Books by my bedside 2017/04/23

Here’s what I’m reading this week.

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Fiction

The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter by J.S. Drangsholt
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Non-Fiction

Economics, history & politics

The crisis of the middle-class constitution : why economic inequality threatens our republic by Sitaraman, Ganesh

The true believer : thoughts on the nature of mass movements by Hoffer, Eric

The white man’s burden : why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good by Easterly, William

Language

Am I small? Bin ich klein? (Picture Book English-German Bilingual Edition) by Philipp Winterberg

German in 32 lessons by Adrienne

The little German notebook : a breakthrough in early speaking by Long, Charles Merlin

Starting out in German by Living Language (audio CD)

Math & technology

Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid by Hofstadter, Douglas R.

Biography & memoir

Tasting the sky : a Palestinian childhood by Barakat, Ibtisam

Short, bright tea-time in my room

My house has enough eccentricities to be worthy of a post in and of itself. The quirk prompting my musings today is the presence of not one, not two, but three built-in wet bars in our home. Presumably, the architect feared for the poor soul who had to climb even one flight of steps before having a mixed drink over ice. There is a bar on each of our three levels, each complete with a built-in fridge, bar sink, pull out glassware shelves, and a mirrored backsplash.

One of the wet bars is in my bedroom. Heaven forbid a homeowner be forced to make such a portentous choice: go downstairs to the second floor bar (or, horrors!, the kitchen), or go to bed sober.

I enjoy my red wine, but I’m not otherwise a big drinker. There isn’t much call for a wet bar anywhere in my social life, but especially in the bedroom. DH doesn’t drink, and I don’t often entertain in my boudoir.

I toyed with the idea of buying a beautiful set of bar ware for display, but that’s not really my style. I love the idea of a glamorous, sparkling setup, but then I’d have to dust it. More likely, I would fail to dust it, thus living with another constant reminder of my lackluster housekeeping and the resultant allergens. No, even antique cut crystal decanters weren’t the answer to my superfluous home “feature.”

Instead, I outfitted my bedroom wet bar as a tea station. A coffee setup would work equally well, but that doesn’t suit my routine. I really love my coffee, but I don’t drink it first thing in the morning. Coffee is a fortifying, sit down treat with second breakfast or elevenses. I don’t have time to enjoy that until both of my children are occupied with their academic work, one at home and one at school.

Ideally, before the three-ring circus day’s schedule begins, I like to have a mug of strong black tea to jumpstart my brain. Yorkshire Gold, please!

My typical weekday starts with waking up a little boy, getting him (to get himself) ready, then shuttling him off to school. I’m not one of those living-on-air types who won’t eat before noon. I need at at least a bite of something before operating heavy equipment (the minivan my children dubbed Pookie) but my first breakfast is often just a slice of toast or a piece of fruit on the run.

Morning stiffness is one of the characteristic symptoms of the autoimmune disease that I live with. With medication, this is much reduced, but I wake up something like the discovery of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. While my kids sleep on, I creak my way out of bed, shuffle into the next room to commence my morning ablutions, then spend ten minutes or so reading, gently stretching, and just generally allowing my body to warm up to movement again.

Tin Man

Just like me with my morning tea, except I pour it down my gullet instead of applying it to my knee. Usually. <dribble>

Bringing a counter top water purifier and an electric kettle into my bedroom gave me the means to have my first cup of tea during these quiet minutes at the start of my day.

Our local water doesn’t flow from the tap with a pure, clean taste, so I filter what I consume; my electric WaterLogic purifier uses a removable water carafe instead of requiring new plumbing, and it was a good fit for my narrow space. An electric kettle works just like the stove top version, but it’s plugged into an electric socket to provide heat to boil the water.

I use two trays to keep the space organized. A stainless steel surgical instrument tray came in precisely the right dimensions to fit the space to the right of the bar sink while accommodating both electric devices. If I miss the mark while refilling the kettle with stiff fingers, the drips don’t mar the wooden counter. (Who bothers with a mirrored backsplash while neglecting to install a water-resistant counter top around a sink? Drunken architects, apparently.)

Tea Station right

I chose the black T-fal BF6138 electric kettle because it was small in size and it does NOT ding when the water boils. This makes a lot more sense in a shared bedroom than it would in a kitchen.

A more decorative, handled wooden tray sits on the other side of the sink. It holds mugs, teapots, and anything else I might want to carry en masse to the kitchen for mechanical dish washing. If I had designed my own tea station from the ground up, I’d have a mini dishwasher installed beneath the counter instead of the refrigerator. I don’t need milk for my tea, and I really don’t enjoy hand-washing, not even a few lightly soiled mugs.

I’d always appreciated similar setups in hotel rooms, but never thought to try fitting such a thing into our cramped upstairs floor of our previous, much smaller home. The electric kettle and having what you need laid out nearby is all that’s really necessary, though. Bonus points if you have a convenient sink, but carrying water in a carafe will suffice with a little forethought.

If I move house again (God forbid!), I think I will forevermore duplicate this set up in a corner of my room. A small table or cart placed near an electric socket and the habit of replacing the consumable tea things the night before is all that it would take to keep enjoying my favorite ritual. It’s only a little effort, and a tiny space.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, imagining my morning cup of tea is the soothing balm that defeats my pestiferous insomnia. I look forward to those quiet few minutes. I savor them.  The morning light, the soothing warmth of the mug in sore hands, the fragrant steam rising up to my face… Carving out a little space is a small price for a great luxury to enjoy every single day.

Have you set aside space in your home for your own little sanctuary? What’s your most nurturing ritual?

My doctor won’t take my insurance, and I’m thrilled

I liked my doctor, but I never got to see him

I’ve had the same primary care physician—the health care professional we used to simply call “my doctor”—for about a decade. I’ve always liked him, both professionally and as a human being.

A few years ago, I started looking around for a new doctor. I didn’t like my physician any less, but I hadn’t seen him face-to-face in years. Instead, every time I made an appointment, I saw a different nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. I liked some of them; others, I didn’t spend enough time with to form an opinion. Even when I made an appointment for a physical eighteen (18!) months in advance, I could only see random members of my chosen doctor’s group practice staff.

The final straw came when that physical with the nurse practitioner that I’d scheduled one and a half years ahead was canceled one week before it was due to happen. My kids were younger then, and I’m their primary caregiver. It’s a role I take seriously. Parenting is my job, so I organize my life in order to do that job well.

I had scheduled all of my own “routine maintenance” appointments for the same summer week: eye doctor, physical, well woman exam, teeth cleaning. If I had oil, that’s the week I would’ve changed it. I enrolled the children in summer day camp so all my “business hours” were free for one week. I wanted to take care of my health needs without distraction or discomfort from discussing sensitive topics in front of little ears.

Modern group medical practice didn’t prioritize patient needs

The disinterested office staffer who called and blithely informed me that I must reschedule my physical for a date a few weeks later—after the school year had started, after my full slate of mommy responsibilities had resumed, at a time that absolutely did not work for me—clearly did not understand my frustration with her message. She certainly had no power to fix my problem, and she didn’t seem to care. That’s when I resigned myself to finding another health care provider.

Considering the current shortage of plain old family doctors in the United States, none of this is surprising. Having “good” health insurance seems like an oxymoron. If I can’t see a doctor, how is my health “insured”?

I did some research on the Internet. I’d read an article about doctors foregoing insurance to simplify their finances by accepting only cash payments, and I looked for one of those. None appeared to be practicing in my physician rich corner of New England, though specialists who can take advantage of my “good insurance” abound.

There were no good alternatives for straightforward routine care

I had reached the uncomfortable position of interviewing “concierge doctors” by late 2013 as I tried to find a solution I’d be happy with. I’m okay with the idea that some people want to pay large sums to have a doctor available at their convenience, but my needs seemed much simpler and very… common.

I’m willing to make an appointment. I’m willing to wait my turn. I don’t care if the office is luxurious, or exclusive, or much more than conveniently located and hygienic. I just wanted to see my doctor when I had a scheduled appointment, and have at least a chance of seeing him or her when I had an urgent need. I wanted my doctor to be familiar with me and my health history.

I didn’t think I was asking for the moon, but alternatives were lacking.

After six weeks of frustration and having selected the concierge doctor I liked best after interviewing the few available candidates in my price range, I happened to Google my old doc’s name one more time. You see, when I’d called his old practice to inform them I wouldn’t be showing up to see the nurse practitioner I barely knew at the inconveniently rescheduled time, they told me Dr. So-and-so had left the practice. They “couldn’t” give me a forwarding address. (Later, Dr. So-and-so himself told me that the practice was well aware of his new office, but they appeared unwilling to lose patients by sharing that information.)

My doctor was as frustrated with the system as I was.

Guess what I discovered when I Googled Dr. So-and-so? He had left his old physicians group practice because he didn’t want to practice medicine that way anymore. He was sick of being rushed through 20 appointments every day during which he couldn’t take enough time to hear out a patient. He was tired of being an insurance-appeaser when he had set out to practice medicine. He was leaving the system. He was as frustrated with it as I was.

I knew I liked Dr. So-and-so for a reason!

I’d stumbled onto an article in the local paper about my good old primary care doctor’s foray into the everything-old-is-new-again “direct primary care” provision of medicine. I could pay cash directly to my preferred doctor to receive medical care when I needed it.

Revolutionary? It strikes me as obvious. And let me add cost effective, convenient, and finally!

The simple analogy used in the direct primary care model is that it’s like routine maintenance on your car vs. getting repairs after a major accident you couldn’t predict.

You know you need oil changes and the occasional new tires for the car, so you factor that into your budget and carry on. That’s the stuff my doctor handles. I see him for an annual physical, when I’ve caught a cold, or if I sprain my ankle. I have his cell phone number; he answers it himself. I can email him or send a text message and I hear right back. He can fit me in today. He has time to talk to me until I have said everything I have to say about my problem.

Monthly payments to the doctor cost half as much as a cable bill

I pay my doctor a monthly fee that covers as much medical care as I need. It costs less per month for me than my cable bill, or my husband’s data heavy cell phone bill. That’s or, not and. If you can afford to spend $4 per day at Starbucks buying coffee, you can afford this caliber of medical care for one adult and one child at my doctor’s practice. This is a manageable bill for a middle class family.

I still have health insurance. It’s that <cough> good kind. I use it to see my specialist care providers, or when I need an expensive test like an MRI or a bone scan. My doctor can still order tests for me at the same local hospitals, and he can still submit the forms for those big ticket tests to my insurance provider, but he also tells me what the cash price would be. Thousands of dollars out of pocket? Yes, let’s do paperwork.

Cash prices for simple tests can be just a few dollars ($3)

But many simple blood tests done in the doctor’s office cost just a few dollars, so I pay the bill and skip the forms. A cholesterol test costs less than a latté when it hasn’t been marked up for the rigmarole of insurance reimbursement. It becomes fairly obvious why insurance rates are so high when you compare these prices for yourself in the context of your own care. It turns out that there’s a huge cost created by the complexity of the insurance system itself.

When you use your insurance, you’re paying for extra billing staff in every medical office, the insurance company’s offices, the army of employees at said offices, and even profits distributed to investors in those private insurance companies. You aren’t just paying for your blood test, so the cost of your lab work goes up.

I’m still insured against a catastrophe

If the big stuff hits, that’s when my health insurance will kick in, like the major bodywork you’d seek after a car crash. God forbid I ever need it, but, of course, I will use my insurance if I require expensive hospitalization or ongoing care for a major illness or injury.

The insurance company keeps sending me letters encouraging me to find a PCP and get a physical. Their closed loop system doesn’t have any way to acknowledge that I’m receiving preventative care without asking their permission or sending them bills. It’s eerily hard to get the records at my specialist’s office updated with my doctor’s details because they can’t match him to an insurance provider ID in the computer system. It’s like he doesn’t exist. I think they literally put a sticky note in my paper file in case they need to reach Dr. So-and-so.

That’s a little frightening considering the push toward electronic record keeping. Is the insurance model so entrenched that it is inconceivable for a legitimate doctor to be working outside its bounds?

Frankly, it offends my sensibilities that something as personal as health care is becoming the exclusive territory of monolithic institutions that provide no additional expertise when it comes to medicine, instead introducing financial complexity and bureaucratic overhead to what was once a straightforward relationship between medical provider and patient/recipient.

Direct primary care works well for my family

My experience with direct primary care medicine has been wholly positive. It has removed obstacles to my receiving prompt care, and it has enhanced the care I get by providing the time and access necessary for excellent communication with my physician. The closest thing I’ve got to a complaint is how hard the insurance industry red tape makes it to integrate my direct care doctor with everything else.

Direct primary care won’t solve America’s health care crisis, but it is a sound model that could go a long way toward alleviating the pain of accessing routine medical care for many average families. That seems like a good solution to one pretty big problem to me.

Do you have convenient access to your preferred doctor? Are his or her costs reasonable? Do you get enough time with him/her at every visit?

Would you consider following a doctor you like to a fee-for-service or direct primary care practice if you were given a choice?

Capsule wardrobe for Hilton Head Island, under-seat carry on size

This won’t be as pretty as the Polyvore sets you’ll see on fashion-oriented blogs. I’m not a photographer or a fashionista. In spite of this, I want to post a capsule wardrobe as I packed it in an under-seat size carry on bag for a recent (early March) family trip to Hilton Head, SC.

Amtrak luggage on cart redacted

Train carry on luggage at Savannah, GA Amtrak station. For two travelers, we had three Tom Bihn bags: an Aeronaut45 (with our train compartment friendly Rolo inside for organization), Western Flyer, and a large Shop Bag full of snacks and bottled water.

Compact capsule wardrobe saves precious vacation time

Packing lists and capsule wardrobes—which is just a fancy way of describing a simplified wardrobe that can be mixed and matched to create many combinations— help me enjoy my trips more. My stress is reduced, I don’t waste precious vacation time deciding what to wear, and I can present myself the way I prefer to be seen when I’m meeting new people.

Rarely do I see a travel wardrobe capsule that reflects the reality of someone like me. Items of clothing on my petite yet plump and short-waisted body look nothing like the stock catalog photos on Polyvore. More importantly, my priorities begin with function before moving on to the more enjoyable considerations of color and form.

Dressing appropriately while maintaining health & function

I have an autoimmune condition that involves widespread joint pain. I suffer particularly from foot problems. My wardrobe is constrained by the limiting factors of shoes that accommodate bulky rigid orthotics and clothes that don’t squeeze or pinch even when inflamed joints swell.

My symptoms flare when I’m tired. Travel, no matter how wonderful, comes with physical and sometimes mental stress. Traveling light is one way to reduce symptoms from my condition: I’m less likely to wear myself out, physically, with a lighter weight bag.

And yet! I’m a colorful person who enjoys attractive clothes. I don’t obsess over fashion, but I accessorize daily. When time is ample, I willingly spend some of it on my appearance. I rarely wear black, which I find both boring and depressing, and my neutrals are often dark red or dark plum instead of sedate grey, navy, or taupe. I express myself sartorially.

Wardrobe and sleepwear

Every stitch of clothing (minus my raincoat) for five days with 40 degree (F) temperature variations in the forecast. It was COLD when we left; STEAMY arriving in Savannah.

Wardrobe considerations—climate and events

Our trip was for four nights and five days. We flew to Savannah, stayed three nights in a Villa at Sea Pines Resort, then DS1 and I rode the train (Amtrak, overnight) back home. We left and returned to temperatures in the 40’s; it was 60-79°F in Georgia and South Carolina. Because DH was traveling for work, we needed dressy clothes suitable for socializing with professional colleagues in a resort environment.

With a rental car and apartment style accommodations, I could have easily packed everything plus the kitchen sink. Aside from enjoying the planning exercise of creating a packing list for this trip, I wanted to travel light on Amtrak. There was no baggage car on our Northeast Regional train after connecting in New York City. The train’s carry on restrictions are much more generous than found on airplanes, but handling luggage remains one of my least favorite aspects of travel.

I used my smaller travel pack for this trip, a Tom Bihn Western Flyer. Even fully packed, I can typically manage this bag myself. It’s better when I don’t bring a laptop, which I didn’t need for this quick getaway.

Packing lists — never forget a vital item

Here’s my clothing packing list, adapted from this one at LadyLightTravel.com:

Packing List for Hilton Head

Outerwear

teal raincoatFor early spring travel, outerwear choice is pretty critical. We had occasional light rain in the forecast. Even a week or two earlier, I would have gone with my purple, lightweight down coat, but water resistance is my bottom line in spring. All five pockets on this coat zip securely closed—a travel essential!

  • Teal Duluth Trading soft shell coat (thin gloves, not shown, in a pocket)
  • Purple down vest
  • Purple thin knit cap (not shown, in coat pocket)
  • Teal waterproof sneakers
  • Grey Propet Women’s Travelactiv Mary Jane (dressiest shoe I could consider)

 

Ahnu shoes sneakers

Ahnu Sugarpine shoe rainbow! Podiatrist approved, and colorful enough for me. Front row: airier mesh; Back row: waterproof styles.

I had to make sure everything I brought worked with my comfortable, supportive Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers in teal. These are my go to shoes for reducing the likelihood of crippling pain from too much walking. I opted for the waterproof pair that coordinates nicely with my raincoat and capsule color scheme of teal-magenta-grey.

Bottoms

I started my fashion choices by selecting the bottoms. As a fairly modest dresser, there are some pants I won’t wear with more revealing tops. I wanted the freedom to remove layers as necessary in case the temperature was hotter than forecast while still literally covering my bum.Bottoms1

To layer underneath on the colder, northern ends of the trip, I had pieces ranging from long johns, to silk pettipants, to pantyhose (which violate the comfort doctrine, but I do wear them as needed to add discreet warmth when dressed formally.)

I’m counting my soft, stretchy Angelrox Goddess dress as “bottoms” because it layers well and stands in for a skirt. These dresses (I also own a full-length Goddess Gown) are body conscious so I usually wear a wrap or otherwise layer on top. Tight is not my style. The Goddess dresses are so soft and so comfortable, though, I can forget to be self-conscious about the snug fit. Wearing one, I feel as glamorous as an old time movie star with the comfort of pajamas!

Tops

This is where I cut back from my usual policy of having one or two extras, just in case. The weather was forecast to be moderate enough, and I knew I could go shopping if necessary. I usually do bring more pieces than this, but I absolutely did not need additional tops to wear fresh, interesting outfits every day.

  • Grey cotton/spandex Duluth Trading No-Yank Tank (not shown)
  • White ExOfficio crinkle kimono tunic
  • Floral sheer silk poncho
  • Magenta faux twinset (sheer silk turtleneck & cotton/nylon cardigan)

Accessories

This is where the magic happens! Wow, no, not really that exciting, but… this is where a bunch of clothing pieces that I like turn into full-fledged outfits like those I wear at home when my full closet is available.

I don’t bother with makeup very often, and my hairstyle is almost as minimal as wash-comb-go, but I didn’t realize how much my accessories matter to my sense of being “fully dressed” until after our home was burglarized a few years ago. Mostly, I was grateful that we weren’t at home or hurt and that nothing more than “stuff” had been stolen, but every morning for weeks, I would turn to the shelf in my bedroom where my costume jewelry had been and feel my heart sink at the empty space dusted with police fingerprint powder.

The thieves took most of my deceased grandmother’s costume jewelry and a little velvet box full of Post-it sized love notes my husband left me every Sunday morning before his karate class during our first few years of marriage. It’s ironic that they missed our hidden safe where my few expensive pieces of “real” jewelry  were hidden, but they stole slips of paper many times more valuable to me and lots of $20 jewelry that gave me joy but probably earned them virtually no cash.

  • Pashmina in grey/magenta/teal
  • Scarf in teal/white rayon
  • Angelrox teal “sleeves” (arm warmers or fingerless gloves)
  • Earrings (silver dangles)
  • Earrings (colorful stone dangles by Shayla Lynn Jewelry)
  • Necklace (silver with moonstone by Shayla Lynn Jewelry)

Unmentionables

Here I am mentioning the unmentionable, but I have to specify these details for completeness if you’re wondering how a capsule wardrobe really packs into a case as small as the Western Flyer.

  • Floral silk caftan
  • White rayon tank/tunic for sleeping (also works as a top in hot weather)
  • 5 pair underpants
  • 2 brassieres
  • 7 pair socks (one wool, 2 thin ankle socks, 4 no show footies)

These don’t factor into the wardrobe as far as style goes, though I’ll admit to a touch of smugness that my travel caftan color coordinates in teal blue.

Underwear and socks pack so small, I do usually bring enough to avoid hand-washing because I don’t enjoy it. I could get by with two pairs of each by sink washing every night, but I’ve never felt the weight loss was worth the time spent from my vacation day.

Remember that the outfit you wear on travel day doesn’t go into the carry on. Here’s what I wore onto the plane along with my water resistant teal jacket.travel outfit

Everything else

This is where I confess to everything else I stuff into my carry on bag… except there isn’t very much. First of all, my full confession includes the fact that I prefer to carry my everyday purse (a Tom Bihn medium Cafe Bag) aboard as a personal item. I don’t have to cram all my daily distractors into my Western Flyer!

I have a Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag that is always packed with my carry on comfort kit. This is where my inflatable neck pillow, silk sleep sack (we call it the sleestak, a la “Land of the Lost”), ear plugs, eye mask, and lip balm live. During a flight, it is big enough to temporarily house my Kindle or iPad, too, if it is easier to reach than my purse.

Aside from the Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, my Tom Bihn 3D Clear Organizer Cube 3-1-1 toiletry kit, and my electric toothbrush, I stash a water bottle in the front pocket of my Western Flyer, and I always carry at least a small personal PackTowl with the water. I’ve read my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! Also, my little guy is prone to motion sickness. And playground swings are often wet. A towel always comes in handy for moms as well as hitchhikers.

Putting it all together

When you’ve packed it all, the Western Flyer looks like this.

It zips closed without a fight. The Western Flyer isn’t over packed, and the bag weighs in at 9 lbs (just over 4 kg.)

5 picture books to read aloud with melodramatic zeal, especially if you love world languages

I’ve hinted at this in my posts about learning foreign languages, but I like to get a little silly when my mind is the most engaged. It makes tasks that might be onerous into a bit of fun, and it keeps my sometimes whiffly energy levels from flagging in mid-effort.

My own two kids are big enough to read on their own now, but ours is a household of almost constant excited interruptions to share some great, new sentence, paragraph, or page of written work. In fact, I wooed my husband by reading an entire (admittedly short) novel* to him one afternoon at the beach.

I’ve read and re-read a few top favorites aloud to my boys even at advanced ages well past the “tell me a story” years; I think I’ve read these books to most of the younger friends we know, too. I’m that adult who always has time to read to a child. Some stories are too delicious not to share.

Two of my favorites are very popular and well-known American picture books I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere:

Bear Snores On (Karma Wilson)

Click Clack Moo (Doreen Cronin)

You can’t go wrong with either of these. If you’re like me, and you read them a few times, you may memorize most or all of the text! It’s hard not to when the rhyme and rhythm of the stories flow like song lyrics with every reading. This was a great help when the middle of our stapled paper Cheerios box freebie edition of Click Clack Moo lost a page. We closed our eyes and imagined those illustrations as I recited from memory.

Two other wonderful read-alouds were gifts to our family from the PJ Library program, a non-profit that strives to provide Jewish books to all interested Jewish or interfaith families with kids aged six months to eight years.

Something from Nothing (Phoebe Gilman)

The least obviously rhyming text on the list shows up in Something from Nothing, but the writing still has a poetic quality. There is a regular rhythm, both visual and verbal, to the way each new page spread builds upon the last as the story moves ahead. This one also happens to have a beautiful message about favorite things “wearing out” and being lost, whether you see it as primarily ecological (using something up completely without waste) or self-reliant (making the best of what you have) or some combination thereof.

Something from Nothing depicts a lovely inter-generational relationship between grandfather and grandson. It has the most detailed artwork of any book on this list. The wonderful, whimsical pictures, drawn by the author herself, include an entire silent second storyline hidden beneath the illustrated floorboards. Pre-readers might particularly enjoy poring over this aspect on their own.

Beautiful Yetta (Daniel Pinkwater)

My absolute favorite book to read to children, I’ve given Beautiful Yetta as a gift several times. This book is amusing—telling the tale of a valiant hen who “will not be sold. She will not be soup… She is free”—and includes the great fun of combining English, Yiddish, and Spanish in the text. Don’t worry, there are phonetic transliterations so you don’t need to read Hebrew letters or know either Yiddish or Spanish to share this book. You can also try on your Brooklyn accent when the rat tells Yetta to “Get lost!” This one is less obviously moralistic than some children’s books, but certainly carries on lightly with themes of self-reliance, serving others, and loving yourself and your friends as you are and in spite of your differences.

Except cats who try to eat you. Those, you scare away with confident words and wide-spread wings.Book Beautiful Yetta excerpt

ΡΕΠΚΑ (translation: Turnip; pronounced “Ryep-kuh”)

Not every reader will be able to share this story with their kids, but if you are even a beginning student of Russian, the frequent repetition makes this a great confidence builder for deciphering Cyrillic characters and the cadence of the story makes it so much fun to read aloud. In our family, where the kids heard Russian from native speaking grandparents from birth, this served all of us well.

Book Repka cover

When I said these stories were delicious read-alouds, I meant literally, and not in the modern sense where literally now officially means figuratively. DS2 chewed off that missing corner.

Hopefully the text is pretty classic, because my edition isn’t available on Amazon in the US, but here’s a link to a bilingual Russian-English version. We own two versions of this story, and this little red book (©2002, ISBN: 5-7865-0003-9) definitely tells it better as far as enjoyable read-aloud cadence goes. Not being fluent in Russian, I can’t say if the language itself is any more refined.

If you know of other wonderfully rhythmic read alouds that shouldn’t be missed—especially if they include foreign content in German, Spanish, or Russian while being accessible to a language learner—please share the titles in the comments!

*The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, haunting, and lyrical even in translation; it’s one of my all time favorite books

5 German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular. Bonus: Embarrasses the kids!

Hopefully this won’t get me reported to the authorities for my abusive behavior, but I’ve been casting about for something new to enliven my study of German. I decided on pop songs. I’m specifically aiming to reduce my inhibitions when speaking this summer in a German language immersion environment. I think my best bet is conducting my learning in the most playful manner I can devise.

There has been a lot of acting out dialogs from German Readers and the Pimsleur CDs*. DS2 is not clear on why I keep involving him in my shenanigans, but melodramatic German dialogues conducted with yourself are just crazy. When done with your child, they’re home schooling!

Just when your teen thinks you can’t get any more embarrassing, you add singing out loud in German to your repertoire. I even do it in the car in the school parking lot when I’m waiting to pick up DS2.

Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.

My new playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)

I chose a version performed by Zillertaler Dirndljäger found on iTunes.

We have to begin with Fliegerlied. More properly titled, “So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)“, the name translates to Such a Nice Day (Aviator’s Song.) I played the song previews on iTunes to choose the one I liked best of the many covers of this song. Be sure you search for both “So ein schöner Tag” and “Fliegerlied” to see every version of this track.

I first heard this song at Waldsee family week where my son and I went to learn German in 2015. They played this song. They played it a lot. There are coordinating hand motions, too. And I liked it all! Any time a party atmosphere could be conjured in the Waldsee “Village,” it was, and the disco music flowed.

Personally, I find Fliegerlied charming and catchy. I couldn’t figure out all the words properly by ear, not even with a teaching session by the music leader early in the week. I got the gist of the lesson that we were singing about something that flies and having a good day.

Fliegerlied turns out to mean “aviator” or “airman.” Obviously not the easiest word to guess via mime. This bouncy ditty is great for picking up quickly as it repeats… and repeats… and repeats a few lyrics. Just try not to get this one stuck in your head.

I have a very high tolerance for song repetition, so proceed cautiously if you don’t. Fliegerlied is an Ohrwurm (ear worm; a song that gets stuck in your head) for sure. Waldsee gets full credit for this song being on my list. It’s the first one I’d recommend for a cheerful student of German.

2) 99 Luftballons

Performed by Nena; more than 99 versions found on iTunes!

You thought this one would be first, right?

99 Luftballons was an international hit in 1984, and it doesn’t need any more introduction or description from me. They play this one regularly at Waldsee, too. Unless you’re Captain Kirk or ein Kriegsminister, what’s not to like? You’ll be able to discuss war, balloons, and UFOs with the new vocabulary.

3) Eisbär

Original version by Grauzone is on iTunes; search both Eisbär and Eisbaer to find every cover.

I believe this will be the first song I memorize completely in German. I’ve had it two days and I can almost recite it by heart. I just looked at the lyrics I downloaded and did a quick count, and I think there are only 20 unique words in Eisbär, most of which are obvious (Eisbär=”ice bear”=polar bear) or easy beginner words (mussen=have to, but sounds conveniently like “must”; kalt=cold.) Learn two verbs: schreien (screaming) and weinen (crying) and you’ll understand the whole song.

Admittedly, this song is my least favorite on the playlist from a musical perspective. The music is repetitive, too electronic for my taste, and the song feels longer than it should be.

4) Wir Sind Wir

By Paul van Dyk featuring vocals by Peter Heppner; ordered CD single from Amazon.CD Wir Sind Wir Musik

I saw the video of this song online as I searched for my German pop songs. This one has slower tempo and more complex lyrics. We Are Who We Are is the title in English. The lyrics poetically describe lingering societal issues from the reunification of east and west Germany and how the people are responding. I’d describe its temper as somber but hopeful. Since I’m an optimist, I like it on principle for noble subject matter. The singer also enunciates very clearly—super helpful for the language learner. It’s really easy to follow along with his vocalized lyrics, which isn’t true of all these songs.

5) Ich Will

Available on iTunes; performed by Rammstein.

I’m not even checking to see if anyone has covered this song. I think you must listen to the original or give it a pass. This is heavy metal music, quite different than everything else on the playlist. The video I viewed online was downright creepy and not my cup of tea, but the song translates as cruel but not vulgar. I study around my kids, so really salty language would eliminate a song for my situation.

If  you enjoy metal—or can get past the growling intensity here to memorize the lyrics—you’ll be rewarded with several useful additions to your vocabulary. This guy WANTS (wollen, to want, to intend; Ich Will translates to I Want) a lot of stuff from the audience. He states that emphatically in the present tense (plural du– form.)

I might be growling it rudely at people, but I will never forget how to say “I want” auf Deutsch after hearing this song a few times.

Useful vocabulary includes “I want to disturb the peace;” ich will die Ruhe stören. And, in case I am robbing a small group of you, “I want to see your hands!”

“Ich will eure Hände sehen!”

Actually, I’ve just realized, this will come in handy with the kids, too. Now how do I say, “I want to see your beds made!”…

* Can’t imagine the Pimsleur lesson dialogues acted out dramatically? Try pretending you’re interrogating a suspected spy while repeatedly asking each other:

  • “Do you speak German?”
  • “Do you speak English?”
  • “Are you an American?”

Yeah, the kids LOVE it. Ha!

Why I study 6 foreign languages recreationally

I must begin by admitting that I’m not really a polyglot. I’ve only mastered English. I’m not even brave about using my foreign language skills with friends or strangers. My brain is piping up with answers, but my cowardly lips remain zipped.

I have been a passionate fan of the very idea of language study since childhood, however, and I dabble in a few world languages. I wish, in a theoretical way, that I could speak with every person in the world. I know. I can be a little sentimental.

In high school, I studied Spanish (four years.)

In college, I took classes in Spanish (one more year), German (one year), and Japanese (one semester.)

Outside of academia, I’ve studied Russian (6 weeks at the Boston Language Institute) and Biblical Hebrew (synagogue based adult class), plus I’ve self-studied most of the above and also French. I’ve worked to learn at least a few common and helpful phrases in both Icelandic and Catalan before specific trips. I like to be a polite visitor.

I also avoid traveling without the ability to speak sentences I’d be too embarrassed to mime. I usually begin by memorizing, “Where is the toilet?” I’ve never visited any country without at least learning please, thank you, and hello. I also try to keep at least one exclamation of delight on the tip of my tongue: ¡Qué maravilloso!

Buy why else have I spent so many hours over so many years on this exercise when I have nothing concrete to show for it since good grades on a transcript decades ago?

I can feel my brain stretching

I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so there’s no monetary gain. Then again, I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so the intellectual workout ranks right up there as its own reward. Especially when my children were very young, and their care was so mind-numbingly boring, even listening to nursery rhymes in another language offered mental relief from feed, burp, change, repeat (and, occasionally, sleep…)

When I’m really working at integrating  new language into my working vocabulary, I can feel my brain stretching. I’m probably not the only nerd who thrills from the act of intense learning. Like the high that comes after aerobic exercise, there’s an emotional payoff to brain fitness. It’s also nice to imagine your brain looking better in a swimsuit getting healthier after each session.

Languages are inherently interesting, complex structures

Studying a romance language, for me, at least, was fun and interesting, but nothing like the kind of mind-blowing revelation that Japanese presented. I’m no linguist, either, so I can’t explain this deeply, but everything from sentence structure to word classes was, frankly, foreign. Learning even a little Japanese was like re-learning how to think.

Never in my life have I taken a more difficult, more stimulating, more thrilling class than my one semester of Japanese immersion at Cornell University. At the end of every session, I felt like the hero(ine) walking into the sunset behind the credits of an action movie. Victorious, and exhausted.

I’m forced to reconsider things I thought were obvious

Even when studying languages much more familiar—the short words in German, and the long words in the Latin-based romance languages—I find it delightful to make connections across cultures. Some modern words are obvious candidates for cognates. The world is so small and interconnected now, it’s hard to imagine new words like “computer” not carrying over into languages other than English.

But I loved discovering the word for “furniture” was so similar between Spanish (mueble), German (Möbel), and Russian (мебель)—they all use consonant sounds M-B-L with vowels appropriate to the target language. Most Russian vocabulary up to that point had been so strange. It made me reflect that the very notion of owning enough household stuff to require a collective name for it could be modern. Or perhaps the idea to name that stuff came from western Europe, or the people with better stuff adopted a name from the west so the word caught on with social climbers… I’m not sure. I don’t even know if the word is older in Russian as opposed to western Europe. I sure enjoy pondering the possibilities.

And, in Japanese, the color ao means all color shades of blue to green.* That stopped me in my tracks. Color is a spectrum, isn’t it, and at some point, we decide where the stopping point is between one shade and another. But I hadn’t thought of that before. Japanese taught me that.

I could go on and on about compound nouns and meanings within my own language that only became obvious to me after I recognized some interesting facet of a word in a foreign tongue, but the point is made and my zeal for this topic probably exceeds the bounds of decency.

Making an effort is the only way to combat entropy

There’s a running joke in our family that my husband’s most hated nemesis is entropy.

I think it is accepted knowledge that mental acuity is a use it or lose it thing. That’s the exercise analogy I used earlier. I believe the battle against entropy goes even deeper than that.

Making an effort, struggling to do better, learning something new, improving communication in the smallest way… every one of these things is a creative act. Creation is the opposite of entropy. Creation is an inherently positive act.

I learn in order to make the world a better place

I learn to make the world a better place, though my small efforts may have only infinitesimal effects.

I can live with that.

*There is a modern Japanese color word for green, which I believe was introduced only after World War II when Western influence became significant during the Occupation. There are also extra color words for various shades, including some of blue and green, like we have navy and royal (blues) or spring vs. hunter (greens.) You’ll want to follow up with someone much more knowledgeable than I to get the full story on Japanese color words.

Your life matters

Black lives matter? Yes.

Blue lives matter? Of course.

All lives matter? Well, yes, but…

…it is wildly disingenuous to trot out this statement in the face of a cultural protest movement instigated by a history of systemic oppression and literal enslavement. The words might be true, but that doesn’t make the argument morally correct for the context.

If you’ve been degraded, or you’ve been hurt; if you have experienced the shock of unwarranted hate, or the rage of being silenced:

Your life matters.

And, in fact, regardless of who you are, where you came from, the color of your skin, your political leanings, where or whether you choose to worship, et cetera and ad infinitum:

Your life matters.

So does your neighbor’s. So does your enemy’s.

Your life matters.

We all want to be safe.

We all react when we feel threatened.

We all deserve a voice.

We all deserve at least that much respect.Untitled

Direct comparison of Red Oxx Sky Train and Tom Bihn Aeronaut travel packs to carry on

Online research can only tell you so much when deciding which purchase will suit your needs best. Here’s a case where I bought multiple best-in-class options to do a head-to-head comparison.

I tried two

Actually, I tried more than two bags in this category so dear to the one-bagger’s* heart. Not only have I tried more than two, I own more than two of these versatile bags. Luggage junkies need no excuse, but different sizes and different styles work better for different trips.

Travel packs are basically backpacks, but adapted for modern sub/urban travel with the addition of hiding places for the straps and buckles. They also often open along the long edge, like a book, as opposed to a top-loading hiking backpack or a modern school pack that opens along the sides and top. Once the backpack straps are tucked away, the travel pack looks a lot like a typical rectilinear suitcase: harder to carry, but sleeker, more professional looking, and less likely to become entangled in storage bins or x-ray equipment.

My first travel pack was an inexpensive, no name bag purchased at a discount or received as a store give-away around 1990. No thought went into its acquisition! That bag was a revelation, changed the way I carry on my stuff forever after, and I used it until it literally fell apart sometime around 2012. You don’t have to buy the best, highest quality travel pack up front to get a good feel for whether this style of bag is right for you!

Luggage travel pack Red Oxx Tri Fold Shave Kit diaper bag

The best photo I’ve got of my original travel pack

Essentially, I had a maximum legal carry on size rectilinear bag—boring black—with hide away backpack straps. Aside from the main compartment, it had a shallow (≈1 inch) front pocket containing a few cheap attempts at internal organization covering the full long dimension of the bag and going about 2/3 of the way up the short front side. It was constructed of a single layer of moderately durable material—probably middle-of-the-road nylon—and weighed very little for its size. I learned to use Ziploc bags or packing cubes for interior organization, and I loved the versatility of that bag. The connection between the backpack straps and the bag wore out first, but the corners were also wearing thin when I retired the bag.

Key features of a good travel pack:

  • Rectilinear shape (no wasted space due to curves)

  • Meets carry on requirements for airlines you fly

  • Backpack straps that can be removed or hidden

Having gotten so much from that first travel pack, I knew spending more for a higher quality bag of this type was a worthwhile investment. A $300 bag that lasts for twenty years works out to $15 per year.

I would have settled for a simpler bag similar to my old one for around $40 (sold by discounter Campmor at the time) if I hadn’t found features that made the more expensive bag more appealing. These including water-resistance, superior construction/durability (functional) and pretty colors (aesthetic preference, plus easier to find in a sea of common black bags.) I’ve also discovered that a sternum strap and a waist belt are requirements for my comfort; not everyone agrees on these features, but most people who’ve worn a heavy backpack will be familiar with their utility.

My two strongest contenders were the Red Oxx Sky Train and the Tom Bihn Aeronaut (now Aeronaut45 as they added a second, smaller version.) You can see what I thought I would choose in my 2011 review of an iPad-compatible shoulder bag. Both of these brands produce top quality products with carefully thought out features geared toward frequent travelers who prefer to travel light.Table comparison Tom Bihn Red Oxx

One glance at my two current travel packs, and you’ll immediately note my preference because each brand has such a distinctive aesthetic. My bags of choice are the Tom Bihn Aeronaut and a Western Flyer I bought about a year later. The Aeronaut or Sky Train would be “maximum legal carry on” size bags for typical US domestic flights on larger planes as of this writing (2017); a Western Flyer will fit under the seat in front of you, or fit easily in the overhead bins on smaller, regional jets that require gate checking typical roll-aboard wheelie bags.

Compare Aeronaut 45 and Western Flyer side

Black 400d Halcyon Western Flyer sitting on grey 400d Halcyon Aeronaut45

Weight turned out to the primary factor for my choice of bag.

I do own several Red Oxx accessories and two bags, but they are simply too over-built, and therefore too heavy, for a woman my size with my habits. Our Red Oxx bags are used more often for family trips and land-based travel because they weigh a lot for their size (compared to other non-wheeled bags; wheelie bags are always heavier.) I’m not hard enough on my equipment to warrant that level of construction at that cost in weight.

Beyond the fixed constraint of the bags’ weights, a few other design decisions “weighed” in Tom Bihn’s favor.

I prefer the quieter, lighter weight plastic buckles on Bihn bags to the heavier, noisier metal hardware used by Red Oxx. I freely admit that plastic will likely fail before metal, but I’d be shocked if that happened within the usable life of my suitcases. My oldest Tom Bihn pieces have been in use for four years, and the only blemish on any of them is a spot of ink from a leaky fountain pen.

It’s worth mention here that I consistently choose Tom Bihn’s least durable, lightest weight Dyneema/Halcyon outer material to save precious ounces. Less durable than bulletproof turns out to be sufficient for my needs.

I prefer having my travel bag open along the short-long-short sides, like a book. The Red Oxx Sky Train opens along the long-short-long sides, like a steno notepad or a typical school backpack. The Western Flyer opens in my preferred configuration.

The Aeronaut is a totally different beast, packing somewhat more like a duffel bag with three sections. The large, square, center compartment of the Aeronaut is large enough that my ladies size Medium/Large clothing can stack, neatly folded, inside without wrinkling.

Compare Aeronaut 45 and Western Flyer smaller inside larger

Western Flyer stored inside center compartment of Aeronaut45. Observe that my yellow Red Oxx Travel Tray fits perfectly in the top flap pocket.

Another issue I’ve found with every “wearable” Red Oxx bag I’ve tried so far is overall size. I’m not a tall woman, and I have a short torso to boot. I felt dwarfed by the Sky Train… and the C-Ruck backpack… and the Rock Hopper sling bag when I tried that, too. Red Oxx fit models probably aren’t petite women. I think they might test fit on Navy Seals. These bags are big! My Aeronaut is also longer (between the top of the backpack straps and the waist belt) than it should be to fit my torso, but it doesn’t feel ridiculously so.

Tom Bihn’s other frequent feature is a little D ring sewn into most pockets on most bags. They also sell matching straps—like colorful leashes—to attach accessories to these rings. Any bag with a loop can be tethered inside your Bihn bag. You don’t have to purchase the company’s admittedly expensive organizers and pouches. If you’re a luggage addict, you will probably want to, though. Red Oxx does offer a nifty Pin Mount Key Clip that lets you add similar functionality to any bag, though you have to pierce the bag’s fabric to attach it. I used one on my everyday purse before I traded that for a Tom Bihn Café Bag…3-1-1 bag clear packing cube

The most obvious problem solved by tethering your interior organizers to your bag is the 3-1-1 liquids pouch you need to present to TSA screeners at the airport. You can pull the bag out of your main carry on but leave it attached. You won’t forget it after clearing security; at worst, you’ll leave it dangling outside your bag as you stagger, shoe-less and half dressed to the post-security benches to pull yourself together after your assault inspection.

Western Flyer with 3-1-1 bag out for inspection by TSA

Yellow Tom Bihn 3-1-1 bag tethered to Western Flyer

There are many detailed, photo- or video-enhanced reviews of these popular bags on the Internet, but I didn’t find any directly comparing the two head-to-head. I’m sorry that I didn’t take photos of the SkyTrain before I returned it, but I made these purchases years before I created this blog.

Find reviews of Tom Bihn bags here or register and ask questions in the popular Tom Bihn forums here.

Reviews of Red Oxx products can be found here.

Let me know if I helped you compare these two bags, or ask away if you have other questions about their differences that I haven’t answered yet.

*One bag travellers aim to pack everything into a single, carry-on sized piece of luggage. Visit Doug Dyment’s onebag.com to learn more.

Farmers to You gives my New England family direct access to regionally grown food

Let me tell you about my farmers.

Tragically, no, I don’t control my own fiefdom. The farmers in question are producers for, and partners of, Farmers to You, a farm-to-table direct grocer experiment in which we participate.

I call it an experiment because they are still tweaking their business model. I’m bringing it up today because our farmers are asking for our help.

We’ve been buying what we can from Farmers To You for several years. Essentially, I see it as an online version of the farmers’ market. Unlike a CSA, which we tried before but found too prescriptive, Farmers to You doesn’t dictate what we buy. Instead, each member family makes an agreement to spend a certain amount of money every week. This relatively constant level of spending is insurance for 83 partner farmers that there will be a market for their produce.

Most of my friends who participate in CSAs are health-conscious eaters or foodies. Without a doubt, buying local food means buying fresher food; buying heirloom varietals means eating better tasting fruits and vegetables. I’m pleased about these qualities in my food, but I’m also buying from the regional New England foodshed because I care about food security.

New England currently has 4 million acres of farmland; feeding New England’s population would require 16 million acres. Preserving farmland in every region of America serves as a buffer against catastrophic events elsewhere disrupting our food supply. It protects jobs and a traditional way of life that benefits local families and generates tourism. Farms also preserve green spaces and—especially in the case of farms managed with organic or integrated pest management methods—provide habitat for native species driven out of crowded urban and suburban areas.

Being a partner family with Farmers to You is easy. You can sign up online. There’s no fee. You only pay for the food you choose.

Update your order online over the weekend. If you don’t log on and make changes, you’ll get available products you ordered the week before. Orders are delivered to set locations—schools, churches, and other community spaces—on either Wednesday or Thursday at a set time. (The site you choose determines your day and time of pick up.) You go to your chosen site during the assigned hours and pick up a shopping bag already filled with the food you selected online. Unless you care to socialize, you can be in and out in just a few minutes. You might want to linger, though. The site hosts tend to be friendly and interesting people.

Oh yeah, and they have home and office delivery available in most close-in areas around Boston. You can be busy and still eat fresh, local food. It will be delivered by human-powered bicycle/truck in partnership with Metro Pedal Power.

Yes, sometimes in the dead of winter, I find it less enticing to fill my cart. We eat apples, but not as many of the storage vegetables like potatoes. That’s when I add a bag of dried beans, a bottle of 100% pure cranberry juice, or some real maple syrup to meet my minimum. I’ve never found it hard to find something my family would eat with this system. We used to throw away some of the mandatory vegetables when we were members of a CSA; we got stuff we just wouldn’t eat, and occasionally didn’t get around to giving it away before it wilted.

As I said, precisely what you put in your online shopping cart is up to you. Farmers to You offers the obvious fruits and vegetables, but also locally sourced meats, dairy, eggs, baked goods, and pantry items. They’ve added some not-quite-local extras like coffee (regionally roasted) and nuts (regionally packaged) to meet the desires of member families. Farmers to You doesn’t replace my regular grocery run, but it does prevent needing a mid-week trip to stock up on fresh vegetables and bread.

And speaking of bread… Having a loaf of Red Hen Baking Co. Whole Wheat bread arrive in our kitchen on Wednesday evening is our favorite treat. This is the slow-risen, naturally leavened staff of life Michael Pollan was talking about in Cooked. I’m not likely to make a bakery run on a school night, but an infusion of fresh food mid-week is well-timed and much appreciated.

In order to keep this model sustainable, Farmers to You is looking to expand the number of enrolled families, increase the size of the average order, and raise additional capital from investors. They’re asking all of us—the member families—to spread the word.

If you’d like to learn more about our experience with Farmers to You, let me know in the comments. Do you shop your local farmers’ market? Are you a member of a CSA? How and why do you buy locally produced food?