You'd think I'd love the season, what with having three small children and all. I certainly should. But I don't. Two dozen CDs with music from Bing to Bono are stacked up in the kitchen on Thanksgiving weekend and played ad nauseum while my wife and kids powder the floor and countertops with flour, play with matches around dry sprigs of evergreen and make up wish-lists that, if fulfilled, would fill our house full of plastic stuff and break the World Bank.
Perhaps my aversion to Advent comes from having my own wish-lists go not only unfulfilled but unfulfilled out. I ddin't even dare think out loud - much less write down - what I wished for. I knew I'd be disappointed. When I was 15 my mother finally bowed to my C...-Eve sobbing and moved some of the gifts from my elder sister's "pile" to mine. The secret shuffling was revealed when Susan's friend asked her how she liked the Beatles' Red Album and Susan told her I had received it.
I'm a perfectionist and get pissy when things don't go 100% right, so my expectations for the perfect C... - still lingering in my reptile mind - start dripping salt into wounds from C...es past the day I hear the first "Have yourself a very merry C...."
So please tell me how to have a very merry C... without giving my kids their own toystore and 51% of the common shares of Ebay. It's become even harder to sing along during December since my faith has left me. After the birth of our first child, the story of the baby and the swaddling clothes and important people who came to give him presents made real sense for the first time in my life. Now it's no more than a silly myth to me.
I may come around someday. Until then, C... is a four-letter word to me.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Twenty-one years ago I moved to Germany from the US, having studied German and having fallen in love with the culture I had discovered here. I loved the long breakfasts that students had before their lectures and the culture of drinking coffee and having cake in the afternoon. The miracle of H-Milch, bike paths and the efficient train system convinced me this was the place to be.
Plus, I didn't want to pay expensive tuition for an advanced degree in musicology, so - after working in the US for five years after getting my bachelor's - I enrolled at the University of Freiburg in October 1990 and enjoyed the life of a student once more. Sure I missed barbeque sauce, sloppy Joes, Ginger Ale and my family and friends, but now I had Schnitzel, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, real beer and friends who spoke my languages.
In the meantime, things have changed. Universities started to charge tuition - which proved unconstitutional the first time they tried it, but they are trying again! The socialist idea behind the German educational philosophy, where everyone has a chance to find his own niche, has been dropped for elite universities and 60% of students wanting to go to college.
Long breakfasts and coffee hours have turned into McBreakfast and coffee-to-go. You can buy doughnuts (also spelled "donat's") and even "bagel's" spread with Philadelphia and there are at least four Starbucks in Stuttgart (I won't count them).
Good German beer, once clean-brewed according to a medieval law, is sold in the bottle already mixed everything from cola to vodka and lemonade.
The post office and German train system have been privatized, which should have made them more efficient, but the capitalistic journey has only made it nearly impossible to find a mailbox, made it more confusing to buy a train ticket and don't even ask me if the letters or trains arrive on time.
Even the German military - long a source of defense-only pacifism - is involved in wars abroad.
I ask: is it necessary for the other industrialized nations to follow the American Way down to the letter?
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Having to be right or be in control makes you a control freak and leads to micromanagement of the worst sort (see the article on Donald Rumsfeld in the New Yorker for an example of where this can lead to) because you can't succeed without help from others. And who wants to help a control freak? They give off the aura of someone who doesn't need help, but I think they need it in the worst way!
There are so many things we can't control - is there actually anything we CAN control?! - that the best philosophy, in my opinion, is that of the Tao te ching - going with the flow.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
We have two of everything. Three children, so two of everything any of them might ever need: hats, water bottles, pencil cases, backpacks, bike locks, pairs of tennis/dress/all-weather shoes, stereos, every imaginable Playmobil and LEGO piece, remote control cars, treasure chests - and that's where things get hairy.
How can you treasure what comes so easy? I would have loved for my parents to spend money on me. Instead they spent time with me. I grew up making the most of what I had rather than losing half of what I had.
My children are in the unfortunate situation of having parents who want the best for them and think they need things to make them better. The only thing I see this opulence leads to is junk drawers, frustration and tears.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
I grew up having to prove myself to people who didn't believe in me, to people I wanted to impress or surprise or spite, and to myself. That sucks. Yes, it provides motivation to succeed, but that motivation is external so it does little good in the end because it is not fulfilling.
What is the alternative? I guess being satisfied with who you are and what you've achieved. Get rid of your ego, grow out of dependence on others, and become a supporter of the next generation. If you can do all this, I guess you don't need to prove anything to anyone else.
Monday, June 6, 2011
After WW II the Germans were seduced by the American soldiers' chocolate bars, chewing gum and music. The black soldiers were particularly interesting for what was left of the Caucasian population, so the new forms of American music - gospel and jazz - captivated the (sometimes literally) captive audiences from Flensburg to Salzburg. However, you can't change a population's genes in a generation or two (as much as some people tried) and Germans for the most part still can't really swing today.
Listening to a colorfully dressed group of Hans and Liesls singing "Oh happy day" as if they were at a funeral is bad enough, but it has a double sting if some of the audience members are black Americans expecting real gospel music. The painful recognition that the heirs to gospel music are applauding politely rather than thrusting their hands into the air and shouting "Halleluja!" drives home the horror of this unfair musicological turn-around. In other words, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
Sunday, June 5, 2011
This happens not only in foreign countries but also in your own neighborhood. Know what I'm talking about? You tell someone a story and they misunderstand it or intentionally misconstrue it when telling it to someone else. Or you want one thing and your partner wants something else, thus you lay the foundation for miscommunication and misunderstanding.
The really shitty thing about it is that it's often so hard to iron out. Once something has been said - or, more importantly, heard - and taken for the truth, it is doubly hard to convince others that what you said - or what they understood - is different from what you really meant. It is sort of like getting stuck on the escalator going the wrong way with gaggles of people before you and groups of people standing behind you. You just have to go with the flow, then go all the way back down and try to work things out again.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
You may remember when you woke up this morning and the last time you ate chocolate ice cream. Some people do not, and that is an awful thing.
I'm not (necessarily) talking about senility, dementia, Alzheimer's and the rest of those clinically diagnosed degenerative diseases. What I'm referring to is that double-aha feeling you have when you walk into the bathroom to get something and don't have the foggiest reason why you went in there. The second whammy comes when the fear hits you that, because your father is suffering from severe dementia, you may end up fading to black, too - and this is just one of the first signs, so get used to it. Soon your life will be out of your hands and you'll be putting hair remover on your toothbrush because...because...a tube's a tube, right?
Looking on the bright side of forgetfulness, the people around you will have a much harder time dealing with you and your dementia than you will, so lighten up!