Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Okay, I saw this T-shirt in a shop window on the Hauptstraße and wondered, wth? At first I thought it was some idiot attempt at English and then I decided to research it on the web. Turns out this phrase is quite popular in Deutsch; it's considered highly amusing and is often plastered on T-shirts. It translates loosely to "Caution: When you get on my nerves, I will put you down the drain, close the lid, and you will never come back to the daylight!" It's interesting how often you hear a hybrid of English and German spoken here in Heidelberg; they are incredibly fluent, though their grammar is sketchy.

Frailty, Thy Name is Mother!

I've had one of those weeks: the kind that make you feel like a total failure as a parent. Looking back, I would say the vast majority of my parenting experience has felt like a failed experiment, and I've only been a parent for 5 years and 4 months. My son has been in trouble at school this week because he showed his penis on the bus. Most parents would keep this information in-house, but I'm going to broadcast it, because, well, it's just funny as hell; And I want other parents to know they aren't alone, kids do some very embarrassing crap. My son and one of his friends thought in their 5-year-old brains that showing their butts and penises would be hilarious. One of the little girls on the bus didn't find it hilarious, and went home to her mother, who called the school principal, who called me in. And what am I to say? I mean really, when I relate this story to grown men, they just laugh, because apparently this is hilarious even when you are an adult man.
This isn't the only embarrassment he's caused me recently. A couple of weeks ago, we were at the dentist, and when his Korean dentist spoke to him in her heavy accent, he replied rather irately, "Speak English!!!" Of course, she was speaking English. I wanted a hole to open up in the floor so I could crawl in and die privately of embarrassment. Thinking about it later, I realized his reaction is the result of living in a foreign country and having people speak to him in a language he doesn't understand. He's already really tired of hearing German and feeling like he's on the outside of whatever is going on here. I'm tired of it too, if I'm being honest.
These two anecdotes alone could serve to prove my failure as a mother. Why haven't I trained him better? Why haven't I coached him on proper behavior; why haven't I foreseen the situations he would be put in and all the possible actions he would take? Why? Because I can't. Because we never know what our children are going to do until they do it. And that's the beauty of parenting children; they are these incredible amazing layered trifle dishes, each dip into them reveals new things. I've finally realized I'm not responsible for all the impossibly varied personality traits and quirks. And I really want to glory in this diversity and the surprises my children present.
This spring I took a class called "Life Writing" in which we wrote personal essays and then workshopped these pieces. I wrote an essay called "Mommyhood" which I've since re-titled "The Job That Took Over My Life" (I'm going to post this essay when I have a chance to type it out here on the blog). This essay was met with such resistance by the female population of the class that I was shocked and dismayed. The essay was meant to be humorous, a meditation on how motherhood has changed me; it was snarky and sarcastic. The first line is, "I hate being a mom." This was supposed to set the tone for a sarcastic look at the woes of motherhood, but the women in the class were horrified. How can you hate being a mom? How can you admit such a negative emotion about the highest calling women have on earth? Even the women in the class who are not mothers attacked me with vehemence, which I found both amusing and absurd. I was really hurt by the reaction, but it was a good experience for me, because my workshop experience is limited and I needed to be reminded not to take critique so personally. I've pondered the polarizing effect my essay had in the class (the males were immune to the rage; they thought the essay was funny and accurate) and my conclusion has been that women take mothering very personally because it says something crucial about their selves. A woman sees motherhood as more than an identity; she sees it as an expression of her innermost self. The child becomes a mini-me in which to mirror my finer points. The problem is when the child disappoints, embarrasses, loses. If you've ever seen the mom who is gussied-up at the mall with her toddler daughter in tow, wearing a matching outfit and gaudy lip-gloss and nail polish, you know what I'm talking about. If you've ever seen the agony of a dad on the sidelines of any sporting event when his son makes a crucial mistake, you know what I'm talking about. If you've ever seen the shame of parents when their teenage daughter gets pregnant or they find out their son is addicted to meth, you know what I'm talking about. They way we react as parents is so crucial in these moments. If we see our kids as mini-me's, our self-image will be shot. And our parent-child relationship can be damaged for a lifetime.
For me, I'm slowly learning that I have to be my own person with my own life and my own interests, or I can so easily fall into the trap of obsessively living vicariously through my children. I'm also learning to let my kids be their own divine little souls, with their own spark of fire, entirely unique to them. And when that spark flares, and embarrasses me, I try to remind myself of all the ways I embarrassed my own parents, and all the times they graciously ignored the little fires I set.
Blessings upon you, Mom and Dad.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Rhyming Part

I've never been afraid of giving.
As a small child I would sit in the back
of our wood-paneled station wagon and sing
to whoever would listen. I can dream, seem,
beam, reem, feem, deem. I'll sing, ring, ling
to the ding dong fling!
O, how I'd sing!
Until the day I sang to my sister,
You're a bad meanus, renus, lenus, penis!
And then my mother said I must STOP!
I didn't know what I'd done wrong.
I was only sharing my heart in song,
and so the rhyming part crawled back
to its hole and shivered. It waited
a few years and crept out again on the page
of my first diary. This time it sang about a boy.
The words were all wrong and overused,
all cliché and confused, but I didn't care
for they sang my secret joy, gave voice
to my delight. Longing felt less lonely.
Every once in awhile, to my chagrin,
I feel the urge to rhyme again. It's not
very mature, I know, and I fight it
until I'm lost in the music once more.
The future seems less unsure; The past
a little less regrettable, unforgettable,
terrible. It is redeemed and bearable.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The couple in the corner booth stares off into space,
they exchange no words, speak to the server when spoken to.
She texts rudely under the table while he stares into his glass
sadly, visibly relieved when the food arrives.
Chewing is such a goddamn relief.

They are so cliché, if they only knew.
So forty-something and plain, so slightly overweight,
too rich to be happy, too childless to be fulfilled.

At the bar, the lonely blonde leans in, breasts grazing the counter,
she fingers her hair and nods her head, forgets what she's said yes to.
Forgets what her heart longed for when she was twenty-two,
forgets the dream of a husband and baby to hold, reaches out
and strokes the thigh of a man who will never love her,
never see her after her apartment tonight.

It's kind of pathetic, really. And a better woman, a righteous one,
walks by outside the window pushing her stroller and dragging
a toddler smothered in a babygap sweater. She forces a smile,
nervously begs her boy to behave and coos to a crying baby.
One day all the pressure will reveal tiny cracks around
the edges of her eyes. Her husband's fat paycheck won't stop them.

I go home, watch a movie, escape to fiction where fact plays out.
Sadly see myself in the actress' bit part.

The last thing I wanted was to be so stereo
But this is what I've become.
So don't come to my door
Cry foul or ask what for. Wait.

Wait and you'll see me carve myself out of this old plot line.
I'll be brilliant, I'll be the author, far better than the star.

I'm working on the screenplay, in fact.
(You're the bitch, and I'm the whore)
I'm busy! I'll say with a grin
to the buzz at the door.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My German Life: The Player Stops Playing

Have you ever grieved for something that you never had? It's a strange feeling isn't it? Like mourning the death of a person you never knew, and who therefore never died. Sometimes I grieve for abstract concepts. The one I'm yearning for right now is authenticity. I feel like I've noticed a lot lately the lack of this quality; people seem to spend a lot of time avoiding honesty. I was walking to work the other day (substitute teaching at the high school) and a man walking the sidewalk in the same direction asked me how I was. Such a common question, "How are you?," often said in passing and without the expectation of a reply. I didn't reply, because he was a stranger, and this is Germany, and Germans mostly just ignore each other on the street. Besides, it was early for me, and I'm never sure how I am before noon. But the stranger persisted, "You know, I ask people how they are, and they don't reply because they think I don't really care to hear the answer, but I do want to hear the answer." I laughed and reminded him this is Germany, where strangers do not speak. We fell into easy conversation then and parted ways at the kaserne gate, I feeling lighter somehow. The authenticity of his approach to connection was really refreshing; it is so rare to meet someone who actually makes you feel like they care, about this day, about other people, about life.

I noticed this disparity of authenticity when I was subbing that day at school too. Something seems to happen between 9th grade and 12th grade; there is a mysterious falling away of optimism. I taught various classes and grade levels that day, and I noticed the stark difference between the silly but endearing excitement of the freshmen and the moody ennui of the seniors. Whereas freshman boys were sitting in girls' laps and making inappropriate comments to the substitute, the senior guys were self-conscious and silent. The girls had changed from talkative flirts to pensive emos. Honestly, the seniors bored the hell out of me. I had a blast with the 9th graders, because they had not yet learned to self-edit their thoughts. They just said whatever they were thinking to whoever would listen. I pondered this difference all day and came the conclusion that too many heartbreaks dot the landscape of high school. By 12th grade, students have learned to believe their ideas don't count and their feelings are unpredictable and often destructive. Who teaches them these things? I suppose their parents and teachers are somewhat at fault, but mostly the problem is each other. Humans can be so ruthless to each other, and this ruthlessness seems to flourish in high school.

So we learn to self-edit. To say what we think others want to hear. I think back over 2009 and realize how much I've honed my own talent for omitting the truth. I've found that as my beliefs have changed, my authenticity has waned, because I know my audience, and my audience will not embrace my changes. And that begs the question, Am I an actor playing to an audience? Am I simply speaking the parts, delivering the expected monologue, wearing the required expression? I don't want to be an actor. I've never longed for dissimulation. I want very much to always be aware of my true self and honest about who I am. I'm done mourning. I want to walk into 2010 wide awake, aware, desirous of authentic connection with others, and willing to do the hard work of being real. Do it. You will feel better :)