August 30, 2009

Pimp My Crab

I finally joined my gym instead of paying for each visit. It's time - they've been gently hinting for about it for eight years. It had become a matter of pride to resist but I'm over all that now because I've discovered an aerobics class I like. I knew if I waited patiently it would happen for me.

I’ve lived in Germany off and on since 1998 and have noticed that although the nature of life is change, some things have more permanence here. For example, the same people still work in my gym year after year. This could never happen in the US, at least not West of, say, Utah. And although I haven't quite learned to think of these people as friends, I have at least come to regard them as people I recognize.

And now I can take aerobics classes.

K's birthday is next week, which is a bit of a bummer for her because most of her friends are on vacation. Yes, it's the great annual multi-week German summer family vacation, which takes place regardless of economic circumstances.

The German economy is in better shape than the American economy, even after propping up the rest of the EU as well as East Germany financially and paying off various debts of shame to other countries. This is mainly due to higher taxes and lower levels of extravagent and unnecessary consumerism but interestingly, personal debt tends to be a bit high.

I attribute this to the annual 6 week vacations in Ibiza taken even by the unemployed Germans in our acquaintance but hey, who am I to judge?

Anyway, K wants a hermit crab for her birthday. Yes, really. Now, if I were one of those organic cotton wearing moms who try to wean their kids off Disney princesses and interest them in boring unpainted wooden toys instead I would totally get this. As it happens, however, I have no idea where it comes from. Still, if my baby wants a hermit crab, a hermit crab she shall have.

We researched the matter a bit and discovered that hermit crabs are surprisingly popular pets and people actually decorate their shells. So this is what she's getting for Christmas:
Yeah, baby!

August 28, 2009

On books

My German book club is reading a book called 'Hawaii' by James Michener. Unfortunately, it's one of those epic books that start with way too much color commentary about the dawn of creation when the tectonic plates were shifting. Although I haven't been able to get past the first two pages, I did leaf through the book sufficiently to form an impression of hundreds of pages of horrible things endured and committed by an enormous ethnic cast across multiple generations, punctuated by really boring dialog.

I ask you: Who needs it?

At the moment I am reading Cafe Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, who also wrote The Flanders Panel. So far I am intrigued but a bit baffled by his esoteric similes, such as '...a youthful expression, like that of a cartoon rabbit in a dead-end street.' What the hell does that mean? Or: 'In literature, time is like a shipwreck in which God looks after His own.' Excuse me??

Arturo. Don't try so hard.

G recently posted a list of 100 books people claim to have read. How do your own reading habits stack up?

Be honest, now.

Instructions: Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read and a * after those you loved.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen -X**
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien -X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte- X**
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling -X***
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee- X*
6 The Bible- X - parts, anyway, but wow is it boring
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte- X
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell- X
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens-X
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott-X
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy-X
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller - X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare - yeah, right, the complete works?
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien-X
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger- X
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot - X
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell - I tried but failed
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy-X
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams- X*
26 The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner - guy book
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky- depressing git
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck- X - or in Chinese, 'The Angry Raisins'
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll- X
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame-X
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy- X**
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - not sure
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis -X*
34 Emma - Jane Austen-X*
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen-X*
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis-X*
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne- X*
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell- X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown-X
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez-X
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving - X*
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery-X**
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood -X
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding- X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert-X*
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons-X*
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen-X*
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon - X**
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens- X
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley- X*
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - Mark Haddon- X
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez- X
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding-X
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville- I started it and quickly realized I'm more of a Jane Austen girl
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens-X*
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett-X
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante - X - had to read it in HS, bit pointless I thought
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray-X*
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens-X
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro - X
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White- X*
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - X*
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery-X
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams- X good but sad, I liked Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm better
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare- X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- X
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

So, I've read 54 of these, of which I really liked 23. What does that mean?

August 26, 2009

C is for Chicken

Before heading back to Germany we were invited to barbeque with friends who keep chickens. I've always liked chickens and wouldn't mind keeping chickens myself some day but that's neither here nor there.

After we'd arrived and were thoughtfully supplied with beer and finger food our friend regaled us with the tale of how he'd had to kill one of his chickens the day before. I won't go into detail but apparently the creepy story of how they run around for like, ten minutes, after you chop off their heads is totally true.

'Why did you kill it?' I asked, watching uneasily as his wife wandered by with a plate full of raw chicken.

The answer: 'She had a nasty abscess and was starting to dig into it with her beak. She was basically eating herself.'

So glad I asked.

Friend: 'So we had to kill her.'

Me: 'Oh, totally.'

A short, thoughtful pause.

Me: 'Er. . . that wouldn't be the cancerous, self-mutilating chicken on the grill now, would it?'

I had to know.

Friend: 'Naw - we ate that yesterday.'

I think that was a joke.

Me: 'Um. Where are the children?'

Friend: 'Petting the chickens.'

Well, that's OK, because cancerous chicken tumours and self-cannibalism aren't contagious, right? So I too went off to pet a chicken before dinner, a fine red hen that I coveted for my own. She was very soft and I felt as one with nature as I held her and covertly inspected her for strange growths.

Oh, and we also learned that you can put live chicks under a broody hen while she sleeps and she'll raise them as her own. If she doesn't kill them. Who knew?

OK, Sara probably knew.

So, you now know as much as I know about live chickens.

August 22, 2009

Going back to...?

So, when we flew from Munich to California I was going back to Cali. . . I suppose now I'm going back to Germy. Or, as the Spanish call it, Ale Mania, which if you think about it is quite a good name.

Yesterday I enjoyed one last perfect American day: worked til 5, picked up the girls, fed them, played with them, put them to bed, fed Ralf, then channel flipped between Friends and Seinfeld episodes until bed time with a glass of wine and a bowl of cherries.

Ah. It'll be a bit different once we're back in the GMT time zone.

It's been a good summer, all in all. Even the Episcopal preschool the kids attended was great, although some of the hymns the girls dragged home have been a bit disconcerting. I have to believe they just sang it wrong and the Lord doesn't actually steal cars or babies. And since I haven't attended church since childhood I prefer the more agnostic hymns, such as: 'Zippety doo da, zippety A, thank you for our food today.'

I can totally get behind that because it's grateful without committing to any one supreme being.

So, one last Saturday to shop, pack and visit friends and then we fly tomorrow.

I'll check back in with you next week. Have a great weekend!

August 18, 2009

B is for Backpack

On Sunday we took a homeless person to breakfast. You can read about how we met Renee here, although please note that Fresh Start turned out to be uninterested in helping homeless people and she's no longer working there.

Renee is a nice person that bad things have happened to. Although she has been homeless for more than 9 years she's clean and neat and looks like any other resident of Walnut Creek - except for all the bags she has to carry around. An accident leading to nerve damage resulted in her being unable to work regular hours and despite her various volunteer activities and personal initiative nothing has ever resulted into a paid position or any substantial help.

In her own words, because she's not a druggie or illegal immigrant, there's no support system for her. Even her cleanliness is against her - when she goes to the local church for help, where she used to volunteer teaching computer basics until the recent service cuts in public transportation, they tell her they need to save resources for people who need it more.

Her own words have also gotten her into trouble. She has written passionate letters to directors of various charities and groups she has worked with, telling them how they're missing the boat on giving people what they really need. She criticized the local police for harassing her and got fired from her column. She's a vegetarian so soup kitchens don't work for her. Etc., etc., etc.

Still, as she tells her tale of one disappointment after another you find yourself wondering how people can be so unhelpful and uncaring.

At breakfast she nibbled toast and sipped tea, unable to eat more. She shared some details about her past and daily challenges, which were very hard to hear. For example, the social security agency recently declared her dead and has to restart the process on claiming the benefits she's already been fighting 13 years. She has no way of gathering the documentation she needs of employment history, bank accounts, etc., to complete her application. The lawyers she has contacted to help her navigate the process have all said that her case is too complex and refused to help.

You get the idea.

I felt pretty helpless. I mean, it's not like we can set her up in a condo and pay all her expenses or make someone hire her. And we can't give her back her health or change the social security administrative rules.

So we asked her what we could do and she told us that she needs underwear and toiletries as well as a new backpack, because the decrepit old computer bag she's carrying around now is on it's last legs and isn't big enough to hold everything, which means she has to carry several bags in addition to her heavy backpack.

That's why yesterday before work found me at Target carefully selecting light, servicable undergarments and toiletries (yes, people, I finally bought some new underwear, but not for me). And yesterday evening found Ralf and me at Sports Basement being consulted by a wonderful salesperson named Aaron on backpacks.

Aaron also has a homeless friend - I guess that's the new thing in this economy - and spent about an hour helping us find the optimum backpack for durability, lightweight, and compartments. When he found out why we were buying the backpack he also threw in several waterproof bags and gave us 20% off.

The point I'd like to make is that both compassion and lack of caring are contagious. You can't fix everything for everyone but sometimes there's something concrete that you can do to help. And you might find unexpected people pitching in to help you do it.

Thanks, Aaron.

August 16, 2009

One More Time With Pictures

Since I apparently don't have a bright future waiting for me as a lawyer or politician (see following post) I've decided to post some vacation pictures instead. Read all about our vacation here.

August 13, 2009

A is for 'Are you kidding?'

I've decided to borrow the alphabet memoir idea from Charlotte (sort of, since this isn't a memoir), starting with the letter A.

I was driving home from a playdate yesterday when I spotted an older man (at least 60) holding up a sign that said, 'Obamacare is unconstitutional.'

Well, duh, Mr. Medicare, any policy that has not yet been passed into law is technincally unconstitutional. Although as Lawyer Mom pointed out this is not technically true. . .

But I bet you wouldn't like it too much if the tables were turned and the funds dried up on your socialist health care.

So, let me just say that I'm not a lawyer, nor am I particularly informed about the current health care debate. In fact, I'm one of those lucky people who has decent, albeit expensive, health insurance so I'm naturally skeptic of anything that will benefit others that I have to pay for. But I'm also a Democrat and I watched President Obama in a AARP Town Hall meeting and a couple of things he said made a lot of sense:

1. US health care costs are way more expensive than just about anywhere else, including where medical insurance is 'socialized' and supplemented with taxes. Hmmn.

2. US health care costs are going up at such a dramatic rate that pretty soon no one will be able to afford insurance and we'll all be in the same boat.

3. Uninsured people who can't afford to take care of themselves cost us all money when they show up in the emergency room.

*Note that although countries where there is only socialized medicine tend to have rotten health care, countries that have tried a hybrid of public and private (like Germany) offer very high quality health care. It's expensive for individuals and companies but the overall debt is much lower and in many cases the quality of care higher. In fact, sometimes a doctor will even take a culture or try alternative medicine before prescribing antibiotics instead of prescribing them for every cold. But if you need it, you get the full enchilada with x-rays, medicine, follow ups and time off from work. And for privately insured people, little or no waiting.

Clearly something needs to be done in the US to combat rising health care costs and at least the President is trying to tackle the issue while it can still be tackled gracefully, which we should have done with alternative energy a long time ago. I'm not sure he's going far enough if we really want to cut costs, however. For example, I'd like to see premiums based on overall health for one's age group, so if a 20 year old is an obese smoker they should pay more than a fit 20 year old marathon runner who eats lots of leafy greens.

I also wonder when someone will finally address the issue of triaged care. In other words, do you spend your money saving a child or keeping a 90 year old smoker on a breathing machine for two years?

I'm just saying.

But triage is a dirty word so I guess we'll just keep pretending that we can afford to give every single person unlimited health care without making anyone take responsibility for their health.

And anyone who says otherwise clearly wants to set up a bunch of death camps to turn old people into pies.

PS I'm looking forward to a 'death panel' skit from Tina Fey.

August 11, 2009

Waikiki for $10 a Day

We're back! And we actually made it to Hawaii. Not that there were no bad moments flying standby (for example, my ticket was in my maiden name and the only ID I still have with my maiden name is my totally fake looking German driver's license) but everything worked out in the end. Pictures will follow when we get back to Munich and have a chance to download them.
The vacation kicked off in Los Angeles, where we visited my 90 year old grandma as well as my aunt and uncle. We also hit Disneyland and after paying nearly $300 to get in forced the kids to stay until closing. At the end L was crouched on my back like a sack of wet flour crying about all the noise while we watched the final fireworks over the magic castle. You can't buy memories like that.
Then we flew (standby) to Honolulu and spent 2 nights with my mom before moving to our own place in Waikiki. Please note that overdeveloped Waikiki would not have been our destination of choice without the kids but with the kids it was a good bet because we had a kitchen, a pool and were right on the beach. We also had my mom's car and a great view of the nightly Hilton Luau.
During the day we traipsed about looking for cheap entertainment for a family of four (with a three and five year old) and here is what we came up with:
Swimming in the pool - K just learned to put her head underwater and L is unstoppable with her water wings so this was a great - and free - fallback plan. Ralf stared at me in shocked amazement as I executed a perfect dive into the pool, swam two brisk laps, did a fancy handstand and flipped onto my back for a liesurely float.
As I floated up to him I could see him searching for words, which he finally found:
Ralf: 'You can swim??'
Me (slightly offended): 'Of course I can swim. I'm from LA. I was on a swim team for 3 years.'
Ralf: 'We've been married for eight years and all of a sudden you can swim???"
Me: 'Well, sure, in warm water.'
Yeah, I still got moves you ain't seen yet, baby.
The shopping bus - A tour can be quite expensive but the Waikiki shopping trolley takes you from Ala Moana shopping center to all the main hotels for only $2 a person.
The Hilton Luau - Free from our balcony and not much worse seating than cheap opera tickets.
The boat that takes you to the submarine - The sub ride costs $300 for a family of 4 BUT the boat out to the sub only costs $7 per person. Rount-trip.
Feeding the birds at the Buddhist temple - $1 per bag, a bit more than tuppance but hours of fun.
The Honolulu zoo and aquarium - Free because my mom paid, thanks mom!
Coloring wet wipes with pens and dressing up Sheep - Free if you already have the wet wipes, pens and sheep.
Pineapple fro yo at the Dole plantation - Not sure because Ralf paid but pretty cheap.
Making hand prints on papa's sunburn - Priceless.
Riding the escalator up and down - We really got our money's worth out of the hotel escalator, always a kid pleaser.
It wasn't exactly relaxing but it was definitely quality family time and I didn't touch a computer or think about work for two weeks. I even forgot all my passwords! We arrived back in SFO last night and after a spot of difficulty getting into our borrowed house are comfortably settled for the final two weeks of our stay in California.
I only have two more weeks to get everything done here so I may be a bit spotty until we get back to Munich but I'll check in as much as I can. . .

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