Monthly Archives: June 2011

Guest Blogger: Jessica Wilan

What I Appreciate About My Kids
by Jessica Wilan

Guest Blogger: Jessica Wilan


They don’t seem to be bothered by extreme temperatures, either hot or cold (it’s 95 degrees today!).

They never get annoyed at me reminding them, again and again, to use their forks at the dinner table.

They make up songs when they brush their teeth, get sunscreened, sit around the house, etc.

They harmonize to each others’ songs.

They shower affection on their cats.

They run after Basel the cat every time he runs out the apartment door and down the stairs.

They are delighted when we buy them a treat at the kiosk in the park but never complain when we say “not today.”

They think Weird Al is hilarious.

They are starting to get bored of Harry Potter (halfway through book 6, starting from Book 1 less than a year ago, you can bet I am too).
They now like to “multi-task” and browse other books while Ken or I read HP out loud.

They have created a whole world of animals, witches, and zombies that has its own creation myth and where animals have magic powers, are creative and industriousness (cow runs a kosher for Passover restaurant and owns a store called “Extremely Dangerous”), and live green (no gas needed in cars! No exhaust pipes!) and where boys can marry boys and have babies with each other and also with themselves.

This land is a secret and nobody can know about it – we are not allowed to mention it in public.

Their reading has developed very fast this year and they are getting more adept at surfing the Internet (uh-oh).

They love all food, especially spicy stuff and olives.

They’ll try anything.

They find something wonderful about every restaurant we eat in and every hotel we stay in.

They always want to ride their scooters or bikes.

They like helping me dump the metal and glass at the recycling center.

They have affirmed my brother’s entire childhood by worshipping him for knowing everything about superheroes.

They love their grandparents and anticipate visits for months.

They read aloud to each other.

They have little to no anxiety about all new experiences.

They may doubt us initially in some things but afterwards if we were right, they will tell us we were right!

They are getting really good at judo.

They are getting really good at soccer.

They are getting better at skiing and swimming.

They have no fear in the water.

They love catching frogs.

They love watching Top Chef.

They love sweeping the kitchen floor.

They have bizarre aversion to being barefoot.

They remind me of things that have happened to us (or that I have said to them) that I have forgotten.

They want to be Pokemon Designers when they grow up.

They like to have staring contests with me.

They are good at board games.

They listen intently to my stories about when I was a kid.

They kiss each other.

They tell me I am the prettiest woman in the world.

They have decided that one of them will marry me and we will have babies, and the other will marry Daddy and they’ll get an egg from me to make their babies.

Fear and Groaning: In Praise of Pursuing Scary Things as a Tonic for Middle Age

I am heading into my middle age malaise with a shock treatment of physical exercise. I was getting creaky and weak and maintaining a belly bulge. To arrest the decline and with hopes of reversing it, I latched onto judo. It was a pursuit of opportunity: My boys were taking lessons with a great teacher, and the teacher agreed to work with me.

I recruited my friend Chris to join me. This is a net positive but is not without pain. Chris is a fitness nut. The guy runs miles and miles for fun, works out almost everyday, is fearless in the face of physical agony, and seems to have a genetic need to push himself. He also has a nasty competitive streak.

Our instructor, Markus, is 28, speaks perfect English, is a black belt and on the Swiss National Judo team. At first glance, he looks fit enough, but when you see him in action, when he demonstrates a roll, a flip, a hold, a jump, a choke, you get a whole new appreciation for what 4 hours of hard-core conditioning every day for the last 18 years will do. The man is an apex predator. Some horrible and beautiful cross between a tiger and a shark. It is beautiful because his motions are unbelievably fluid, he balances cat-like, and his strength astounding. While I could barely make it half-way up a rope dangling from the high dojo ceiling, Markus goes up and down five times with only his arms while holding a medicine ball between his feet. He flips his body up and over, then lands on his hands, walks upside down on his hands, rolls, cartwheels, turns and pops up, smiling, because for him this is just a walk in the dojo.

And it is horrible, because to be in his clutches is to be a piece of raw meat in the grips of a wild carnivore. He demonstrates seemingly simple moves, a basic tug on the gi and push to the side, but the strike happens so fast and furiously it is like being in a shark’s mouth: I am shocked, thrashed about and quickly dispensed with. He has shown me how it should be. Now my turn.

I am tentative and sloppy. Unbalanced. My legs go the wrong way, my body flexes incorrectly, I don’t get the hold right.

Markus demonstrates flips and holds, and it is more of the same.

Even the basic exercises, somersaulting across the mats, is a lesson in humility. My body doesn’t bend very well, I roll too much on my neck and not enough on my shoulders, and the front rolls get me nauseous and horribly dizzy (I get car sick, after all).

In any one-and-a-half hour session, I am thrown by my partner Chris on my back and side, choked, arm-locked, and flipped head-over-heals. And must stand up and have it done to me again and again.

Of course, I get to do it to Chris, but my motions are not fluid, I am tired, and feel out of my element and uncoordinated.

And what would judo class be without physical conditioning? Markus has an entire encyclopedia in his brain of creatively exhausting routines. Pick up the 90 pound dummy, run it across the dojo, drop it furiously onto the mat, hand it off to Chris, repeat 10 times to exhaustion. Frog jumps back and forth, leaping like a manic frog up in the air, down, up again and higher, 40 feet across the dojo. Ten times, which is the endpoint where your brain just clicks your body off because it knows you should not be moving anymore. The last round I look more like a very old and wet slug rather than a bouncy frog. A slug about to throw up.

There are partner exercises where I have to jump over Chris in different ways, as he lies down, as he stands halfway up, back and forth, over and over again. Then Chris’ turn. Then my turn.

The first few lessons left me feeling like I had been hit by a bus. I had trouble getting up from bed, pain walking, sharper pain breathing. My body was covered in bruises from being thrown to the mat in new and exciting ways, and from being choked and held down. The sessions left me exhausted.

They still do, but I am definitely in better shape. But the thing is, I love the sessions but absolutely hate them, too. Because I am scared half the time. I hate being flipped. I despise being thrown. And yet I must submit my body to my partner for him to practice, and for me to learn, too. The endurance exercises recall wind sprints in middle school soccer. The coach says run, he blows his whistle and you run. Over and over again. Until you are sick with the effort.

I am old enough by many years not to have to listen to a coach. But I am doing this voluntarily, as one does with a personal trainer, and so obey because that is what I am asking for.

While I recover from the endurance drills, the fear remains. Every week, I do things over and over again that ignite in me an unfamiliar and unshakable visceral fear. Being thrown does it. Being tripped and brought to the mat is always unpleasant. I hate launching into the air and coming down into a roll. I do get better, and less fearful, but there is always a new move to take its place.

The fear is an odd thing to confront. In my life, I can avoid most things that would cause fear. I have no more social awkwardness, and no need to extend myself into things that I know I don’t want to do (no bungee jumping or sky-diving, thank you.). And yet, every week, I do these things, over and over again, that ignite this fear. I do learn that I can overcome it and come out on the other side perfectly OK. I often need to stop thinking about a move as that trips me up, to just visualize and do it, and this is a good lesson in itself. And I am able to continually put myself through this because I trust my teacher. I knew Markus was good when I watched him with my boys, and I suspect teaching 40-something year-old men may be an even bigger challenge than teaching 7-year-olds. Markus, like most good teachers, is patient and encouraging. There are no failed attempts as long as I try. And each time I do something, there is something he can point out that will help me do it better. Also, he has a sense of humor and no need to be macho. He loves judo, is amazing at it, and loves teaching others. He pushes Chris and me but only to our limit. As a life lesson, he also reminds me the value of having a good teacher, and being a good teacher for others.

For me, in middle age, judo brings me outside my comfort zone. Far out, in fact. And that is a wonderful thing. It frames the rest of the week, pushes me physically and mentally, and gets me out of my routine and comfortable existence. The flip side of comfort can be boredom, apathy and malaise. So for middle age, I highly endorse putting a little safe and productive fear in your life.

Now I need to take some Advil. My muscles are killing me.

Master and Students: Ken, Markus and Chris

Brothers and Sisters

Cute cat videos are the rage. The videos apparently garner more hits on YouTube than porn. Now that’s a lot of (obvious sophomoric prurient word joke deleted).

I hate to be part of any trend so sickeningly sweet, trite, banal, and cringe-inducing. But gosh darnit, Basel and Roxanne are just so loving towards each other sometimes, well, it’s so darn cute it must be shared. Apologies to myself and everyone else.

Room With a View

The weather patterns in Basel are consistently inconsistent. There’s something about the mountains that creates weird weather. It can be sunny, then a 20-minute storm rolls in, sunny again, and then another storm. High pressure systems fight it out hourly with low pressure systems. Gray clouds sit over the city while a few thousand feet up in the Alps the sun brings smiles to the cows.

My office window offers a nice view of all the changes.

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Watching the World Go By: The Movie

“Real Fiction Cinema” came to town. It is a basically a long wide trailer with a huge window. You walk into the trailer and you are in a dark movie theatre, with funky music playing. You sit in the comfortable seats and look at the “screen” which is the window onto the world. The trailers are in three locations in Basel, with each location offering a different potential for the movie. One overlooks a park (Claramatte), one a square (Petersplatz), and another sits in front of a busy intersection (Aeschenplatz).

I sat in the Claramatte location and watched university students coming and going in the street in front, riding bikes, walking in singles and pairs. There was also a guy reading a book on the stairs across the street from the trailer. Inside the darkened theatre, with whimsical music playing, it was extremely fun. It takes you outside the stream of life.

We took the whole family to the Aeschenplatz trailer, and in addition to watching the world as a movie unfold in front of us, we also decided to be actors in the film. Check out the results.

Try to visit the trailers around Basel. They are also in other Swiss cities. The simple concept belies the unique joy they bring.

Real Fiction Cinema website

Religion 101

Me: Why were you guys dressed in blankets?

Adam: Jack was dressed up as a god and I was a god.

Me: How were you a god and Jack was just pretending to be a god?

Adam: I could control stuff. Jack just claimed he could control stuff.

Art Basel

Art Basel is in town. It is one of the world’s largest, most expensive and fabulous art shows. It is capital A Art. Twenty-five hundred artists / paintings, drawings, sculpture, installations, prints, photography, video and digital art / and brand names like Andy Warhol and Miro as well less famous but well-known younger artists. Prices start at US $10,000. It’s not so much you can afford the art but that it is for sale. Unlike at a museum, you can get up close and personal with the art and at least think about buying it. That’s what the gallery owners want. I had my eye on a Kandinsky that I fell in love with. It is small, about the size of a large paperback book. There is something about the colors and geometry that speak to me. It’s called “Spritz,” watercolor, pen and ink and created in 1924. Violating the “If you have to ask” dictum, I asked. US $425,000. And I still loved it. Anybody want to go in with me? With 200 people, everybody gets a piece for $2,125. It can rotate between homes, we can have an annual party, and remember, this is investment art. Ten years down the line, maybe we double our money.

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Miracle Coffee!

I ordered a cappuccino and while it wasn’t the Virgin Mary that appeared in the foam, I do think it was pirate sensation Captain Jack Sparrow. You decide:

Captain Jack Sparrow Appears in My Cappuccino

Come Ride the Gondola

Above Chaminox we go. A, J, me, Jessica, and our friend Mort (plus a bonus appearance by the “short, weird smiling guy!).

Chamonix!

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We drove three hours to Chamonix, the French mountain adventure town just south of Switzerland. This is a skiing, mountaineering, mountain biking, paragliding, and trail running mecca. Mount Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe at 15,782 feet, rises above and beyond the long valley which is hedged in by rising mountains shooting up nearly vertical. It’s Aspen on steroids. We hiked up a mountain, walked along a river gorge, ate wonderful French food, and on the last day took a ride up to the Aiguille du Midi peak. In the Mont Blanc massif, it is 12,605 feet and reached by the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, climbing in two sections for a 20-minute ride from Chaminox to the top, from 75 degrees and sunny to 31 degrees and snow. Very fun!