December 31, 2008

Ghost of New Year's Past

A tribute to New Year’s Past:

Tobi and the Fish

The girls, me in the middle with the stogey


Moi in my short red hair days

Gesine and Bine The Boys - Ralf, Tobi and Christian

No New Year for Me...

I’m taking a page out of Naturelady’s book to pay tribute to some past New Year’s Eve parties because… sob… there will be no New Year’s party for me this year. The reason? Tonight I will only have been on antibiotics for 36 hours and that’s not long enough to stop being contagious. Although I’ve presumably been contagious for several weeks, and Ralf and the kids haven’t (knock on wood) caught anything, I can’t in good conscience invite 30 people with children into my house after the doctor told me point blank that I’m a danger to the community.

Soooo... the party has been moved to a friend’s house and I won’t be going. Ralf and I are really bummed because we’ve been celebrating New Year’s with the same friends since 2000, when only one couple had kids. Over time, more kids have come to bless our lives and now we pretty much all have kids so although our NY parties aren’t as wild and decadent as they used to be, we kind of get two parties for the price of one because the kids all disappear upstairs and have their own party.

It’s still up in the air if Ralf will go. I think he should get out and have some fun after watching me be sick for three weeks, but he doesn’t want to leave me alone on New Year’s Eve. Also he’s in a bit of a funk about this and doesn’t quite have the right party spirit. I'll try to persuade him.

It’s frustrating because if the first doctor I went to had given me antibiotics I’d be all better now and could have been spared 10 days of sleepless misery. Somewhat ironically (unlike Alanis Morissette, I actually know what ironic means), I always resisted giving my kids antibiotics when they were sick in the US because I believe the body can usually heal itself and avoid the personal and community costs of antibiotics. I also believe in being sure of your diagnosis before throwing broad band antibiotics at anyone who coughs twice. But although I haven’t needed antibiotics since I was a kid, I knew two weeks ago that this wasn’t going away on its own so what with the ruined New Year’s Eve and everything, it’s a bummer.

On the other hand, all is not lost. I have a couple of things that I am deeply thankful for that lessen the blow of missing New Year’s Eve with our friends:

1. My cough is being defeated by the antibiotics! I slept an entire night without coughing once. In my book, after a month of suffering, there can be no higher joy.

2. I wouldn’t have been able to drink anyway since I’m taking antibiotics.

3. I’m an introvert and a party without drinking is generally a party where I hide in the corner. Although I like to party as much as the next person, I am also happy as a clam snuggled up with old friends like Harry Potter, Buffy or Jane Austen.

4. We don’t have to clean our house now. Wahoooo!

5. I’m still 8 pounds down from the flu – although that’s actually sad because now I don’t get to flaunt it.

December 30, 2008

Taking your medicine

I have proper medicine now: I have antibiotics, codeine in capsule form (no more drops!), and cortisone, again in capsule form. Yay! Last night I woke up coughing so badly I got something like an asthma attack and we had to call an emergency doctor who makes house calls. He didn't find much wrong with me - clear lungs, no sinus infection, no throat infection, just this damn cough and slightly inflamed lungs. So he gave me something to help me sleep - I won't mention how it was administered - and told me that after 3 weeks of chronic coughing I need to go see a lung specialist.

When I pestered him a bit for more information he opined that I probably have some sort of chronic lung weakness that is preventing me from kicking this cough on my own. Lung weakness? Isn't that for people with asthma that are short of breath when they have to climb stairs?? I am a hearty person. Sort of. When it's not winter. But he stubbornly maintained that uncontrollable coughing for three weeks is not normal. He also said I probably should have already been on antibiotics for such a persistant, uncontrollable cough.

So today we saw the lung specialist. I was deeply annoyed because it's the day before New Year's Eve and no one has office hours, there's one clinic serving all of Munich today. I also couldn't help reflectng that there's nothing much wrong with me that antibiotics couldn't have cured a week ago and even if I do have some lung thingy I could have made a proper appointment in the New Year to check it out properly, rather than shuffling downtown in a weakened state to sit for two hours in a small enclosed waiting room with all the contagious respiratory emergencies in Munich.

As it happens, however, the doctor was able to see us right away without an appointment, although they conducted a longish series of tests and the whole thing took over an hour to complete. That, my friends, is the beauty of private insurance in Germany. It costs the earth and you better hope your employer picks up half but you get in right away and they don't stint on the tests.

So. . . they took my blood pressure, had me breath in two mystery machines in different ways, took some blood, took a chest x-ray (my first ever unless I got one at school years ago) and put some burning cream on my ear lobe before piercing it with something that felt like an awl and squeezing blood out of it for what seemed like ten minutes. That was the suckiest part - no one leaves that office without a bandaid on their ear.

The results of these various tests were then presented to Dr. Friedrich and told him what I already knew: I have a light but persistant infection that can be treated with antibiotics (with a tiny but unlikely chance that I've contracted whooping cough) and I am pale. I probably also have some underlying non-life threatening condition such as an allergy that explains why my colds tend to turn into chronic bronchitis three years running but to find out more I'll have to come back and get a CAT scan and goodness knows what else.

Now we're home and I've taken my first antibiotic tablet, which is sitting a little uncomfortably but triumphantly in my stomach, and poor Ralf is upstairs exhausted and trying to catch up on his work. I am making him coffee and grandmommy eggs (soft-boiled eggs over broken up toast with lots of salt and pepper) to try and make up for my poor health. Tonight he has late calls catching up with his team, or his 'bitches', as I jokingly refer to his superstar all-male team of technical software designers since we watched 'You Don't Mess with the Zohan' the other night.

I'll probably have to come up with something else if he ever hires a girl.

Speaking of Zohan, if only Middle Eastern problems could actually be solved by Israeli counterterrorists becoming hair dressers . . . here are a few Zohan quotes that made me laugh despite my sadness for that war torn part of the world because they are so absurd:

(Zohan the Isreali counterterrorist upon being shot at by a Palestinian terrorist): "OK, I get it. You don't like my country."

(Zohan's mom over dinner): "They've been fighting for 2000 years. They're probably almost finished."

(The Hizballah hotline): "Terrorist support operations are temporarily suspended due to peace talks. Normal operations will resume as soon as the peace talks break down."

December 29, 2008

More German medicine

OK, so I kicked the plague that kept me in bed for nearly a week but haven’t yet managed to shake a very persistent cough. Ralf, who usually refers to me as Sweetie or Schatz (‘treasure’), has started calling me ‘Pestilence’. I can’t really blame him since my nocturnal coughing has kept him awake for three weeks.

Remember the EUR 200 inhaler the doctor prescribed that I didn’t buy? It turns out that wasn’t such a weird recommendation after all. When my German friends heard about my lingering cough I was showered with offers to loan me these amazingly expensive hospital grade inhalers. We ended up borrowing one from Berndt and Elizabeth next door. It jets medicine right into your lungs where it can supposedly do the most good. Unfortunately, the medicine gives me a splitting headache and has so far been about as effective as killing a chicken while muttering incantations would be.

Last night I was introduced to a new German medicine: Capval Tropfen. No idea what’s in it but it’s supposed to be the king of slime melters. We got it from Ralf’s mom, who works in a doctor’s office. When I took my first sip I gasped in horror and croaked, ‘Your mom must really hate me!’ Seriously, I joked about the repulsive taste of German medicine in a previous posting but it turns out I had only scratched the surface of vileness: Capval Tropfen tastes like toilet cleaner. Word - it’s unbelievably disgusting. On the other hand, within minutes of forcing myself to drink it my nose started running uncontrollably so it at least seems to be melting something. No change in my coughing status but whatever’s been lurking in my nose is finally on its way out.

L has a bit of a lingering cold as well and her nose has been running non-stop for two weeks but she has a natural advantage because she can lick her own nostrils. She’s very cute so this is not quite as disgusting as it could be but we have nonetheless been trying to discourage this habit.

I have another doctor appointment tomorrow and we’ll see what nasty, useless concoction he or she prescribes this time.

I will kick this cold. Maybe not until summer or next year but it will happen. Someday. I vow this.

December 28, 2008

Mommy's Helpers

I wanted to share a few of my favorite mommy tips (books, movies, recipes) and hope some of you will do the same. Note that most of these are more appropriate for little girls than boys but I think there's some crossover.

Favorite Books

Zen Shorts – Stillwater the panda bear meets Addy, Michael and Karl and changes their lives by telling them stories. Beautifully illustrated.

Pinkalicious – A little girl eats so many pink cupcakes that she turns pink! Very cool and unusual artwork.

Are You My Mother? – A classic. Only a few colors used in the pictures but my kids love them. This was L’s favorite book for almost a year when she was 2.

The Costume Copycat – A surprising find at Pottery Barn. Fun story about a little girl who always copies her big sister’s costume from last year, until finally she finds her own style.

Dora the Explorer – I expected to hate these but a friend gave me a couple and I love how they encourage the kids to listen and respond to questions interactively.

Where is Baby? – I just love these books for babies. They have wonderful, glittery illustrations and simple words geared to attract babies. The boxed set is my go to baby present.

Room on the broom – Terrific book, even dads like it. Fun rhyming and illustrations and a good story to boot about a kindly witch and the friends she picks up while flying on her broom.

Asha and Clara – Full of creative fantasy and amazing illustrations. A little girl’s adventures with her imaginary friends.

A Fly Went By – I remember this one well from my own childhood. A little boy tries to help some animals who are all running away from something scary. Fun rhyming, great story and great illustrations.

The Little Red Hen – What a classic story about reaping what you sow!

Honorable Mention

Zen Ties – The second story in the Zen Shorts series. More beautiful illustrations and life lessons.

The Kissing Hand – This is a very nice book about Chester the raccoon, who is afraid to go to school until his mother gives him a kissing hand.

The Gruffulo/ The Gruffulo’s Child – Same author and illustrator as Room on the Broom, these stories are lots of fun.

The Cat in the Hat – Well, of course. Actually, my kids don’t like this book as much as I feel they should.

Purplicious – Part II of Pinkalicious, it didn’t get such good reviews as the first book but I liked it a lot.

Chicken Little – Not sure where the attraction of this book lies but it’s somehow addictive. Follow Chicken Little on his humorous journey to tell the king that the sky is falling.

Favorite Movies and TV Programs

I'm not going to mention the obvious ones like Blues Clues but I did want to highlight a few that are less well-known but big hits at our house.

Totoro - Satsuki and Mei meet a fantastic forest creature name Totoro. This movie is a real achievement - everything from soundtrack to animation is perfect.

Christmas with Callou - Our kids got this for Christmas this year and it turned out to be a real winner.

Bugaloos - This was one of the Sid and Marty Croft Saturday morning shows from my own childhood and my kids love it as much as I did.

HR Pufinstuf - Another Sid and Marty Croft show. Witchipoo is kind of annoying when she screeches but the kids love it. And Jimmy is any little girl's dream boat.

The Parent Trap - The original with Haley Mills, if you please! What a classic.

Recipes for Picky Eaters

Popsicles - Blend vanilla yogurt, organic berries, a banana, and some organic spinach. Add sugar to taste. Freeze. Yum!

Broccoli Brownies - Chocolate can hide almost anything. I throw a packet of frozen organic broccoli (blended, of course) into a package of brownie mix, bake and my kids yum it up.

So, what works for you? Share!

December 27, 2008

Quintessential you

I have a pretty high IQ. I’m not a genius or anything but I’m bright. However, unless I’m doing higher math or something it really doesn’t show – in fact, quite the opposite, because I'm a total klutz.

We’ve been back in Germany since mid September and in that time we’ve had to change the vacuum bag twice because it was full of broken glass. At least twice a week I drop one of our spices and it shatters on the floor and I have to vacuum up fiddly little bits of glass and powders while yelling at my kids to stay out of the kitchen. About every other week a glass of spaghetti sauce meets its destiny in my kitchen and you’d be surprised how far that stuff can travel on impact. We have dark red flecks all over kitchen ceiling and Ralf has threatened to paint the entire kitchen brown if I don’t mend my ways. If you come to dinner at our house, expect to eat well but don’t come into the kitchen while I’m cooking because the tornado of spilled wine, tomato stains, broken glass and piles of glass and parsley on the floor might put you off. On one memorable occasion I cut my finger while making a salad, spraying the walls and kitchen window with blood just as a friend who was over for dinner popped her head in and offered to help.

I couldn’t help noticing that she didn’t eat any salad.

Last night I went rummaging in the medicine cabinet for something to put my lingering cough to rest, at least for the night, and emerged triumphantly with an almost full bottle of Sinupret, which is a German mucus dissolver (my best translation for ‘Schleimloeser’). I was holding it tightly by the lid, which inexplicably separated from the rest of the bottle. Needless to say, the bottle with its entire contents plunged to the tile floor. It erupted spectacularly, depositing its sticky load all over the floor, the walls, the mirror, the husband and my pants. A few gluey drops even found their way into my hair.

Ralf’s comment as he grimly helped me wipe up the worst of it? ‘This is quintessential you!’

December 26, 2008

The Day After

Ralf has no words. He is disgusted with the lameness of his family. Today was sunny so we decided to make a nice family excursion to the wild animal park in Poing, which offers what the Germans refer to as a refreshing winter walk and various exotic animals like stags, boars, and even a baby bear. In the spring there are goslings and piglets, too. So, we all bundled up in our warmest jackets and headed out.

Once there we were confronted by gale force mountain winds and it turned out that I had put the wrong shoes on L so her feet were cold. She also refused to wear proper snow gloves so she was all primed to be uncomfortable. K, dressed by Ralf, had the right shoes but complained that her mouth was cold and was quite put out by this. And I had unthinkingly put on my trainers, my default shoes that are more than adequate for California winters. Ralf stared at my shoes in disbelief that I thought these shoes would work for a winter walk. ‘Even you. . .’ he began, but was too overcome by negative emotion to continue and had to fall back on making helpless hand gestures. I could actually see him questioning the wisdom of bringing an ignorant warm climate girl to Germany.

Although he was prepared to make me tough it out he was not equal to the combined female power of his entire household so we aborted the mission and headed home again. On the bright side, it gave him a chance to practice his, ‘There’s no bad weather, just bad gear, blah, blah, blah’ speech. I let the lecture flow over me (totally undeserved – I mean, it’s sunny so how was I supposed to know??) and looked out the window at all the exotic Teutonic families with children dressed like puffy marshmallows and babies wrapped in down sacks and stuffed into insulated perambulators. It all looked very unnatural to me, like living on the moon.

Of course, when I expressed this sentiment out loud Ralf pointed out that the entire Northern hemisphere is like this. I guess he has a point.

Note to self: no trainers ‘til spring.

December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas to all

The kids made a good haul this year. Although Ralf and I only bought one present for each child, they somehow ended up with books, princess paraphanelia, clothes, skis, Melissa and Doug craft kits and those little plastic beads that you arrange on a special little form then iron into totally useless shapes. On the downside, the room fills with carcenogenic gas when you iron them, but on the plus side it keeps kids busy for hours on end.

Ralf and I made out well, too. We finally splurged on a flat screen TV after four years of discussing it with no action and I got a real 2nd hand Pfaff sewing machine that I haven't yet figured out how to thread, but I will, and then look out! I predict that my kids will be wearing lots of sleeveless sun dresses next summer. We also got tickets for the whole family to Circus Krone next week and Ralf's sister got us tickets to the Harlem Gospel Singers, babysitting included.

And Ralf made me a new CD with my favorite songs of 2008 so as I write this I'm listening to 'Where You Gonna Sleep Tonight' and fantasizing about being a Scottish rock star.

Anyway, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2008

Red Dwarf

In honor of this special day I'm going to treat you to a clip from one of my favorite BBC comedies Red Dwarf. It's about the last human traveling through space with a hologram of one of his old shipmates, a mechanoid and a creature that evolved from the ship's cat.

Anyway, it's not for everyone but if you like quirky British humor give it a whirl:

December 23, 2008

Who killed the electric car?

In the US we place great stock in market solutions and are suspicious in our DNA of anything that smacks of Communism, like government interference with the free market. Mind you, this attitude has recently taken a beating as banks line up for government handouts, but it is part of who we are. If Jay Leno were to ask the average person on the street if the US has a free market I think most people would say yes – or, at least the few who actually understood the question.

Now, as it happens our country also has a rich tradition of government interference in the free market in the form of domestic subsidies and targeted tax breaks but I don’t want to dwell on these because that would require research. Instead, I want to focus your attention for just a moment on another form of free market interference: coallitions.

But first, let me make it clear right now that I am not an economist. I have degrees in international politics and management so there has been some economic study and I wrote my senior dissertation on IMF policy in Mexico, which was very well-received (my professor wrote: ‘Laura – hilarious work! Thanks for making my day!!!’ on it). In graduate school I even studied for a semester with a professor who was so well-known for advanced international economics that he had difficulty remembering mundane things like which way the supply curve goes. But there my claim to economic glory ends and I have to resort to common sense like everyone else.

There is an underlying assumption that if there is a demand, someone will find a way to produce a supply. This is the underlying principal of free market theory. Remember Adam Smith’s invisible hand? Even if you majored in English or Drama you probably encountered Adam in high school but here’s a refresher: Everyone will try to maximize their own economic advantage and it is good for society as a whole for them to do this. Some of you may also remember Michael Douglas’ ‘greed is good’ speech from the movie Wall Street where he dresses down all those corporate fat cats.

So anyway, you get the idea. In a truly free market an idea or product that has a real potential to be in demand, which means people will pay money for it, will inevitably be pursued by business people who, quite properly, want to maximize their economic advantage.

Yes. . . well.

To be fair, Adam Smith has largely proven to be correct. Demand does tend to generate supply and all of us in the first world can go to the supermarket on any day in any season and buy a cheap pomegranate, which (if we disregard the ethical question of whether that’s really a good thing for society as a whole) is highly convenient when you want to make one of those fancy salads with pomegranate seeds.

Unfortunately, bringing a product to market represents the long way to satisfy greed. I mean, it’s work, right? And it may require hefty investment and some personal risk as well. So, if there’s a short cut to satisfying that same greed, Adam Smith’s same law may actually work against the good of society.

How so? Well, what if someone had a working prototype of something people really wanted, like an electric car that doesn’t cost more than a regular car and needs little or no gas to run? Adam Smith would predict that someone would make this car and sell it and if it was successful more people would make it in order to jump on the profit bandwagon. But what if someone with a lot of money really didn’t like this idea at all? What could someone with truckloads of money could do to kill a good idea even if the ‘free market’ liked it?

They could apply economic pressure on key decision makers at companies that wanted to sell this car in order to change their minds. And these decision makers might see a quicker route to the same rewards for them personally...

And there’s the rub: greed only lets you care about yourself, not the thousands of workers that work for you and depend on you to make good decisions, and not the millions of people threatened by global warming.

Adam Smith assumed that people are willing to work for their money. He failed to take into account what happens when greed meets laziness or ethical laxness or incompetence.

The results? A brilliant idea, highly in demand, killed by a few decision makers working together to maximize their own profit. A problem that could have been solved, pushed under the carpet. A huge American company, that could be standing tall and strong today, failing.

Of course, Adam Smith wasn't totally wrong : we all bought Hummers just as happily.

Who killed the electric car? Check this out and draw your own conclusions, which may be different than mine:

December 22, 2008

Power vs. Force

Early in my mediation practice I stumbled upon a book that helped me sort a few things in my own mind, although it is neither a mainstream book nor one that is typically associated with meditation. Ralf and I were on vacation in Arizona without the kids and we spent several days in Sedona, hiking around the healthful red cliffs and drinking in the scenery. Since I went to school in Pheonix for 7 years the dry, stark landscape really spoke to me, whereas Ralf, who grow up surrounded by rolling green hills and distant snow-covered mountains, found it weirdly exotic.

Anyway, Ralf was the driving force behind our decision to join a meditation Sangha and he was on the lookout for spiritual paraphelia like Buddha statues and incense to help with our practice. Accordingly, he dragged us into a psychic's shop too look at polished crystals and clumsy-looking jewelry. Don't get me wrong - I kind of like psychics because they always tell me I have a deeply happy aura, which cheers me up no end. But I'm not a huge fan of the jewelry.

Anyway, this shop had a whole shelf of books with nonsense titles but one title in particular caught my attention: Power vs. Force by David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D. I actually picked it out for Ralf, who was struggling with some issues at work at the time, but ended up reading it myself and getting much more out of it than he did.

I had been questioning what the point of seeking enlightenment is. Part of the search for enlightenment involves loosening the attachments you have to physical things - as at least one guru has put it, it's a bit like practicing death before you die. But it seemed to me at the time that we're all going to die whether we practice or not so why bother? And aside from the pain or discomfort we may feel during this life, does it matter intrinsically if a life is good or bad? Does the universe care? I wanted to believe that the universe does care and that there is an evolutionary force in the universe that pulls us in the right direction but Buddhist teachings seem to indicate that this isn't true, based on their reluctance to call anything good or bad. If nothing is bad, then there's no need to evolve to something better.

As for the other mainstream religions, they've never done much for me in terms of offering a compelling reason to live a good life, although I grew up going to church and you can't beat a good Presbyterian potluck. Even as a child I didn't understand why Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive my sins and why God couldn't just cut to the chase and forgive people without that unfortunate middle step, since he didn't seem to be holding the guilty parties accountable anyway. Generally speaking, God always seemed to be punishing the wrong people, if you asked, say, eight-year-old me, so I guess I feared him and hoped I would not die before I waked and all that, but I didn't really respect his judgement.

Anyway, in the early days of my meditation practice I was looking for evidence that goodness matters in some way. Not because I wanted to run amok if I didn't find the proof I was looking for but because I wanted to believe we're all headed in the right direction, despite evidence to the contrary. And this book gave me some great food for thought.

It is not a book about religion or meditation. It is a book about Kinesiology, which is the study of muscles, and what they can tell us about the human condition. Basically, over decades of conducting repeatable tests on thousands of subjects with consistent results, Hawkins was able to show that muscles weaken in response to 'untruth' and strengthen in response to 'truth.' No big surprise there, lie detector tests can also measure physical responses to lies. But the interesting bit is that the beliefs of the test subject are completely irrelevant.

Think about what this means: We are all connected in some way to some greater truth, regardless of our own petty beliefs, and actually have physical access to that truth through the unthinking responses of our own muscles.

For those in tune with their own physical responses, this may be what we call 'instinct.' Or perhaps 'conscience.'

Hawkins was also was able to calibrate some common emotions such as 'pride' and 'love' and 'hate' based on muscular responses and discovered that some concepts consistently calibrate higher than others. It will probably come as no surprise to you that love calibrates significantly higher than hate, which means that feeling love is life affirming and strengthening for your muscles. But more interesting for me was the reflection that this would indeed seem to indicate a higher purpose - in other words, the universe does care about good v. evil and in fact seems to assign a higher value, or at least more life energy, to good.

The next point of interest is that each of us calibrates somewhere on the unenlightened to enlightened range (your personal calibration can of course change over time) and it is possible to take an 'average' of the calibration of the human race at any point in time. As it happens, one enlightened person calibrates highly enough to hold the fort for hundreds of thousands of normal unenlightened people, which is good because otherwise we would all implode under the weight of our own collective negativity. Each enlightened person also makes it that much easier for others to seek enlightenment, just as the first guppies to hop out of the primordial soup made it easier for others to follow.

According to Hawkins, the human race only recently averaged on the positive side of the scale, which is a great message of hope for all of us. This means that enough folks have evolved from witch-burning haters into reasonably tolerant beings to pull us all a bit higher up the path.

This puts a new perspective on the value added by meditating and seeking enlightenment. It becomes something you do for the betterment of the human race as a whole rather than just yourself.

Anyway, make of this what you will. But consider this:

What if everything you do and think is faithfully recorded in some collective consciousness and from there influences how others think, feel and behave, as well as how high the entire human race calibrates spiritually? What if this in turn impacts our ability to grow, evolve and survive as a species?

If you knew this to be true, would it impact your life?

Now's a great time to think about stuff like that, with the new year coming up and all...

December 21, 2008

Weirdly funny

Tired mommies can probably relate to this.

December 20, 2008

Christmas montage

Isn't snow lovely on those first few days? So pure and white... after about two days it totally sucks. But only five months 'til Spring!

Here are a few pictures to commemorate the Christmas season in our household:

Christmas Crafts
Arielle is very sick
Santa Daddy

Present for Mommy

Sick Bubi
Kitty on the table

December 19, 2008

The light at the end of the tunnel

Well, Ralf ended up not going to Ireland - my sweet husband who almost cooks for me decided his family was too sick to leave alone. K had a nasty cough attack yesterday and it turns out she does have an ear infection but we found a great ENT (referred to as 'HNO' here) who is treating her without antibiotics. He taped some weird seaweed behind her ear and we haven't heard a complaint since. Anyway, after K slept for 48 hours straight without eating a little ear infection seems almost like an old friend.

I had a bad night coughing but today feels better. I haven't coughed once all morning. The girls ate pancakes for breakfast and are upstairs making Christmas presents for Ralf's parents. It's snowing outside, the tree is twinkling and it's starting to look a lot like Christmas.

I am also in better charity with the doctor I went to after an illuminating discussion with Ralf. I asked him why anyone would bother going to a doctor if they weren't in need of relief. He told me that in fact, most people go to doctors with a cold here not to get a prescription but to skive out of work. Well. Who knew a cold could get you out of work? And sure enough, this doctor did give me a 2 day hall pass, which I forgot about in my purse and have no intention of flashing at work, except perhaps for the comedic value. So what we had was a failure to communicate.

The NaBloPoMo theme for December is Thankfulness and I've been much too sick to be properly thankful but I want to correct that now. Things I am grateful for:

Husbands who attempt to make chicken soup for their sick wives.

Brave little girls with green eyes who weather grown up bugs without complaining.

Sweet little babies with big blue eyes who always want to be in on the action - even if the action is zonking.

Purring orange cats who sleep on the dining room table in full glory when everyone's sick.

Frangrant Christmas trees that make it seem like Christmas.

Fluffy snow flakes that are safely outside.

Floor heating.

Family that still love you even when you're sick.

Friends that check in on you to make sure you're OK and think positive thoughts for you.

Christmas cookies.

And the 10 pounds I lost right before Christmas during my bout with the plague, reminding me that there's always a silver lining.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

December 18, 2008

Collateral damage

This morning it seems as if we have defeated the EGV (Evil German Virus). My coughing is somewhat under control and I can get out of bed. K is fit again and ate some cookies and corn flakes this morning. L went to bed with a low fever again but seems normal now and has a good appetite.

But there is collateral damage as we sift through the rubble and we aren’t out of the woods yet. I’ve stressed abdominal multiple muscles during my violent coughing attacks and it feels like I may have dislodged my appendix. And you don't even want to know about my hair. K has developed a new cough and is complaining about ear pain so we may be on the road to an ear infection. L is also coughing fiercely and may be getting a sinus infection. Poor Ralf is exhausted from taking care of us all.

This is by far the sickest we’ve ever all been. The dazzling array of germs and bugs and viruses and bacterium in the Great American Melting Pot never laid us low like this. Must be the weather.

This morning K reported that she dreamed that a boy came to our house and wanted to cuddle with her. She’s five, so this is one of those things that make you go, ‘hmmn.’ She also announced that she likes to eat her buggers, which is more like it. ‘OK darling,’ I said. ‘Just be careful who you share that information with, not everyone will understand.’ She nodded wisely and ran off.

Unless someone takes another turn for the worse today, Ralf is off to Ireland tonight for our company’s European Christmas party. I was supposed to go too and we had planned an extra day just for us but I’m still not well enough to travel and party, plus my girls need me. But he has business there and needs to go, besides he can hopefully get a good night’s sleep tonight if he can escape his needy family for 24 hours.

So that’s the update from Munich. We’re holding steady and I may even be able to get some work done today, which would be good since I have a big design deadline coming up. Thanks to all of you for your good wishes, I’m sure they helped.

December 17, 2008

Death warmed over

I think I finally understand that phrase. Hopefully this is my last posting on the plague that has struck my family down.

Last night I had a webinar that I had to pull myself together for. Desperate to suppress my coughing, I snarfed down half a bottle of cough syrup. The good news is that I got through my webinar without any disgusting and off-putting cough attacks. The bad news is I got a bit drunk and woke up with a doosy of a hangover that made it impossible to determine where my flu ended and my hangover began. I spent the day unconscious in bed and didn’t stir until 4 PM.

K was just as sick as me and also spent the day in bed. She didn’t have a fever and was lucid but all she wanted to do was sleep since Monday night. Once she passed her 36th hour of sleep without eating Ralf took her to the doctor, who said she’s fine and just needs to sleep it off. She roused herself and crept out of bed twice to come kiss me solemnly on the forehead.

L had a fever last night but woke up pretty fit. However, she’s a companionable sort of baby so she crawled into bed with me and slept for 4 hours, just to keep me company.

Our cat’s been loving it – people sleeping all day is totally his thing.

Ralf went out and bought a whole chicken, which he then proceeded to boil for me. ‘I think you can turn this into a soup,’ he said hopefully, poking at the pale, boiled chicken. Then he ran off to catch up on the work he’s been neglecting, while I peered in dismay at the flaccid chicken and our totaled house - toys, books, crayons, medicines, dishes and laundry everywhere. On the bright side, the fact that I was able to notice how messy everything looked seemed like a good sign.

I think we’re sloooowly coming back to life here.

December 16, 2008

German medicine

After we all decided to stay home yesterday I got really sick. Everything hurt and I got this horrible dry cough and it was just awful. The kids were relatively chirpy, which made for an unbalanced combination. Ralf felt I had no business being more sick than him and was annoyed that he had to be the one holding everything together.

German medicine always fascinates me. The packaging is indifferent. Much of it doesn’t work, or at least plenty of prescription drugs I’ve gotten here are less effective than over the counter stuff I can get in the US. It doesn’t taste good – I sampled two cough drops yesterday, one of which tasted like ear wax (and I’m being generous) and the other like bogies with a twist of lemon.

After naps, the kids felt warm so Ralf took them to the doctor. Nothing serious, just a cold, so that was good. Then I went to the doctor and requested Abuterol (asthma spray) because it’s the only thing that helps with dry coughing. Instead, the doctor said I should inhale hot Salbei (sage) tea and wrote a prescription for a EUR 200 electric inhaler device (which I didn’t buy, are you kidding me???) and some Codeine. I was excited about the Codeine, thinking of prescription Codeine you get in the US that knocks you out good, but it turned out to be some sort of lame drops you add to water and drink. It is supposed to suppress your cough, which it didn’t, and didn’t include any drugs for pain or to help you sleep. So I ended up mixing with some US stuff like Motrin and Tylenol, which made me wonder why I bothered going to the doctor in the first place. Oh, and it made me throw up.

It seems to me that doctors are rarely that good, in the US or in Germany. Obviously they have test taking skills but it seems that most of them work by their data points and don’t use a lot of common sense. If a patient comes to you and says they can’t sleep because of a chronic and painful dry cough, wouldn’t you think to give them something to help them sleep and suppress the pain? On the bright side, at least they aren’t all antibiotics happy here like US doctors. In fact, most of them would rather give you nothing.

Today both kids had low fevers and we all spent most of the day in bed – I wasn’t able to get out of bed for most of the morning, no matter how my girls implored me. It’s funny, I’d die for them but I just couldn’t get up for them. Later I felt well enough to give them some proper TLC punctuated by intensely painful dry coughing. K hasn’t been able to eat a thing without throwing it back up but she’s been fever-free and in a pretty good mood. L’s been doing better on the food front but cranky and I’ve had to keep administering Motrin to keep her temperature down.

Ralf just feels rotten but he’s functioning. And I’m starting to perk back up, too. Hopefully I'll be able to tackle some serious topics again in the next day or two...

December 15, 2008

Hats off to single moms

For the last two weeks, K, L and I have been suffering from fairly nasty colds, the nasty German variety that start off not so bad and escalate well past the time when the cold should be gone. This culminated in K’s fever yesterday, which fortunately went down in the afternoon so we were able to hold our annual Christmas party. The other moms, most of whom have been home with their kids for some flu or other over the last weeks, looked understandably nonplussed when we explained why K looked a bit glassy-eyed. But it wasn’t as bad as last year, when K contracted some weird Chicken Pox lookalike virus and all the pregnant women edged away from us. Or a couple of years ago when we invited all our colleagues round for Christmas coffee and poor L contracted virulent pink eye the day of. That was a memorable Christmas party – I spent most of it handing round antibiotic most towels and wiping L’s eye gunk with a wet tissue.

So as Christmas parties thrown by us go, yesterday wasn’t too bad. K was a bit quiet and peaky at the beginning then later she perked up and ran off to play.

Through all of this, Ralf has been strangely cold resilient, although he has gotten to enjoy our colds vicariously as we cough all night in stereo. So imagine my dismay when I woke up unable to stop coughing and he woke up with the flu – which, of course, trumps the common cold, even a bad one.

On an average day I consider my fate to be rather hard during German winter. I am not at harmony with nature and consider the cold weather to be my natural enemy. The kids have to be at school by 8:30 so it’s pitch dark when we wake up, and it seems to take forever to get lunches packed, everyone fed and suited up, ice scraped off the car, etc. I fantasize about the ease of life in warmer climates where you throw on a t-shirt and you’re good.

Anyway, most days I focus on getting kids dressed and fed and Ralf drives them to school but today I was on my own. This means that I had to get dressed, too, and the social conventions that dictate how ratty you can look when you leave the house are a bit stricter here than in my native Los Angeles, where you can either look crappy or faboo and still fit in. Coughing all the while.

So, enough whining about my life, which is actually blessed as long as my kids are healthy (sort of) and happy and we can afford to feed them. The point I want to make is that there are single moms who do this on their own every day. Mind you, most of the ones I know live in California where the warm weather makes a few things easier. But it’s still very demanding to do everything for kids without help every day. On days when I find myself completely on my own my thoughts go out to these remarkable women.

Epilogue to this short story: As it happens, we all ended up staying at home after getting all suited up. I had a vision of dragging my coughing kids into the Kindergarten, violently coughing myself, as seen through the eyes of the other mothers and had an attack of conscience. OK, let's be honests, it wasn't really conscience, since their kids probably made my kids sick in the first place - more like self-conscience.

December 14, 2008

When life gets simple

Life is very simple when your child is sick. The world fades away and there are no deadlines, no errands, nothing that can’t wait. The only thing that matters is holding your child close and imparting comfort.

K was recently vaccinated and went to bed last night with a light fever that’s still with her. It’s worrisome because it’s only the 3rd fever she’s ever had in her 5 years – she had one when she was teething and one bad one with an ear infection, that’s it. But after a quiet morning she’s now feeling well enough to eat goldfish, watch ‘Christmas with Callou’ and laugh at bathroom humor (I said the word 'poop'). Also, she just complained that her apple juice was too warm so I think she’s getting better. My maternal instincts, those strings of the soul that connect me to my firstborn, don't warn me that this is anything very serious and after reading some other mommy blogs this week I am deeply grateful.

But her green eyes look so big in her pale face and a little voice in my head warns me to stay vigilant so I feel her forehead again when I bring her a fresh apple juice. A bit better, I think.

L’s got a cold but it hasn’t slowed her down at all, she's as bouncy and naughty as ever. Yesterday she sat on the Poinsettia, crushing it flat, and to my great surprise, said, ‘Oh, wank!’

My little bubis.

December 13, 2008

Really easy spicy tomato caper rotini

I made this the other night with a few random ingredients I found in my pantry and it was really easy and tasty:

1 package rotini pasta (any pasta will do, really)
4-6 fresh tomatoes
1 small jar capers
1/8 cup Olive oil
A generous dollop of chili oil
Cajun seasoning
Salt, pepper
Parmasan cheese

Cut the tomatoes and let them simmer in a frying pan with lots of oil while the noodles are cooking. After they start to get tender, add the capers, chili oil, Cajun seasoning and salt/pepper to taste and keep simmering until the tomatoes start looking saucy. Drain the noodles and add to the sauce, mix it all up and sprinkle with Parmasan.


December 12, 2008

A Tough Climate

Does anyone still actually believe that coal is clean or that oil will last forever? Or that building more coal burning plants and gas-guzzling cars is a long term winning strategy for the US?

If anyone does still believe this please stop reading now because you are hopeless.

As for the rest of you, here’s some mixed news from the green front:

The Good:

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) officially and unanimously approved the AB32 Scoping Plan, a blueprint which charts the course for reaching 1990 global warming emissions levels by 2020.

Seven Western states (Arizona, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Utah) and four Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario) have followed California's lead by pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions as part of a Western Climate Initiative.

President Obama gets it: "...we have the opportunity now to create jobs all across this country, in all 50 states, to repower America, to redesign how we use energy, to think about how we are increasing efficiency, to make our economy stronger, make us more safe, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make us competitive for decades to come, even as we're saving the planet."

Germany met it’s Kyoto protocol goals 4 years early and as economies go these days, is doing pretty darn well. They’re also doing good things on the auto front – we just bought a Blue Motion Golf V that only needs gas about once a month, so we went from spending about $200 per month on gas to about $50. That means our car will probably pay for itself before we get a new one.

The Bad:

Despite the good, it still isn’t enough. For those of you who haven't yet seen venture capitalist and environmentalist John Doerr talk about what has been done and what still needs to be done, I recommend it.

Coal companies seem to be spending their money marketing coal as "clean" rather than actually making it clean. In reality, not one American home today is powered by a coal-burning plant that captures and stores its carbon pollution. Coal plants are responsible for a full third of America's carbon dioxide pollution, the chief cause of global warming.

The Ugly:

A polar bear in the Nuernberg Zoo just ate her cub. You can’t tell me that nature isn’t seriously out of whack.

The Upshot:

Momentum is gathering in the right direction but we have to keep it going. It's not just about turning off lights and re-setting the air conditioner, although these things help. Let's face it, people aren’t going back to the dark ages where you rode a horse to the next town and read by candlelight. Some lifestyle changes are recommended because mindlessly and voraciously consuming stuff we don’t need isn't good for the soul. But what it really comes down to is having the convenience without the environmental spillover, which means investing in new energy and production technologies. And that will require flexing our political and consumer muscles.

Everyone's busy so here's a list of the easiest things to do, where I've tried to balance level of effort against positive outcome and/or cost savings. My husband has done a lot of research on this topic and each of these ideas has already been vetted by our household.

Join and/or donate to the Environmental Defense Fund or We Can Solve It. Al Gore is one of my heroes, right up there with Tina Fey. So, when he started I signed up right away. Sometimes I donate money to support a new ad campaign and when they ask me to contact my senator or write a letter to the editor I do it. I like them because they keep me informed and make it easy for me to voice my opinion to our political leaders.

Join the Sierra Club – they do good work and will even send you a voting cheat sheet so you know which candidates actually support a green agenda. I love that because it’s hard to figure out from all the political mumbo jumbo who’s actually green. Most rotten politicians aren’t considerate enough to announce that they hate the environment and want to personally kill every last polar bear – excepting Sarah Palin, of course.

Offset your household carbon emissions by purchasing wind credits – it costs a bit more ($15/month for an average family household) but gives the wind power infrastructure a chance to grow and stablize until the day we don’t have to do anything ‘extra’ to get clean energy. East Bay folks can pick up an easy application at Whole Foods.

Offset your auto emissions with Terra Pass. Terra Passes also make great Christmas gifts.

Change your light bulbs and hang your laundry – I saved over $100/month in electricity by doing this. $1200 per year savings will more than offset the minimal additional expense you incur for offsetting your carbon footprint.

Think about what you buy – plastic consumes a lot of power to produce and creates environmental spillover as well. Plastic toys, plastic water bottles, plastic detergent/milk/juice bottles. . . try switching to wood or paper products. Paper isn’t perfect but at least with intelligent planning it’s renewable and most importantly, can be reprocessed.

This is pretty heavy stuff so I'd like to leave you with a joke:

"President Bush told reporters he won't see Al Gore's documentary about the threat of global warming. On the other hand, Dick Cheney said he's seen the global warming film five times, and it still cracks him up." --Conan O'Brien

And one more, slightly off topic:

A woman called her husband during the day and asked him to pick up some organic vegetables for that night’s dinner on his way home. The husband arrived at the store and began to search all over for organic vegetables before finally asking the produce guy where they were. The produce guy didn’t know what he was talking about, so the husband said: “These vegetables are for my wife. Have they been sprayed with poisonous chemicals?” To which the produce guy replied, “No, sir, you will have to do that yourself.”

December 11, 2008

Photo of the Day II: A Cat Called Adolph

I'm sorry if this offends but I can't stop laughing when I look at it.
That poor cat!!! It's gotta suck to look like the most evil person who ever lived.

Photo of the Day: German discipline in action

Found on the "Louvre of Laughter" page of Sueddeustche Zeitung.
Doesn't quite seem natural, somehow.

December 10, 2008

Why Tina Fey is my hero

Another long one... Don’t read this if you are a pod person.

In the 80s I was in high school and it remains my favorite decade. Times were good: The US had finally pulled out of the recessive economy of the 70s and seemed to have once and for all said sayonara to oversized collars, mustard-cum-avocado kitchens and no-country-for-old-men hair. People were happy. Of course, it’s pretty hard to feel down when everyone's wearing bright, baggy clothes, enormous shoulder pads, ankle boots and outrageously upswept hair while listening to Duran Duran. It can be done but you have to really want it.

Anyway, from my perspective the overall tone of the US was positive in the 80s. Life was good and we were the good guys, at least to some people. The only somber note that impinged on my myopic teen awareness was Woody Allen, who stopped making quirky Diane Keaton movies in order to tackle more boring and serious subject matter with Mia Farrow.

The 90s got a bit more serious, fashion got edgier, music offered a more biting undertone and the overall mood in the US seemed to become more conservative and severe. Nonetheless, it was a pretty good decade and even Woody perked up a bit and made a musical although he still had his dark moments. But although times were still good, the stage was being set for future difficulties on the economic, political and environmental fronts.

And sure enough, in the new millennium the US saw the some real setbacks. We saw the American presidential electoral system stumble with a suspect vote count in Florida – and who was governor there again? Following this we saw the judicial branch of our government deliver a questionable ruling about this, and may I point out as a former student of political science that quasi-currupt judicial rulings are never a good sign. We saw hideous terrorist attacks on US territory. We saw the US sell the farm to go to war - against the advice of the international community - on the basis of scanty evidence around who we should be attacking, which later turned out to be false. We saw the US withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol that was signed in 1997 – in fact, we saw the US pull away from the international community on every topic from environment to human rights and erode its good standing as both a global citizen and leader. We saw the systematic erosion of laws that are in place to protect American civil liberties. We saw young soldiers begin to come home and overwhelm the available care facilities.

Other political highlights included dying forests and habitats, gloom and doom predictions from increasingly respected scientific sources, a lagging school system, a growing pettiness and intolerance of personal choice, an imploding health care system, freedom fries, an explosion of national debt (I mean, some increase of national debt is normal when a Republican takes office but this was well beyond the norm), and a meltdown of the greedy financial sector that isn’t over yet.

Wow. Tough decade. On the bright side, Woody Allen teamed up with Scarlett Johansson and started making comedies again.

Which brings me to my next point: the importance of humor in difficult times. All of these things were terrible (and too many of them still are) but for me what really stood out during this decade was when late night comedians stopped making fun of the White House. Needless to say, late night comedy wasn't nearly as funny without the political jokes, since politics were the funniest thing going on during those tense months. But what really wasn’t funny was the erosion of freedom of speech in the US for several years, which manifested in entertainment, business interactions and even personal relationships. It was a time of not saying what you thought because you didn’t know how the other person would react to politically sensitive topics.

So instead of demanding solutions - which would have required speaking out and might have come across as unpatriotic in this humorless political climate - people sought refuge in consumption, buying SUVs, bottled water, imported toys and gadgets, hedge funds and Support Our Troops stickers. Ironic, isn’t it?

Can we blame this on the President? Oh, I’d like to. He certainly played a role in setting the national tone and was a staunch friend to big oil and the folks who want to cut down our forests. But mostly we did it to ourselves. Mind you, it could have been much, much worse but for a while there it wasn’t the US I thought I grew up in because the Americans seemed like different people.

Tina Fey’s hilarious portrayal of Sarah Palin was comedic gold but for me it was more than that. It was as if Tina Fey ushered in a new era that made it OK to laugh again about real topics. She wasn’t the first to bring comedy back to politics (we should also acknowledge the contributions of John Stewart and others to this important work) but she's the one that stands out for me as a tipping point. And what a difference it makes when it's OK to laugh again! I don’t think we’ll be in a position to recapture the happy mood of the 80s for some time but people do seem more at ease with each other, less defensive, more open, than they did a few years ago. And most importantly, more willing to talk about what’s wrong and how to fix it, not just sweep it under the carpet with disapproving, humorless silence. We’ll need this to work together on the tasks ahead.

Don’t get me wrong, laughing is no substitute for taking action. But it helps create an environment of tolerance where taking action can be seen as patriotic rather than unpatriotic.

So, thank you, Tina Fey, for putting the 'mock' back in Democracy!

Oh, and speaking of political action, I nearly choked laughing when I watched the 30 Rock where Tina Fey dresses up as Princess Leia to get out of jury duty.

I wonder if Carrie Fischer could get away with that. . .


December 9, 2008

Conversations with boobies

Yes, I refer to my kids as my boobies. It’s actually ‘bubis’, which is short for ‘bubalah’ (a lovely Hebrew word for Sweetheart), but the Germans use the term ‘bubis’ to describe boys. So I get some pretty strange looks from Germans and Americans alike when I say, ‘Come on, bubis. ’

Maybe I should take a page out of Scarlett Johansson's book and refer to them as 'my leading ladies.'

Anyway, just a short post today to share two conversations I had with my bubis yesterday.

K: Mommy, how old are you?
Me: I’m xx.
K: Were you ever 30?
Me: Sure, xx years ago.
K: Whoa. That’s a lot.

Author's comment: Note the use of the word 'whoa', which I found more dramatically expressive than 'wow' would have been.

Me (to L): Come here, you succulent thing, you!
L: No, Mommy, you’re a sucky thing.

December 8, 2008

Something real

After I ignored his half-serious Blogverbot yesterday, Ralf has weighed in that I should write about something real. And I ask you. Is our child's stuggle to sleep nights without a pacifier not real? Is our insidious dependence on machines and increasing reliance on virtual experience not real?

Although, virtual reality isn't real by definition so maybe that's a bad example.

But anyway, what Ralf would like to see is something to do with the spirit of the Christmas season, such as how we can reach out to those who need help.

About me. In a work situation, where I know my subject, I am confident but drop me down in the middle of a party where people are making small talk and I go hide at the buffet. My charitable actions tend to be anonymous. I sponsor two children, Laura in Bolivia with the Christian Children's Fund and a child whose privacy is protected in Germany through the SOS Kinderdorf. I give the Contra Costa Food Bank $100 at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I make periodic donations to Doctors without Borders and Unicef. But I never actually talk to anyone or engage with them. I don't volunteer at soup kitchens. I don't reach out.

Ralf is different. He likes people. He thinks they are basically good. He is unbiased by appearances. In many ways he is a truly civilized man. And while he is not in the habit of picking strays, and is perfectly capable of walking past someone begging on the street, he is the one who stays behind to exhange a few pleasantries when I drop my change in someone's cup and run off. So maybe between the two of us we add up to one good person. ;-)

One night in Walnut Creek when he was taking the bus home instead of driving in order to avoid putting putting carbon in the atmosphere, he noticed a woman on the bus with a lot of bags. She looked clean but tired and a bit worn and threadbare. When she got off the bus he chatted with the bus driver and discovered that she is homeless. The bus driver is a kind soul that helps her as she can, stores stuff for her, receives her mail, etc. Anyway, this person has been homeless for several years since a physical condition combined with downsizing resulted in her losing her job. Apparently she has no family she can rely on and most of her friends also evaporated when her luck took a downturn.

She is active, however. She is skilled in computers and she volunteers at several organizations, teaching, doing computer work, etc. For this she gets a bit of food and sometimes clothes or something of that kind. She struggles to get enough money to buy food and medication and sleeps outside most nights but somehow manages to stay clean and play an active role in society. The truly ironic thing (besides being unable to find more assistance in a wealthy community like Walnut Creek) is that because she is not a drug addict or a battered wife she is not eligible for most forms of active aid in the East Bay.

It is very different in Germany, where an educated white collar worker can get up to two years of government support as well as re-education in order to help them bridge difficult times and keep them off the street. People take advantge of this, naturally, but in the end this extravagant social net allows them time to get their act together and avoid losing everything, which in the long run is better for the economy.

Anyway, the next day when Ralf saw her on the bus he engaged her in conversation and gave her some money to buy dinner. And since then he has corresponded with her by email and we send her various gift cards on a semi-regular basis - practical ones like Safeway so she can buy food and medicine, and frivolous ones like Starbucks. Each time she thanks us with a loving, effusive email and tells us what a difference it makes to have someone in her life that cares.

Lately something good has happened - the husband of an old friend of hers reached out and asked her to help at Fresh Start, which is a day support center for people in need located in Walnut Creek. I particularly like that they advocate homeless children with the local school boards in order to help them stay in school. As well as offering those daily essentials most of us take for granted, food, a warm place to sit, washer and dryer, bathing facilities, online access and paper.

Fresh Start offers something for all types of charitible impulses - you can donate anonymously or jump in and volunteer. Or you can do something comletely different. Whatever suits your style, 'tis the season to do something that gives someone in need something to be thankful for.

There's nothing more real than that.

December 7, 2008

Wii are not amused

I just explained to Ralf that if you want to be anyone in Blogland you have to do NaBloPoMo, which is an online forum where people sign up to blog every day for one month. He stared at me for a minute as if he couldn't remember who I was and said that if you don't have anything to say you shouldn't blog about it. He probably has a point but since I'm a new blogger I acutally use NaBloPoMo to keep my postings down to one a day as a courtesy to people who read what I write so this doesn't really apply to me. He then forbade me to blog any more.

Anyway, now that he's out of the way I can get back to work on today's blog.

On my recent flight back to California I watched Wall-e, which I expected to annoy me but was actually quite well done. I mean, I won't rush out to watch it again but it was a perfectly good in flight movie. What really caught my attention, however, was the plausible portrayal of human beings in the distant future: obese, immobile, lost in virtual reality and drifting in space after having pretty much destroyed the Earth. Ick. Even babies were packed into floating chairs that restrained their movement and hooked up to the big VR machine. It made my skin crawl, all the more because it's not that out there. Not nearly out there enough.

We are in the process of making a transformation from the information age to the information brain. I'm sure some professor out there has a better term to describe it but that's my term and if you want to see something really cool check out The Machine is Us(ing Us) on YouTube. This video shows us the beauty of the information age but there's a darker side. For example, I have to wonder what the xbox ad team is thinking when they show a smiling child from the front with a scooped out brain replaced by X Box in the back.

By the way, I see the irony of sitting in front of my computer blogging about the evils of the information age to a virtual audience.

A recent article in The Huffington Post 'Man versus Machine' examines the role computers played in the current financial crisis. It's kind of long and pedantic but has some good quotes from smart people about what it all means. And although the fault seems to lie primarily with stupid, greedy people who either failed to understand the risks or chose to ignore them because they were making money, the implication of relying on computer programs that have a billion times more processing power than you is something society may want to put more thought into.

I don't have the answers but before you run out and buy that wii for your kids I'd like to leave you with this final video that makes fun of wii and its role in modern society. It's not quite as hard-hitting as I would like it to be but the idea gets across.

December 6, 2008

The Deed is done

L's Schnully is no more. Yesterday evening at around 7:30 Berndt came by in a felty Nikolaus costume to pass out presents and collect L's Schnullies (pacifiers). K, ever practical, had no issue with the glaring fakeness of Santa - she answered all questions promptly and courteously in order to get her present, then ran off to open it without saying thank you. L, who had taken one last snuffly, sweaty nap with her beloved Schnully after Kindergarten then bravely put all them in a Baby Gap bag for Nikolaus, buried her head in my shoulder and indicated in a sad, choked up little voice that I should complete the transaction. I was feeling pretty choked up myself. K had accepted at face value that 3-year-olds give their pacis to Nikolaus in exchange for a present but L doesn't quite see why a man who brings toys to all the children in the world can't get his own Schnullies.

Anyway, thus we traded away another child's beloved and dependable comfort object in exchange for (we hope) good teeth and better coping skills. I'm fairly certain she'll be sending us the therapist's bill for this one in twenty years.

Why do I think so? Well, for one thing Nikolaus gave L a baby-sized Snow White doll, which she took to at once, making her up a soft little bed and whispering reassuringly that she wouldn't let anyone steal her baby's Schnully. I had to take that one on the chin.

As a special treat L got to sleep in our bed that night. I'm afraid Ralf got the short end of that stick, however, because L snozzled up against him all night, took over his pillow, made loud succulent noises right near his ear and did her best to push him out of bed. On the bright side, I slept great and except for one small accident and a short outbreak of weeping in the middle of the night, L also slept through.

That makes today the first day of L's Schnully-free life. And tonight she is spending the night at her grandparents', where we hope there won't be so many bittersweet associations.

December 5, 2008

I am better than your kids

Year ago this video made the rounds as a Word document and it was funny then. As a video it's even funnier, especially with the Elmo soundtrack. Best of all it's suitable for small children, as long as they can't read. My kids love it!

December 4, 2008

Christmas Fondue Sauces

After my recent Christmas posting, I received a couple of requests for meat fondue sauces so here there are. They are a well-guarded family secret that Ralf's dad's been accumulating and perfecting over years so use them well. And make sure you have bread to mop up the meat juice and mixed sauces at the end!

Curry Sauce
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. curry
1 tbl. lemon juice
Salt, Pepper, a shot of Whisky

Mustard Sauce
1 cup sour cream
1 tbl. med. sharp mustard
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 tbl. chopped fresh dill (or 1 tsp dry Dill)
1 tbs. lemon juice
Salt, Pepper

Cream Cheese Sauce
½ package cream cheese
3 tbs. sour cream
1 tbs. finely chopped onion
1 tbs. minced sour pickle
1 tbs. finely chopped parsley
Salt, Pepper, lemon juice

Herb Sauce
1 cup sour cream
1 tbs. finely chopped onion
1 tbs. Mayonnaise
1 hard boiled egg, minced
Finely chopped chives, parsley, dill
Salt, Pepper, a dash of mustard, vinegar und sugar

Horseradish Sauce
½ cup whipping cream
1 peeled and grated Granny Smith apple
3 tsp. horseradish
Salt and a pinch of sugar

Spicy Sauce
3 tbs. sour cream
1 tbs. Mayonnaise
Hot Ketchup
Salt, pinch sugar, Cayenne pepper or Tobasco
Shot of Cognac

Pink Sauce
4 tbs. unsweetened whipped cream
2 tbs. Mayonnaise
1 tbs. minced capers
1 minced hardboiled egg
1 tbs. Hot Ketchup
Salt, Pepper, lemon juice

December 3, 2008

Sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus

Ralf outed Santa the other day in front of our neighbors' kids. Well, sort of. He actually outed Nikolaus, who is a big guy in a red suit that brings presents on Dec 6th. To help Americans distinguish between Nikolaus and Santa, Nikolaus puts the presents in shoes instead of stockings and comes on the wrong day.

A popular ruse in Germany to get kids off their pacifiers is for kids to give them to Nikolaus in exchange for a present. I embellished the tale by saying he needs them as payment for the elves who make all the toys. This worked great for K, although we have our concerns about L, who is less materialistic than K. This makes it hard to know what sort of gift would make the trade worth it to her and we're expecting a bad week after the hand off.

But to do the hand off in the first place, you need a plausible Nikolaus. We used our colleague Albrecht for K but he's 6'5" with a distinctive voice and now that K's 5 and extremely observant we didn't think it would work. Ralf and his dad are also out, for similar reasons. Annette, alas, is divorced so no hubby to impose upon. So we hit upon our other neighbors, Berndt and Elizabeth, who live across from us and have two daughters that are a bit old to play with our girls. As it happens, they owe us, because Ralf played Nikolaus for them about 4 years ago when their kids were about the age our kids are now.

So, the other evening I sent Ralf over to ask and as these things go, the whole family came to the door in search of action. Ralf made his request, not really thinking that their youngest (who is about 8) could possibly still believe in Santa, sorry I mean Nikolaus, when he noticed Elizabeth making frantic throat-slitting gestures at him. Then Julia, the youngest, piped up with, 'Nikolaus comes on Friday anyway, why don't you just ask him to do it?'

It might have still been all right except for the little matter of the costume. Berndt, who was looking at Ralf, missed Elizabeth's 'abort! abort!' hand signals and asked if he should wear his own costume.

In the end the whole thing was glossed over with those lame parental excuses we all remember from our own childhood, the kind you accept at the time but file away to examine later on the therapist's couch. Ralf slunk home feeling sheepish, as befits someone who blows the whistle on Christmas magic.

Personally, I don't care that much if my kids believe in Santa once the pacifiers are gone. I mean, it's a nice fantasy that I'll keep alive as long as I can but I don't want to attach now that we have two informed older girls living right next door.

December 2, 2008

Meditations About Meditation

Sometime during our California sojourn Ralf and I joined a Sangha, which is a group of people who get together to meditate. Well, actually Ralf joined and I came along to have dinner out with my husband afterwards. I was not looking for enlightenment or happiness or inner peace, as I felt that I already had more or less enough of these things to be going on with. The Sangha leader was younger and more humorous than I had expected and immediately caught my attention by pointing out that most of us don’t have the luxury of pursuing enlightenment in a beautiful Zen retreat. With that statement he differentiated himself from traditional spiritual leaders who seem a bit out of touch with daily modern life. His take on enlightenment (and I’m way oversimplifying here) is the practice of giving yourself some distance from your ‘problems’ by watching yourself react to them. Metaphysically speaking, you take a step back and try to see things more clearly and less emotionally. You do this by sitting still, shutting up and watching your thoughts. Or, as he put it, ‘facing your life.’ This approach is equally applicable in a Zen retreat or a hectic professional life.

I don’t pretend to be a good or even consistent sitter but I am a believer. From the outset I found that my busy mind welcomed a bit of calm and after a few minutes of relative mental stillness it would start to feel as if my brain was tingling. I’m thinking that the brain is so used to being constantly active, hyperactively throwing out scenarios in order to be prepared for any eventuality, that it starts following the same old pathways by rote. We might call that being smart or analytical or professional or paranoid but what it amounts to is that you’re so good at a certain type of thinking after years of practice that you don’t have to put much effort into it any more. A natural outcome of all this repetitive activity is that the brain doesn’t need to develop in new areas because it’s already good at what has made you successful and you’re busy so why bother? Anyway, my interpretation of that tingling sensation is that the brain seizes the opportunity to stretch out a bit as soon as those stagnant old thoughts stop hogging the stage.

OK, I’m probably wrong about this but tingly brain feels pretty neat.

There are undeniable and well-documented health benefits to stilling your thoughts. Just as sweating in a sauna can remove toxins from your body, regularly sitting to calm those restless, circular thoughts can help quiet the poisonous thoughts that harm you. And this process is what over time allows you to create space or distance around your problems so they don’t loom quite so large. And more importantly, your response to them becomes more appropriate, which in turn makes them smaller. We've all experienced how an overemotional response to a problem tends to make it worse. Luckily, the reverse is also true.

My personal example of the ‘space around your problems’ thing happened one evening early on when I arrived at Sangha absolutely furious over something at work. I was vastly pissed off and I didn’t expect to be able to sit still at all, let alone quiet my thoughts. Oddly enough, that was one of my best sittings. I suddenly had this incredible sensation of splitting into two awarenesses, one childish and furious and the other calm, loving and wise. The angry one was clearly me but I was able to recognize myself in the wise one as well, which felt kind of like me when I’m at my best as a mom. As this wise motherly presence I was able to watch my own tantrum with love and patience just as if I were one of my own kids and see how trivial the problem was in the grand scheme of things. It was kind of like when a friend describes some situation that is causing them pain and you are able to see clearly that it’s not that bad because you’re not the one caught up in it. There was space around the problem that allowed me to observe my reaction to it impartially.

This personality split is what is referred to as 'beginner's luck,' where you have a cool spiritual experience early on in your practice and then nothing for the next ten years. It has not happened since and I’m happy to report that although myriad things have annoyed me in the meantime, there hasn’t been anything else bad enough to trigger schizophrenia. But the experience created a lasting impression and a belief that we are more than our little concerns and subjective experiences and that we’d all be happier if we’d treat ourselves with the same love and tolerance we give our kids (on a good day, that is).

I admit that I am not very far along the Buddhist path and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. The interconnectedness of everything doesn’t impress me much as a reason to, say, love thy neighbor (that is, I believe that we’re all interconnected but I still think some people totally suck), and I also believe in good and evil, despite my Sangha leader’s best efforts to change my mind. But the practice of meditation offers some cool takeaways even for us spiritual Philistines.

For example, one of my go to practices while sitting is something that both Anthony Robbins and Eckhart Tolle recommend: I concentrate on the force of life in my hands. That probably sounds corny if you haven’t tried it but think about it: something flows through the universe on a such a microscopic level we can only theorize about it after years of graduate school, connecting everything, holding it all together somehow. This is now accepted in both the spiritual sphere (well, at least by the Buddhists) and the scientific sphere. And the amazing thing is that if you focus your undivided attention on your hands you can actually start to feel that something, or at least a darn good imitation. For some reason it’s stronger in the hands than other parts of the body and stronger still if you bring your hands near each other without touching. It’s not your soul, it’s certainly not your thoughts but it might just be the source of life itself. And the really cool thing is that if I pet my cat after doing this he gets a light static shock so he tends to stay away from me when I'm sitting.

I sometimes wonder what kind of world this would be if we taught our children to pay attention to the life within them instead of how to follow schedules, take tests and manipulate people to get what they want?

Anyway, believe me or don’t, but give it a try. Tingly hands are almost as cool as tingly brain and quite refreshing after hours of compensation design.

And my very favorite thing about sitting? You’ll never guess. It’s the laughter. Sometimes when I’m watching my own thoughts I hear the most fantastic, joyful laughter in my head. It kind of sounds like me but more so. It doesn’t happen often and it’s probably just my own imagined reaction to some silly egoic thoughts I’m having but whoever it is laughing in there sounds like someone I want to know better.

So at the end of the day I keep sitting, hoping it’s me.

December 1, 2008

Quote of the Day: I want a man, not a lobster!

The German equivalent of Netflicks is called ‘’, which suggests something a bit racier than it is. costs more than Netflicks and doesn’t have the same selection but it’s basically the same idea. Recently they sent us a movie we didn’t order: ‘Indiscreet,’ with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It was a bit slow, as older romantic comedies tend to be, but had lavish costumes, good dialog and superior acting. And it had this great line about men and lobsters. If you’re an old romantic comedy buff it’s a solid choice.

November 30, 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

After the excitement of the conference and the whirlwind activity of Thanksgiving we’re enjoying a quiet weekend of hanging at home and simple errands. Tomorrow is Sunday before December, which in Germany is the first Advent day. I’m not so well-versed on the religious history (something Catholic, I think) but you light one candle on the first Sunday, two on the second, and so on. Family and friends come by and there are coffee and cookies. It’s nice.

Soon we will have to get a tree and try to find a spot for it in our living room, which now has all our California furniture. Ralf will pretend we’re not getting a tree this year and I will half believe him and bug him about it and one day he’ll just come home with one. We will decorate it together with the same decorations we’ve used since before K was born. We will play Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby and drink tea and eat cookies. The kids will fight over the fragile ornaments and at least one will get broken. I will sneak off to my computer to check my email every few minutes. Ah, Christmas!

We have other Christmas traditions. For example, we invite all our friends over for Christmas coffee sometime in December. This year was hard to organize because we’re going to Ireland for a company Christmas party but now the date is set. I will make egg salad sandwiches with extra dill because Gesine likes them and Irish stew and everyone will bring their mom’s Christmas cookies (German Christmas cookies are pretty elaborate and no one in our generation knows how to make them). We will crack hilarious jokes about the relatively lame excuses Ollie's girlfriend uses not to show on such occassions. Chances are Kaye will come by to play and I’ll invite her mom over as well, who after spontaneous invitations on L’s birthday and Thanksgiving probably thinks we do nothing but cook for twenty people every night.

We will also visit the Weihnachtsmarkt, which is the Munich Christmas market. Actually there are several in Munich and they offer live music, handmade decorations, various delicious foods and hot drinks and other things of that kind. Each has it's own specialty, like the Flammbrot (flat bread with cream cheese, ham and chives) at Sendlingertor. It’s one of the nicest things about living in Munich.

On Christmas Eve we’ll go to Ralf’s parents for coffee then dinner (meat fondue with 12 sauces) and after dinner Ralf and his mom will play Christmas songs on the piano - badly, but that’s part of the tradition. Then I will play my one Christmas song, 'Greensleeves', which for some reason I can play perfectly with two hands and everything. Greensleeves is the last lonely remnant of my expensive musical education. Then there will be champagne and presents, mostly for the girls, who will be overwhelmed after the first three. Later a couple of Ralf’s best friends whose families don’t do a big Christmas Eve celebration will come by and they will drink and talk about old times. I won’t be able to contribute much – they’ve all known each other for more than twenty years and I wasn’t there the night Ralf stole the car or got drunk and fell down the hill into the poison ivy. But that’s OK because I usually crash and burn by 11 anyway.

On Christmas morning we’ll go for a brisk winter frog march after breakfast, which I will pretend to enjoy but not really fool anyone. There’s a German word for people like me: ‘Warmduscher’, which means ‘someone who takes warm showers.’ In a land where 19 degrees Celsius is considered acceptable swimming temperature this is a fairly insulting thing to call someone and in some situations may be considered fighting words. I prefer the term ‘LA girl’ but it hasn’t really caught on.

After traipsing up and down the winter landscape and getting plenty of fresh winter air into our lungs we’ll head home to relax, which means that Ralf and I will collapse on the sofa and the girls will climb all over us and giggle. It will be annoying and divine.

Another Christmas. We are blessed.
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