Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Name This 50's Era Scandinavian Musical Rom-Com Film

Here's me writing the diary entry below in our Hotel Skt. Petri room. Our south-facing view is of said church and the university district. Beats the bathtub.

Saturday night, October 3, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark

Back in the room, after hugs and affectionate good-byes with Jens Ulrich, Nora is chipper from her long nap. She's entranced by a TV show of children doing flips, otherworldly stretches, feats with hula-hoops, singing and hip-hop dancing. It's kind of Cirque du Soleil-style extreme gymnastics meets the broad smiles and pre-teen peppiness of Irish stepdancing.

Later, the girls and I start watching a 1950's studio-bound romantic comedy musical I assume is Danish (still can't distinguish between the Scandinavian languages) starring what looks like the Northern European version of Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

A young wife asks her husband for more romantic attention, but he's distracted by his new sportscar. When she hears news that he danced at a nightclub with another woman (a racecar driver whom the husband met cute while dragging on the highway), the wife moves out of their modern newlywed townhouse into a bohemian boarding house full of flirty musicians. The landlady's daughter loves one Italian singer but he makes the moves on our young heroine, who resists him a bit and gets a job as a model at the same dress designer's studio where she used to shop. The husband, who finds his wife's whereabouts from their sympathetic cleaning lady, was unrepentantly teasing his wife by showing up for a fashion show with his racer friend when Randy and I told the girls it was time for bed.

The funny thing, every performance was so stylized and every plot point so telegraphed and cliched, I had no problem narrating the entire movie to the girls. They were engrossed even through the yucky kissing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Afternoon with a Danish Friend

The view from Jens' fifth-floor bathroom.

Saturday, October 3, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Our rooms aren't ready at the First Hotel Skt. Petri so we leave the bags, pick up a rosemary plant gift at a shop to augment the chocolates from the Malmo factory and catch a cab out to Hellerup, a quiet residential neighborhood north of downtown Copenhagen. Flagpoles outside suburban Danish homes fly the incredibly long and thin triangular Danish banner-flag.

Jens Ulrich hails us from six flights up. His all white attic condo used to be drying rooms for the laundry that was washed in the basement. Now it's all cool modern design and snuggly thick rug comfort. Rain batters his skylight windows and drips down in hypnotic patterns as we sit and drink wine and tea around lit candles while the girls snuggle up to Dad. Nora falls deeply asleep; Mia whispers, "Can we go? I want to go," in between dozing.

The grown-ups talk the Danish character ("content with a limited world view" is Jens' verdict), how the differences between the Scandinavian countries matter less than the difference between an international outlook and a provincial view. We talk the psychological affects of good design, and how luxurious a simple space that has been designed with warmth and intelligence can feel. I recall the word "hygge," pronounced a bit like "hoo-klee" with a slight gargle in the throat, a term that I learned years ago from Sally. "Homey" or "cozy" are the closest, but still inadequate translations. It's more a national philosophy of warmth, than simply a feeling. We talk the limits of Danish freedom and the difficult-to-stabilize balance between welfare and wealth.

Jens has his own management consulting company so he feels sorely what he sees as the onerous government restrictions on growth and investments. On the way home in the rain Jens takes us by his new company building, a beautiful remodeled car repair shop surrounded by a gray gravel parking lot and stands of bamboo.

We're talking law enforcement and soccer hooligans on the drive back to the hotel when I get the strongest rush of deja vu - either I dreamed of attending a match or saw a film --no, now I remember, I was an essay from The New Kings of Non-Fiction. The writing was so vivid, I must have imagined the whole scene of drunken fights on the streets, especially the darkness, in my head. Jens was talking about Danish policemen using dialogue with suspects - mediation to get them to wake up to reason - but I could remember so well the feeling I'd internalized from reading Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs" - that the cops had seen nothing but my aftermath and I can disappear into the crowd without repercussions. It was a creepy place to be. "I must have been a soccer lout in another life," I told Randy, as our gracious friend drives us through this most civilized city, in this most civilized of countries.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chicago Out in the First Round of OIC Voting

Saturday, October 3, 2009. Copenhagen.

Friday, our last full day in Malmo, Sweden, Mia was warm with fever but kept insisting, whispering really, from her bed that she wanted to go swimming again. We shopped souvenirs at the Lilla Torg square and had lunch at a a tiny modern sushi place. The girls drank miso soup out of paper cups.

Lilla Torg, again.

Mia didn't have the energy to go down the water slide at Aq-va-kul again more than once but Nora laughed and laughed at the bubbles and screamed with laughter riding her buoy elephant. On our way out, I lost my locker key somewhere between the pool and the locker room. A little complicated to get the girls to relay the message out to Randy who is waiting for us in the hall but eventually a nice woman from the front desk brings in a bolt cutter and says "this happens every day." She gives me a new lock and key - another "whatta country!" moment.

Outside we spot a rainbow and the famous twisty tower through a break in the trees across the street. When again, we can't hail a cab and everyone looks limp, I lead the way into a corner coffee shop called Pic Nic. The sweet and pretty woman behind the counter has no bread or rolls left but Mia gets some hot chocolate, Dad a beer, Nora milk with the all important straw and I have chai with a side of steamed milk. We sit in a lovely back room with high ceilings and a view of the green and brick courtyard, carved stone faces on the blue walls of the rear building. I'll think of this pretty space the next day when Jens Ulrick, our new Danish friend, tells us Danish law requires all workers have a view of natural light.

Back at the hotel both girls take heavy naps. While they sleep, news of the first round knockout of Chicago from the 2016 Olympics competition slips quietly into some Facebook/Twitter streams I'm clicking through. Not with a bang but a whimper is how we learn via 140 characters. Shock and disappointment, Monday morning quarterbacking. Randy updates he feels like he got a dead puppy on Christmas and continues drinking with the Fleetwood Mac roadies in the hotel bar.

An inside theory is that first round voting often extends a courtesy "thank you for applying, please try again next time" vote to an underdog and not for the first time, the front runner's votes were over-assumed. We also hear of possible resentment over a U.S. loan to the OIC.

I'm still terribly proud of my dear and his good work. I hate the interwebs. The few troll comments I make the mistake of reading say horrible things about our president.

The next morning a pilot from Florida in the workout rooms asks if he can ask me a personal question which always makes me smile 'cause I'm so tempted to say "no" for a laugh. "Do you think Obama ruined our chances with that ostentatious show and all?"

"How do you mean?" I asked, not giving him an inch, which he should have expected from the hometown I told him two minutes ago. He was talking about the television stations following Air Force One's arrival at CPH airport and the motorcade to the convention center - we'd watched yesterday morning. This blame of Obama was the very thing I feared when he got on board the Chicago bid - still, it's shocking to hear it so soon. I counter the pilot with how I'd read the president made sure via Valerie Jarrett that other heads of state were also appearing and how he cannot control his own media coverage. I also understand pilots, with their usual military backgrounds are in general a conservative lot and this gentleman hailed from red state Florida to boot. We parted friendly.

I had packed the night before because we were to get together with Jens Ulrich, an old friend of Sally and Erik's whom I had met at their place years before. I remember well his bubbly self and was looking forward to seeing him again at home and asking lots of questions about what we'd been experiencing in Scandinavia.

We have rain all day so I'm glad our plans are simple. We'll make our way to the nearby Malmo train station, then cross the channel on the Oresund bridge via the quick and smooth train, retrieve our dirty clothes from the Copenhagen Central Station baggage room and grab a taxi to our new hotel, First Hotel Skt. Petri.

On the train, the girls want me to tell them the story of Frankenstein's monster again. I cobble together a PG version from the parts of the book I read in high school, the 1973 movie Frankenstein: The True Story and James Whale's films. "And when the hand crept across the table by itself, Dr. Frankenstein cried out, 'It's alive! It's alive!'"

Mia listens wide-eyed and chimes in "Read it! Read it!" whenever I pause. She improves my story when Dr. F. sees footprints in the snow leading away from the frozen ship and for the first time decides to follow the monster instead of running away. "He wants to tell him he's sorry!" says my wise child. I concur and take the story in her compassionate direction.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Swedish Hotel Room

Friday night, October 2, 2009. Malmo, Sweden

We're watching TV in bed. Sweden's version of "America's Got Talent," is called "Talent 09" and hosted by a floppy haired blond guy in a bow tie and brown-checked suit. Mia radiates heat next to me as she sleeps.

I was lying in this same place this morning when Randy said, "Go time," as soon as he woke and flipped on the news to watch Obama's arrival in Copenhagen via Air Force One for the final pitch of the 2016 Summer Olympic host city contenders. We hung out all morning and tried to keep an eye on the TV while helping the girls bathe and dress.

It was a thrill to watch Randy and co.'s film after Michelle Obama spoke...

(Can you tell how tired we all are? Can you read the fatigue in the writing? Both girls took deep naps today and Mia never really got out of bed after hers except once to stumble confused toward the closet instead of the bathroom she needed.)

More later, although you know where this is going.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fine Chocolates and First Time Water Sliding: Malmo, Sweden

We're taking another family trip out of the country soon, so I want to tell you the rest of our Scandinavia story before we have another tale begging to be told. If you want to read about our September trip from the beginning, go back to October 2 and then click through the newer posts. Or search for "Scandinavia."

Thursday afternoon, October 1, Malmo, Sweden

The morning of Mia's 7th birthday, we have a good buffet breakfast in the glass ceilinged atrium of the ye olde wing half-timbered wing of the Radisson SAS hotel. Lots of meats and cheeses. I giggle at the little signs with smiley faces pronouncing the health benefits of the different dishes. The ubiquitous slab of butter bears the label "Protein."

As we walk back to our 5th floor room from the elevators, we cross a passageway lined with floor to ceiling windows. We can look down on the grass and trees on the roof of the third floor and beyond to views of 17th and 18th century Malmo buildings surrounding our hotel, west to the coastal industry and the dramatic sky.

After my workout, I write in the bath while the girls play with Mia's new birthday toys. We head out to explore the town. We stop on the steps of a church to take pictures of Birthday Girl wearing her big girl smile and a ribbon to tell the world about her special day.

The girls surprise us by being thoroughly entertained in St. Peter's Church (Sankt Petri Kyrka). There's a tiny Jesus-less creche display whose black and white goats Nora likes and an amazing 15th century chapel with ceiling figures and a dark crypt stone on the floor engraved with a cartoony skull. In another corner we find a small table and chairs, paper and crayons. The girls are engrossed for twenty minutes, drawing Jesus in this airy hushed place.

St. Peter's chapel detail

We walk to Lilla Torg square, a charming cafe-lined plaza of renaissance era buildings. We check menus, head down the cobblestone block and find Gozzip, full of Swedes, where the girls politely eat their mono-meal of pasta and milk and Mom enjoys the potatoes and carrots under my mayonnaise-sauce smothered pollack. As in many Scandinavian restaurants, a table to the side offers self-service water, salad, soup and bread. Even the humblest storefronts with counter service offer their "fast food" on plates with silverware. Little of the casual waste we are accustomed to here in America where single-use napkins, paper plates and excessive food containers are the norm.
Lilla Torg

We grab a taxi to the Malmo Chokladfabrik (chocolate factory) (since 1888!) which turns out more modest than the Willy Wonka meets Steampunk wonderland I was imagining. "Are there tours?" I ask the woman behind the counter. "Well, you can look through that window," she replies. We look up to see three women molding truffles in a kitchen. But the cafe area has display cases of old chocolate bar molds and cool dipping utensils and beautiful antique packaging adorned with faded yet elaborate flowers and rosy baby faces.

When Mia chooses two fresh Madagascar truffles (the Swedes call them pralines) from the immaculate case of treats, the kind saleswoman in an Oompa Loompa t-shirt retrieves them with white gloved hands and serves them to Mia on a three inch round silver tray.

It's raining and this has been the time Nora usually crashes so we divide and conquer, Mia and I taking our suits to Aq-va-kul, an indoor swim park with a name that plays on the Swedish phrase for "what fun." (Sorry the Aq-va-kul website is only in Swedish; click on the "Pa Aq Va Kul" tab to find a video with a catchy and funny song in English: "Water can be found in orchid!/ Water can be found in you!") I'd discovered the pool on a web page about children's activities in Malmo.

A lock costs $4, towel rental is $2, kids swim for $7 and adults for $10. The locker room in clean but not brand new. Mia giggles at the gauntlet of spray, disinfectant I assume, directed at our feet as we walk to the showers. The air is warm in the shower room. The motion controlled shower heads take a minute to figure out but we are game.

The pool itself wowed us right away. A zero depth entry plus tiled little bridges and walks curving around hot tubs and a circular river. Colorful floats made of buoy strength foam and shaped like sharks, crosses, elephants, cars and tubes. Fountains and giant underwater jets go off at unexpected times. A curvy slide. In the second room, a waterfall cascades in front of a small circular grotto with lights and seats. My favorite part of the pool was a circular alcove where jets made the water bubble like bad champagne. Just past it was a plastic covered passageway to the pool outside. I couldn't believe we were going to dip outside in this weather that reminded me more of November than early October, but keeping our shoulders low in the warm water, Mia and I moved past the plastic sheets and out in the cool air. It's Sweden, after all! They're polar bears here. The sensation was lovely - the cool air on our faces only making the water feel warmer. People in fall coats walked by on the sidewalk just past the fence and a few dead leaves floated on the surface.

Back inside I encouraged Mia to try the water slide. I did a trial run myself and the slope was so gentle, I nearly stalled a couple of times. I promise to catch Mia at the bottom but there was no need - she came down grinning and hooting. She slid over and over again, sometimes sitting cross-legged and spinning around and once landing with her arms in the air, making jaunty peace signs. My funny funny dear seven year old.

Yesterday she asked if I was ready for her to be seven and I said I had to be - it was sort of like jumping on a roller coaster - I was out of control so I might as well enjoy the ride. This morning when I woke, her age was perfect. Six suddenly seemed too young for this tall independent girl.

I'd promised Randy we would be back by six but cabs were not coming down this street just west of the shopping district. We walked to a busier intersection and finally hailed one. We had lots of stories to tell Daddy and he had for us as well.

"The wind blew Nora ten feet in the air!" and other less dramatic tales of nice daddy daughter times. We whisper to each other how sweet the girls are when we have one alone. The four of us walk a single block to a small trattoria where men stand at the pocket bar under a line of silver-lidded beer steins and every table but ours is full.

"Prego, prego," says the proprietor. The smells are wonderful. The girls play with Mia's new birthday ponies, Randy has a Carlsburg or three. My caprese salad and pesto salmon are very good but the delicious potatoes once again the stars of the show. The typical Swedish touches of jarred olives and oversoft white asparagus are mystifying.

The skies are dramatic in all kinds of ways here tonight - the clouds are pitch black against a sky that retains just enough light to remain the darkest shade of blue.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hope Edelman's The Possibility of Everything

The writers in the Silicon Valley Moms Blog group are discussing Hope Edelman's newest book today and I am thrilled. Although I've never met the woman, Hope Edelman's name and story feels as familiar as that of a friend. We are both around the same age, lost our mothers too soon, studied at the University of Iowa, and have two daughters. We married our husbands for the same reason -- as Edelman puts it in The Possibility of Everything, "he was the kindest man I'd ever met." And we both write, although her output towers over mine.

Her books have been on my shelf for years, their titles like a distilled description of the rawest part of my life: Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss; Letters from Motherless Daughters: Words of Courage, Grief and Healing; Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become.

The tone of these books fluctuates between that of an understanding counselor, bringing healing and understanding to women who grieve and that of a consummate researcher, analytical yet insightful. I have found much comfort there, but little of the messy emotions that have accompanied my own delayed grieving process. Motherless Mothers' index has no listing for "rage, drowning in."

Edelman's latest book, a memoir entitled The Possibility of Everything, exhibits a slightly less confident voice, but one I can relate to in even greater measure. It describes with great honesty a period in her life while she was taking on the most daunting of roles: first-time mother of a challenging child.

At a tense period in her marriage, Edelman's then-three year old daughter began exhibiting disturbingly aggressive behavior that the little girl attributed to the influence of her imaginary friend, "Dodo." Along with her understanding husband Uzi, Edelman used a family vacation to Belize to explore the powers of the country's natural healers to help her daughter and to explore the limits of her own credulity.

I'm not interested in debate whether Edelman's daughter was literally possessed by a supernatural spirit or not. I may be a confirmed atheist, but I'm not an evangelical one. Nor do I believe my skepticism can diminish the undeniable power in Edelman's descriptions of eerie behavior by the precocious three-year-old Maya, of her growing suspicions that something was seriously wrong with her daughter, and of the strange, yet strangely ordinary visits with Belizian spiritual doctors.

Who can deny that little Maya was receiving something she genuinely needed when Edelman anoints her child and rustily recites old prayers at the moving climax of the story? Perhaps whether the nature of that needed thing lies in the supernatural, the emotional, the psychological or a combination of these is less important than that Maya, and her mother, experienced a moment of healing.

In a Q and A with the Silicon Valley Mom Bloggers last week, Hope Edelman revealed, "when I committed to writing the book, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't try to sugarcoat the story to make myself look good. I wanted to write a true, authentic story that honestly revealed who I was—or who I think I was—ten years ago, even if I feel that I'm not exactly the same person now." She admits she "had to find courage and humility to write ... parts of the book."

The self-doubts and anxieties that Edelman fearlessly shares resonated deeply with me. My first daughter Mia worried me too, to a degree that I was nearly afraid to share. My compliant second daughter's first word was a lispy "Yes"; Mia's first word was "Duck." It took me a while to figure out that Mia was issuing a warning rather than naming a bird.

Mia has always been a dramatic child, full of passion and stormy moods. Even now at seven, tears can fall fast over spilled tea, over the prospect of homework and the promise of dessert only after the playroom is cleaned. Her tantrums at the age of three shocked me with their intensity. Her face would turn a terrible red, the screams seemed endless. But unlike Edelman, I connected the dots very early between the loss of my mother and the extreme distress I felt when my daughter's emotions overwhelmed her.

When Mia screamed and writhed on the floor like no child I had ever seen, I spoke to her in a voice that seemed that of an actress playing a role I had taken on without sufficient rehearsal. That voice fretted, pleaded, bargained, threatened, and occasionally stayed calm and let Mia and her emotions take their time. Another voice, the one I hear in my head, whispered, "Of course."

Of course something was seriously wrong with my daughter. Because something seriously wrong happened to her mother. My parents died when I was four. Becoming a mother myself for the first time brought up powerful feelings of grief I had not been allowed, by others and by myself, to experience when I was young. Tapping into these deep rivers of sadness, longing, questioning and anger at times has complicated my own efforts to be the good mother I want to be.

Like Hope Edelman's little girl, my daughters have asked, "Why are you so sad?" when they saw their mother in tears. My initial impulse to remain vague and to distract because the reality seemed too complicated and too frightening has battled with my desire to be emotionally honest and genuine, to be open about the past and my struggles with it.

Now that I have a little more parenting experience and the equilibrium and perspective that come with it, I know that I have to move beyond the simplistic idea that Mia and I are stuck in a terminal determination rather than moving on a journey of healing. I know I need to let my daughter be who she is without projecting my fears on her. I am getting better at stopping catastrophizing that things are worse than they may be.

When I asked Hope Edelman whether her daughter's internal struggles may have been a stressful reaction to Maya's limited understanding that her mommy had something terrible happen to her, she saw less of a direct connection. You can read her full response to that questions, and others, here.

My deep thanks to Hope for sharing her story with us all, for taking the time to discuss her work with the SVM bloggers and bringing our attention to the country of Belize. Edelman donated a portion of the book advance to a book drive for the library in San Ignacio, toward building two new classrooms in San Antonio, and as a high school scholarship for two children from San Ignacio, since only about 60 percent of the citizens of Belize can afford to go to high school.