Goodbye, Tiger Mother

It’s almost reflexive to explain away any deficits in meeting commitments by dragging out the old chestnut, “I’ve just been so busy!” And usually you’ll get the understanding nod of the head in response, “Oh yes, I understand, isn’t it ridiculous how busy we all are?”

Yeah. Don’t try that on my Tiger Mother. It doesn’t work. Even when she is your paid tutor in an ill-fated expedition into learning Mandarin, she accepts nothing less than “best effort!” She faced me with her steely gaze the first (and last) time I trotted out that rather lame excuse, and I felt myself shrivel, devolving into a fourth-grader on the spot.

Bottom line here: If I was going to take up her time teaching me Mandarin, I was going to work hard….or else. Well, the “or else” part was unspoken, but I felt it.

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We all remember the Amy Chua book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“, which caused an uproar amongst Western parents appalled at her perceived overly rigorous and highly-disciplined parenting style. My Tiger Mother and I had very frank conversations about the topic because she, too, considers herself a Tiger Mother and is proud of it. It’s refreshing to sit with a mother who, while clearly devoted to them, is not particularly concerned with her sons’ self-esteem. Self-esteem comes later, she says, first we work hard and learn. Hmmmm, not so very different from the dark ages of my own rearing. Once I realized that here was a person with high expectations of me and a dedication to do her very best to bring Mandarin alive for me, I snapped to it and hit the books a bit more diligently.

We travel to Taiwan and China about every 18 months, part business/part pleasure. We have dear friends in Taipei, Jennifer and Leonard, and it’s a given they will speak English when we visit. Jennifer looks forward to our visits as an opportunity to brush up on her idioms; she loves nothing more than learning something new to incorporate into her repertoire of English phrases. “Small potatoes” she learned from an Englishman; “Crack me up!” courtesy of yours truly.

During one of these trips to Taiwan, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to learn a bit of Mandarin, at least enough to make basic conversation and exchange a few pleasantries. And another motivation was to show a sort of respect, I guess you could call it. When we got back to Richmond, I sought out a tutor and my little adventure into Mandarin began.

The Tiger Mother has a name. Actually two names: her English name is Donna, her Chinese is Xiu Min, pronounced “show-min.” It was a step towards cementing our friendship when she eventually asked me to begin calling her by her Chinese name.

She speaks four languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and English. She works here in Richmond at a Starbucks and also for the courts system as a translator. And on weekends, she works at the Chinese school teaching Mandarin to whomever (business people, Cantonese-only speakers, etc.) She puts me to shame with her hard work and industriousness.

Sad to admit that after one-plus years of lessons, the average Chinese dog probably understands more Mandarin than I do. It’s all well and good in the lesson books, but in actual practice, my aging synapses just cannot process the completely foreign combinations of sounds and tones into anything comprehensible. Xiu Min feels confident that were I to actually live in Taiwan for three months, it would all fall into place. I’m not so sure. Smart enough to admit defeat, we agreed to suspend lessons but maintain our friendship. And now, sadly, I learn Xiu Min is moving to China soon as her husband has landed a great opportunity in Guangdong province. For her as a Taiwanese national, this will be almost as much a move into a foreign land as it would be for a Westerner. Almost. 

People come in and out of our lives in many ways. Even though I didn’t emerge from our lessons with as much Mandarin as I would have liked, I learned so much from Xiu Min in other ways including getting the inside scoop on the locations of the most authentic noodle houses in town.  Aaaah, slurping noodles together over vocabulary words is a good thing. Hen hao!

She taught me much about the complicated relationship between Taiwan and China. I learned about the devotion of the Chinese to their families, so much of which is evident in their very vocabulary with its special terms for members of the family: Jie jie, big sister, mei mei, little sister, for starters.  Xiu Min never taught me a word without explaining its origins; many Mandarin words are compounds of other words and make a sort of lyrical sense once you understand the whys and wherefores. Most of all, through her instruction, I felt the enormous pride the Chinese have in their beautiful and ancient culture. 

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Xiu Min requires I sit for all photos. “Too Tall!” she says.

I learned when a certain little Tiger Mother makes you her friend, you’ve got a friend for life.

Zaijian, Xiu Min, wo de pengyou!

Xiexie nin,

BandR

The mark on the left is my “chop!” Beloved Husband’s on right.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Fray

Time for another Weekly Photo Challenge. This week the prompt is “fray.”

Fray. Hmmmm, that’s a tough one. As usual when stumped, I default to my garden which never seems to let me down. Here, the frayed seed heads of the clematis vine.

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Shoe Silver

It takes a lot for me to feel as though I never want to see another pair of shoes in my life. But that’s pretty close to how I felt when our team finally wrapped up a month-long county shoe drive for the needy.  Holy Imelda, did we have a lot of shoes all needing sorting, bundling, packing, transporting, and shipping. Huge sigh of relief as the UPS truck rumbled away with our donations. 

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And then, catching up on my reading last night, I saw this image in the Wall St. Journal which stopped me in my tracks. Another form of shoe donation is giving life to this stunning symbol of people no longer with us. I can’t help but marvel at the power of art.

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These shoes raise a somber question: When a person dies, what happens to their possessions?

These are the shoes of roughly 300 people who have passed away. Their families donated the shoes to Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota for an installation opening at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. at the end of August. I am struck by the variety of shoes, each indicative of their former owner’s personality, job, or taste.

Within each shoe is a handwritten note from each donor confiding a personal memory. 

The artist’s signature technique is the use of string, red or black. She will spend several days linking the shoes and thread into this striking design. Visitors will be able to watch Ms. Shiota at work adding a performance element to the exhibit.

“String can sag, connect, or loosen,” she says. “It has so many human qualities; it has tension.”

The shoes will be strung together using 4 miles of red yarn which will then be threaded up, web-like, to a single overhead hook. The artist wants to emphasize the “emotional heft” of the objects.

Emotional heft. Yes, we do endow the objects that our loved ones leave behind with a certain power, laden as they are with memory and loss.

Shiota plans to do another installation along this theme for the Venice Biennale in 2015 using fifty thousand left-behind keys.

I am one to cling to some of the objects that are left behind; others, I know, don’t endow things with so much symbolism and are able to remember their loved ones in less tangible ways. Who knows, some of those shoes donated to our charity drive might have come to us just that way.

How about you? Would you donate something to an installation like this? Are you a keeper of objects or not?

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

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War Stories: Rudy Gentzheimer

I grew up with war stories. World Wars I and II on the German side and my Dad’s service in Korea and Vietnam are all part of my family’s story. Occasionally I will share a story here. 

We don’t know much about Rudy Gentzheimer beyond his name. And that he was one of the millions of casualties of World War I. We don’t know what his hopes, dreams, and aspirations were. We don’t know where or when he died.

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This photo of Frieda taken circa 1914-1918

One thing we do know. Frieda Gierich loved him with a ferocity that survived two World Wars and two husbands.

This month of August is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. One hundred years ago, millions of young men from England, France, and Germany marched straight into hell with the cheers of their countrymen still ringing in their ears. The “old Lie” as Wilfred Owen so heartbreakingly describes:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917  and March, 1918

It’s hard for me to grasp the reality of millions of dead young men in a war which nearly erased a generation from the face of the earth.  Somehow the tragedy of it is more comprehensible when I think of it in terms of just one life, my grandmother’s, knowing that variations on her story were repeated relentlessly throughout Europe and eventually the United States.

I have a vivid memory of the day she showed me the sepia-toned photograph of Rudy Gentzheimer and told me he was the man she had wanted to marry. He was handsome in his uniform, prematurely balding, blonde, and well-built.

That’s it. That’s all we know about this phantom who had such a place in my Oma’s heart. How I yearn to be able to ask her about him now.

After the war there was a shortage of eligible young men to marry in Germany. A middle-aged civil servant wanted to marry Frieda, but she refused. Family lore has it that her father struck her and told her she would, indeed, marry this man like it or not. Money was hard to come by, and she was not welcome in the home if she didn’t obey. She married a man she did not love.

In the 1920s, after giving birth to a little girl, she divorced Herr Markowitz – a highly scandalous (and brave) act in that day especially for a young German girl. She went to work in a resort hotel in charge of linens and there she stayed for several years. I think of her working very hard, managing the life of a single mother in a time that couldn’t have made it easy to do so. And always, I imagine, grieving for Rudy Gentzheimer.

Funny the twists and turns of fate. The day came when a girlfriend of Frieda’s talked her into going on a double date with two young men who loved to ride motorcycles. (The existence of any of these photographs from so long ago is miraculous, isn’t it?)

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My grandfather on the left, Johannes Fritz Martin

 

One of those young men was my grandfather, Fritz Martin. He had served in the war in the Royal Bavarian Army and had been gravely wounded in France in 1915. He spent a year in a convalescent hospital and was relieved from active duty. When he met Frieda he was beginning his career as an automobile industry engineer.

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One of the lucky ones. 200,000 young men from the Royal Bavarian Army were killed during WWI.

 

 

Obviously, Frieda didn’t stay counting bed sheets the rest of her life or I wouldn’t be here telling their story. Frieda and Fritz were married in 1929 and six years later my mother was born.

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Frieda and Fritz are in the upper left. The others are all members of his family.

At least they had a few years of peace before the next conflagration began.

When my grandmother showed me the photo of Rudy Gentzheimer, it was in the 1960s. Now that I think about it, I realize that the photograph somehow made it through the devastation of World War II. Did she carry it with her through the bombings and the harrowing flight into the Austrian Alps after the war? I imagine she must have.

We don’t have the photo now. When Oma died, we were living in the US, and her possessions were handed down to other German family members. I wonder if it was thrown away. No matter now, I guess. I’ve asked my mother what she knows about Rudy Gentzheimer. She feels as I do – frustrated that there are questions to which we will never have answers. My mother’s sense is that Frieda never really recovered from his death and that the grief was with her for the rest of her life.

And while I am fully aware that Rudy’s death paved the way for my own life, I feel a sort of sorrow for his life cut short far too soon and for my grandmother’s great loss. They say that no man is really dead while his name is still spoken, and so for Rudy Gentzheimer and all the rest of the boys who marched off to the old Lie, I remember his name one more time.

Rudy Gentzheimer.

Thank you for reading,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Texture

This week, share a texture found in an unexpected place. It could be made of natural materials, as in these images, or with man-made objects. Click here for more.

Texture. If there’s one place texture abounds around this old house, it’s in the garden:

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I throw in the photo-bombing Westie Max free of charge.

And the main reason I grow celosia is for its fuzzy-wuzzy velvety texture:

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And here’s one more celosia. This one has a sea coral quality, doesn’t it?:

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Six Degrees of Dorothy

Some of you know I have a fondness for Dorothys (is it Dorothies?) having yet to meet one I didn’t like. It’s just one of those names that seems to attach itself to good people. Here’s the story of my very first Dorothy encounter.

I was selling real estate in a small firm in Massachusetts back in the 80s when a new agent joined us. We introduced ourselves and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, Dee. Wow, you’re the third Dee I’ve met this week.

D: Yes, I’m really Dorothy, but on the plane going over to Germany after college, I decided to become Dee instead.

Me: Oh, you went to Germany after college?

D: Yes, I used to be a teacher. I taught in Army schools over there.

Me: You’re kidding. When?

D: Oh, way back in the sixties.

Me: Where?

D: (probably feeling a bit interrogated) On a small base just outside Stuttgart.

Me: You’re kidding. I went to Army school near Stuttgart in the sixties. What grade did you teach?

D: (Now surely feeling interrogated) Elementary school. On a little base called Boeblingen.

Cue the Twilight Zone music now.

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Me: You’re kidding! That’s where I went to school. Kindergarten up to fourth grade. My second and third grade teachers were Miss  Hamilton and Miss Dressel. You didn’t know them, did you?

D: Know them? They were my roommates! We were the best of friends.

Fade to Rod Serling speaking in that smoky voice of his…..we never know how we are connected, do we? 

 

So here’s the fun part. I went home and got these pictures for her.

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I was convinced Miss Hamilton was the most beautiful creature on earth.

 

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Here is Miss Dressel. And the soon to be General Quinn.

And she brought me black and white photos (you know the kind with the ruffled edges?) of her and the glammed-up Misses Dressel and Hamilton out partying in Germany. What I wouldn’t give to have copies of those photos right now.  Over the years, Dee had lost touch with the two ladies, so I have no idea where they might be now.

And I can’t help but wonder…..what if I hadn’t met two other Dees that very week? We wouldn’t have had this particular conversation which led to our connection. Would we ever have put two and two together?

How about you? Have you had a Six Degrees moment? Do tell!

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

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Spatchcockery Afoot

I was faffing about in the curtilage feeling a bit chuffed that I had just come up with such a great idea for dinner: I would spatchcock a chook.

Say what? If I could get away with it, this is how I would speak. But adding just one more eccentricity to my already long list might prove to be the tipping point for those I hold near and dear. So I refrain….for the most part.

I have a mad passion for the words and phrases lost to time or used only by those “other” English-speakers…you know who I mean, the original ones across the pond and their cousins in Australia and New Zealand. Here a sampling of just a few deliciously obscure terms:

“The pink limit!” A friend and I were “simul-reading” a D. E. Stevenson novel and both of us, avid word-lovers, pounced on this obsolete British phrase eagerly. She researched it and found it to mean the equivalent of something like “the last straw.”  “What do you mean, you’re out of gin? That is just the pink limit!”

“Dash it” or “Dash it to bits”. Thanks this time to one of my favorite authors, P. G. Wodehouse. How I adore him. That will be a subject of another post….I digress….his wonderful Bertie uses “Dash it” with charming regularity. It conveys just the perfect dollop of civilized annoyance. “Why didn’t I buy those awesome iced tea glasses? Dash it!!”

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Closely related is “dashed.” It’s a dashed lovely thing and although they have nearly identical meanings, it’s infinitely more posh than “wicked.”

Curtilage   Alexander McCall Smith, another great fan of obscure English, wrote a charming Facebook post a few years ago wherein he extolled the virtues of the almost extinct “curtilage.” The curtilage (which autocorrect annoyingly insists on converting to “cartilage,) is the private garden area, usually walled or fenced in, just outside the manse. The curtilage is where one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy from all those pesky estate employees. I expect to hear it used someday on “Downton Abbey.”

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“Faffing about”. Introduced to me by a friend from New Zealand, it means “dilly-dallying”, procrastinating, or idly wasting time. I rather like the sound of “happily faffing about the house”, don’t you? As a matter of fact, I see nothing wrong with developing “faffing about” into an art form.

“Chuffed” Well, this one is fun. It means pleased with oneself. I’m feeling rather chuffed you’ve read this far!

“Fantoosh” Another Alexander McCall Smith favorite, this old Scottish word means garish, ostentatious, over-dressed. “His second wife dresses rather fantoosh, wouldn’t you say?”

“Snaffled”  Take something quickly and without permission – slightly less than outright robbery….one would “snaffle” a swig of port from the decanter when Jeeves isn’t looking.

And “Spatchcock.” This word I heard for the first time in the illustrious Wall St. Journal of all places. How obscure it is, I have no idea but it has a certain ring to it. It is a specific method of flattening a chicken (or chook as the Aussies say.) Makes for more even cooking. We tried it recently:

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Poor little chook. As if appearing in such an undignified pose weren’t enough, now you are about to be spatchcocked!

Take your preferably already postmortem chicken and place on clean dishtowel, backbone up, breasts down.

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With a pair of kitchen shears (or whatever scissors you can find) locate the backbone and start cutting away until the bird is officially spineless.

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Now for the fun part! Flip her over and with your palm, give a good whack or two until you feel it flatten out as much as reasonable.

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Et Voila! A spatchcocked chicken:

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Now give it a good rub with whatever olive oil-based marinade you like, generously salt and pepper, and place on a medium-hot grill until the bird is done to your liking.

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We slathered her up with olive oil and red pepper flakes.

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Made for the tenderest and most evenly cooked chicken ever.

Back to words for a second. It is a favorite thing of mine when odd little words or expressions are shared in a relationship – that secret language that sort of binds you to each other.

What favorite funny words or expressions do you use? Surely I can’t be alone in this quirk, can I?

Chuffed that you visited,

Barbara

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