Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cell Phone Future

Ryan got her cell phone the other day.

It's a really old model, about twice the width and length of what most of us are carrying around nowadays; kind of like watching a rerun of an 80s sitcom and noticing these really huge phones the characters so proudly pull out of their handbags. Ryan's phone is 5 years old; Damon and I used the dual set when we first came to Germany, before we had a permanent place of residence and a home phone number. (I know, I know, those are terribly old-fashioned too; turns out I'm an old-fashioned girl after-all, in regards to technology if not to ideas.)

It was a big deal - for me and Damon anyway. The day before, Damon went out and got a third (fourth if you include the home phone) number for the family, a prepaid phone card, and instructions on the whole deal. Can you imagine the amount of phone numbers that will be attached to my family of six within a few years? I'm assuming we'll get rid of the home number at some point, but by then we'll NEED tattoos to remember which phone number goes with which kid.

It reminds me of a twin scene from Harry Potter, an exchange between the Weasley twins, Fred and George, and their mother. "Honestly Mom, can't you even tell us apart?" they tease. I imagine calling for Aidan. "Hello, Aidan?" "Honestly Mom, can't you even keep the phone numbers straight? This is Andrew...and I'm not even one of the twins." "Oh, yeah, well, sorry then, my mistake." (Befuddled, looking askance at the phone, kind of scared to just start pushing buttons, still not really sure WHERE the address book function is found.) "Would you mind sending a quick SMS to your brother, reminding him to pick up some pizza on the way home?"

Like that'll work. Looks like we'll be eating a lot of spaghetti.

Turns out you can program numbers into an address file. This means you don't ever have to remember them. Although what happens when you lose the phone - or lose power, world-wide, forever, which I still fear can happen, much the same way I still don't trust power windows because what happens if the car DOES carreen off a bridge and into the water, and the electricity goes and you can't open the doors and you need to unroll the windows by hand to get all four children to safety?

You can see how I am never going to buy completely into this technology thing. I trust my hands; my actual physical being. I find it hard to trust something invisible - and at times unreliable.

So Damon and I spent the evening going over the cell phone. When I asked him to write Ryan's number down on a sheet of paper, you know, something I can tear off the grocery list and hang, tattered and torn, from the corkboard...he had the nerve to turn around and take Ryan's picture, before saving it - and the number - in the address book on my phone. Just like Troy and Gabriella. I didn't even know my phone could take pictures! Here I am thinking we're too poor to own the technology everyone else seems to have and it turns out I've had it all along. I'm just too lazy to learn how to use it. Or too stubborn to admit it exists.

I was really concerned the following morning as Damon taught Ryan to use this new technology. I mean, she had to know how to turn it on, how to find the number, how to dial......and turning it on is really really really hard. You know, you have to push the button for a really really really long time before it works. And then those endless function lists - I know I certainly don't know what they're all there for. And finding our number in the address book? She hasn't even taken algebra yet. What were we expecting?

Remember when you used to have to open the child-proof medication bottles for your grandmother when you were a kid? Turns out it's just like that.

Ryan came home after barely a little over 4 hours of owning the phone, the phone having spent most of that time in her schoolbag, off. She not only had figured out the on/off function on her way home, she had dispensed with bothering to phone home and learned instead how to get into the game menu. Game menu? I didn't even know it HAD one of those! She spent the better part of the afternoon playing games on the phone, until she decided it was time to figure out how to get the music working. Music? REALLY? My guess is it takes pictures too. Who knew?

Damon tells me that the new cell phones are coming with built in GPS systems now. This is technology I can appreciate. I swear, I heard some American military mothers the other day wondering how the heck people found their way around Europe before GPS systems. "Google Maps," I ventured to reply. "" I was too embarrassed to mention that we still had some maps in paper form. That you could go to AAA and get a detailed route of your voyage, complete with paper maps. Another mom told a story - true - about finding her way around Paris with a paper map. "Yeah, it was unbelievable, I really knew where I was going." she said, a little in awe of her own ability to master this ancient technology.

Now we never have to know where we are going anymore - until the little voice tells us that we've arrived. If only I could remember where the hell it is I want to go. Or does it matter, as long as I can take a picture of it and Twitter to all my friends that I've been there, checked it off, bought the T-shirt.

Ryan got her cell phone the other day.


These kids are dragging me kicking and screaming into the future.

Humor an old lady; please let me bring a paper and pencil along to document the journey.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Oh Mother!

I am a mother.

I am not a piece of furniture, a place to rest your head, a source of refuge, a security blanket, a cup holder, a provider of food and beverage as well as various articles of clothing, a pack mule, a place holder, a trash can, a hand, face and nose wiper, holder of the kleenex.....

Oh, who am I kidding?

We all went to the International Motocross in nearby Holzgerlingen the other week. I don't get to watch the races much; see the list as to what I am invited along for.

For one brief moment, I was able to lay on my back on the grass, eyes closed, for what passes as solitude in my current existence; motors roaring, you take what you can get. There were no kids around for a second.

I opened my eyes to find a tall, lean, good-looking blonde man in his early thirties looking down at me. (True story. It was actually rather disconcerting.) "Hello." he smiled, eyes certainly twinkling at me behind his trendy sunglasses. "Do you mind watching my bag?"

I give up. There must be a sign tattoed on my breasts. "Mother," it says "the source of all things."

I like to think other women are taking care of my men when I allow them out alone.

It got me to thinking though. Honestly, if men were REALLY running the world, I mean REALLY running it, managing the grocery lists, the household chores, the kids' school schedules in addition to their "real" job, I think the world might actually be a better place. If more chaotic and messy.

Hear me out. I mean, even Obama, darling of the free world and one of the most powerful men on the planet, admits in his book that his wife still yells at him for not putting the butter away. This man is in charge of the largest armed forces in the world, and he can't remember to clean up the kitchen. That's not cute. That's insulting.

So, if it weren't for Michelle, and all of the Michelle's out there, getting food on the table, buying winter jackets, taking the car in for it's 30,000 mile checkup, keeping vaccinations up to date and all the rest, I'm thinking the world would fall apart. Peacefully. Daddies everywhere would be too busy trying to figure out how to coordinate the Tuesday soccer/ballet carpool to even bother trying to invade another country.

Then again the American military has been doing it without any real strategy for years now.

I tried my own strategy for world domination - or at least a little peace and quiet - the other day. Nobody was really thrilled with the lunch I had whipped up, admittedly rather hastily. (Am I the only mother on the planet whose kids don't like spaghetti?) When Andrew came into the kitchen half an hour later to ask for a granola bar, I gave in. However, when Aidan heard the wrapper and came in too, I also asked Andrew to get one for his little brother. By the time Andrew had opened one for Matthew as well, he just looked at me in exasperation, gave a deep sigh and said, "oh Mom, those two are just too much sometimes."

Welcome to my world son. Let's change it together!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More Than Handy

Call them what you like. The USA has cell phones, the British use mobiles and the Germans call them Handys. I just looked, it's telephone portable in French and telefono celular in Spanish.

I see kids texting and playing games with them on public transportation. Disney's "High School Musical", the first movie, has Gabriela and Troy taking eachother's pictures with them before programming in their numbers. This is technology I don't yet get. And if you don't know who Gabriela and Troy are you're in worse trouble than I am. Also I wonder, do girls still give out the wrong number if they don't really like the guy?

With all the hype about the amount of time teenagers nowadays spend online - that they interact more through typing to one another than through actual one-on-one face time - I really wasn't in a rush for my daughter to join the crowd. When she asked me for a Handy two Christmases ago I blew it off as a child's fantasy. MAYBE when she was 12. Or 13. I mean, what does she really need this for?

I'm sorry to say I've been forced to change my mind. And it's not the status quo or peer pressure this time either. It's that damn black Mercedes, popping up in Altdorf again year after year for the past three years. Not sure til now if it was just an urban myth, or suburban housewife overexaggeration, the man has now apparently attempted to physically abduct a young child at the local supermarket in nearby Holzergerlingen. He was thwarted by a grandmother who noticed the child's struggles and went over to help. But he may be the same man who has physically molested - and later released- a child in Stuttgart. And there is another child missing.

Am I hysterical? I don't know. I do know that we left the USA in part because we felt life would be safer for our kids here in Germany. Only to learn that a small boy had been found dead in neighboring Weil in Schonbuch a little over ten years ago. And then the school shooting in Winnenden, 40 minutes away.

To be honest, we have it pretty good. There are no land mines in the neighboring fields. Military planes aren't dropping bombs. There is no invading army at the border, no military dictatorship. We have food, education and freedom.

And now Ryan gets a cell phone. An old one, with no games or camera or texting capabilities and with a 10 Euro pre-pay card. Only to use in case she ends up stranded at school without someone else to walk home with her. (Andrew's crew stays together, but the girls tend to be less reliable.) Between the two evils of cell phone versus walking home alone, I choose the phone. She is to call.

I'm betting my mother will be sending her more pre-paid cards - and her phone number in the USA - within a week.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sorry, We Broke Your Kid!

Damon and I broke a kid the other day. No biggie really. Nothing that a Saturday evening trip to the emergency room couldn't fix. Three stitches. He'll be up and walking again - with crutches - within a couple of days.

The only problem being that it wasn't one of our kids we broke. Oops.

I hate returning something I've borrowed in less than perfect condition. Although this isn't as bad as the time I dropped Babette's copy of Amy Tan's "The Opposite of Fate" in the tub while I was reading it. I ordered her another copy through but she preferred the old, now wrinkled version with an interview of the author in the back. So did I.

I dropped Lennart into the tub too - gently - to rinse off the wound and apply pressure after Damon handed him off to me at the top of the steps, blood streaming from the bottom of his foot. Our neighbor, a paramedic, confirmed the verdict - "Yup, stitches." - and then we ALL piled into the car to deliver the news - and Lennart - in person.

Lennart's dad and mom were cool about it; they have an older son too. The more kids you have, the more immune you seem to become to their injuries. My friend Nicki's son , the oldest of 4, came up to us on the playground earlier in the week after falling on a stick - with his EYE. After briefly making sure the eye itself was not injured we proceeded to watch the two small cuts grow into a nasty bruise over the next two hours. "Think of how cool you'll look at school on Monday." we said. Nine years ago I was crying because I'd allowed Ryan to bump her brow on the changing table - first blood. As we added Andrew the rule became "no blood, no foul." Since adding two more it really has to be enough blood to be convincing. "I'm bleeding Mom." "Yeah - how bad? Can you apply pressure to it for a minute? I'm on the phone with a friend right now." The kids know where the band-aids are.

Of course, this wasn't one of MY kids.

And we are all worried about the effects this will have on our soccer team; Lennart is the other goalie for Altdorf. Lennart wondered if he'd get to use crutches for the first day of school on Monday. (Turns out he did, making him the hit of the school for that morning.)

I wondered what the other moms would say when they heard. "Oh Lennart? Yeah, you know they say he cut his foot on a piece of glass playing out back in the creek while he was visiting the Connor's." "It figures." My guess is they'll be wondering what the heck we were doing letting the boys play barefoot in September.

I wonder if I'll be allowed to host any playdates after this.

And I'm wondering what I can do to get out of the bake sales too!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Billy Joel's song keeps going around and around in my head. "Pressure." Just like we played it over and over again the first year of college.

"But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you'll have to deal with

But who would have thought that that place was your children's first day back to elementary school after summer break?

Honestly, these people are nuts.

I announced my new "no stress, no pressure" policy while walking over to the church for the traditional start of the school year mass. The other mom looked at me like I was crazy. But had I noticed that the teacher had left something off the list of things we needed to buy? She was sure we'd need a large cover for the large German notebook. She was getting it this morning. Would I like her to pick me one up as well. "No," I said. "If the teacher finds it important she'll let us know." In the meantime I figured Andrew was able to write in the notebook even if it was missing the proper cover. "But everyone knows that German is red, and it's always been that way and....." she went on.

Later she worried that she had let her son label his notebooks himself this year. Last year she had typed his name onto tags and stuck the tags on herself. On one hand, she figured, the children ought to be encouraged to do these things on their own. On the other hand, she worried, he had very messy handwriting and was still having trouble with the X in his name and she wasn't sure how damaging it was for him to see those messy notebooks day after day.

I am not making this stuff up.

When I announced, to a group of moms in front of the church, that I had learned math on regular lined paper, and that I thought three separate notebooks, one with no vertical line on the right hand side, one with a vertical line on the right hand side and one with two vertical lines on both the left and the right side was overkill, I drew blank stares. "I know. I know." I said. "Ordnung muss sein." After all, I am half German too.

But it's more than a penchant for neatness; it's the necessity of placing everything in it's proper place, of putting everything in order, of following certain rules. It's called the status quo and we have it in suburban households everywhere. But it's a damaging part of the German character. Germans may not like the rules, but they will follow them. Right down to that proper notebook cover in second grade.

Even though I felt it was all ridiculous, and have vowed not to take part in it this year (or ever again), I still felt the pressure. Later, when a friend asked me what I was planning to cook for lunch this afternoon, I honestly answered that I wasn't sure yet. (It was 9 AM.) She didn't understand. "No, I mean today's lunch. What are you cooking?" When I mischievously replied that I might just let the kids eat cold sandwiches, the way we did in the USA, I swear THREE mothers turned around to look at me in disbelief. They think I'm making this stuff up.

Die Aertze (translated as The Doctors), a German punk rock band, sum it up nicely. "Lass die Leute reden." Let'em talk.

Not to care what other people think - it really is dangerously liberating.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Pants Of Shame

Matthew came home from kindergarten on Tuesday with FOUR pairs of wet clothes in the "bag of shame."

This is a term freely stolen from my friend Holly, whose daughter came out of our kindergarten one day two years ago wearing this horrible, 1970s, very German, pair of rainbow colored striped jeans, a pair that Ryan and Andrew had worn home often enough in their potty training days. She laughingly called them the "pants of shame" because it was just so obvious that whoever came out wearing them had NOT made it through the morning dry.

I have since discovered - mostly through Matthew - that there are a variety of pants of shame - and that they come with socks, T-shirts - and even pink flowered girls underwear if you wet yourself often enough to start deleting the stock. You should have seen the look on Damon's face when he saw Matthew in pink underwear.

Funny thing is, shame only works if you let it. (For the record, Holly's term is a joke, and the kindergarten isn't intentionally shaming the kids either. They just have a rather horrid selection of second-hand clothes.)

Matthew certainly doesn't care about the pink underwear. And now that I've decided to give up things like guilt (I swear, I shook it off in yoga class the other day!), and anger and shame - well, the clothes my kids come home in don't bother me either. Honestly, if I am going to let a pair of soiled pants ruin my day, I might as well give up now.

I'm learning that it's not about being perfect, it's about dealing with it as it comes.

Other signs that I am learning not to care about what other people think:

1. I let the kids go home from the pool with wet hair (within reason; in the winter we use the hairdryers a bit and then make sure everyone is wearing a hat or hood - or in some cases, a towel over her head - on the icy way to the car.) They also run around in wet bathing suits - a big German no-no. No signs of the bladder infections or kidney disease this is supposed to cause and they have fewer colds than most kids I know whose mother's dry their hair. I suspect a strengthened immune system. See #4 below!

2. My kids are the ones running around without jackets on when everyone else's are wrapped up in hat, scarf and mittens. Or wearing mittens in April.

3. I'll wip out a bag of cookies at the playground when everyone else is feeding their children peppers and cucumbers.

4. Damon and I used the "5 second" rule in Legoland the other day when Matthew spilled the 3 Euro bag of lego-shaped french fries on the ground while in line for the train ride. I briefly thought of the dirt, and of what the others in line would say, and then I thought of the 3 Euros for 15 fries - and we scooped them right up and handed them back to Matthew. Gross. I wasn't going to eat them, but....noone in line said a word, whether out of shock, understanding or because they attributed it to the fact that we were American.

HAVE YOU NO SHAME? No, I'm glad to say I gave it up this summer.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

She's Back! (Parenting Ryan)

"Life is good." Both kids were wearing new T-shirts and sporting a summer tan when they arrived home last Sunday. Ryan came slowly and shyly through the front door, first up the stairs but pushed aside by Andrew's exuberant sprint. They both were full of stories of family and friends they had met in the USA, on Damon's side dozens of young cousins we hadn't yet met and didn't know to place with which parent. Lucys and Logans, Cole, Ryan, Jade, Jax and "oh yeah, those came from Lily's Grandma." Okay, and Lily is?

They had a world of their own and they were perfectly comfortable in it without us. "What kind of parents are we that we send our kids away for a month and they don't miss us at all?" asked Damon. "Good parents with happy, confident kids." I replied. They were at home without us but then slipped right into home here again too. (I'd been a little worried that the grandeur of the USA would make them see Altdorf for the sleepy little farm village it is, but no, the thrill of society at the local pool and the allure of the village soccer team still held sway.)

Andrew was just the same but I felt like I had to get to know Ryan all over again.

Little did she - or I - know that I had changed too. In subtle ways, but firm ones. You see, it turns out that I have found myself. At least a little piece of me anyway. Without the chaos of four young personalities swirling around me, the constant needs of two young infants and the demands of two older ones, my own personality was beginning to emerge again after a 3 year shock- induced coma. For over over two years after the twins were born, I simply coped and carried on. The kids thrived; I survived.

But now I was beginning to breathe again.

I'd also forgotten what it was like having Ryan around. You see, she's so quiet and unassuming in appearance that you forget the monster will lurking within her seemingly innocent charade. Nine year olds. OH YEAH! Vacation was definitely over.

I couldn't believe she already had my hand imprinted on her left thigh after only 26 hours.

It started innocently enough - my innocence. We were visiting the Bebenhausen cloisters on Monday afternoon when Andrew asked if he could sit in the back of the VW between the twins. (We'd used the smaller car all summer while the older two were gone.) It seems my previous blog on entertaining older children was as true now as before the summer; Andrew wanted to go home and play soccer with his friends and Ryan was just bored and pissed she had been forced to come along. In the meantime, seating arrangements for the car ride home were first priority.

Ryan had already sat in the back seat twice, wedged in with a lapbelt while Andrew rode in the front. Grandpa and Damon had the 7 seater Chrysler to themselves, but it was fun. I liked having all my kids packed in around me like sardines! But it seemed only natural - again to me - that the older two should take turns in the choice back seat between their brothers. Ryan made a big stink, but my word was final. After all, I am the mother here, right?

Half an hour later - we were walking and biking back from the Bebenhausen cloister - Andrew pedalled back in tears to tell me that Ryan had spoken to the twins about the seating arrangement and coerced the two of them into taking her side. So she was sitting in the back and he didn't think that was fair. From innocent summer back into the reality of older children. Wow. But wait, wasn't I the mother here?

Back at the car, I calmly continued to override Ryan's objections. Mostly because I'd forgotten how hard that can be to do. She cried and screamed and physically resisted. And then she sat in the front seat next to me and pouted. Loudly. And I thought, "Wait a minute, I don't feel like dealing with this shit anymore. This is unacceptable." My hand came down on her left thigh in a brief burst of - let's face it, appropriate - anger. And then I calmly but firmly asked her to get out of the car. I opened my car door - and she stopped. Just like that. Either I got really lucky or she could sense that I really was going to let her out of the car. I am sorry - no, I'm not - I just am not dealing with shit like this anymore. (Damon was in front of me, both of us pulling out of the parking lot, so she wouldn't have remained abandoned on the road side for more than a few seconds.)

As a parent, I realize it was only one battle, but I'm hoping to win the war by just refusing to get into it. (Maybe I should direct American foreign policy, but that's another topic.) As a pacifist, I still left a mark on my child's thigh, but I figure anyone with older children will understand the difference. I'm not proud of the mark, but I am proud of the calm that descended on us all when I just refused to fight.

We drove to Weiler Huete - our favorite summer Biergarten - where Ryan spent over an hour pouting next to the car while the rest of us sat outside to eat. But there was no pall over the meal, no lingering unhappiness or sense of doom. We had fun and Ryan was forgotten. She had made HER choice to be miserable and I had made mine not to be dragged down by it. I was remembering that I had no choice in her behavior, but also learning that I had a choice in my response to it.

It is WAY easier said than done. And we're only a week into it today. But I think the key is that I didn't see Ryan standing at the car as an appropriate punishment, something she deserved through her bad attitude or her behavior. It wasn't a need to "show her the consequences of her actions." All of that just seems spiteful to me now, not worthy of a loving parent, just another muscle game of a powerful parent over an essentially powerless child. I wasn't punishing or proving anything; I just refused to go to war.

I get it now. She doesn't want me to rule over her. (I believe they call it democratic parenting, something I don't yet 100% believe in.). This house is NOT a democracy, or even a republic (do you remember the difference from highschool history?!); it is now officially a "kinder, gentler nation." (Tell me I did not just quote Bush Sr. - where the heck is that from?!) Ryan will be Ryan. And Christine will be Christine. Two women in a housefull of men. Like two cats warily circling eachother in a household full of Labradors.

Ryan did eventually join us at the table, smiling and cheerful and all traces of resentment forgotten. A happy ending, but only because my happiness did not depend on it. Ryan is back. So am I. Life IS good.