded the admiration I was all too willing to give him. How much perception could have helped me--had I been able, or willing, to perceive what he was. But at the time, I could not do so. 
So, tell your stories! As Emily Fox Gordon has observed, and I'm paraphrasing: confess them to yourself--then confide them to the world. Once you have understood what happened to you.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Harvey Weinstein's Mom

How well I remember a time when one of my greatest concerns was to make sure neither of my sons (then about ages one and three) grew up to be anything like George Bush (junior). Or his dad. I can't help but wonder, watching the continuing drama of the bullying, predatory Harvey Weinstein, whether his mother could possibly have influenced him to be a decent person. 
Am I blaming her? How could I, when I think of Roy Cohn's desperate mother keeping on a piano teacher (a colleague of my dad's) in order to know, for a single hour, the location of her wayward son.
It is a curious oddity of life that women have so little agency--are so often prey to men of power, money, and influence--but that mothers have the power of life or death. If your kid is born a basically decent human being, his loving mother makes him a wonderful person. If he's a high-forceps delivery, or weirdly hateful from birth, what's a mom to do?
I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in the Weinstein home. But I wasn't, and all I know is that Madame Weinstein lived to be 90, and seems to have been thrilled when her sons, Harvey and Bob (yes, the son whose kicking his bro out of the company) named Miramax after her and her deceased husband, Max. Did she love Harvey? Did she intrude into every bit of his life, make inappropriate erotic advances, beat him up? Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's horrorshow of a mom, doing everything in her considerable power to destroy any happiness he and Eleanor may have had. But FDR didn't become anything like Weinstein--or Trump. 
An old New York magazine article quotes Weinstein as follows: 
Of course, they always ask me about my mother, Miriam. And the trick about Miriam is, my brother and I love her. She was widowed maybe 30, 40 years ago, so we grew up, you know, with Mom. She was incredibly supportive and tough on the both of us. She’s still, you know, the one person you, we have to toe the line with, you know. 
So she was tough. Too tough? Who knows. 
My sons are well on their merry ways to being very different indeed from anyone in the Bush family. 
Thank goodness. I'll take credit for that. Even if credit is due only to a favorable constellation of genes.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Five Household Hints for The Kid Who Flew the Coop

Oldest son on his way to college? As his siblings declare that they miss him (while he's still on the road toward his new student apartment) his mom thinks up recipes and tips:

(1) "Soft" kinds of rice, like Jasmine and Basmati, should be cooked in only slightly more water than the rice. Tougher kinds, like whole grain rice ("Natur," for Germans) or brown Basmati or parboiled Uncle Sam's take twice as much water as rice. Never open the rice cooker for the proverbial nanosecond while the rice is making. Do stir your rice with a wooden or plastic paddle before you cover it and turn on your rice cooker.

(2) Bulgur is a great, simple meal. Chop and sautée a red onion and a bell pepper; feel free to add other vegetables. While the onions are getting transparent, boil water and add a heaping teaspoonful of powdered chicken broth to a cup. Pour the bulgur into the pan first and let it brown a little before adding boiling water to the cup and pouring that over the bulgur, while stirring continuously. You will need to add another mug of water. You can add cheese once the bulgur is done.

(3) For really stinky clothes, add about half a cup of vinegar and an envelope of baking soda ("Natron" for Germans) to the washing machine, in addition to the laundry soap. 

(4) Here's a fancy-seeming meal for two or three that takes about an hour to make: 

4 chicken breasts, with the bones
Plain white mushrooms (if you can get them already sliced, great.) Slicing takes about three minutes, though.
Canned mushroom soup
Salt and pepper.

Rinse the chicken breasts, pat dry with a paper towel, and arrange in a buttered baking dish.  Add salt and pepper. If you've got that extra nanosecond, add a dash of paprika. Dump the mushrooms over the chicken. If you don't have time to slice the mushrooms, that's okay. Dump the cream over the mushrooms. Dump the canned chicken soup over the cream. No need to stir. Put in oven, bake at about 190º (about 375ºF) for about an hour. Serve with rice and a steamed vegetable. A fast sophisticated dessert: pour either Cointreau or Kahlua over vanilla ice cream. Not both.  

(5) Don't forget to buy a toilet brush and toilet paper.