Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cry, Haiti

Heard they are reviving the USA for Africa song "We Are The World" written by Michael Jackson in order to raise money for Haiti. It is fitting.

But as I look at the lyrics, lyrics that seemed so perfect to me as a young adult, and that are still beautiful today, they just aren't able to fill the enormity of the loss this time around.

"There comes a time....when the world must come together as one.'

"Love is all we need."

"And their lives will be stronger and free."

Tell that to the woman my friend Laurie met in the rubble of Port-au-Prince this week, the one who comes back to where her home used to stand in the hopes that God will return to her just one of her family members who died in the quake. She lost her husband, all four children, her sister and three cousins.

All four children.

And she not only still believes in God, she's still talking to him.

How are lyrics going to make this woman whole again?

How is bread going to make her want to live?

We owe Haiti international relief, long-term development and a sustainable economy. We owe it to them, and we owe it to ourselves, because Michael does have the right idea.

"There's a choice we're making. We're saving our own lives."

But what can anyone do for someone who really HAS lost everything? Does sitting here at the computer ignoring my own four children help? A new home? Electricity and a sewer system? Educational opportunities and a chance for economic advancement? Port-au-Prince as a sustainable, renewable energy-based, ecologically sound role model city of the future. Pretty words and promises.

Makes us feel pretty good about ourselves too, doesn't it?

But I cannot imagine anything that will ever, ever, EVER, make up for this one woman's loss.

In Laurie's own words, "All I could do was hold her and let her cry."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Puzzle Pieces

My friend Lori came up with the answer last night over pizza.

"You see, people in a society fit themselves together like puzzle pieces," Lori explained. "And, if through the process of personal growth and discovery, your puzzle piece changes shape, well, they just don't know what to do with you anymore."

Oh. It's that simple. And here I was making a big fuss over it all.

I just don't fit in.

Well, thank goodness for that!

I can only apologize to all of those I had fooled all this time. I looked like a puzzle piece, I acted like a puzzle piece, I did all the things that puzzle pieces are supposed to do. I tried to pretend, especially to myself, that being a puzzle piece was what it was all about and that I really wanted to be a puzzle piece.

So it really is all my fault that the rest of the puzzle pieces don't know what to make of me now that I've decided to be Playdough.

Playdough is messy. It has no form, no specific plan, no instructions on exactly what you are supposed to do with it. It comes in bright separate containers, the colors all nice and clearly defined. But the more you play with it, and the more creative you become, the more the colors stick together and the uglier and messier it gets.

Once you start with the Playdough, it will never go back neatly into its properly labelled containers.

My apologies for getting sticky all over your carefully constructed puzzle.

It's a hell of a mess to clean up.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Me First?

At first I was angry. But now I really want to know and understand.

What made that man who pushed in front of my family at the restaurant on Sunday (who knew you needed reservations at Wienerwald?!) so certain that his needs were so much more important that ours?

I honestly feel that this question lies at the heart of the human condition. It is the reason the mice built earth in the first place. (You would have to know - and appreciate - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams to understand that last bit, but it is my blog and I am feeling quite clever, so I am leaving it in.)

What made this man feel justified in placing his needs before ours? Did he feel we were less important, less worthy, less hungry, stupid for waiting? How could he smile at us when we were seated right next to them less than a minute later? He showed no guilt, no shame, no remorse.

Does he not have a conscience? Assuming that he does, how is it that it can work so differently from mine? Does he lack respect for, or awareness, of anyone besides himself? In the extreme, this is considered a psychopathic disorder, this ability to not feel for anyone else.

Just as disturbing to me is the large number of people - the hostess and wait staff, the other customers and HIS WIFE - who also saw it, rolled their eyes and then did nothing about it. I might be able to understand the staff, who have jobs to protect. Even the wife, although Damon will confirm none to happily that I do scream and yell and make a fuss when I feel he is being rude to someone. (In his defense, he is usually standing up for us.)

I am tired of having to defend myself constantly. It's not only Germany - two people cut in front of my sister at the deli in Arizona the other day. And she is nine months pregnant. (Not only is that rude, but downright dangerous!) But it does happen here a lot more than I remember in any other country I have lived. (One positive thing to come out of the earthquake in Haiti is the pictures and stories of neighborhoods and strangers helping eachother in spite of their own dire need.)

Since Sunday I have also had to fight for my spot in a step-aerobics class on Monday night, and this at the local community center where everyone knows eachother! The interesting part is, and what I find different from the USA, is that when you stand up for yourself, the offending person backs off immediately, with a smile. There are no hard feelings. It's as if they know they are wrong.

It's almost as if, in the USA, the people who do things like this truly ARE assholes. You call them on it and they are ready to take you on. It gets ugly. Here, people just seem to do it without thinking. It is part of the culture. (Although I still think this is a really lame excuse.) They aren't assholes. They are actually NICER to you once you've reprimanded them, kind of like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar who then try to make nice to the person who caught them.

Often they act as if they just hadn't noticed you standing there. In front of them. Which is just as disturbing. (Or sometimes, that they just didn't know you spoke German, but that's another topic. I do think they expect the large number of US military here to just give in, and I think we do, just because we are so shocked people can be so openly rude. IBM and the military actually have manuals on how to keep your place in line here!)

German tourists in Disney World, Florida, have the WORST reputation as being assholes. Before I knew this, I was on line in Disneyworld with Damon and his mom and stepdad when we noticed some people casually cozying up to the side of the line, obviously trying to avoid the hour in line the rest of us had already waited. When they quietly moved to stand in front of us, and I confronted them, they pretended they didn't speak English. Boy had they picked the wrong person to stand in front of! I let them have it in German. Japanese tourists and American visitors alike clapped and cheered as the Germans moved to the end of the line.

It's not just a German thing, but it really does seem to be more prevalent here and I think it is something that should be addressed and not just written off as part of the culture.

Having seen the workings (or not-workings, as the case may be) of the early education system here, I shudder. Does the education system reflect the values of society or does the society determine the education system in place? Either way, I shudder.

But I'm not going to accuse, or overanalyze, or trumpet my shiny moral horn today.
Because I still need to understand.

How can someone be so sure that their needs count so much more than those of others?

Please, it's really important that I understand this.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Random Thought: Guns

I am very pleased to see that the toy pistols the boys bought with their Christmas money from Grandpa (I took 'em to the store; I claim full responsibility) are lying forgotten in the playroom corner.

I am not as pleased that they've chewed their toast into the shape of a gun and are now shooting at eachother with it!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Right and Wrong

What still really gets me is that there is right and there is wrong. And I just don't understand why people are so afraid to stand up for it. Are they just too damn lazy, or busy, to bother? Or worse, do they really not understand the difference?

It's not just about Ryan and her walk to school, but we can start there. The other two mothers honestly don't seem to understand what all the fuss is about. The mornings work out fine with all three girls. So why not just cut out the afternoons and have them fend for themselves. This is their solution.

Why can't they see that I need help in the afternoons? Why can't they see that Ryan deserves to be good enough to walk with mornings AND afternoons? Why can't either of them see that Jule ignoring Ryan when Julia isn't there to protect her isn't right? I'm more disappointed in Julia's mom. Julia IS sweet and thoughtful and DOES stick up for Ryan. So, why won't her mother stick up for what's right?

I just don't get it. Our two girls could walk to and from school together just fine without the one causing the problems. So why, after over three years, is she still expecting me to put up with it? Why are we letting this mother get away with treating everyone else like their needs are of less value than hers?

It happens all the time. We know people aren't doing their part. We talk about it amongst ourselves, but then we continue to leave things the way they are. To be honest, we don't even talk about it much. Kind of hint at a bit of a problem and then laugh it off. Maybe bring it up generally. But never hold anyone accountable. People get away with things that are wrong. Is this just in the name of getting along?

Let's face it, in my day to day life as mommy, it's small things. And so I've learned to keep my mouth shut and play along. But, it's still wrong and....yeah....I was slowly dying inside at just accepting this and smiling along with everyone else. I won't make a fuss now. I am learning to bow out. But, damn it, I wish I could just understand how everyone else seems to just sit there and take it with a smile on their face.

And it does matter. The school system here SUCKS. I can say it, because EVERYONE AGREES. Parents and teachers anyway. The poor kids don't know anything else. IT IS WRONG. EVERYONE AGREES THAT IT IS WRONG. We bitch and moan. AND THEN WE DO NOTHING ABOUT IT. How can you live like this? I am not judging (anymore); I really want to know. There are things we can fix, problems we can solve, wrongs that we can right, if only we worked together and stood up for it.

Is it only Germany? God, I'd certainly like to think so, if only because it means that there are people out there who WILL fight for what is right and who WILL fight together for a common good.

A few years ago I would have raised a far huger stink over this thing with Ryan's walk to school. A few years ago I still would have spoken up, and at least brought attention to, the things that everyone else was thinking. But I've learned I can't do anything alone. One voice shouting in the wind is one voice shouting in the wind.

I died inside.

I've got to move on. I've got to find the place where my voice is joined by others. I can do "nice" and I can do "getting along" but I've never been one to place much value on external appearances. If it's rotten underneath, I don't care how nice you've painted over it.

I'm not going to stop being friends with Claudia because she won't defend me and my daughter. She's a good person and a good friend. (I wanted to say true friend but I couldn't bring myself to do it.) She means well and she is protecting her own small world.

But I need people who will SCREAM AND SHOUT AND HOLLER AND FIGHT - or at least write and talk about - what is right. At least TALK ABOUT what they BELIEVE IN. Seems we don't even do that anymore. Does anybody still believe in anything?!

Some people are sure going to be disappointed that I've found myself again. (Most noticeably my father.) I was a lot quieter zonked out on the couch drugged out of my mind on medications that were supposed to make me be normal. I couldn't feel, I couldn't care. I just made it through the day.

If that's normal, if that's what everyone else is really about, then I prefer being insane.

Don't worry, I'll behave. I'll play the game and sit quietly, the same vapid smile on my face as everyone else. I'll make nice.

But underneath, I know who I am, and I know that I, at least, can make a difference

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fighting for the Prize

Written in response to Fatherhood Freestyle: You Are The Prize. By Dr. Mike McRae

My daughter, Ryan, has been walking to school with Jule and Julia since the first grade. I was so excited to have it work out. It meant that I was "integrated" into the community, that I was a "good" mother doing good mother things, and it freed me up from having to walk her to school in the morning myself.

Integrated, good and free. Me, me, me.

It has never been the best arrangement for Ryan.

Julia is playing with Ryan at our house as I sit here and write this. (Having valiantly tried to eat an American sandwich and soup for dinner.) Jule, on the other hand, has never been anything but rude from day one of first grade. Her mother, Heidi, is an equal bitch. (Jule is too young to be a true bitch and is actually very attractive, intelligent AND clever. She's just had to learn to take care of number one from an early age, poor thing.)

The first two years the three girls walked together, Jule's older sister Maya walked with them. Julia and Ryan would wait outside Jule and Maya's home while they got ready (they were often late) only to have the two of them run on ahead without even a word of greeting. This went on for two years, Julia's mom (Claudia) wanted to kick them out of the group, and I said, "Be nice." Be the bigger person. Don't make waves. BE NICE.

I am so ashamed. What have I been teaching my daughter about her self-worth?

Since the third grade, Jule (and Heidi mostly) have NEEDED us. Since Heidi is raising Jule to be independent and self-sufficient (meaning that she doesn't want to have to be bothered with her), Jule is consistenty late. She also cried when she came too late to the group meeting point and missed the other two girls. "Couldn't the mother help that poor girl get it together in the mornings?" we asked. But again, "be nice" won out. Ryan picks up Julia and then the two of them pick up Jule, still waiting outside in the dark and cold while she gets herself ready.

On the way home, however, when it is not cold and dark, and Jule has other, cooler friends she would rather be with, she leaves Ryan in the dust. She has also been treating her like dirt in school. In December, Ryan was so depressed that I had to have a talk with her teacher. (They don't help much here in Germany; the kids are supposed to work it out for themselves. Mobbing is huge and kids learn to take care of themselves first.)

Yesterday, when Ryan told me she had had to walk home alone again, enough was enough. I called Heidi and told her it just wasn't working out. One of the problems, besides the basic lack of respect for me and my child, is that the other two moms in the arrangement have grandparents who pick their daughters up after school a couple of times a week. That leaves Ryan with only one of them to walk home with. It also means they really don't need me, and my daughter, in the afternoons the way they do in the mornings.

I've been bending over backwards to "be nice" and to "fit in", but where is the concern for my needs? Or for Ryan's self-respect?

I'm very disappointed that my friend Claudia, Julia's mom, has decided to continue the arrangement with Heidi and Jule. All along, she has been telling me I was right and that she would stand by me, and by Ryan, in our decision. But when it came to direct confrontation today, she copped out. She tried to get me to compromise myself - and worse, my daughter, yet again. It has been almost FOUR YEARS. "But can't we just at least keep the morning arrangement going?" What, my daughter is good enough to pick everyone up at 7AM but not good enough for the afternoons when they don't need her anymore? "But isn't Ryan going to feel left out?" Well, she's feeling pretty left out already, every single goddamn afternoon.

The real feel good ending would be if Jule and Heidi got kicked out of the arrangement, had to learn a lesson, and became better human beings. It's the one I was hoping for. The real world ending leaves me driving Ryan to and from school alone and the other two moms trying to work it out. Noone is very happy with this arrangement either - including Ryan who likes walking to school with her "friends."

What am I teaching Ryan about friendship, though, if I allow this to continue? It's been too long already. "But Jule is nice to me if Julia is there." says Ryan optimistically. "Sometimes she is nice to me." She is thrilled with any crumb that is thrown at her.

I've taught my daughter to be nice (in a country that really isn't big into being nice to others).

It's time I taught her about what's right and wrong. (Integrating and fitting into into a system isn't all so great if that system is WRONG. And there, I have said it.)

And it is WAY PAST TIME I taught her self-worth. She is the prize.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Gifted?" (Haiti and Tenses)

Two really important things they missed teaching me in the "gifted" program.

The first is tenses. (Not how to write a complete sentence; I don't do that on purpose sometimes.) Tenses as in past, present and future. Those three I was "gifted" enough to learn myself. But present continuous? Past perfect simple? Maybe it WAS better I never knew there were six past tenses; I might have been too scared to pick up a pen.

I distinctly remember a day in middle school when the English teacher skipped basic grammar. "Oh you guys know how to use it correctly already," she said. And proceeded on to something more creative, something better suited to our highly gifted intelligences. (My guess is that half of this "highly intelligent" class was playing paper football under their desks; I was usually reading a book under mine, having been told so many times how intelligent I was that I figured I could keep up by just being in the room. At that point, I still could too.)

Creative is good. I love creative. But now we have at least one NASA engineer, an emergency room physician, two veterinarians, a bunch of finance guys on Wall Street and some museum curators who can't write a lick of English. Oh, and all those lawyers. Never forget all those gifted lawyers. (Let's face it, I met a lot of engineers at Cornell. If there is ONE NASA engineer who can string a simple sentence together, in ANY language, I'd be surprised. 1200 SAT scores at the Cornell engineering school meant a 400 verbal.)

The problem being that one of those veterinarians decided she wants to be a writer. And the only way she can communicate with her writers' group is to say, "Oh, Like I'm like kinda like thinking like about putting it all into the 'I have danced" tense kinda like." Very impressive.

(Funny enough, they did teach us all about punctuation at some point down the line. You can see how much of that I've retained. What a waste.)

But the opportunity my teachers really missed out on came in the mid-eighties in highschool, when waves of Haitian refugees flooded the NYC area. Literally. They came in tiny wooden fishing boats through shark-infested waters. Does anyone else remember this? Word up! Haiti was hurting long before the quake on January 12. I believe that's the past continuous tense; how appropriate.

All I remember of the Haitians in my highschool was that we all considered them very odd and kind of beneath us. I mean, how stupid can you be? You come from an island that speaks French and you can't even make the grade in French class? They were also queer, in every sense of the word. The girls, and the boys, walked around holding hands. As teenagers. Same sex. Man, in retrospect those poor kids must have gotten the shit beat out of them. I wouldn't know. None of them were in the gifted program.

How hard would it have been to pair up some interested American kids with a Haitian "buddy" or two? We could have explained some things to them, maybe. We could have prevented them from getting beat up. Maybe. And we would have at least learned that they don't speak French in Haiti.

Ten years after graduation, on the day of our 10th year reunion in fact, I heard a Haitian guy my age asking about English classes at the Les Cayes community college where I was teaching. (It's okay; I wasn't teaching English grammar!) He spoke excellent English with an American accent and so I asked him where he was from. The U.S. He was in Haiti working for a program that helped Haitian kids raised in the USA repatriate back into Haiti. (Their parents didn't like the values they were growing up with in the USA.) "Where in the U.S," I asked. I had been in Haiti a while now; I had all the time in the world to stop and ask a total stranger all the intimate details of his life. He had not been in Haiti as long as I had and rolled his eyes. "Connecticut." "Oh, yeah, where in Connecticut?" I persisted. I was in dire need of any kind of entertainment. "Stamford" he replied. No way. "Westhill High School?" And now he got excited too. Westhill, it was.

He was from my graduating class in highschool, and not only had we never seen eachother before, we knew absolutely none of the same people. How sad is that? "Well, I kinda hung out with the people who really ruled the school," he said. And I thought, "Damn, all the while I thought I was the one doing that." Unbelievable. Two worlds. Living side by side and never even noticing eachother.

In the spirit of a true Haitian, I refused to let him stay in a hotel and invited him to my two-room tin-roofed hut with no running water or electrity. But we had a faucet in the yard outside and access to a neighbor's telephone. We might have had electrity sometimes too. But it almost never worked. He probably would have preferred a hotel, but the rum and cokes soon made up for my lack of amenities.

That's how I ended up spending my 10th year highschool reunion not with "gifted" lawyers and Wall Street bankers but with a member of my class who was a complete stranger to me. Something that should have happened in the past, happening in the present, for a better future. A great reunion in any tense.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Saving the World

When Tony walked into his living room at 10:30 last night he found Sue and about a dozen of her friends still sitting around chatting, drinking wine, and generally having a good (no, sorry, make that FANTASTIC!) time.

"So, you guys been saving the world while I was gone?" he asked.

What a good sport. Then he served Spanish cheese and Mexican something-or-other and joined us.

Were we saving the world? First we discussed English Group participation. As in, please do. Then we went over the different age groups and which children were ready to move to the next level; from the infant and mom singing circle in the preschooler group, or from the preschooler group into the BIG KIDS. Other topics of discussion included lesson plans, the Easter session and our annual summer picnic. In between we discussed what lingerie to wear to the "Teddy Bear Picnic" in the spring, what Karen and colleagues did ten years ago in Greece and what happened when her husband found out about it eight years later, and how getting your hair done professionally counts as basic standard of living once you hit a certain age.

I'm going to say we were doing our part.

When I called Sarah on Saturday night to talk to her about Haiti and about how she and her family were holding up, we spent an hour talking about...well, really talking a lot about ourselves and about our lives as women, wives and mothers. Sarah and her husband Ronald were matron of honor and best man at my wedding. (As the only two people in attendance they were also photographer and babysitter for Ryan>) I was maid of honor at their wedding in Haiti. Before all the marriage and babies, Damon and Sarah and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Haiti and Ronald was our Kreyol language instructor. (No one thought either relationship would last let alone produce six children!)

Ronald's immediate family seems to be fine, thank you for asking.

I didn't know what to expect, sobbing, grief, the tragic Haitian-American family. What I got was...well, Sarah! Haiti was obviously on our minds. We talked about Laurie and about how her whole NGO was destroyed. She has lost family, friends and colleagues. But she found that Eric, her boyfriend, was alive and doing well, after two days of believing he was dead. And all of the children from her schools in Cite-Soleil survived unharmed. There were miracles amidst the tragedy.

Then we talked about what to do. Ronald would like to go as an interpreter. Us too. And everyone returned Peace Corps volunteer from Haiti. But Diana is 36 weeks pregnant (yay!) and we, well, we have kids that need our attention. It's hard to sit by, doing the dishes and going grocery shopping, when we know we COULD be on a plane to Haiti. We could be doing great things.

I would send Damon - or go myself - if we could afford to not earn money for that length of time.

In the meantime, Sarah and I do what we can. We keep ourselves strong. We go to work. We keep the kids healthy and more-or-less decently fed. We do the dishes and the grocery shopping. I drink wine with friends and plan the annual English Group picnic.

It's weird to be going on about my everyday business when my mind is preoccupied with tragedy an ocean away. But comforting too, that Sarah is feeling the same way.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Random Thought: Star Wars

You haven't lived until you've had two Wookies slugging it out in your living room.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Random Thought: Marijuana

Just a quick thought for the future:

"If I take away a joint from my children and smoke it, is that confiscating something for their own good or is it stealing?"

I'm going to do it either way. Just want to know where I stand!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two Worlds

I am doing yoga in my living room in Germany late Tuesday night when the earth shakes in Haiti.

"I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced."
―Obi-Wan after feeling the Destruction of Alderaan[src] (Star Wars IV: A New Hope)

In contrast to Obi-Wan, I feel nothing.

Christine is at her office in Port-au-Prince late Wednesday afternoon, finishing up the proposal for the preventative health program that has to go out by Friday. The walls shake. The floor tilts. She falls to the floor. And then she feels nothing.

I do a full-body workout Wednesday morning followed by a strenuous step-aerobics class. I skip a much-needed shower in favor of a much-needed grocery run. Hotdogs, lunchmeat, butter, French fries, frozen vegetables, cereal bars, cucumbers. That should hold 'em for lunch today and for tomorrow's school snacks. For some reason, I think about how much food, and especially how much protein, this is for one family, and about how extravagant it would seem to my old family in Haiti.

Christine awakens to total darkness. She is cold and alone and afraid. She hears voices in the distance . There is screaming coming from somewhere nearby, but mostly there is grieving. It sounds far away. She reaches out her hands and finds she is in a small space. Except for a bump on her head and some scrapes on her arms and legs, she appears to be fine. There is enough room for her to crawl a few feet in any direction and to stretch her limbs, but not enough height for her to stand up.

I dump the groceries in the front seat of the VW Golf, get behind the wheel and turn the key. Nothing. Try again. Nothing. Damn. I phone in a description of my location to ADAC (AAA) and head back inside the mall. So much for extra time with the kids this afternoon. And Ryan has that big math test tomorrow . But there's nothing I can do except wait.

The walls begin to shake and crumble again at dawn. This time Christine is not so lucky. She cannot feel her legs. A large slab of concrete has fallen against her, and although she was able to push it aside, it hit her in the back on the way down. She tries to move her legs a second time and then a third. Nothing. She is no longer cold, but she is still alone and she is still afraid. There is nothing she can do except wait.

The afternoon is fairly uneventful. The VW and I make it home in plenty of time to help Ryan with her math before heading out again. We head to the DAZ (German-American Center) in Stuttgart where John Haskell is giving a reading from his latest book. It is surreal. By now I am aware of what has happened in Haiti; Damon phoned me at lunchtime while I was waiting for ADAC. I bawled my eyes out in the middle of the Chinese restaurant and then got down to the business of continuing through my day.

Christine has slid further down the building as the tremors continue throughout the day. She is no longer on the third floor, or on any floor for that matter. She is lying on her side against a slab of concrete. It – and she – are tilted at a 45 degree angle. Her legs are crumpled beneath her. It is surreal. Just three weeks ago she was in Connecticut celebrating Christmas with her family.

A bunch of us from the Writers’ Group go out after the reading. Grown-up friends with grown-up interests. Fun. And although the word ‘penis” DOES come up, I don’t have to follow anyone into the bathroom to show them where to aim it. On the drive home I am so distracted by thoughts of the evening that I take a wrong turn out of Stuttgart. I try to turn around in an empty parking lot and end up driving over an embankment. The two pylons indicating that this was clearly not an exit were hidden by snow. They are now under the VW, prohibiting it from plunging further down the embankment. What I still can’t explain is how I thought something that steep would be a parking lot exit.

Daylight fades. Christine lies numb with fear. Throughout the day she has heard the cries of people on the street, the wails of mothers looking for their children, the screams of other people trapped in other buildings. She tries to call for help, but so far no one has answered her. Her colleagues are in Les Cayes, coordinating an ongoing childhood nutrition program. Everyone else is probably too worried about their own immediate families to worry about a single aid worker working for a third-tier relief organization. She is thirsty and she knows that night is coming.

My heart stopped when the car did. This was too horrible, too absurd, to really be happening. In fact, it was almost exactly like a recurring dream I have. Either the brakes give out and I can’t stop or I do something dumb and end up hitting something. Well, there it is. Dumb. I call ADAC for the second time today and they promise to come and tow me out. But they can’t guarantee it will be for free. Seems ADAC doesn’t necessarily cover stupid. As I am waiting for ADAC to arrive, I fend off urgent offers of help from late night customers at a nearby gas station. It appears that pushing me and my old VW out of the snow bank holds more appeal than reading magazines off the rack and drinking beer. A young, questionably dressed woman offers sympathy and support, but disappears mysteriously when she discovers I don’t have any cigarettes. The police stop by, shake their heads a bit and then take off again. I can’t believe they don’t write me a ticket.

Her heart stops when she hears his voice. “ Christine. Christine. Kote ou ye? Kote ou ye Christine ? » It is Josef, her neighbor, and she can’t believe he is looking for her. “Mwen la, Josef, I am here.” She hears nothing for a moment and screams louder. “Josef, Josef, ede mwen souple, help me, please, I am here.” She hears a second voice. “Gen moun la?” “Yes, yes”, she thinks, “there is someone here, I am here, I am here.” She screams as loud as she can. “Anmwe. Anmwe. Souple. Help me. Help me. Please.” Josef and the other voice move towards her and suddenly she hears them close by, on the other side of the wall. “Christine. Christine. Kijan ou ye? E tu blese? Christine. Kijan ou ye « he asks. » How are you ? Are you hurt?” “Wi” she replies and tells him that she can’t move her legs. “Se pa mal,” Josef reassures her. They are going to get her out of there.

The ADAC guy is not very impressed with me but he has me out of there in less than five minutes.

Josef and his friend spend all night digging through the rubble to get to her. She learns that Josef’s wife and four children are safe. Their home is still standing but they are staying outside for fear of the aftershocks. There’s been an earthquake and the entire city is in ruins. Thousands are dead or trapped alive. Josef’s friend, Francois, has no family in Port-au-Prince, but is unable to get a tap-tap out of the city to go and see if they are all right. The whole thing is unreal . Even for Haiti. It’s just too big and too horrible to accept. And so they keep digging.

I can’t believe I drove my car over an embankment and was able to drive it home an hour later. No damages at all. No harm done. I keep replaying the scenario in my mind. This is going to make a great story. I have totally forgotten Haiti.

It’s dark out when they finally break through. Josef is unable to lift her. He sits by her side telling her that everything is going to be alright, that they found her, grace a dieu. “Grace of whose god,” she thinks, but she doesn’t say it. Francois returns with a wheelbarrow and they lift her into it. The two men take turns pushing her through the streets of Port-au-Prince. Everything is in ruins. There are bodies on the street, dead and dying. Everyone is outside, wandering aimlessly or sitting still. It will be dark soon. She is still thirsty. There is no water. There is no food. Her back begins to ache and then her legs. It hurts but its better than the nothing she felt before. She can’t believe this has happened. This just can’t be real.

I am listening to a RAM CD early Thursday morning. “Kote moun yo? M pa we moun yo. Kote moun yo?” It’s Richard Morse, singing political protest songs about Haiti’s tragic past. Over a decade ago Damon and I danced to this music at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. Today Richard Morse stands outside the hotel and twitters scenes of destruction. “Where are the people? I don’t see the people. Where are the people?” Once his cell phone runs out of batteries we can only guess.

They arrive at Josef’s home. The entire neighborhood is living in the street, although most of the houses are still standing. There is limited access to water. Josef’s wife, Nicole, hands her a tin cup and she drinks. She eats half of a three-day old roll but refuses more. There are so many children. She knows there is a world beyond the one in this neighborhood. She should try to contact the organization’s overseas office or call her parents in Connecticut to let them know that she’s okay. She also needs a hospital. But this is her world now, propped up in a wheelbarrow, around a bonfire, surrounded by families she barely knows. A woman starts singing. Others join in. Unbelievable. They are still singing to God.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

KEEN! (Pardon our English:Part Three)

It has recently occurred to me that my family is speaking a foreign language here in Germany. No, not the German. Not even the Swabian dialect. It's the English. You see - not only have we picked up a rather Swabian lilt on the end of our sentences, but it turns out we are picking up English from citizens of the Empire.

No, not THAT Empire - Princess Leia and the gang have that in hand. I'm talking about the British Empire, a rather farther-reaching concept than most Americans take into consideration. Except for us tea-dumpers, the other corners of the former kingdom had gentler separations from mother England and still follow her customs and language to a closer degree.

It's bad enough that we're interspersing our sentences with Germanisms, but must we now start speaking ENGLISH as well?! Noone at home is going to understand us.

I remember the first misunderstanding clearly. We were still in Geneva, and another mom at the English playgroup sponsored by the American International Women's Club asked me for a "nappy." Well, sure I had a nappy. Sounded kind of like napkin. So I pulled out some wet wipes. No go. A burp rag? She looked at me like I was out of my mind. "A nappy, you idiot!" is I'm sure what she was thinking. I finally handed her my bag and she helped herself to a diaper. "A NAPPY!" she repeated, as if I was just a touch slow. Oh - a nappy. Why didn't you say so? She might as well have used the French word, for all that our two Engishes had in common on this one point. (I don't know what I would have done with "couche-culotte" but at least I would have known we were dealing with a foreign language.)

There are others. They unfortunately don't come to mind since I now intersperse them into MY American English regularly. I mean, it is pointless to ask someone if we should bring the strollers on our outing to the park, when the whole time she is planning on asking me about whether or not to bring the buggies. Come to think of it, OUTING? Is that even a word?

The latest example came from Damon last night when he was explaining some of his business details to me. (Or trying to: I admit my eyes glaze over no matter what language he discusses finance in.) Some company wasn't keen on the contract and they needed to renegotiate terms in order tha.....hold up, a minute. Eyes unglazed. Did my American husband REALLY just use the word KEEN in casual conversation?! What is this the FIFTIES?

Best part is he wasn't even snoggered!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

You Bitch! (Pardon Our English: Part Two)

Having blamed my children's swearing on the kindergarten, I am understandably sensitive when they DO, in fact, break out with inappropriate English words.

So that I immediately felt guilty the morning, a few weeks ago, when Aidan greeted me, happily, with a cheerful "You bitch!". He was sitting on the couch and showed no animosity towards me as I entered the room. So then why the hostility? And where the heck did he pick up THAT particular turn of phrase. I'll admit, there are others, but I honestly don't recall using that one at all. "You bitch?"

It took only a few minutes of frantic pantomime, and finally a trip into the kitchen, for Aidan to show me that what he was looking for were the Nougat Bits, his chocolatey choice of breakfast cereal at the moment. Oh! NOUGAT BITS! What a relief.

So it was cause for consternation yesterday when he clambered onto my lap once again calling me a bitch. I mean, who talks to their mother that way?! And he was clear this time, pointing to me, slowly saying YOU and then repeating BITCH over and over and over. There was clearly something he wanted me to do, but calling me names certainly wasn't helping me to do it any faster.

Turns out he wanted me to build a bridge with my legs. So that he could crawl over the BRIDGE, ie my legs, from the footstool onto the chair and my lap. (The chair having ostensibly turned into a fighter pilot or a fire engine.) You. Bridge.

#%@*$& it! Am I ever going to understand these kids?!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pardon Our English!

So far, we've had a fool proof way to determine where the kids have picked up their less-than-desirable vocabulary. The first swear word out of Ryan's mouth - at the age of three - was "Merde!" We thought it was really really cute; she'd used it appropriately, in context, as a crayon fell off her play table onto the floor. And after all, it was in perfectly pronounced French and sounded very sophisticated.

Aidan started a few months ago with "Scheisse!" Which, first of all, is used ALL the time by adults in Germany as an adjective, in everyday conversation, and even when speaking to children. Most often, something is "scheiss Egal" - which means, in more flavorful terms, that it's the same one way or another. But things can also be just plain "Schiesse!" - which translates neatly into the English "Shit!", something I like to think English speakers at least recognize as inappropriate for children's ears.

But since "Scheisse!", "Verdammt" and even the English "F" word (sorry, I just CANNOT write it out!) are used on German radio programs, TV, and by parents on the playground, it came as no surprise to me when Aidan came home having learned one of them in kindergarten. "Scheisse!" he whispered quietly, as one of HIS crayons rolled off of the (same) play table and onto the floor. Once again, proper context. But it doesn't sound half as cute, or cultured, in German as it does in French.

The greatest part, besides the obvious imitation involved, since he showed no signs of distress or anger, was that he also mispronounced it in a really cute, softened way. It didn't come out in the harsh German way but rather in a slow, gentle, almost soothing "Scheizzzzzze" , with a softer American s to z sound, almost like he was snoring in between. And besides, it wasn't MY problem.

When his teacher talked to me about it at kindergarten a few days later, I said the same thing. Nice try, blaming it on the parents at home, but if he isn't swearing in English, then it's actually proof that you guys need to be working it out with the older kids in kindergarten. And with THEIR PARENTS and THEIR home environment. Oh. And by the way, isn't it cute the way he mispronounces it? Haven't heard from the kindergarten since.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Obama's Christmas

If Obama's Christmas didn't have you counting your blessings, I don't know what will.

Sure, he had the 4,000 USD a day private mansion on the beach in Hawaii, but not only did he have to share it with staff and security, he had to deal with one attempted airplane bomb, food poisoning and counterterrorism strikes in Yemen.

It sounds like a West Wing episode. You know, the president is in the middle of cutting the Christmas turkey, surrounded by his adorable children and devoted wife, when bang.....there's a bomb threat by some Middle Eastern terrorist that demands his attention. On Christmas, of all days. Great script.

Add a morally difficult decision on a counter-strike. (which sadly enough are less difficult to make in real life nowadays than they were for President Bartlett on TV) Spice it up with a quirky mix-up over food poisoning and there you have it. Your made for TV episode.

Of course each episode ends with staff and family smiling fondly at eachother around the Christmas tree. And a moral lesson nicely gift-wrapped with a ribbon on top.

Sometimes, on West Wing, the tragedy is senseless too. Why are babies setting off bombs in airplanes? Better yet, how can this be happening in the real world?

If Obama's Christmas has me counting my blessings, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab's father's Christmas has Obama counting his.

They keep this up and I'm switching the channel.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

After Christmas Math

'Tis the week after Christmas
And what do we have to show for it?

Christmas Math:
1. Time to wrap the presents the night before : 3 to 4 hours

2. Time to unwrap the presents the day of : 30 minutes. (And that's with four kids, and two parents urging the 3 year olds to stop and BREATHE in between packages!)

3. Time kids woke up on Christmas Day : 6:30 AM (They slept together the night before to make sure noone would miss anything the next morning.)

4. Time mean old mom finally decided to let them come out of the bedroom : 7 AM

5. Time the last present was unwrapped : 7:30 AM

6. Time mom and dad finally assembled the last gift : 1:30 PM

That's right. It took SIX HOURS to get from unwrapping to complete assembly. Now remember, we do have FOUR kids, but most of that time was spent on the Playmobile fire engine, which neglected to say at all on the box that there was "some assembly required." I thought I'd pull out a - well, a fire engine - and it came out in really little tiny Playmobile pieces. Most of which are already scattered around the kids' room by now. But I still love Playmobile, I really do. And the boys love their trucks (the ambulance was not half as difficult to put together). I'm just wondering what the point is in delivering them in little itsy bitsy tiny pieces.

On the other hand, after putting the fire engine together, Andrew's Playmobile fantasy dragon castle was a piece of cake. Too bad he hasn't looked at it since. Looks like Aidan and Matthew win out on that score.

For Ryan, it was the year of the scarf. After spending a good three weeks looking for one in Germany, she received the most beautiful matching shirt and scarf set from her auntand uncle in Texas. And then two more from my mother. All exactly what we were looking for - colorful and sparkly, which had been very difficult to find in wintertime Germany, or in Germany at any time of the year for that matter. Thank goodness the Americans are FINALLY accessorizing with scarves as well! Any chance we could get them to convince Europe that winter does not have to mean grey, brown or black?!

Then again, after seeing Ryan in the latest fashions, Damon has decided to search for a burka. Wonder if those come with sparkles too.

So everyone's in their new underwear and socks. New fashions from the other side of the Atlantic. (Except for Damon and I who are still in our pajamas.) Books are read. Ryan's crafts are finished and hanging from the wall. Andrew has already made it through his entire Star Wars Nintendo game. We've watched all the new DVDs, know all the AC/DC and Queen lyrics from our new CDs. (and one Elmo, but don't tell anyone!) And the Playmobile and Legos are scattered around the playroom.

Now what?

'Tis the week after Christmas and what do we have to show for it?

Time the four kids have spent playing TOGETHER today: 12 hours.

They've slept together every night since Christmas Eve, two boys on the floor and one with Ryan in her bed, rotating each night. They've played Barbies, Legos and Playmobile, sometimes all three together. Today was an elaborate make-believe of Star Wars, starring Ryan and Andrew as Leia and Luke, and Aidan and Matthew as Han Solo and Chewbacca respectively. They've had birthday parties, run a grocery store and bakery/restaurant, all while coordinating an attack against the Death Star on the blackboard. Princess Leia even had Han and Chewie running around in drag for a while.

In the end it's not about the presents after all, it's about the incriminating photographs you get to take afterwards when the kids run around juiced up on Christmas magic.