Set in My Ways

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As a younger person, my observation was always that older people were curmudgeons; cranky and inflexible.  To me, they lacked the beguilement and wonder of my generation.  I saw this as an irritating feature of this group of people, and asked myself why they didn’t share in my own open-minded culture.  Seeing it as something that was characteristic of “them” made it easier to accept that this brand of cynicism would not happen to me.   I would never become “set in my ways.”  Having seen what became of people who were, I felt cocky that the inevitability of this fate would never come to pass.  I wouldn’t become one of them, no fucking way.

Time has dealt me a cruel blow.  Much as I hate to admit it, I am beginning to be set in my ways.  Years of experience have formulated my opinions on such things as waiting in traffic, the high price of travel and the skimpiness of  clothes on today’s young women.  Politicians are too jaded.   Movies are too violent.  Kids are too spoiled.  These are actual thoughts I have had recently, and it scares the shit out of me.  Being judge-y is not in my character and when thoughts of this nature appear and reappear, it is striking to say the least.  I was going to be impervious to age, always keeping up with trends and relishing free thinking!  A goddamn goddess of change and compromise!  My ideas would continue to be unspoiled not by years of disappointment in how things were, but instead, energized by pure possibility!  And then, eventually, you get screwed.  No one wants to lose the ability to see the world through a free thinking lens.  But no one wants to sit in the middle seat on an airplane, either.

As you get older, you start to see things less out of possibility and more out of practicality.  You figure out what it is that you don’t really like or want in your life as a result of having gone through it in the past.  You know that there are all kinds of cool new artists out there, but you still love to listen to Tom Petty.  You know that change comes slowly, but the chaos and gridlock in government have turned you sour.  You know that taking a class will be really good for you, but you bristle at the cost and inconvenience.  You want to jump in the lake, but don’t want to get wet.  You want to learn how to snowboard, but can’t be bothered with the cold.  Maybe these aren’t all directly relevant to your life, but this is what happens.  The head knows what it likes.  That’s why I want to listen to my heart.

When I think of someone I’d like to age into, I think of someone I know named Nancee. Nancee is 70, 23 years older than me.  She has opinions, she’s doesn’t get pushed around.  But she retains a sense of wonder that is truly remarkable.  She takes dance classes with girls 30 years younger.  She asks for other people’s opinions.  And then she listens.  In a culture of “us vs. them,”  she is open to new ideas.  She has friends of all shapes, sizes, religions and political persuasions.  She hugs and kisses her husband while pinching his ass.  She curses in ways that would make some folks’ hair stand on end.  But she also prays vigorously.  She is in pain most days from arthritis, but you’d never know it.  She doesn’t have much money,  her home is small, but she lives big.  While I realize we can’t all be Nancee,  and that I might never be, I relish her abandon.  She is her own person.  She hasn’t created a small, safe box around herself.  On the contrary, her box is huge and her heart is limitless.

Now I know that our experiences don’t always jade us, they often serve us.  Just because I want to see the world anew sometimes doesn’t mean I’m going to love the idea of the guy my age who smells like vodka coming over and pick up my daughter.  Hell, no. Keeping your sense of openness in the face of reality is a challenge, one that I don’t think those in the thick of middle age (or young middle age in my case) get enough credit for handling.  It can be a bitch to reconcile it all.

So here I am, 47 years of voices informing me to not listen, not to get involved and to say no.  But I know better!  Deep inside there is a kid who thought there was no line too long to get a ticket (and no price too high) for my favorite band’s upcoming show.   A kid who didn’t care that falling and getting hurt was part of learning how to roller skate.  Who didn’t instantly judge.  Who didn’t lose her shit when someone doesn’t replace the toilet paper roll.  I wouldn’t trade my sorrows and regrets for anything, but I do wish I could turn back time and regain a fraction of the sheer hope and optimism my daughters possess.

For now, I’m going to pay attention to my kids’ music.  Force my brain to learn tough new things (on my list:  programming, sewing and constructing a drip irrigation system).  Ask questions.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen.   My goal is to not be predictable.  To filter myself not based on what I don’t like, but on the very best things about me.  Because I know one day I’ll be sitting in the middle seat of an airplane, on a tarmac, next to a person who won’t stop talking, before a long flight.  And at  that moment, on this journey, I want to be open.

To all the ways.

 

photo by Barbara Paulsen at tandemechoes.com.  Go check it out.

 

 

 

 

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This Stage of Life

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Recently, my father in law got remarried.  This is a welcome development for everyone involved.  We love his new wife, and the happy couple are busy doing newlywed things and being in love.  My father in law took incredible care of my mother in law while she was sick.  He was completely devoted to her, forsaking any other claim on his time to care for her.  His loyalty to her was unconditional and he was with her every step of her journey with cancer, ultimately ending in her death a couple years ago.  So, his new-found happiness is truly a blessing in our family.

The wedding took place this past summer on a steamy late August day.  However, being “home” this time had me and my husband out of sorts.  First of all, there was a huge “for sale” sign in front of the house.  It felt odd, like we didn’t belong there anymore.  Like this was no longer home for any of us.  Despite the happy occasion, it wound up being unexpectedly sad to be there.  It really made me think about what makes a house a home.  Is it the time your Dad screamed at you at the kitchen table for getting a ding in the car?  Is it the time you made brownies with grandma?  Is it the first bath you gave your newborn baby in the kitchen sink?  It turns out it’s all of this, and more.

Once we realized this would be our last time in the house, all of a sudden, everything was infused with meaning.  There were paintings hanging on the wall that suddenly became visible after years of walking by them on the way to go to bed or run out to dinner with the family.  Plates and tzchotchkes that adorned the shelves were relegated to “take what you want!” status from my father in law.  These objects served as the background of my husband’s childhood home, much as the stage does for a play.  But in this would-be theater, all the props are going away.  The time had come for the play to close.  All the scenery, gone.  Virtually the entire house would either be given away or thrown in the trash.  The thought of this is jarring to say the least, but even more so considering my 46 year old husband has thought of this as home since he was 5.  It felt disrespectful.  It hurt.

Prior to leaving, my husband, his brother and each of our families tormented ourselves over what to take.  It had to fit in our bags.  If we wanted it shipped, it had to be worth the cost.  How do you take a lifetime and put it in a carry-on bag?

In the end, we wound up taking a few very special items.  My husband’s bar mitzvah photo album.  His stamp collection.  Lots of photographs.  Some jewelry.  But, now that the house is sold, I keep remembering things from the house.  I will sit up in bed and think about a ring my mother in law wore.  My father in law’s fencing mask.  The huge marble covered dresser that they let us borrow for our first apartment.   The record collection.  These things are now scattered around, detritus of a life no longer shared.  Of four people no longer under the same roof.  That shit is just plain sad.

So now I look around my house.  I try to see it from the eyes of my own kids.  They will grow and one day leave this beloved dwelling.  Will they remember how they helped make gingerbread in this kitchen every Christmas?  Will they remember painting their rooms?  Do they notice the photos we have hanging?  Will it hurt when the for sale sign is dug into the ground?  Only time will tell.

But I know this much to be true.  This house, my home, is more to me than bricks and walls.  She has kept my loud cursing silent to the outside world,  and she has gently held my whispers.  She has swelled to welcome visitors and she has held us tight when it is just us four.   She keeps us warm and dry  through the storms and gives light on dark days.  She has welcomed two babies and been steady through diapers, flus, tears and the inevitable Sharpie on the walls.  She has borne witness to it all and remains strong for all of us.  She holds my deepest heart, my playful days, my sleepless nights, my worries, my dreams and all the days of this crazy wonderful life we lead.  Backstage, I write these words.  On stage, as they say, the play goes on.

 

photo by Barbara Paulsen at tandemechoes.com.

 

All of Me

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It’s dawn in the suburbs and I am up

a little early.  It’s raining and it’s sunny at the same time.

My daughter asked me once how these two opposite

forces could occur at the same time.  “How is it possible for both

to happen at once?”  she wondered.

Got me thinking.

 

There was a woman who, as a young girl, stole a candy bar

from a store.  She never told anyone and really it wasn’t on purpose,

she told herself.  She stared with green eyes at the Barbie townhouse

in her friend’s playroom.   Like a rug burn, she hurt for that house.  One day

the elevator found it’s string mysteriously cut.  Shrugging her shoulders

the girl blamed her friend’s brothers.  They were assholes anyway.

On the schoolyard, this same girl pulled the hair of another girl who

called her friend Missy a “low down blackie.”   She got in trouble, of course,

but Missy quietly thanked her.  Saying no one had ever stood up

for her before.    It made the girl feel good.  She made friends with the

cast-outs and the fringe kids.  They, she thought, were the real ones.

 

As a teenager, she smoked cigarettes behind the Friends meeting

house.  The foul language mixed with the smoke coming out of her mouth

would have made her mother’s hair curl.  She earned honors in her classes

and people said she was smart but didn’t apply herself.  To what?  She had

wondered.  As if she were glue.  Her first boyfriend, well, now he’s in jail.

The second is a surgeon.  Guess which one was nicer.   To school, she wore

her plaid Catholic school uniform, all prim and proper.  To the nuns, she

was the quiet one.  Studied hard.  She was glad she could wear a uniform.

Because her parents couldn’t afford designer jeans.

 

In college, she drank too much.  As lots of kids do.  And she was not very

good with money.   A friend who really needed her started to get on her

nerves and felt like a drain.  So she ditched her.  She ate her neighbor’s

food all the time instead of buying her own.  The girl now woman, well, she

graduated magna cum laude.   A bachelor’s degree.  Then, after work, she

earned a masters degree.  Very quickly, she understood.  On the

weekends she helped in the AIDS clinic.  She spoke up in meetings.  She

wore a white coat.  She was respected.  She walked right by the homeless

people outside her building.

 

This woman is now here in the suburbs, now a mom, now someone

who cares, who matters, who makes a difference.  But also

someone who is not always right, is imperfect and flawed.

 

I tell my daughter, “It’s called a sun-shower.  And it can happen.

It happens all the time.”

 

 

photo by Barbara Paulsen at tandemechoes.com.

What Would You Do?

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There’s a show on broadcast television called, “What Would You Do?”  Immediately after one of our favorite shows, it came on.   We just started watching it, so horizontal and lazy were we that changing channels seemed too huge an endeavor.   It works like this:  actors portray a brief scenario in public while being filmed.   Whatever it is, you are compelled to ask yourself:  What would you do in this situation?  An online stalker propositioning a young victim, an racist mother talking her daughter out of buying a brown-skinned doll, a couple arguing loudly about whether they should divorce.  Then-you guessed it-we see what happens.   A person will step in at some point and try to help, or to confront, the actors.  Then our host comes from behind the shadows and surprises everyone!  And interviews him/her!  And makes everyone feel good!  It’s overproduced and inauthentic but has sparked some great conversations with my kids.

There are a couple things which have always bothered me about this concept.  First of all, it feels like you are tricking the people into reacting.  After all, it’s not really happening, it’s actors.  I always appreciate the ones who step in and try to help, I’m not sure I always would under the circumstances, but still…It’s. Not. Real.  The other thing that bothers me is that my kids are just sitting and watching.  It’s reality television after all, everyone is always waiting for the train wreck to happen.  It’s not active, it’s passive, even if they are yelling at the television.

As I read “The Whole Brain Child” by Dr. Dan Siegel last week, I was thinking about the show.  He talks a lot about the “upstairs brain,”  which is the thinking and reasoning part of your brain.  And then there is the “downstairs brain” which is ruled by emotions and reactivity.  You know when your child has a tantrum (yes this happens even when they are teenagers) and it’s impossible to talk to them?  That’s when the downstairs brain is at work.  When you wait until they are calm to have a discussion, that’s when the upstairs brain is operating.  Newsflash frazzled parents! You are also calmer once the tantrum is over.  Dr. Siegel mentions using “what would you do” questions to develop your child’s ability to problem solve!  Imagine how brilliant I am that I was thinking the same thing as him!

So I sat down, thought about the ages of my kids, and wrote a bunch of questions on index cards.  They range from “what would you do if you saw your friend cheating on a test?” to “what would you do if you saw your friend’s boyfriend kissing another girl?”  and everything in between.  It’s actually kind of fun thinking of these questions.  Sometimes I throw them out during a long car ride, sometimes at dinner.  But someone always says something I wasn’t expecting.  It’s not really an opportunity to correct them but more connect to them.  It’s cool to know what they are thinking, even if I don’t agree with them.

We all have times in life that we have to make a choice.  For me, that comes down to asking myself what kind of person I want to be.  For my kids, I hope that I can guide them into asking those kinds of questions of themselves.  After all, I won’t always be there.  You take them to practice to help them be better at sports, why not practice being a better thinker?

What would you do?

 

photo at top of post by Barbara Paulsen at tandemechoes.com

 

You and Me for a Virtual Happy Hour

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Anyone who knows me knows… I love a good happy hour!  Actually I usually refer to it as “HH” because happy hour takes too long to say and I say it A LOT.

Care to join me?

If we were at happy hour right now, I would be enjoying an amber ale, thinking of autumn and falling leaves and Halloween.  I’m kinda jealous of all those people who are SO into Halloween that they carve 100 pumpkins and dress up like Lady Godiva and shop all year long for decorations and have doorbells that chime like a cackling witch.  Okay, maybe not.

If I were at happy hour right now, I would be with my besties; chilling, relaxing and dishing.  We would be planning a trip or complimenting each others’ hair or reminiscing about this or that.  We would be supporting one of us through a rough time with their kid or their job.  We would be navigating our lives with the background noise of a bar; clinking glasses, smiling faces and laughter.  Always the laughs.

If I were at happy hour right now, I would be wearing make-up.  Most of the time I cannot deal with that shit.

If I were at happy hour right now, I would be happy to be sitting.  Seems like I never sit down.  My ass perpetually longs for a place to sit itself, but most of the day it has to settle for the seat of my car between shuttling to and fro.  Plus, my aging body is clunky and sore all the time from just doing the regular stuff.  Maybe it’s better I stand.

If I were at happy hour right now, I would be grateful to have a break from my children.  But also, I would be grateful for the space to recognize what great humans they really are.  Despite the inside out skinny jeans on their bedroom floors with the underwear still attached.

If I were at happy hour right now, it might with my husband at the end of a long week.  I’m so in love with my happy-hour husband.  He is so fucking cool.  We drink, we’re alone, we talk about sex baby, it’s like 1995 again!  When we start to talk about depressing things like politics or aging, I try to change the subject back to the 90’s, like grunge and Seinfeld.

If I were at happy hour right now, and you didn’t know me, I am the short brunette (keeping the gray at bay, people) with long hair.  I am most likely laughing and throwing my head back as I do (I don’t know, it’s a thing).  I will be wearing jeans and probably a sweater as I am always cold.  In my hand will be a cold brew and on my plate will be some kind of yumminess involving cheese or meat.

In any event, if I were at happy hour right now, I’d be happy:)

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen at tandemechoes.com for the photo.

This Quote is the S**t.

“Midlife: when the Universe grabs your shoulders and tells you “I’m not f-ing around, use the gifts you were given.”     Brene Brown

My belief is that profanity, while offensive and low-minded to some, can express an emotion the way no other word can.  Of course, such expressions may be limited by your proximity to children, your current employer or your religious leader.  Please, I beg you, use profanity as the art form it is.  Don’t use it in front of those who don’t appreciate its aesthetics, or use too many curses at once.  Don’t curse just because other people around you are doing it.  Do it because you feel it.  It’s freeing.

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This quote sums up perfectly the last few years of my life.  There comes a point where something in your core screams, “WAKE UP.”  For me, the slow and painful death of my mother in law, the tedium of my husband’s career, the aging of my body and the natural curiosity of my children have all conspired to give me pause.  I mean, lots of people have told me I’m pretty awesome.  Isn’t it about time I started believing it?  And more importantly, doing something about it?

So I’ve made some changes. Nothing miraculous, I’m not making regular trips to volunteer in Haiti or anything.  But there are some things that I have accomplished.  I set goals and I stick to them.  Whenever possible, I lend a hand.  I don’t yell as much.  I forgive my skin for wrinkling, among the other indiscretions my body keeps handing me.

You see, you don’t have to be AMAZING to be amazing.  That’s really what this blog and my writing is all about.  All of us have a struggle from time to time.  The trick is actually being okay with it.  After all, you can’t have your shit together all the time.  (See how I did that?  Interjected a curse word?  You are welcome.)

Why I Write and… Why I Don’t

Why do I write? Hmmm...

Why do I write? Hmmm…

Asking why I write is like asking why I move, or eat or sleep.  It is not really a choice.  Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.  The pen is moving in my mind, making stories in little thought clouds above my head.  Sometimes, like this past summer, I hardly wrote at all.  With all the sun, kids and vacations, I found it challenging to sit and write.  But all the while, I wrote stories to myself.  About the great blue ocean. And the chimes of wedding bells.  And my dog running through the tall grass.

Writing is my aspirin when the headache gets too big.  It’s my end of day glass of wine when the hours have been a burden.  It’s my salve when I’m achy and sore.  But it’s also a form of celebration; a snapshot of a memory too beloved to let fade, a trinket to look upon again and again.  It is a yummy cookie to savor not just in the baking, but in the sweet pleasure of taking a bite.

When time goes by and I haven’t written, like over the summer, I always know it’s there waiting for me.  And so I write long notes and cards, lists and this keeps me going for  awhile.  But then, writing sits and waits as if in a drawer, waiting to be inevitably opened.

Writing is patient with me, though I not always with it.  And here we are.

photo by Barbara Paulsen at tandemechoes.com.

Losing, it turns out, was winning.

When I was 25, I had the best boyfriend ever.  Except for one thing.  He was the worst boyfriend ever.

Let me explain.

We met at a barbeque.  Me in my adorable plaid skirt.  Him, bespectacled and watching me intently.  Holding his beer, he made his way to me.  I felt his journey toward me more than I watched it.  It felt inevitable. I blinked and we were making out on the floor of my apartment.  I remember wishing, as we were rolling around, that I hadn’t eaten such a big dinner.  It made the gymnastics more difficult.

Before long, we were together all the time. And he was also critiquing me nonstop.  Like, YOU SHOULD work out more.  Or, YOU SHOULD not wear clothes like that.  Or, YOU SHOULD be….(everything I’m not).  But when he was complimenting me, the critiques all faded away.  Oh the compliments!  They were balm for the wound.  They were a brief sun break from the rain.  The slice of bread to the starving man. I began to wish for the compliments, pray for the compliments, hope for the compliments then desperately pine for the compliments.

Sooner or later, as these things do, the final straw happened.  It was betrayal, but I still wanted him.  I probably felt I needed him.  And then he left.

Survival is a primitive thing.  Clawing through the darkness like an animal.  But, eventually, the sun does rise.  Breathing becomes less labored and the clouds lift.  I had lost him, but in that long battle, I won.  It felt good.  It still does.

Sometimes, I dream about him. He is always aloof, wanting me back but not begging.  It is usually when something is stressing me out.  He comes to remind me that winning is possible, even when all hope is lost.

Paris, without vomiting

Going to Paris has always been my dream.  Of course, I realize, it’s a dream for most people.  But unlike many, I don’t like to travel.  I get nervous and frequently, I get sick.  Really sick.  Vomiting.  Fevers.  Ulcers.  Allergic reactions.  Honestly, you are better off not traveling with me.  One of the places you’ll be visiting is a hospital.

One source of comfort for me is if I am traveling with someone who knows the terrain, a local.  As a newbie to their particular spot in the world, the local sees me as someone to be molded, shaped into the ideal visitor.  I am up for the task.  I relish someone helping me navigate, say,  the New York City subway system.  As a grateful receiver of said invaluable information, I am a star student.  The local will receive effervescent praise and frequent stops at sweet shops as a gratuity.  A croissant conveys the sincerest of thanks.

If I could click my heels and travel to Paris and her surroundings, I would do so every moment I was free, even if it was as little as 15 minutes.  Getting this prospective lay of the land would go a long way to relieving the anxiety of travel to a new country and hopefully keeping sickness at bay.  I am a big fan of the motto, “Be prepared.”  Surprises are not my idea of fun.

My first child was born on September 10, 2001.  I had one day of believing that the world was a safe and good place to raise a child.  After that day, everything changed.  You knew what was possible.  You knew that nightmares do exist, and that it can happen on a clear and sunny day in one of the most fantastic cities in the world.  This is what really lies at the core of my fear of travel, and it’s subsequent gastronomic cruelties.  Nerves.  Plain and simple.

But if a quick trip were possible here and there!  Without the encumbrance of luggage and children!  To collect data, to scout the location, to survey the area, then perhaps certain disaster can be avoided.

Until our planned trip to Paris in April, I will try to keep in the forefront of my mind…not burning towers and crashed airplanes.  But the Paris of my childhood dreams.  Just like in Madeline.  Lantern lit streets.  Little girls in a row.  Dogs with bows.  Delicious treats.  Feasts for the eyes.

Safety.