29 June 2011

Roses and Rumors

My husband and I began our relationship as a long distance one. He was living in the Bahamas and I in New York. So it happened we were far apart on my birthday, the first one that fell shortly after we met. I celebrated without him by going to dinner with some friends.

New York city can be a tough place to impress people, but my husband managed that night, to say nothing of how he managed to thrill me. Because as my friends and I were in the middle of dinner, two waiters in the restaurant came to our table, carrying a stunning and enormous bouquet of 100 long stemmed pink roses. For me. You could literally hear the gasps from the surrounding tables – the entire room stopped dining like in an EF Hutton commercial (for my non-American readers – a famous ad campaign in which people stopped in their tracks as a voiceover announced ‘when EF Hutton talks, people listen.’) 

Then came the overheard comments.  Those from the women were mostly along the lines of ‘Ohhh!!!’ ‘How beautiful!’ ‘So romantic!’ etc. Most of the men grumbled it was ‘over the top’ ‘better to send a dozen a few different times’ and ‘what a waste, all going to die.’  In short, my husband’s gesture resulted in a restaurant divided. (And – final note to the non-romantics, although the roses did of course perish after a few days, my wonderful memory of them has never faded.)

So I was thinking of this story this past week. Like New York, Monaco can be a difficult place in which to impress, and unlike New York, it is a village. As Monaco gears up for the wedding of Prince Albert and Charlene Wittstock it is a village divided. The resident villagers gossip endlessly. Along which lines depends, like that New York restaurant so many years ago, on one’s perspective. One can choose to believe in the romance, or one can look at it as staged. 

There is plenty to fuel both viewpoints. Residents are justifiably tired after the Grand Prix and the hectic month of June. Rumors abound, and like in any village, one has only to go to a local hair salon to get the full scoop – ranging from the fantastic to the yes-so-I’ve-already-heard. With a major event coming up, tourists are invading in numbers far beyond the usual summer amounts. Local life is again disrupted. Even the legendary order is in slight upheaval, as all parking tickets between now and July 1st are forgiven.

But, as I said, it depends how you look at it. There happens to be quite the party planned. An Eagles Concert, offered to Monegasques, residents and locals, conveniently falls on the last day of school, kicking off both summer holidays and the wedding weekend. The next night Jean Michel Jarre is giving a sound and light performance over the main port for everyone, which promises to be fantastic. And then there is the religious ceremony on the 2nd, providing me with my first ever occasion to wear a hat along the lines of some of those amazing creations at Kate and Will’s wedding. Needless to say, I fall into the ‘excited about it’ camp.

As for what makes a marriage, that only concerns two people, and not a single one of the villagers, tourists and onlookers. I personally wish both Prince Albert and Charlene the very best and only hope for they will be as happy together as my husband and I have been in these many years since he sent those roses to a restaurant in New York.

26 June 2011

A Flake by Any Other Name

There are moments, I must admit, when I look at my country in a state of stunned and utter and utterly stunned disbelief. When a Fox News interviewer (Chris Wallace) asks a GOP candidate (Michele Bachmann) ‘Are you a flake?’ is one of those moments.

To be clear, it’s not the question itself, it’s not even that it was asked by someone at Fox. Nor is it that it was an ‘uh, DUH!’ question if I’ve ever heard one. Instead, it is that a woman like Bachmann can be considered as a candidate for high office. It is that at this moment she is currently tied for the GOP lead in the Iowa polls.

But it is a specific part of Michele Bachmann’s answer that led me to consider, at least momentarily, if I could ever give up my US citizenship if this woman was elected. Michele answered Wallace by saying that she’s ‘worked in serious scholarship… (that she has) applied (herself) to education reform.’ So she has.  And that’s what I would like to look at.

Especially because, a few weeks ago, I came across an incredible story about a young high school senior in Louisiana named Zach Kopplin. Zach decided to challenge Bachmann’s educational policies; concerned she might someday bring them to the national stage.  Specifically, he challenged her comments asserting ‘considerable controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact.’ Bachmann’s claims, which so concerned Zach, stated that ‘hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design.’ (Intelligent design is code for people believing in creationism, or the literal truth of the book of Genesis.)

Zach didn’t buy it. Not only did he not buy it, he proved it wasn’t so.  He challenged Michele Bachmann to find him even two Nobel Laureates to defend her position, while he presented her with 43 Nobel Laureates who endorsed his own. In a royal flush poker analogy if I’ve ever heard one, he said “Congresswoman Bachmann, I see your ‘hundreds’ of scientists and raise you millions of scientists.’

There has, to date, been zero response from Bachmann. A high school student, undoubtedly one incredible kid, has shown up a congresswoman/presidential candidate. In Zach’s website he notes that the 2009 National Center for Education Statistics ranked Louisiana as second from last in national 8th grade students’ science education. He rightly fears Bachmann bringing an anti-science, creationist stance to the national stage – brilliantly propounding the case that such efforts in Louisiana have not only impacted his own future, they have hurt the state and all students in it. Zach asks how colleges and universities are to take Louisiana students seriously; given the kind of education they have been receiving. And he’s backed not only by major science organizations, such as the 10 million member strong American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general science organization in the world, but also by The Clergy Letter Project, an organization of 13,000 plus clergy members who affirm their support for teaching evolution. All one can say, is ‘Go, Zach, Go!’

I’d like to know what has happened to the separation of church and state I’ve always believed America to have? How religious theory can be taught on an equal footing with scientific fact? How tea party members profess surprise in the recent, upsetting PISA results (Program for International Student Assessment) while even considering their darling Bachmann to become the country’s next leader?

All I can say is that I am very proud, and deeply thankful, that there are students like Zach to show up Bachmann for the flake she is!

18 June 2011

A Midsummer Month's Madness

So, we are more than midway through the month of June. Celebrating every special occasion ever invented by man, woman and child. Gathering for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, concerts, graduations, midsummer fetes, weddings, anniversaries. Singing Happy Birthday for the umpteenth time, not just for those born this month but also for all those born in July and August – months when ‘people are away.’ Home becomes a pit stop, which we run into and out of, changing clothes at a speed the Formula One teams just last month in Monaco could only envy.

It is crazy, it is exhausting and yes, it is fun. If I dare say so, maybe too much fun for one single month. There are, after all, eleven other months in the year that could stand to have a little extra amusement packed into them (possibly excluding December.) With the logical exception of Graduations, could not some of these other events be spaced out so that we maybe have more merriment in say, March?

I know, I know, it seems necessary to pack everything into June because afterwards people scatter for ‘real’ summer as defined by school vacation. Holidays. Lasting what, a couple months? Much as I love and adore my friends, summer holidays do not entail our final goodbyes, they just mean we will see each other again on a regular basis after about 60 days.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, and it could well be that I’m just tired, that I’ve had too much to eat and too much to drink at too many year-end events. Which is what at least half of the celebrations are called – year-end choir concerts, year-end shows, not to mention the year-end exams to get the kids through before the year-end-say-goodbye-to-the-football-coach-picnic. It all goes to prove my long harbored belief: celebrating New Year’s on the 1st of January is idiotic. The New Year begins in September and ends in June. In between there are July and August, as I said, the months ‘people are away.’

But it’s crazy. It’s not just me. Talk to anyone and that’s what they say, it’s crazy, I’m crazy, it’s insane – an insane month. If you don’t believe me, you need only look up some of the ‘official’ June celebrations. I’m not talking about Father’s Day (which of course has to fall in the month when mothers are already at their wit’s end and like, they need to buy yet another gift and oversee kids making cards.) No, there are other official celebrations like the North American Yell  ‘Fudge’ at Cobras Day (I promise all my readers I could not make this up – it is an official holiday and well beyond the scope of my imagination.) Its purpose is to keep fudge-detesting cobras south of the Panama Canal. I can personally offer no greater proof of June’s insanity than this single fact. Then again, maybe it’s just my grumpiness and it’s only a good excuse to bake some fudge. Which leads me to wonder, does anyone in the world still have that kind of time? To make fudge? And in June?  Are we not squeezing our not yet tanned bodies into bathing suits by now? Fudge, anyone? Come on, just one little piece to scare a cobra!

There are, of course, others reasons to celebrate in June for those who don’t have enough friends and occasions of their own. Like the birthdays of Helen Keller and Captain Kangaroo. And Teddy Bear Day and Independence Day in Slovenia, Croatia and Mozambique. There is Yo Yo Day, Egg Day, Juggling Day and a nice one, Best Friend’s Day. There is also the Happy Birthday to the Happy Birthday Song Day – like the song needs this. Then, the month ends with Superman’s Birthday on June 30th. That’s right. The flying man made of kryptonite was born the last day of June – and there are websites full of party ideas to celebrate his birthday. A cartoon character’s fictitious birthday. Who decides these things? Why JUNE? He isn’t real! Why not when things are calmer?  Superman, I am so very sorry to disappoint you, but we’re just too busy to give you a party this year.  Let’s talk in November.

13 June 2011

Uh, Oh!

“I never make stupid mistakes.  Only very, very clever ones.” John Peel

Like most Moms, I’m always encouraging my boys to try new things, to explore novel ways of doing the same old, same old, to take measured risk and in general, to open their viewpoints and thus, their worlds. Along with this encouragement, I offer the standard reassurances that ‘we all make mistakes,’ that ‘mistakes are how we learn’ and that ‘it’s fine to make a mistake.’ (My favorite on the rare occasion it happens to me.)

I’m joking, of course, but kids can’t take the risks they need to grow without knowing it’s allowable to fail, especially with all the pressure piled on them today. I used to tell my boys a story about my father, who learned to fly a P-47 fighter plane during the Second World War. When he began flight training, he made more mistakes than anyone in his entire squadron. He made every mistake in the flight manual and then some he invented, so many he despaired of ever getting off the ground. But it turns out he was the very first person in the squadron to solo. And he soloed first because of all the mistakes he made. They were his opportunities to learn how to recover from errors that are inevitable. He went on to become half an Ace.

It’s not always as easy to see the correlation between mistakes and achievement, and of course my father’s was a different generation. A generation that could not begin to imagine the lives of my sons today – the instant access they enjoy, the corresponding reach that comes under the names of Google and U-tube and Facebook. Yes, these entities provide tremendous opportunity for our kids, but they rob them at the same time. They steal their anonymity, the essential ability previous generations enjoyed to make erasable mistakes. Because nothing in our children’s lives can be rubbed out today. Every mistake is photographed and posted in the indelible ink that permanently illustrates cyberspace.

So sometimes I question whether my ‘it’s o.k. to make mistakes’ is really the right advice. Am I setting my sons up for more serious failure down the line? Like when they seek admission to a university or to be hired for a job? How much will be held against them when an admission officer finds evidence of a poor decision, a party photo in questionable taste, or something worse, all on the permanent public record of their lives? Rationally I know such mistakes will be made – even that they should be made, that from them my boys will learn. But it is a different world. Mistakes are no longer lessons which one hopes to remember but hopes others forget. They are out there and they stay out there, just ask Anthony Weiner.

Unfortunately, protecting our kids is probably impossible. Keeping them off Facebook doesn’t help because you can't keep all their friends off it too. Eventually someone is going to post some photos whether your kids are on social media sites or not. So now I'm thinking the only solution is to create a party nickname/identity to be used for social purposes, a societal doppelganger if you will, which can then be abandoned when it’s time to resume their true identities as serious adults. They would have to maintain both. Using the true identity, they can post every award they've ever received, photos of them going in to take the SATs and coming out smiling, photos of sports competitions and charitable activities like teaching orphans to read.

Of course, those activities will only be part of the picture. So here is where the nickname identity comes into play. For all those other pursuits, less esteemed by admission officers, job recruiters, and those with the power to admit them into the next stage of their development, they will need to use the nickname identity. With this they will go to parties, they can be photographed in all the stupid rites of passage we once endured without lasting effects. You have to establish some basic ground rules for this identity, of course. I suggest wigs and dark glasses for girls and a wig and fake mustache for guys. I wonder what color I should buy?

06 June 2011


I almost felt sorry for Sarah Palin last week. Really, I did. Almost.

Even with Sarah’s countless gaffes, her “ringin’ those bells to warn the British” response as to the purpose of Paul Revere’s ride – well, how could it not elicit pity? Remember when the teacher would call on the dumb kid in class, the one who never studied? Even though you knew the kid was a nitwit you couldn’t help but feel sorry for her when she was actually up in front of the whole room proving it. Sarah had one of those moments and I almost felt for her. Albeit very briefly. Because then I remembered she didn’t really get called on – Sarah got on the bus and raised her own hand.

Then, it occurred to me that it was all The Donald’s fault. Let’s face it: the guy brags nonstop about how rich he is and all he comes up with for the Palins’ big New York night out is Famiglia’s Pizza? If he had only taken Sarah to one of my old time favorites, 17 Barrow Street (better known as One If By Land, Two if by Sea) this latest, lamentable doozy of a Palinism could have been avoided. Even though the restaurant itself has nothing to do with Paul (it’s actually Aaron Burr’s old carriage house) its name would certainly have sparked conversation about the famous ride and the damage been mitigated. At the very least Sarah would have eaten better and been fortified to wither any reporter who dared pose an offensive question like ‘who was Paul Revere?’

It sure was a gotcha. After all, we are not all history buffs, nor can we be expected to remember the many facts we learned in grade school and five different colleges. Especially when we have such great disdain for facts and all that ‘elite-y’ knowledge stuff. And we just know those pesky reporters in Massachusetts were on a feeding frenzy. It’s so obvious they smelt blood. Didn’t Michele Bachmann recently add some tea chum to those very same New England waters – something about the shot heard around the world and the Concord not in Massachusetts?

According to Sarah, this trip is purportedly nothing more than a family vacation with a goal of ‘publicizing Americana and our foundations and how important it is that we learn about our past and our challenges and victories throughout American History.’ Yeah. And Sarah is going to teach us. Considering she handpicked the sites, is it unreasonable to expect she might have tried to learn a little bit about them?

I know when I set off on educational family trips I always brush up on the details beforehand. I’ll do whatever it takes to maintain for my kids the illusion that I am the fount of all wisdom. (They just think I’m a nerd.) But I do it in the hope of teaching them, to make the history relevant.

Sarah obviously did not  – and she got caught out. You need only watch the clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oS4C7bvHv2w to see the proof. It’s all there in her shifting eyes, her pauses, and the ever-rising sing-songy voice. The class nitwit. A national figure for whom basic facts are beyond the grasp.

Yesterday Sarah went on Fox News Sunday to defend herself. She told Chris Wallace that in no way did she make a mistake, that she ‘knows her American history.’ Sorry, Sarah, but I just don’t buy it. You throw out massive quantities of utter babble in the hope that one factoid passes as an acceptable answer. Even Chris barely seemed able to suppress a smile, but what is truly frightening is that so many other people out there seem to believe you.

So once again the battle between the lame stream media and the SP Defenders takes off – more entertaining than the original story. Even Wikipedia was obliged to close its Paul Revere pages. (Note: the letter from the editor to Sarah Palin’s fans is worth reading but might prove offensive to SP fans seeking to make changes so that the historical accounts reflect their sage Sarah’s wisdom. It isn’t easy to be wrong.

But I have a confession to make.  I also have difficulty admitting when I make a mistake. At least according to my husband, who very rationally makes the case that it just is not statistically possible that I am always right and he is always wrong. I, of course, am not admitting he might have a point.  But I’m not considering a run for President either.

01 June 2011

On Cupid & Culture

Shortly before our wedding, my husband-to-be and I travelled to Zurich. Whilst wandering around the city one afternoon, I came across a small English bookstore in which a collection of short stories, Cupid’s Wild Arrows, caught my eye. Intrigued, I read it was edited by an American woman married to a Swiss and of course, bought the book. I then proceeded to laugh my way through very funny tales of mixed marriages – wonderful anecdotes by various authors in intercultural relationships ranging from English/German to Indian/French, from American/Lebanese to Iranian/Chinese.

The stories were immensely entertaining, but I didn’t particularly relate at the time. Approaching wedding bells had me under the impression (highly mistaken) that my husband and I were soul mates of an order that made the mere notion of differences between us ludicrous.

Fast forward. I might have been a trifle optimistic back in those pre-marital bliss days. Despite a wonderful relationship now in its 18th year, my husband and I are not only very different in all traditional male/female, Mars/Venus, XX/XY, simple/complex ways, we are also Swiss/American different.  It just adds an additional layer of delight to an always stimulating relationship.

And of course, it's the differences that keep life interesting. It’s only a few areas in which they are, say - challenging.

Time management
Any good Swiss will say ‘if you are on time you are five minutes late.’ My husband was raised on this little maxim. I was not. In fact, it has caused untold angst over the years. Particularly as someone who prides herself on being reasonably on time – reasonable being the key concept here. The mere fact that an invitation says 8 o’clock does not necessitate ringing the bell at precisely 7:55, when chances are the hosts will still be showering.

Rule Following (as a general philosophy)
·      Swiss Husband: yes, always, without question.
·      American Wife: most of the time, probably, sometimes, maybe, if it suits.

Driving – Enormous cultural differences. Stressful ones.
·      Swiss Husband: finds it completely normal to engage (with various degrees of frustration/temper/choice-Swiss-phrases) with complete strangers. In other cars. Particularly those unfortunate souls who might not be organized enough to have the exact amount of change prepared and so actually fumble for their wallets at tollbooths. 
·      American Wife: so what’s another minute more or less? Hope they don’t understand Swiss German.

Driving Speed
·      Swiss Husband: no-real-speed-limit-to-speak-of-Autobahn fast.
·      American Wife: 65-mile-per-hour-since-state-troopers-could-be-lurking fast (which is to say, not very.) So what’s another minute more or less?

Meal Planning
·      Swiss Husband: elaborate menus planned well in advance but with ingredients purchased daily for maximum freshness and taste. No repetition in any given season. Starter, Main Course, Dessert. 
·      American Wife (at around 6 p.m): Wonder if there’s anything in the freezer that we could have for dinner tonight?  

Cleanliness – I’ve mentioned this area before. It is one in which I not only appreciate my husband’s cultural heritage, I exemplify it. Like Switzerland’s finest, I have adapted to cleaning items no one but the Swiss would imagine could even be cleaned. As for my husband, suffice it to say he is not very Swiss in this regard, which just shows one should never stereotype.

Cupid, kindly take note!

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