Saturday, April 30, 2011

The action shot!!

Here I am, engrossed in my favorite vacation activity:

So, we'll take the 12:40 boat to Isola Madre, where we will wander around and enjoy the gardens for exactly one hour and twenty-five minutes, then catch the 14:20 boat to Stresa where the kids can play on the playground for fifty minutes before we catch the 15:40 boat to Santa Caterina del Sasso...

I'm not sure anyone else in the family enjoys lake boat rides as much as I do, but they did OK:

We sure are riding a lot of boats on this trip...

But we all got to enjoy a lot of gorgeous scenery. Here's Nico at Santa Caterina del Sasso (a three-building hermitage built into the side of a cliff):

just hanging out

and on Isola Madre:

Leo is a lot more reluctant to be photographed than Nico (unless he's playing "Angry Birds"), but my husband got one picture of both boys touring the botanical gardens:

Our imaginary universe is even more fun than all these gardens our parents keep taking us to!

Friday, April 29, 2011


When we last left our little tale of my crazy international life, I admitted to passively letting people in Paris believe I was Swiss, mostly just because I like to keep people guessing. Well, be careful what you wish for!

I've been learning Italian for almost as long as I've been speaking French -- and I've gotten to the point where I can read simple books and carry on a rudimentary conversation in Italian -- but I've never gotten really fluent in Italian because I've never spent more than a few weeks at a time in Italy (and even then, I haven't gone far off the tourist-beaten track).

But that's OK! Because at Lago Maggiore (as I mentioned earlier) most of the tourists are Italian, French, German, or Swiss. So if you start speaking to someone in Italian -- even if they sense that Italian is not your best language -- they can't simply switch to your best language because they don't know which one it is! Hahahahaha!! Unlike Z├╝rich, where everybody just assumes that everybody else speaks English. Where, if you have an accent or make a grammatical error when speaking German, Swiss people give you this "isn't it cute that you're trying to speak German? But seriously, if you want to communicate, I'll just stick to English for you." And then the Swiss people complain that the foreign residents don't bother to learn German. But I digress...

Anyway, there was one major new development in my life since my previous trip to Lago Maggiore: I have really gone to town on learning German! I'm now at the point where I can carry on a rudimentary conversation with ease, and most slightly-more-complicated things I'd like to say, I can approximate in real time (or at least in a not-too-embarrassing length of time). But -- as anyone who has tried to learn a second foreign language can attest -- my new foreign language (German) is interfering with my earlier one (Italian)!!!

Fortunately, my German has not interfered with my French. I guess that since I lived in France for seven years (and I still speak French with lots of people on a daily basis), French has moved out of the "expendable foreign language" part of my brain...? Ever since learning French made me forget all my Latin, I've been very careful to practice and review French and Italian while learning German. (Aside: I don't understand those folks who can speak seven or eight languages fluently -- it's hard enough just learning four!) Anyway, if I haven't lost you already, you can probably see where this is going:

Every time I tried to speak to someone in Italian, a bunch of the words would come out in German. Totally unintentionally. I was trying to speak Italian and ended up speaking some sort of Italodeutsch. So, naturally, everybody assumed I was German. It's not that far-fetched an assumption -- the place was crawling with Germans-attempting-to-speak-Italian, and I'm not as fashionable as the French or Italians:

Leo liked the boat rides -- especially the video games

I thought it was pretty funny, actually.

So I was ordering some cappuccinos for breakfast the first morning, and the waitress (wanting to make sure I understood the difference between cappuccino and caffe latte, trying to pick an appropriate language for this explanation), asked "Deutsch?"

I immediately launched into this whole explanation about how, no, I'm not really German, haha, I'm just learning German, and I keep accidentally mixing up the words with Italian so people think I'm German, haha!

I suspect the problem was choosing to give this explanation in French. My husband's system was to say a few words to people in Italian, but then switch to French for anything he didn't know how to say in Italian. It normally worked like a charm -- everybody seemed to speak perfect French. Except maybe this one lady. She just gave me a kind of exasperated look and said "Zweimal cappuccino?" [German for "Two cappuccinos?"].

I thought about it for a second and replied, "Ja, zwiemal cappuccino. Isch guet."

After that, it hit me that sheesh, I speak Italian well enough that I can explain to people in Italian that I'm learning German, and I keep accidentally mixing up the words. So the second time I did it better. I was discussing different boat itinerary options with someone at the boat ticket counter, and as he turned to get me a page of information, he asked "Deutsch?"

That was my cue! I told him in [not-quite-right] Italian that I'm just learning German and sometimes I get the words mixed up. And when he smiled in comprehension, I thought success! actual communication!

After that, I made a point to prepare in advance before talking to people, planning Italian sentences and purging them of German words before speaking. Then I didn't have that problem anymore. But it was a fun little linguisto-cultural adventure!! :D

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring Break in Italy!

We just got back from lovely Lago Maggiore!! Now, I know we've already been to Lago Maggiore, but the way I see it, you can never have too much Lago Maggiore.

Some amusing stuff happened that I'll post about in the next couple of days. But for the moment I'm easing slowly back into the Internet. Since the trip was just four days chrono, I figured I'd make it just make it a relaxing vacation-from-Internet. (I love the Internet, but sometimes we take separate vacations.) I even got up at five on Easter Sunday to be sure to have time to finish my Sunday in Outer Blogness column and make a picnic lunch for my family to eat on the train. It wasn't necessary, BTW, we were ready a full hour before we needed to be -- but better safe than sorry!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Helpful fly-by critics

One amusing thing about Main Street Plaza it the number of fly-by critics we get. By "fly-by" critics, I don't mean people who are intentionally trolling. I mean people who take one look at the site and are incensed -- incensed! -- that non-believers would be discussing Mormonism. We get so many of them that that's our one FAQ.

For a while, I assumed that this is simply because Mormons are taught in church that "apostates" are bitter and hateful. Hence -- if Mormons see any "apostates" on the Internet -- they sometimes post a "Why are you so mean and bitter?" comment without making any attempt to determine whether that criticism applies. I imagined that -- if it weren't for prejudice against former-believers -- they'd have the common courtesy to read the welcome page before criticizing.

The more I thought about it, though, (over the years, as these fly-bys have flown by), the more I asked myself: Is this supposed 'common courtesy' really so common? Do people really read the welcome page and FAQ on other types of sites before posting comments like "I can't believe you people are wasting your time discussing this topic!"

I certainly got my share of that in my few posts on the Hathor Legacy (eg. helpful fly-by: "Why are you wasting your time analyzing a kids' movie? It's just a movie!" me: "Um, because I find the topic interesting. If you don't, then I agree that one of us is wasting time by participating in this discussion. But it's not me.")

Then I thought: Maybe these helpful fly-bys only appear on blogs about touchy topics like feminism or religion -- topics where some people feel threatened by the mere existence of discussions they disagree with. Maybe blogs on topics that really are frivolous [royal wedding watchers, Edward Cullen's hair-care tips] don't get as many "This site is so stoopid, you all need to get a life!" comments.

But what do I know? I'm starting to think that all websites get these. My kids have been watching some (rather ridiculous) YouTube videos reviewing various Lego sets. And even there, one of them spent a good three minutes complaining about all of the negative comments. His advice? "If you don't like these videos, don't watch them." Makes sense to me.

The thing is that the Internet is full of people discussing every topic you could possibly imagine (and plenty of other topics that you would never have thought of in a million years). There are so many interesting discussions to read -- plus an uncountable number of discussions that you personally won't find interesting (but someone else, apparently, does find interesting). That's what I find perplexing. Given the infinite selection and finite amount of time -- why take the time to read the ones you find uninteresting and post comments telling them how uninteresting you find them?

But that what I love about the Internet -- you're exposed to so many new mysteries of human nature to contemplate!! My personal motto is a variant of a famous quote by Spinoza: "I strive not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Free to be a homemaker...

One point where I feel like the feminist messages of the seventies were fairly effective was in convincing people that men are also responsible for housework and child-rearing -- that it's not automatically the woman's job. There's still a long way to go, but I have the impression that, for men and women of my generation and later, expectations on this front changed noticeably compared to the previous generations.

This is true for child-rearing in particular. Not so long ago, pushing a baby-buggy was equivalent to wearing a dress. I have a vague memory of this being a popular comedy situation, to show the poor man having to take care of his child for an afternoon. The director would even have the poor sap wear a frilly apron over his dapper suit, to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. He's a man and he's trying to take care of a baby -- hahaha!! Now you see men walking down the street carrying babies in pouches or pushing them in strollers, and it doesn't cross anyone's mind to see that as strange.

The "Free to Be..." album I discussed the other day had a track about how it's OK for a boy to want a doll because he might want to learn to nurture babies too. (Aside: this track, like the one about boys crying, seemed to portray bullying as inevitable, but basically said the boy shouldn't be bullied for wanting a doll.) Then there was another track that struck me as almost controversial: "Housework".

"Housework" is a poem that says, essentially, that those smiling ladies you see doing housework in TV commercials for detergents -- they're only smiling because they're actresses. Really, nobody likes doing housework, and that's why the mom and dad should share the housework load.

My modern-sensitivity-and-awareness brain immediately makes the connection between that statement and the central tension of feminism: For every role/trait that is seen as feminine and bad, some women will argue "Stop seeing this bad thing as feminine!" and others will argue "Stop seeing this feminine thing as bad!" And often both positions have merit.

It makes me wonder OK, is the above dissing SAHMs? And hence feeding the supposed enmity between career women and SAHMs that is so overhyped?

Then I wonder: Am I just being hypersensitive about this, from reading too much feminist Mormon housewives? I mean, is it really insensitive and un-PC to say that even homemakers don't like housework? Plus, I know that many SAHMs would totally agree with the moral of the poem: that the housework is not just one person's responsibility...


Monday, April 11, 2011

"Free to Be" -- forty years later...

I remember how old I felt when I first noticed that I could start a sentence with "Twenty years ago..." and speak from first hand experience. Now that I'm on the cusp of forty, I can easily tell you about stuff from thirty years ago, and it's only getting worse...

But, aaaaaaaaaanywaaaay....

Right up there with Schoolhouse Rock, Free to Be... You and Me totally captures (for me) the messages to kids in the '70's. According to the wikipedia article, "Free to Be has become a cult classic across the United States amongst many who were children of New Age parents in the 1970s" -- which I find kind of funny because my parents back in the '70's were pretty far from "New Age" (they were conservative Mormon Republicans). And yet I still think it's a [cult?] classic.

My parents aren't the ones who played it for me -- I don't remember exactly where I first heard it. But I bought a record album of it myself (for fun) as an adolescent in the '80's, and my mom (despite having opposed the ERA like a good Mormon), didn't appear to object to it. I recently found a CD of it, and I've been listening to it to see what I think of it now.

If you're not familiar with the album, it's a collection of clever and fun songs and skits that challenge traditional gender expectations. One central point to keep in mind is that essentially all of the messages in the album were countering other messages that kids were also hearing quite loudly. So every time you hear a song on it whose theme makes you go, "Well, duh, everybody knows that" -- then you've found a point where this album (and other voices from that time) had an impact and changed cultural assumptions.

The song that sounded (to me) the most dated was the one telling boys "It's all right to cry." I have two little boys, I watch tons of media directed at them, I read popular parenting advice, and I talk to lots of other moms in Europe and in the US, online and in person. I haven't done a formal study, but the gendered message I remember from my childhood -- that it's shameful for a boy to cry -- has fallen out of favor, and it's not just Glenn Beck. ;^)

It's my impression that our cultural expectations have changed on at least three fronts: (1) getting your feelings out instead of holding them in is viewed today as healthy and not exclusively feminine, (2) It's somewhat more acceptable for boys to express feminine traits and interests, and (3) Childhood bullying in general is no longer seen as inevitable or acceptable. Keep in mind, folks, that "Free to Be..." came out a mere three years after the popular Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue, in which it's presented as a more-or-less reasonable act of love for a father to name his son "Sue" specifically for the purpose of ensuring he'd be bullied, and hence come out a tougher man in the end.

Part of the spoken text says that crying boys aren't "sissies," but instead boys who are afraid to cry (and hence risk being called "sissies") are the "sissies" [implying that being a 'sissy' is still bad]. Naturally, that way of deflecting-yet-reinforcing the label "sissy" wouldn't be considered OK among liberal parents today. That said, I'd be pretty surprised if our gender awareness hadn't improved at all beyond what was on the cutting-edge-of-mainstream forty years ago.

The whole album is quite heteronormative (to anachronistically use a term that has come into ordinary public discourse fairly recently). That is, the album assumes that girls grow up to be mommies, boys grow up to be daddies, and (if they get married) mommies are married to daddies, period. Again, keep in mind that this was a mere three years after Stonewall, so mainstream awareness of LGBT issues was a fair distance in the future. The message that both girls and boys can grow up to be whatever they want to be was already pretty controversial. And teaching one generation of kids not to be limited by gender expectations helped set the stage for them to question gender roles even further -- in ways that many people in the previous generation didn't think of.

A track that hardly seems dated at all is the tale of Princess Atalanta. Female characters in kids' movies and television have sadly made a lot less progress than many parents (like me!) would hope (see, for example, The Hathor Legacy). Most parents of little girls I know are powerless against the lure of the Disney Princess pink ghetto (though I've heard some creative strategies for dealing with it). But I really like the way Atalanta's own autonomy takes center stage in bringing about her "happily ever after". [If you read the wikipedia entry, they explain how "Free to be" took some major liberties compared to the original story, but, really, no worse than Disney does.]

So, which song do I like/remember best after all these years? Probably the title track. Anyone else have memories (fond or otherwise) of this album?