Joy, Jokes

As the kids go to sleep I tell them stories designed to be relaxing, and by relaxing I mean boring. Sometimes it’s a quick story about an outdoor family adventure followed by the family eating warm soup, lying down by the fire, letting their heads sink into their pillows, feeling their shoulders getting heavy and relaxed, noticing their foreheads growing smooth, feeling their calves and their ankles growing still, their jaws loosening, their breathing getting slower and deeper, etc. It’s hard for me to stay awake during these stories. Other times, I just drone on about the day’s minutia and tomorrow’s weather. It was during one of these stories that I murmured, “I love you, Frida,” to a kid who was almost asleep, and she, in a terrifically bored, inattentive voice, said, “Good.”

“I love you, Frida.”

“Good.”

We thought it was hilarious. Now, weeks later, about a third of the time that I tell Max I love him, he will drop his eyes to half-mast, slacken his cheeks, drone, “Good,” and then start cackling.

Family in-jokes make my heart sing.

 

Dear parents of new babies,

It will get better. And then it will get great.

Love, Betsy

 

 

 

Kid Stuff

As someone who has killed hundreds of houseplants over the years, I am particularly proud to announce Frida’s 5th birthday. I have fed and watered her every day for five years. At this point she can make her own breakfast, so I think we can chalk up a win in this phase of the project and turn our attention to the next one, “How to Raise A European Who Doesn’t Smoke.” Wish me luck.

Yesterday, Frida claimed that bananas didn’t have seeds (as she was pinching off her banana’s bitter bottom tip.) I explained that if she put the pinched-off part in the ground, it would grow into a banana tree, make bananas, those bananas would have seeds, etc. Frida thought for a minute and said, “What was the first banana?”

Kids react to the emotions around them, so maybe it’s my fault that she was so excited about the next 30 minutes’ discussion of cell division and chromosomes and how single-celled organisms evolved into fish and bananas and birds and monkeys and us.

We as parents want a better life for our children than we had, so by God I’m making sure that Frida doesn’t go off to college thinking that evolution is intentional. (Thanks again to my sister Nancy for taking me aside freshwoman year to straighten me out on this concept. Nothing makes me sound more like an idiot than spouting off about how evolution decided to do something.)

This morning Frida said, “Will you tell me about the fish and the bananas again?”

Better than pie for breakfast, that.

(Although you should by no means assume that Frida is someone who can or will get dressed for preschool without making one of us cry. We might be interested in science but we’re still human.)

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Max is talking and talking and singing and talking. He can say, “Max get straw,” while balanced on a chair, up on his tiptoes, reaching into a cupboard. He likes to choose what he will wear (hint: it will be red.) He’s an excellent snuggler and will eat all the persimmons you give him. He has been having more frequent heart problems – episodes of tachycardia and some other times that he cries and says he feels yucky in his chest – so we’ve scheduled some more testing and are always packed for an ER visit. This also means that he’s not travel-ready, so he didn’t come with me and Frida to Colorado for Christmas, and he won’t go on January/February’s ski trips. Tobias and I started feeling sad about that and then remembered that Max is three, so maybe a fabulous ski vacation in the Alps wasn’t going to make his top-10 list anyway. Taking a ride on the subway, followed by a hot chocolate in his favorite pajamas, takes up #1-8 on the list. #9 is pressing elevator buttons and #10 is being allowed to join Frida’s ballet class, which I will start lobbying for after his birthday in February. Max isn’t going to live forever; if he wants to spend his time on Earth in a red tutu, I’m going to help him make it happen.

 

Lookin’ Up

As I enter the second half of my life I find myself less motivated to fine-tune my language skills, preferring to focus on getting across the main idea and finishing off my message with gestures and (admittedly clownish) facial expressions. I might get the article’s gender wrong when I order my coffee, but if I still get the coffee who cares*?

 

*Germans.

 

My indifference certainly applies to German’s fiddly rules about genitive/dativ/accusative, but it also applies to English. I was just abut to look up the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, but then I realized that a.) I was going to forget the difference again fairly soon anyway, and b.) knowing won’t change the effectiveness of my communication. When I shout, “Jesus gay, people, RUN! There’s a stalagmite about to drop on your heads!”, you’re not going to look down, are you? You’re going to scan the ceiling and run like hell.

 

(OF COURSE I looked up stalagmite just now! Otherwise the joke wouldn’t work. Also, I was right – stalagmites grow up from the floor, stalactites grow down from the ceiling. Now we know. Doesn’t that feel good?)

Planned Parenthood, NWAC, Deb

My first boss, Deb, was amazing. She was kind and fierce and wise and competitive and compassionate and beautiful. She knew when we needed a champion, when we needed a lecture, when we needed a smile. She was absolutely clear, in word and deed, that she would fight for what’s best for people. She believed in our work, and showed us the difference our busy clinic made to our community and to our client’s futures.

When she told me that she had a special task for me, a job that needed my careful attention, I was so proud it felt like my heart was bursting. I was 23. The job was filing forms. I did it perfectly, grimacing with concentration even though I was pretty confident in my knowledge of the alphabet.

I spent the next 15 years at Planned Parenthood, filing ever-more-important forms, happy to be fighting the good fight the way that Deb taught me.

When I hear of churches that don’t allow female priests, I think of Deb and how much they’re missing. When I despair over Donald Trump as President, I remember Deb’s leadership and realize that middle management makes the fucking difference anyway.

It means so much to me to have Deb in my life now, even if it’s through Facebook and 5,000 miles. It chokes me up to think that I’m in her life, too. Thanks, Deb, for 10 months of direct supervision and a lifetime of pride, and hope, and love. You are amazing.

Good Ideas, Executed

Frida has been having the good idea lately, as Hamburg slips into winter rather frighteningly fast, to light candles in the pre-dawn breakfast hour. Ah, she says, nice Christmas feeling.

She’s right, puttering around the kitchen is wonderfully cozy with the candlelight reflecting off the still-dark windows, but I’m afraid our holiday pre-game has been triggered dangerously early. Today, October 19th, I made the kind of eggnog that has eggs in it and I didn’t even bother scaling down the batch to single-serving proportions. We’ve been drinking winter-themed peppermint teas and it’s not yet Hallowe’en. I spied the season’s first panettone at the weekly market, made fun of the vendor for having them way too early, walked away and didn’t even get to the next stand before doubling back to buy it. At this rate we’ll have put on our winter weight by early November, and we’ll be sick of the smell of cloves and nutmeg before Thanksgiving.

That said, when you feel that you are ready to stock your fridge with holiday cheer I highly recommend this recipe:

http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-homemade-eggnog-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-214298

And if you’re not ready for a nutmeg-scented glass of cholesterol-diabetes-salmonella roulette, at least try the candles. Turn the lights off after dinner, light some candles, snuggle up in the cozy semi-darkness for a bit, and watch your loved ones flutter to sleep at a satisfyingly early hour.

Too Many Teeth References

Often, when I make a minor mistake in the daily grind of food acquisition-prep-consumption-sanitation or in the larger household organizational scheme, I wonder if high-level spies make the same mistakes I do. Having perfect aim, excellent command of Middle Eastern politics, and the ability to keep a secret under extreme pressure doesn’t necessarily mean that you always remember to take the laundry out of the dryer before it gets wrinkly, right?

I imagine the spies, devastating in their James Bond tuxedos or perfectly unremarkable in their eavesdropping camouflage, spilling coffee on their computers, forgetting to buy replacement vacuum bags or, worse, buying too many. I imagine them putting flimsy plastic takeout containers in their dishwashers and wondering if they’ve just BPA-poisoned themselves, or starting their phone call just as they step into an elevator. Maybe they, too, occasionally find an unmarked USB stick under the couch. (No worries, it was just a conference freebie. Whew!) Maybe they, too, circle frantically in their rental car, trying to find an Italian gas station that takes credit cards. Maybe they, too, bite into unripe bananas and have fuzzy dry teeth for hours afterwards.

If you’re a spy, tell me: are you always on time filing your taxes? Do you get your teeth cleaned as often as your dentist recommends? Do you remember every password to your media/banking/Amazon accounts? Did you update to the latest OS without losing everything in your calendar? Do you actually meditate in the last 5 minutes of the yoga class instead of just lying there? Do you use all of the spinach before it gets slimy?

I understand that you can’t tell me HOW you stay so organized – secrets are secrets – I’m just wondering if it’s possible.

Stolpersteine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Frida sounds out letters, makes them into names, makes them into people once again, the Stolpersteine. One she hasn’t seen is hers: her name, misspelled with an extra E; her end, miswritten. (It has to be.) It is on the West side of town. I saw a picture of it on the internet.

The Stolpersteine are everywhere. Outside the tennis courts, in front of the orthopedist’s office, two doors down from the nursery. They are in fancy neighborhoods, in poor neighborhoods, in my neighborhood, everywhere. These neighbors had so many neighbors. The whole city lived next door to a Jew. The whole city! How could they let this happen? How could so many people – millions – let their neighbors be taken away?

I thought that Jewish people lived in Jewish ghettos and that the ghettos were emptied into concentration camps. Incorrect. The Jewish people were not concentrated before the camps, they were everywhere – a part of the fabric of society. There were seders, and menorahs, and dreidel in a living room on every block in the city.

Our name is beautiful in German. What a shame.

Now there is our little Frida, a Rosenbaum, reading so well that I have to tell her father not to brag about it. (It is so easy for her we cannot possibly take credit.) She eats her pumpkin, she carefully breaks eggs right over the middle of the bowl, she is tall and strong and incredibly serious for a four-year-old. She speaks three languages fluently, she likes walnuts, she says fish is her favorite food. When she sits in the sun and reads names, she is delighted. “Otto Spiro!” she says. She listens carefully when I tell her about the dead people and the awful war. (We say awful war because we are not born knowing about war’s intrinsic horrors. When we are four and lucky we have to be told that it is awful.) Frida listens, she thinks, she moves on. Five minutes later she is lobbying for ice cream after dinner.

Late that night she wakes up with her first headache.

It is sad to remember the Holocaust, and sad to teach my daughter about it. I feel lonely here without my people; in Germany I am a stranger in large part because my family had to leave or die and it is difficult to come back after so many generations away.

I was so ready to fight before I had kids. Convinced of my convictions, angry at the neighbors for letting their neighbors go. I was, am, shocked at how personal the murder of strangers can feel.

Now, in these sad-proud-sunny-happy moments on the sidewalk with Frida, I am grateful that I’m so focused on a complex, profound, life and death topic that is not Max’s heart or his interrupted brainwaves or his chromosomes. Max’s problems are an unhappy accident rather than deliberate cruelty. Being reminded of that makes helping him more joyful, less depressing. This is the best I can do: with him, with the Stolpersteine.

stolperstein-frieda

Good Point

Frida : The world is my what?

Me : Oyster.

Frida : No, thanks.

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I am a novice face/arm painter but there’s nothing like carefully following the instructions on a YouTube video to make you wonder if you have some natural talent.

spider-paint

Warning: Not To Scale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hint: the secret to dramatic spider shadows? Black eyeshadow and not wondering which direction the light is coming from.

Based on the reaction I’ve gotten so far here in Hamburg, I will not be repeating this on my face as planned. Reactions range from disdainfully raised eyebrows (husband), to quietly ignoring it (friend), to saying “Wow” several times and then asking when I will wash it off (Frida). Max, for some reason, looked at it worriedly and then asked for a cupcake.

Obviously, I am grateful to have an overnight kit during an emergency stay at the children’s hospital. I am grateful for the toothbrush, the toothpaste, and the 29 contact lenses.

29, though? Can I trade 27 of them in for some face cream?

It’s lovely to think that Tobias assumes I achieve this state of radiance through will alone. It is less lovely to look in the mirror after a night of cot-at-the-bedside hospital sleep to find that my eye cream is really, really effective but only if it is used.

Happy upcoming 40th birthday to meeeeeeeee!

Seriously, though, folks, Max almost died yesterday and it was sad, scary, and tiring. He had a prolonged episode of tachycardia so we went to the emergency room at the children’s hospital but the reversal agent didn’t work. They tried it again and again it didn’t work. The third time it did work, but between the first and the third time I went from calm, seasoned mother of a kid with a chronic condition to a person who’s watching her son die on the table in front of her. To the outside observer this just meant that I stopped cracking jokes but on the inside I was like GIN! Now I get it! Homelessness after coming home from a combat zone? OF COURSE because trifling bullshit is trifling. Who gives a shit about loan deadlines when you know what this kind of pain feels like.

Luckily, this sensation lasted only a moment and has since been treated with sleep, an afternoon of cheerful chatter from 4-year-old Frida, and some very good Chinese chicken soup. Also gin, but mixed with blackberries and selzer and at a very moderate dosage. No worries, friends, I’m as uptight about deadlines and social conventions as ever.

 

E.T. or Baby Jesus?

E.T. or Baby Jesus?

 

Ciao, Italia, Ciao, Bella

The movers are here packing up boxes and I’m looking very officious and busy as I type this. (Better than continuing to get in the way.)

We are sad to leave our friends here, our patient babysitter, our hard-won transition from subjects to recipients of local gossip. We are, however, leaving a town where most of the pigeons have deformed left feet from inexpert banding. Creeeeeeeepy.*

Poor Max has been having a new heart problem, severe enough that it requires starting a thrice-daily medicine and frequent ECGs. He’s putting up with it admirably, pretending that his mobile heart monitor is a phone and calling everyone he knows. His little heart gets up to 240 bpm for 30 minutes at a time, high enough for his pediatrician to start crying in her office when she saw me understand.

We are glad to get back to the great pediatric cardiologist in Hamburg, and grateful for the expedient care we’ve received here. If I were my week’s schedule, I would be looking a little bruised from the thrice-weekly trips to the children’s hospital in Milan. Luckily, I’m not a schedule, I am a person with friends and family who are happy to cook and ferry and Google for us in a time of need.

It does feel a bit, though, like the power supply at my career’s cold storage facility might have had a failure, and I am at risk for what the pharmaceutical world calls a ‘temperature excursion’. I know I’m stressed this week even though I ain’t got no job, but please, career, don’t die on me. Also, don’t come back to life as an Italian Pediatric Cardiology Translator because although we’re muddling through, communicating life-changing facts and decisions in my fourth language does not feel like my greatest strength. (Picture me holding up my hands this far apart and saying, “This bad? Or this bad?”)

Next up: arriving in Hamburg, unpacking, doing the round of Max’s German doctors, evaluators and therapists, and reconnecting with friends for a few days before heading to Colorado for a much-anticipated 6-week collapse at the Rosenbaum farm.

I cannot wait.

*for me. Fuuuuucking nightmarish for the pigeons.