Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Fast-tracking the "Aprikosenkuchen"--an American Mistake with a German Recipe

Many German recipes require time and patience--and I have almost none of either. But apricots are in season and I love that stuff you can get at the bakery, usually with plums, a kind of long square tart, fruit set into dough, sweet but not too sweet, occasionally topped with whipped cream. Looks easy. I bought a quantity of apricots, made sure I had butter, eggs, sugar, dry yeast, milk, and flour. I also imagined, when I rose at 6:45, that I'd be washing down delicious tart with my coffee by around 7:30.
To do so, I would have had to get up around 4:00 a.m.
Oh, like a real baker.

There's the part where you dissolve the dry yeast in warm milk and mix it with the already prepared butter-egg-flour-pinch o' salt-sugar mix. But after that you're supposed to let the bowl cool its heels in a warmish location for another 45 minutes. Then there's the rolling out of the dough, after which it gets to rise, in the pan, for another 20 minutes (while you're whipping up the pudding of your choice to apply with the apricots).

I was very hungry indeed, also in a hurry--American traits. No, maybe just New Yorker traits. I gave that dough fifteen minutes (during which it did seem to bubble up a tad), then said, "ready or not, here I come" and hoped, idiotically, for the best. Poured it onto a buttered pan, schlonked in the apricots, baked for around half an hour. 

It was edible, gentle reader, but just barely. If I hadn't been absolutely starving, I would have said the unrisen dough had a gluelike texture. Whipped cream would have been a good idea, if I'd had any. 

But that whipping of the cream, even with a mixer takes time, too . . . 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Loss of Rachel Held Evans, Unifying Christian Voice

On May 4, 2019, Rachel Held Evans died unexpectedly in a Nashville, TN hospital.
She was a theologian an atheist could love. Like C.S. Lewis in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in Mere Christianity, and in his better-known Narnia books, Evans wrote with humor, commonsense, and openness about her own spiritual crises. Raised to believe that all non-Christians burned in hell forever, she learns as a middle-school student that Anne Frank and her sister died of typhus in a concentration camp. Staring at Anne’s photo on the cover of her paperback, Evans begs God to “let her out of the lake of fire” for being a Jew. She notices that her Sunday school teachers spoke of hell as a place for Hitler, not his victims, and she’s quick to observe inconsistencies: if her Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, she reflected, then hell would be populated not just by Hitler and Stalin, Hussen and Milosevic but by “the people that they persecuted.” As a college student, she watches the televised execution by the Taliban of a Muslim woman in a soccer stadium in Kabul and seriously interrogates her fundamentalist belief that only Christians enter heaven: “The idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic.” At that point she experienced the transformative spiritual crisis that is almost inevitably with the constitutionally honest. Against all odds, she rejected easy hatred for difficult love.   

She will be remembered for her bravery in rejecting dogma for questions, even or especially when these sent her into spiritual agony: “What makes a faith crisis so scary is that once you allow yourself to ask one or two questions, more inevitably follow.”  Doubters of all faiths and those of none admire her skill in setting down, in crystal clear prose how unsettling, even terrifying it is to ask questions that shatter one’s entire sense of identity.

In her online congregation, she brought together young and old who were looking for a God of love who didn’t automatically dump them in hell for being gay, questioning the patriarchy, or wondering, as she did, why tickets to heaven could only be offered to Christians. In the polarized world of Donald Trump, she brought together the disparate groups he keeps divided. Her voice will be greatly missed.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Master Archie, Royal Baby

And Veronica?
And Mehitabel?
Surnamed Leach? (or Cox, or Macleish, or Roosevelt?) Given a choice, I'd take the poet. The kid has a cute name. 
Yes, he could grow up to be the clueless boyfriend of a sweepingly narcissistic, credit-card cracking daughter of a "big shot" politician.
Or he could, using magic or reincarnation, become a pensive, philosophical cockroach who goes for a much-more-in-the-know alley cat.
(Wow! This sounds like his mom and dad. Sorry, should have said mum and dad.)
Or hey, Cary Grant, or the poet, or America's version of royalty.
Whatever junior wants, he can become . . . except a commoner, unless mum and dad have their way and terminate the monarchy. They wouldn't do that, would they? No, but they might extract their son and his future siblings from future commitments to wearing a crown.
Meanwhile, isn't he the cutest little baby you ever did see? (except for your own, of course!) 

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The King of Thailand Has a House in Munich (To the tune of "The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain")

Reuter's headline: King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun will be officially crowned as the 10th king of the Chakri dynasty. 

Happy coronation!

The king of Thailand has a house in Munich!
Where Weisswurst, Weizen plentifully flow
The weather's colder and and the laws are freer!

Now once again!
Where does he reign?

His Lèse-majesté lets him flex his muscles!
Where curry's aromatic and quite spicy!
But not in Bayern where they make the bee-er!

Now once again!
Where does he reign?

Lake Starnberg's resident's twelve million mansion
Seems roomier than Thailand's tiny throne
But folks can call him "Blödman" when he's he-re!

Now once again!
Where does he reign?

His bodyguard's his queen and she will pop them
Wherever she finds reason to do so!
In Munich, where the pretzels and beer flow.

Now once again!
Where does he reign?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Getting Creative with Cancer Hair

Once upon a time I had long golden curls. Genuine corkscrews. Until my first haircut, when I was five, at Best's Children's Barber Shop (a New York magnet at the time). The place was vaguely near Saint Patrick's cathedral and was probably gone with the wind before I hit adolescence. But I remember how light my head felt after those long golden curls had been removed. That was my first experience of hair not returning to a previous state. Maybe my scalp thought itself too grown-up for those corkscrew curls, but I rather missed them.
 My head felt even lighter after the first four doses of epirubicin. After all my hair fell out.
Chemo, as expected, produced first baldness and then "chemo-hair"--a frizzy condition unameliorated by coconut goop, L'Oreal Extraorinary oil, Jasmine oil from the local Asian store, coriander glop, mint glop, this cure, that cure. They all smell nice and have no effect whatsoever.
My hair did grow back. But it stands on end, permanently, sort of like my nerves. There was the additional month of radiation that produced a bald rectangle, fairly well hidden by the flap of hair above it. That geometric patch is now carpeted with kinky little curls--it's poodly. The Ibrance does make a few strands fall out after every shower but, then again, I do have more hair than what I started with back before cancer. Thick hair is one of the more interesting and less unpleasant side effects. I am told that if I am patient, I will find that approximately normal hair will return (or rather "your hair will calm down") in around five years. Meanwhile, I rather enjoy the coriander, coconut and mint glop. Without these concoctions, the hair looks marginally worse. With them, it reaches the outer borders of tame. But I imagine a future, one in which, five years from now, I am (1) alive and (2) my former hairdo has returned.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Pharmacy Follies and the Cancer Couple

I went to fill my husband's prescription for the new, gene-targeting cancer drugs that we hope will save his life at the local pharmacy and the clerk toting up the cost said, "Oh, this will be expensive." But I had my bank card with me. No problem!
My bank card doesn't let me charge more than 2,000 euros in a single day--something I've never been in danger of doing. The bill for my husband's meds came to over 5,000 euros--also more than twice what's currently in my account. 
We made an arrangement with the pharmacy. This is Germany! Generous, golden Germany--"we know you," said the smiling clerk,  suggesting she bill us at the end of the month, a move which will allow my husband to fill out his health insurance forms and possibly even be reimbursed by the time we have to pay that bill.
Meanwhile, I handed over my prescriptions, the ones they fill for me every month, the ones that keep me living a relatively normal life with almost no hair loss and only slight breathlessness, and lo! This month, one of them was "unavailable."
"But I get it here every month," I said.
"Well, it will have to be produced by the factory," said the clerk. They special ordered it. There's a shortage, they said. They hope they'll get it to me in ten days. 
I called the oncologist's office and they do have an emergency supply in a slightly lower dosage that I can take if the pharmacy doesn't come through. I just looked on Doc Bestendonk, which we've previously used for stuff like Sinupret and Umckaloabo, and found that in three-to-five business days I can get the tablets I need for 2.741,61 euros. Which is 130.55 euros per pill. Imagine what that costs in Donald Trump's America. No, don't. If I send my prescription. And pay for it myself. Even in golden Germany. But I think my pharmacy will probably come through . . . stay tuned. 
P.S. And they did come through! Even sooner than they'd promised.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When Lung Cancer is Good News: Ten Tips

(1) When it's curable.
(2) When your doctors thought you had a different, worsening condition that's not curable.
(3) When because you have some cancerous tumors on your lung, you won't be getting that lung transplant.
(4) Since you won't be getting that lung transplant, you won't have to take immuno-suppresants, and you won't have to worry that every little spore of invisible fungus you might inhale in your garden might make you develop a lethal infection.
(5) Since you won't be getting that lung transplant, you don't have to ditch all your houseplants.
(6) Since you won't be getting that lung transplant, you don't have to whack the spiderwebs off the ceiling with the broom, narrowly missing the expensive bulb.
(7) You can stop losing weight, something the doctor said you had to do.
(8) Your wife knows your breathing won't get even worse. It might get better! 
(9) When your doctor has the mind of Dr. House, but none of the sarcasm.
(10) When, finally, you have the right diagnosis after years of enduring the wrong one.

Monday, April 1, 2019

When Brexit Married the Robert Mueller Investigation

Once upon a time there was a little David Cameron and a big Theresa May. This is probably the time where I announce that I like Theresa May. She'd have triumphed over those awkward dancing memes if it hadn't been for the mess little Davy made. Of course, nobody's heard much from him since he walked offstage whistling the theme song from West Wing. Like my kids, he left the mess for Mommy to clean up. She's been doing her damndest. I applaud. She's been tending the monstrosity he left behind ever since: "Now, Brexit!" she says in measured tones, "Do behave!"
Meanwhile, back in the former colonies, Somebody Did Something to Robert Mueller. Scare him? Who knows. He's telling his investigation to lie low, but it keeps squeaking: "Daddy, I like that Brexit chick."
The scuttlebut, that little Brexit and squeaky Investigation are secretly going to wed reached reporters late last night. Ms. May and Mr. Mueller of course tried to restrain the two, but so headstrong, so unwilling to listen, so Romeo and Juliet-ish were they that nothing could be done. The two catastrophes are on their honeymoon, but planning to return and make everything worse than Climate Change. Stay tuned. Reports that they've already produced a child, Godawful, are pending. Soon we'll be Waiting for Godawful.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Re-Reading Rebecca: Feminist Fable or Patriarchal Proverb?

It's been too long since I read Daphne Du Maurier's classic Gothic suspense novel, Rebecca, peopled with intensely satisfying, but pathetically limited characters: a young heroine who vaults from the frying pan of a horrible job as companion to a frustrated, jealous older woman to a newly horrible job as the wife to a rich Downton Abbey type with a terrible secret. He's as miserable as she is, his modus operandi "forget the past!" and his marriage proposal an insult: "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool," he answers when she mistakes his proposal for the offer of a secretarial position. 
As a child on a seaside vacation with her non-aristocratic parents, the nameless heroine buys a postcard of his family manse, Manderley. Little does she imagine (oh, but she dreams) that one day she'll become the princess of that castle. The main conceit-- we know plenty about this nameless young princess and next to nothing about her dead predecessor but her name--Rebecca--has always impressed critics. The heroine's "unusual," she says, name is never given, but lately we've arrived at the usual suspect, incest. Du Maurier, apparently asked strangers what they thought of it, only hinting at her own story. But her nameless heroine marries a man twice her age and treats him exactly as a five-year-old might treat an adored, and strict, father: the young wife never asks questions and blames all his bad moods on herself. She fails to resent his grumpy-to-outright hostile, his patronizing behavior. He's just wonderful, she thinks, no matter how cold, how uncommunicative, how breathtakingly insensitive. Are they even having sex? When his sister asks if she's "starting an infant" and hopes she's not doing anything to prevent it--because Max, the meanie husband, wants a son and heir--the heroine's certain she's not pregnant. When the most intriguing malevolent character, Mrs. Danvers, passionately loyal to the dead Rebecca and passionately jealous of this young whippersnapper of a bride who dares to take her place--invites the young woman to jump out the window, we see how cruel women can be to other women. And how far a jealous mother might go?
By the end of the book, we've seen a desperate young doormat of a heroine in the narrator; the wickedest of stepmothers in Mrs. Danvers, whose hypnotic powers remain chilling; a woman whom we might call a feminist or free spirit in Rebecca, whose daredevil ways have charmed Mrs. Danvers since Rebecca's childhood, who laughs at all men and tells "Danny," that she'll live the way she wants, meaning she'll take lovers if she feels like it; who taunts Max, her husband, that she might be pregnant but that the unborn lord of the manor isn't his son; who enjoys stirring up the adoration of "Danny," so bereft that a year after Rebecca's death she's still fondling her shoes and sniffing her never-washed nightgown.  One more thing (and spoiler alert!) we're given to understand that Rebecca had "a certain malformation" of the uterus, which meant she could "never have a child" but she never seems to have wanted one--a sure sign of a bad girl back in 1938--and her punishment is that she has cancer of the uterus, still incurable today and then untreatable. Re-reading the novel I realize I'd gotten my first ideas about any cancer that strikes women from Rebecca: I believed, and I must have been about ten when I first read the novel, that Rebecca had cancer because she was evil. She must have done something---I couldn't have told you, but back then I believed in good girls and bad girls and I'd figured out that she was bad. Of course good girls won--the ending of the novel rather complicated my theory, but I won't spill the beans. Read the novel: it's enough to make you throw your phone in a drawer and ignore your email.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

There'll Always Be A Brexit*

I give you attest, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I give you attest, Ladies and Gentlemen!
May we disband division's hell
Save dignity and discord quell
While plans may change and go awry
There'll always be a Brexit
While there's some reason, lame
Wherever there's objection small
Beside a pile of gain
There'll always be a Brexit
While speachifying's sweet
Where overturning's meet
A million missing votes
Red, white and blue
What does it mean to you?
Surely you're loud
Shout it proud!
Britons awake!
The Empire's poo 
We can't depend on you

Squabbles remain
These are the chains
Nothing can break
There'll always be a Brexit
And Brexit shan't be free
If Brexit means as much to you
As Brexit means to me.

*With apologies to Vera Lynn

Saturday, March 9, 2019

My Unconventional Way of Avoiding the Flu (a Mom-Blog, Cancer-Lady Special)

I don't like flu shots. Their results seem too unpredictable. The last time I got one, years ago, I felt exhausted for days. I have friends who get sick right after getting them. I also know plenty of people, including my oncologist, who experience no ill effects whatsoever. But even she admitted that a colleague got sick right after the shot. 
The shot is, of course, recommended especially for people with my diagnosis, namely metastatic breast cancer. But I don't think I could cope with getting sick and exhausted while cooking three meals a day, doing laundry, looking after my husband and children, teaching eight courses, grading a bunch of student essays, term papers and exams, taking two writing courses, producing various essays, and fielding the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That's a partial listing of my daily activities. I am also afraid of the flu shot in the same irrational way that I am unable to follow the German custom of inviting everybody out for your birthday and paying for them, or at least throwing a massive, catered affair. The thought of the shot fills me with fear; the thought of following that particular German custom makes me burst into tears. Isn't that silly, especially the latter? Probably I have too many fond memories (tinged with my hometown, New York) of being the Birthday Girl and being fêted by friends.
So I invested in ten or twelve bottles of hand sanitizer that sit in various coat pockets and on my desk at work. At home, I've also got peroxide, which is said to be especially efficacious at combating germs from stomach flu.
I slather my hands religiously with these substances. I am more focused than an obsessive-compulsive person when it comes to keeping my hands germ-free. Right after I touch the button that opens the tram door, the handle of the cart at the supermarket, the keypad for entering my pin, I whip out the hand sanitizer. Every time. So far, so good, but we're only in March. If I can stay healthy for the next month, I'll breathe a sigh of relief and feel that I was right.P.S. Of course I use hand cream, too. The kind that restores moisture.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Accidental Asparagus: A Mom Blog Recipe

Here's what happens when your husband and younger son want meat, meat, meat for every meal, your older son is vegan and your daughter is vegetarian, verging on vegan: you get confused. You try a baked asparagus recipe when you'd really rather just blanch the asparagus and slip it into the pasta primavera you're already making .  .  . you had some idea you'd just make one dish for this meal. You were wrong! One child really, really, really, mommy, wants baked asparagus! Pleeaaassse! So okay. I've got my laptop flipped open to baked asparagus recipes, I'm thinking they sound dull, I throw in a few  tomatoes, add more olive oil. Oops! It's not olive oil! That's how the asparagus . . . accidentally . . . turned out well. Here's the recipe:

Asparagus--washed and drip-dried. Plop it into a pan on which you've theoretically rubbed a paper towel steeped in olive oil. But if you're like me, you just dump the asparagus into the pan, realize you should have poured the olive oil in first, pour it in and flip the asparagus around with a spatula to get it sort of covered. Dump in a few baby tomatoes, the salt, the pepper, the garlic salt or, if you're less lazy than me, the fresh pressed garlic. Then add a dash of what I mistakenly thought was olive oil (Just a little more!) but what turned out to be balsamic vinegar. I think I added around a tablespoonful. Sighed. Too late to get rid of it. Slid the pan into the pre-heated oven (200º C) and hoped for the best. 
Surprise! The stuff tasted great. The balsamic vinegar brought out the sweetness in the asparagus. Very tasty indeed. Accidents happen--it's just so rare that they make things better. How long did I bake it? I forget. Probably half an hour. 

P.S. I just made EXACTLY the same mistake with roast chicken. That is, having stuffed a lemon inside the bird's cavity, having set the bird, complete with salt and pepper, on top of sliced red onions, boiled carrots, boiled potatoes, garlic, I splodged on what I fondly believed was a dash of olive oil. But no. Not. I'd used balsamic vinegar again! To which I added a cuss word or two and that splodge of olive oil I'd intended. Again, perfect. There's just something about balsamic vinegar that really improves things.

Not going to try this on chocolate mousse. If only because my recipe doesn't call for olive oil.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Critical Mom's Favorite Translation

At REAL (Ray-al), the German version of Whole Foods (or its poorer cousin) where I find plenty of delicious (and far more reasonably priced) vegetables and meats, plus a variety of pastas and olive oils, I came across the following on a multi-lingual plastic pack of those big tortilla-like things that you can make Börek with. In a small New York apartment you could use one as a tablecloth. In a pinch, as a baby blanket. In any case, you can roll up cheese, avocado, meat, veggies, or a side of beef in them. Here's what the English translation said:

Please moist before use. Put the pastry leaf in a pan in a way that the edges survive.

I'll make sure they not only survive, but thrive! I am also advised to:

Fill the middle this small cut sausages, the cut paprika, and the rubbed Gouda cheese fills.

Rubbed Gouda as opposed to massaged Gouda?

Mix in a separated pot the egg and the 200 ml milk and pour over the filling. Pool the surviving edges so that they cover the middle. Lets it 15 min. in the refrigerator and afterwards fries with some fat. Serve warmly.

I always serve warmly. I never serve in an unfriendly fashion. Whoever was in charge of accuracy took the day off, but I will enjoy vegan, vegetarian, and meat versions of this recipe. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Princess and the Power Plays: Latifa, her Father, and Mary Robinson

Dubai's Princess Sheikah Latifa Maktoum, as everyone now knows, left behind a video filled with details about her chauffeur reporting on her comings and goings, her longing to travel, to study medicine, to make her own decisions, her imprisonment as a punishment for trying to escape, her caged sister, and her brutal father, a man who appears to be more ruthless and less restricted, because richer than, Donald Trump. Haven't we all listened to the video the princess secretly recorded? 
Haven't we all then turned to the heart-sickening photos of a tamed--or lobotomized--or drugged--Latifa, her spirit so obviously erased, her expression at the breakfast table vacant, her shoulders hunched? Latifa, holding a pet monkey, smiling like a desperate child longing for approval. Not the same girl at all. The Finnish self-defense instructor, the debonair French former secret service man who tried to help her, recount believable tales of beatings, threats, and a princess who didn't want to go back to Dubai so much that she was screaming, "Kill me now." Judging by the photographs, the princess's personality seems to have been obliterated. It is not Latifa, but her shell that shows in these photos. Is the real Latifa still inside? That is  anyone's guess. 
Haven't we all wondered why Mary Robinson, Ireland's former president and now deeply engaged in human rights, would claim Latifa was “troubled” and “vulnerable” and insist that she was “in the loving care of her family?" 
Why did Mary Robinson tell the world that Latifa's loving family just wants to shield her from publicity? Why the story about needed medical care, psychiatric care? The question so far has been "How could Mary Robinson possibly know?" or "Why would she say these things?" 
I haven't found anyone suggesting what is, to me, the depressingly likely answer: Mary Robinson is making the best of a bad situation. She must be well aware that the princess has been tortured and will be tortured until or unless the world believes that Latifa is just another mentally ill pathetic woman who needs to be controlled. Then her father can save face and continue to expect admiration. 
Maybe so, Sheikh.
Maybe your daughter's crazy. Maybe she's bipolar, or schizophrenic, or has been driven nuts by your regime--or maybe she was always delusional. But Siberia, the Bastille, Soviet mental hospitals, have all been populated by persons who were both crazy and able to grasp reality enough to wish to escape an intolerable situation. Ernest Hemingway may have been paranoid, but the F.B.I really was tailing him. 
It's not unusual for empire-builders to choose empire over family, Sheikh.
Benjamin Franklin threw his royalist son in the most unpleasant of prisons. I can't imagine Latifa's is any better. People may know she's crazy, but people wonder why you've cocooned her, silenced all critics, refused any independent investigation. 
Is the answer that you have enough money to do whatever you want? People are whispering. Prove us wrong by letting the princess leave, come to the U.S. or the U.K. or Europe for independent medical treatment.
The whispers are getting louder, will get louder.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Side Effects: Dr. Google and Me

For about a month now I've been thinking I ought to call the podiatrist. My fourth toe hurts--felt squeezed in tap dance class, and I thought: "Oh, it's a blister." Then, "Oh, it's an old lady thing. Must be a corn." But then I thought: "Jeez, what if the cancer's back! What if I go to the podiatrist and she cuts off a callus here, a lump there, and I.Spread. Cancer.Cells."
So I didn't go to the podiatrist.  I talked myself into thinking I probably just had some version of the side effects listed on my Big Pharma pill box: numbness around the edges of my feet and hands.
But I emailed the oncologist, who remarked that I might be experiencing a "known lesion," suggesting a neurologist, who examined my feet, made me push them hard against his hands, dig my heels into the examination table, walk a straight line--all this as I was reflecting on why I'd failed to check Dr. Google before worrying my oncologist. 
By the time I got to the neurologist, I'd learned from Dr. Google that the incidence of cancer returning to a toe bone is less than 1%.
But I already had the appointment . .  .
The technician set me up for what looked like an EKG, only the little red and yellow plastic leads were attached to my legs and feet, or rather to metal disks glommed on to my legs. I don't know why I started to wonder whether this would hurt, but I asked. 
"Not hurt, exactly," she said, "but it's uncomfortable."
"YEOUCH!" I said, as electricity coursed through my leg. Again. And again. And . . . I thought of the mafia's preferred methods of torture.
"Sorry, I have to do this ten times," said the technician. When she was done with one leg, we did the other. Then one arm. 
Results: "Normal." 
Then came the X-ray.
Results: "only" degenerative bone changes. I was right the first time. Old lady stuff. I'm overjoyed. It's not cancer again. Yet.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Teaching of Essay-Writing At German Universities

There isn't any.
But there's this, which I've copied from the department website of a German university. Not the one for which I work, but representative:
Following the cover sheet, the second page of your paper must contain a table of contents,indicating the subdivision of the paper into smaller chapters. For each subchapter give the title and the page number on which it starts. Subchapters are enumerated. The introduction usually “1.”, the main body of text starting with „2.1“, followed by 2.2, perhaps „2.3“, etc.If you need even smaller subchapters, use “2.1.1”, “2.1.2”, “2.1.3” etc. 
I have yet to find any university English Department or Anglophone Studies Department or Humanities Department in Germany that teaches the most basic, obvious, overlooked fact--now I have their attention--facts are big here in Germany: good writing comes from opinion. Not facts. If facts were all we wrote about, we wouldn't be writing. In fact, there isn't much writing in Germany schools and universities. There's the tradition of the Facharbeit, in which students research a subject and present the research neatly divided into subchapters. Opinion is a messy thing--I might not like yours. There might be unpleasantness. The student might say something the teacher finds repulsive. Or dumb. Or new. But isn't what the student says the student's business? Isn't the teacher's job to help students express those opinions clearly?

A very non-German question. What if the student says something racist? (They never do, around here at a German university). But what if they did? Or sexist? Or just wrong? (Wrong is something a teacher decides around here). 

Well, in that situation I would sit with the student and ask where the thoughts came from? Could the student tell me?
The last thing German students are ever asked in any class is what they think. They are asked to "state your opinion," but even that is constricted to "pro or con" and the opinion may only be given after the student has summarized a passage, one usually drawn from a newspaper or a magazine, typically on a topic like cyberbullying. First you summarize, then you state your opinion, pro or con. There's no room for partial agreement, looking at the issue from a different angle, or redefining that issue entirely. Because what you think is never the issue.
I knew I teacher who, as her students were writing the paragraphs she made them write, and when one of them asked,"Should we put in our opinion?" said, "Nobody cares what you think."
She wasn't regarded as the wicked witch of the west. They rather liked her acid wit. "She's sassy," observed a colleague. She wasn't unusual, is the point.
Another colleague tells me--he says he's experienced, he's been doing this for years, he knows: "Some of them have no opinions." He can't get an opinion out of his students. 
I say any creature leaning toward the light has an opinion. What did you eat for breakfast? Why oatmeal and not a bagel? Why do you like this online shop and not that one? Opinions will follow on these topics, the notion of having any opinion will, ever so gradually, be absorbed. I say the students who seem like they have no opinions sometimes have the most interesting ones--if they're finally willing to utter them.
I say there's this Anglo-American tradition, "the essay," which includes Hazlitt, Woolf, David Foster Wallace. Joan Didion. Continental writers. Montaigne.  
But go to Wikipedia and look for famous essayists and all that great online encyclopedia can cough up are five Germans, including Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Seek, but ye shall not find. You might come across "Owlcation," which tells young German students what to write when they're asked to to an essay called "My Family." My family: let's start families of writers in German schools and universities. Let's start essay-writing. Oh, it's not that easy. Ask German students what they really think and they feel slightly shocked. That's a personal question. Yes. If they begin to answer, there's something that might just hatch into an essay.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Charmless Philip's Charmed Life

He drove the Obamas and they survived
He spent his life lolling and always thrived
He ogled Ms. Kirkwood and friskily wrote
Those letters the Internet's not going to float
His queen was then pregnant: he wanted some fun
But he remained upright when all's said and done
I guess he was boring, I guess she was bored
By this observation we're none of us floored
The charmless old tuff as he's frequently called
Survived all the women he probably balled
Crashed into two cars but killed no one at all
Flipped over his vehicle, then had the gall
Uninjured, to wander and then to feel shocked
But that's what Brit royalty does--so they're mocked.*

Sing to the tune of "The Campbells are Coming"

P.S. In the immortal words of the long-lived prince: "When a man opens a car door for his wife, it's either a new car or a new wife."

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Critical Mom's Meals Today

I just could not face healthy food today. At 6:15 a.m, the empty calories in my supermarket bread tasted just fine with coffee strong enough to walk on. At lunchtime, I thought I'd be more interested in the ham and lettuce sandwiches in the cafeteria. That brown bread, those tomato sandwiches. How about a tomato sandwich, Harriet the Spy's favorite lunch? I remember gobbling those when I was twelve--with Hellmann's mayonnaise, salt, dill, on Pepperidge Farm white bread. I had the usual theory: if I eat like Harriet and spy like Harriet, I'll turn into a writer. Just like Harriet. But no cafeteria sandwiches for me--all I wanted was that plastic cup of vanilla-and-chocolate pudding, which I downed with a café-au-lait. I was better at dinnertime: made a meatloaf crammed with red onions, garlic, red bell peppers, spinach, carrots, Parmesan, and spaghetti sauce. Gulped that down with lemon polenta and South African red wine. Does that make up for my junk food day? And who am I asking? God, or a dietician? Certainly not the internet. If you ask me, that was one good meal. Even my kids thought so.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Donald Trump and Boundaries

"How do Mexicans feel about Trump’s wall? – They’ll get over it."
Anonymous joke

How I hope they won't have to scale it--but if they do, that they'll make it. Maybe seventy years from now Lifetime Network will make films about brave Mexican families running zig-zag, eluding the  border guards trying to pepper them with bullets, or digging deep tunnels from Tijuana to San Diego. Yes, the way Germans make movies about East Berliners digging tunnels to freedom in the West before the wall fell. Vox has covered a history of walls and their failures to contain--in fact, their provocation to inspire us to climb them--but why would Trump choose this, or any, moment to listen? The man who wants the wall has no boundaries himself. He'll say he could shoot someone on fifth avenue and still get voted into office. He'll say the many dreadful things he has said, and will continue, to say. And if the wall isn't built? But somehow, with him, that means it's built to cacaphony, and therefore never built, and therefore built forever. With apologies to King Arthur, Trump's photographic negative. Nancy Pelosi will keep saying "No," and Trump will keep saying, "Over my dead body." Which would be a considerable climb. I wake at midnight wondering less what historians will say about these Trumpesque times, and more whether historians will exist after Trump finally dies. Even he must die, eventually. Right? But it's so hard to believe that he will ever deign to do so.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Critical Mom's Heritage

I took a "My Heritage" test and received enough information to construct a narrative. The info: I'm 41.6% English, 33.4% Scandinavian, 23.4% Irish, Scottish and Welsh, and 1.6% "West-Asian," which, on the map the company sent, corresponds to Turkey, Iran, a bit of Iraq, a dash of Afghanistan and a soupçon of Pakisatan.  
My narrative: Back in the eighth century, the English peasants were planting rye or crunching it up to make bread. Or tending their peas, beans, and onions. Or whiling away the evening in their huts by the fire dreaming of Morris dancing, which they'd invent a few centuries later, but meanwhile, they were just hooting odd noises that occasionally rhymed and became ballads. 
While the peasants were engaged in these activities, the tall, redbearded and blondbearded Vikings were speeding across the waves toward English shores. When the Vikings arrived, longing for art, music, culture, they killed the men and raped the women. Some of those women ran in the direction of Scotland, where they hid out in the highlands, some headed for Wales, where they tried to summon spirits from the vasty deep, and some encountered leprechauns on the road to Ireland. 
These women and their descendants lived in these places fairly happily until the late sixteenth century, when Queen Elizabeth I approved the charter of the Turkey company (1581) because she wanted to maintain trade and political alliances with the Ottoman empire. At least, Wikipedia says she did. If Wikipedia's right, then I suppose the descendant of one of those women who'd run from the Vikings enjoyed a romantic encounter with one of those Turkish or Iranian or Afghan or Iranian or Iraqi or Pakistani traders. That brings us almost to the seventeenth century, the one my father's side of the family claims altered family circumstances: Dad says "we" were Scottish peasants who became mercenary soldiers for William of Orange, and were granted land in an area that would later become Pennsylvania. Those lands not being arable, "we" walked to the Carolinas, where we became Southern Gothic. The other side of the family says "we" didn't like life in Taunton, England, which "we" abandoned in the eighteenth century for the chilly confines of Utica, New York. I know the rest of the story: my father's shrink fell in love with him. Having acquired a young, female patient whose prettiness she envied, the shrink tried to escape her inappropriate attraction by throwing him together with my mother. The two of them married in order to please their god, oh, excuse me, their shrink. I was born.