Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Krtek, the Little Mole

KrtekKrtek does not live in America. He is originally Czech, and like many Czechs, he likes to travel, but he’s never found a niche in the U.S., never had the chance to settle down and stay awhile.

Krtek grew up in Kladno, a mining town a few kilometers from Prague, drawn into life by Zdenek Miler in the 1950s. You can find him in 62 short films, now collected into DVDs in the Czech Republic and Germany, where his films were produced. Our European friends watched him as children and when they come to Prague and walk past a store where he stands patiently waiting to be noticed, they do. "Der Kleine Maulwurf!" our German friends say, while Caroline argues with them - "ne, Krtek! Krteček!" His films are short, about five minutes each, filled with music, but few words. The shorts are so expressive Caroline laughs with joy when she sees them, and it is a thing to hear, that bubbling up of delight caused by such a fellow - a small miner all in black, his hands and whiskers his most expressive features.

Krtek isn’t a complicated character. He doesn’t outwit anyone, engage in long chase scenes, or become the fall guy for physical comedy. He is simply a kind soul, good to his friends, something of an environmentalist and an excellent gardener, when he isn’t expanding his mole hill. His curiousity and willingness to try give him great charm. My favorite shorts take place right in his front yard, beneath the cherry tree that stands as a calendar for his seasons.

Caroline’s pick would be "Little Mole and the Snowman" (Krtek a snehulák), produced in 1998, towards the end of Miler’s career. The movie opens in winter, as Krtek builds a snowman that then comes alive. They play, eat icicles, and become good pals. When it turns warm, predictably, the snowman begins to melt. But Krtek refuses to let his creation down and saves him by taking a trip to the top of the coldest mountain around and leaving his friend there, safe and sound while Krtek heads back to his cherry tree alone, to wait for the seasons to change. When winter arrives again, the snowman skis down the mountain to the film’s happy conclusion.

I like this short too, because to me it is a story about a story. Both Krtek and Miler have made friends with their creations - love them in fact. In the film, Krtek doesn’t want his snowman to change and melt; it would clearly be the end for his friend. I imagine Miler working out the plot while thinking about his own future. Growing older, and ill with Lyme disease, Miler declared a few years ago that he would not sell off his rights to Krtek, because he believed changes made by Krtek's new creators would be the death of the little mole. Perhaps Miler felt that, like the snowman, Krtek would have to go away to be preserved, safe and sound.

Let's just hope that with the increase in digital distribution those films that now exist will eventually find their way to mainstream audiences in America. In the meantime, you can order Krtek dvds from amazon.de, or buy them in stores in the Czech Republic.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Paging, the mother of the two year old with a lollipop embedded on her lip...

I’ve been trying to teach Caroline her name and age, working towards that day when she wanders off and finds the people who page errant parents in airports around the world. I figure any human with enough patience to spend three hours licking a lollipop down to the cardboard stick can learn her name and age, and her parents' names. Right?? Maybe. Here’s a sample lesson from last night:

Caroline, how old are you?
....I Caroline Boynton.*
That’s your name. How old are you?
....I two.
Can you tell me your name again?
....I Caroline Boynton.
What’s Dada’s name?
Can you say "Will Boynton"?
....Will Boynton.
And what’s Mommie’s name?
....Mommie Boynton!
What’s Mommie’s name?
....Umm...Mommie Caroline Boynton!!

So if you hear "Paging Mommie Caroline" over the intercom, next time you travel, you'll know we too have been by.

* Name changed to favorite kid’s book author of the moment.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A paean to leftovers

As chief cook in our household, I love leftovers. Food just tastes better when I haven’t been handling it for the last few hours. A lunch of last night’s pork chops, mashed sweet potatoes and green beans sauted in caramelized onions - that’s happiness. Add the sun, a window facing south, and fifteen minutes of the New York Times, and I've found heaven in the workplace. Hope you have a happy lunch this Valentine's Day too.

Monday, February 13, 2006

First sled ride

My sister just reminded me of Caroline's first sled trip, before she turned one. We pulled her along, rather than sledding with her (the snow was 3 meters deep) but she was indeed on runners. Here C is all tucked up in her eskimo bundle, ready for the snows of Switzerland. She's got on her skeptical look - the one she still wears when she thinks I'm going to try to educate her or persuade her to eat an orange food. "No to the alphabet! Death to sweet potatoes!" those eyes say to me today. Two years ago I think she was wondering where her bottle was and did anyone notice there was a baby in all this fleece?

Silver is also beautiful

Yesterday morning we watched Kateřina Neumannová battle through the Olympics cross country pursuit 7.5 +7.5 kilometer, known in Czech as the skiatlonu. It was a super race to watch, particularly as we saw all 15 kilometers, uncut by shots back and forth to other events or long ad breaks (so usual in U.S. Olympics coverage). When you watch all forty minutes of a cross country race, you can better fathom how grueling that sort of match must be, and we cheered for each woman when she crossed the finish line and threw herself onto the snow. Like the rest of the Czech Republic, we were a little sad because Neumannova, despite pulling ahead in the last two kilometers, didn’t get her gold, but as she said in an interview yesterday: "I stříbro je krásné." Silver is also beautiful.

Caroline watched with us, pointing out Neumannova’s racing number 3 whenever she showed up in a shot. When the service people started passing out bottles of water, C tried to pass over her sippy cup to the skiers too. The race over, we finally were able to peel her away by promising we would find some snow to race through ourselves.

Dressed, finally (the epitaph to every morning with Caroline) we headed out the door and over to our local park, Riegrovy Sady. Will hitched our new sled over one shoulder, and Caroline happily swung along between us.

On the way, Will mentioned he’d never gone sledding on anything but a cookie tin in his university years, up north. He was nervous. “How exactly do you steer this thing, and what about stopping?“ Since anything is easier to sled on than a tin square, I thought he’d have no trouble, once he got started, but we both wondered if there would be any snow left, since the streets were running with water and slush from the warm weather (1C/33F).

The park snow stood, mostly unmelted and covered with runner tracks. We found a hill, and Will and the sled went on their first run. Will had a great time, the sled did well too. Then, Caroline’s turn. We tried each hill in the park, until we decided the long double drop facing west, towards the castle, was our favorite.

Caroline loved everything about sledding - she hallooed and whooped on each run down, sitting snug in our laps; on trips back up the hill, she held on firm and encouraged us with giddyups. She seemed older somehow, chatting easily about the crunch of the snow, gloves versus pockets, the best way to carry the sled over cement (with her still on it). Before she went to sleep last night, she imagined her reading chair into a sled and bade me take the chair out, through curves and steep slopes until we landed back in her room and it was time to climb into bed.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

AllPeers Alpha - Alive and Kicking!

So yes, it is still in alpha mode, but the talk of the Firefox world is up and running right now. AllPeers is in friends and family testing while their software team works out those last odd bugs that only naive testers can find. Since I qualify especially for the naive part (and was around one evening when they needed a tester) the app is nested in my browser as I type.

Wednesday night I put it through its paces. Item 1: Install. If you’ve ever downloaded and installed a Firefox extension, you know how easy it can be. Download, install, close your browser, open your browser, and you’re in. That’s it - a GUI designer’s dream of simplicity, a marketer’s delight. That of course, is how easy it is to install AllPeers. It is, after all, a Firefox extension.

Next test item: contacts. Adding contacts to my AllPeers buddy list was as simple as the setup, and only currently limited by the tiny poolet of people signed up. Users can find pals by nickname or email, and if they aren’t signed up yet, send an email invite. Matt, blogger supreme and CTO of AllPeers, roped me into the testing, so I returned the favor and added him as my first contact.

And finally: file sharing, the meat and potatoes of the app, its cream and caviar too. First I took the conventional route and uploaded a folder straight from My Pictures - "Film pics". I decided Matt would appreciate King Kong, so selected fifty years of monkey film photos, and clicked Matt’s name on the contact list. Kong shared.

I tried downloading files from Matt too, a few mp3 files that I of course deleted immediately. The files showed up under Matt's name. Downloading each one required nothing more than clicking on it once.

When that worked, I decided to get messy and see how far the app would go. I began importing individual files, then dragging them straight from the import folder over to Matt’s name to see what happened. He got the file. I tried opening a picture through the Firefox browser menu, then dragging it over to my import folder. That worked too. I managed to crash my computer by checking to see what would happen if I tried to import my music folder into the window. A few seconds later, the blue screen of death appeared. Apparently 421 music folders and 265 separate files put a bit of burden on the system - at least for now.

As soon as my computer kicked back to life, I sent in my feedback by IM: "Hot diggity damn, we got a live one!" I typed, until I remembered the boys over at AllPeers might not understand my southernism, and emended the message to: "Super work you guys!"

Note: For more information and to sign up for an email alert when AllPeers goes live, head over to more about AllPeers.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dinner with echo

Having a conversation with Caroline now is a bit like having a conversation in an echo chamber with an active imagination. I’d guess this is true of most two year olds, but C’s desire to mimic us and everything else around has engulfed even her desire to say no. Add characters from the books that she reads (and movies she watches), and you really never know what might come up in your next Caroline chat.

Will was not home for dinner tonight, so our dinnertime conversation was even more surreal than usual.

Caroline, here’s your soup.
...Soup. Polevku
...Polevka. Hm... Beans. And big carrots. Little carrots too for Rabbit.
You’re going to give Rabbit the carrots?
...Give Rabbit the carrots?
Are you going to give Rabbit the carrots that you’re talking about?
...Give Rabbit the carrots?
Right, okay. How about another bite, yum.
...Snowman, I need a hammer for the snowman.*
Okaaay. How’s the soup, do you like the soup?

* We have hung little paper snowmen on our windows, and Caroline thinks they need to be hammered in place if they, for example, blow in the breeze. The last time we had carrots for dinner the snowmen got twisted up from a draft and we had to straighten them out. Not that I remembered the carrot/hammer/snowman link until after dinner. When it's just you filling in those memory connections in long skip-about conversations, deja vu moments happen more often than epiphanies.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Snowy Saturday

Snow has fallen all day, and the sidewalks and streets are covered. Tomorrow, if we’re all recovered from a cold that snuck into our flat, we’re going to take Caroline out for a ride on her sled. It has been waiting for her since just after the last big snowfall, when I bought it as insurance against too many weeks of city slush (sleds, like umbrellas, seem to keep precipitation at bay).

In the meantime, we have stacked books up like LPs on an old turntable, waiting their turn to be read. Caroline likes to stick to one author at a time, so we read first through Seuss, then Boynton and the Corduroy books before we get to the singletons. When it all gets too sedentary, Caroline shows off her tumbling act on our big bed - one somersault after another and then takes a few loops around the flat until she is back in the kitchen and a song catches her in mid step and she has to stop to dance to its beat before she begins her loops again, or stops for another book.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Tools for the distracted chef

Peeling ginger for dinner yesterday, I thought of the catchy names TV cooks use to describe themselves - the iron chef, the vegan chef, the naked chef. If I had a cooking show, what would my modifier moniker be? Moderate, messy, mayhem-causing....hmm. I stopped peeling and held the ginger to my nose like a spicy garni, knife set aside and forgotten, while I tried to untie my homemade mental knot.

Then it came to me. Distracted! I’d be the distracted chef!

I like to believe I come by this condition naturally. My paternal grandmother, after all, is famous in the family for reading novels while she cooked for her four children and husband, remarkably only burning the rice a few times. I used to read too, until that grim day when my favorite copy of Ali and Nino almost caught fire when I leaned too close to a burner while stirring and reading (and sniffing, I’d hit a sad part).

Just because I’ve banned books in the kitchen doesn’t mean I actually focus there now. In the middle of slicing veggies for dinner I’ll pop into the living room to build a tower with Caroline, when I double check a recipe on the computer I can never resist peeking into my email, or as happened yesterday, I‘ll stop and ponder a thought and get, yes, distracted. Recipe time estimates - "30 minutes tops!" "45 not including baking time" - never seem to apply to the recipes in our collection, at least when I’m at the counter.

To keep from having to call myself the "truly awful cook," or "the burnt and tasteless meals chef," I’ve come up with some strategies for manouevering somewhat successfully through dinner each night. For all you distracted chefs out there, here they are...

Gather before go: Before I start cooking I’ll arrange all the ingredients on the counter, mixing sauces and catching chopped garlic and ginger in small bowls, balancing larger ingredients on Caroline’s rainbow of plastic plates. It takes a while to get it all ready, but once everything is set out, running through a recipe is infinitely easier and I’m not so likely to forget an ingredient.

Automate: Because I’ve continued our family‘s tradition of eating rice nearly once a day, I love the rice cooker we bought last year at one of the local Vietnamese markets. Pour in the rice, click the button and it’s onto the next chore. Even Will, our counter space hoarder, is a cooker convert, and I always know that even if I let the pork saute too long, or forget a crucial ingredient in a casserole, at least the rice will be fluffy, hot and ready to eat come supper time.

Post in plain view and time everything: My current favorite tool is the stainless steel splashback I recently propped up behind the stove. Besides giving us something rewardingly shiny to polish once a week, the splashback keeps a timer in reach and recipes at eye level while cooking. So many of our recipes come from epicurious these days, I just print out what we’re cooking, make notes, and post each page on the splashback with the magnets we bought with the timer. The timer I set at each recipe step, so that it can count down to "earth to Julia, come back and cook!" And I do, really I do.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Keeping up with the two year olds - a Czech word list for toddlers (and their parents)

On a whim, today I asked Caroline how to say 'window' in Czech. She said "oko, ne, okno". And I thought, "At last, translation services!" The image of a dictionary emerging from the pools of primordial slime flickered through my head.

But she wouldn’t repeat the show for Will. Instead, she climbed onto my office chair and ordered me to turn her around and around - "točit" she said. Each time we passed the keyboard, I tried to add another word to the list of Czech words she does use regularly around the simpletons who are her parents. Most are standard Czech words, but a few are what I call children’s Czech, or simply colloquial Czech that C’s picked up from our babysitters.

She hasn’t surpassed us yet (only a matter of time), but she has added to our Czech vocabulary. Who knew heiss (hejs?)had wiggled its way into Czech?!

Our toddler primer, or words C employs
točit - turn
houpi - swing
dolu - down
nahoru - up
ovečka - little sheep
prasátko - pig
pes - dog
kočička - kitty cat
slon - elephant
panenka - doll
balónek - little balloon
boty - shoes
nohy - leg
čepice - hat
t'api t'api - walk
pojd‘sem - come here
nejde - not working
není - isn‘t
hači - sit down
haji - lie down
čurat - pee
bobek - little pellet, poop
tak - so
to - it
tam - there
tady - here
ne - no
prosim - please
děkuju - thank you
ahoj - hello/goodbye
heiss - hot
ham - food
papat - to eat
vejce - egg
kaše - gruel ;-)
mlíko - milk
sušenka - cookie
bonbon - sweet
spinkat - to sleep
plakat - to cry
holčička - little girl
pán - man
mimi - little baby
písek - sand
pá pá - bye bye

Warning: some of these spellings are probably off, as no dictionary I've found includes haji, let alone tapi tapi. If anyone has better spelling suggestions, please send them in, I'll mail you a postcard as thanks!

Update: haji is from hajat, and t'api t'api from t'apat (also perhaps tlapat?). They can both be found in Lingea Lexicon - if you know what you're looking for.

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