Birthday Blues

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The birthday year following a milestone birthday can be a bit of a letdown. Last year I celebrated six decades of life with a wonderful family trip to Hawaii and a surprise luncheon on a snowy day. But this year 61 is just – blah.

I remember how depressed I was the year I turned 31. Turning 30 hadn’t phased me. I was young and in love and would ultimately get engaged and married that year. But the following January, it hit me: I was OVER 30! I just couldn’t get over that fact, remembering the famous Sixties mantra, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Now I was in that square, uncool demographic for good.

As much as I love birthdays, sometimes life just gets in the way. One year my entire family got stomach flu the week before my birthday. I myself came down with a cold and raging sinus infection, no doubt run down by all the ministering to sick kids and washing vomit-laced sheets and clothing. On other birthdays my husband was out of town and my  kids too little to put on much of a celebration on their own. This year, I’m just not feeling it.

My husband has been asking me what I want to do for my birthday, what presents I want, and when I think we should have cake and blow out candles. I’m kind of inclined to let the whole thing slide. But after 30 years of marriage, that man knows me better than I know myself. He won’t let the day go by without some form of celebration wedged in between school, soccer schedules, and dental appointments.

I did decide to treat myself to a morning at the salon today where I got my hair and nails done for no good reason other than it was my birthday and my roots were showing. I had a delicious latte at my home away from home, Barnes & Noble, and when I returned, there was a lovely flower arrangement from my kids gracing the kitchen table. Every so often I’ve been checking my Facebook page and enjoying the many birthday greetings from family and friends.

So although it’s a cold, gloomy, and blustery January day, I do feel a little bit special on this, my 61st birthday.

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No Habla Español

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experiencing-ecuador-in-otavalo-market-264770The Galápagos Islands are part of the country of Ecuador, and the language spoken there and on the mainland is Spanish. With the ubiquity of the Spanish language in our culture, I know a number of words and phrases but would be hard pressed to carry on a conversation in Español. My kids still tease me about the time a man asked me in Spanish how I was, and I answered, “Delicioso!”

Traveling to a country with a different language can be difficult, as I discovered on our recent family trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos. Although our guides spoke English, there were many times when my family tried to order food, purchase something, or get directions from someone who spoke only Spanish. Luckily, my four kids all studied Spanish in high school, so they were a big help. I was impressed as the Spanish rolled off their tongues in restaurants and taxis. But even they admitted that it was hard to understand native Ecuadorians because of how quickly they spoke.

Language is just one of the many differences that can make foreign travel uncomfortable. Different currencies and time zones, use of the metric system instead of our less rational but more familiar measurements. By the time we left Ecuador, I vaguely understood that 24 degrees Celsius was pretty warm. And interestingly, Ecuador had recently converted to U.S. currency, so paying for things was easy – provided I could understand the amount being rattled off in Spanish.

It’s a good thing to leave one’s comfort zone for foreign travel. You get to see that there are different customs, practices, and attitudes, some of which seem odd or unappealing and others which you might want to bring back home with you. For instance, the plumbing system in Ecuador can’t handle toilet paper, so signs instruct you to throw it into a small wastebasket instead of flushing it. This was also the case when we visited China many years ago, and I suspect it’s true in many parts of the world. On the other hand, I enjoyed the pace of life in Ecuador and Galápagos. Meals were lengthy and relaxing affairs, something I’ve noticed in European countries such as Italy and France. We Americans could learn something from this approach to dining, as most of those countries do not face the same obesity problem we have in the U.S.

Shortly before we left for home, my daughters and I took a little field trip from our hotel in the Andes mountains on mainland Ecuador to see local people plying their trades in small villages nearby. We visited the shops of indigenous people who hand-craft clothing and rugs out of sheep’s wool and alpaca fur. They showed us how they use natural ingredients to make dyes that give the hand-knitted objects such vibrant colors. We wandered through a market filled with all manner of handicrafts made by the local people. We were less than half a day’s travel from Miami, Florida, yet it felt as if we were a world away.

It’s always great to get home after a long trip. Sleeping in our own beds, eating familiar foods, and traveling easily to our accustomed haunts felt good after 11 days away. Still, I’m glad we got to experience another little part of the world. It not only makes me appreciate the richness and diversity in the world, but it helps me appreciate the familiar pleasures of home.

¡Feliz año nuevo!

 

A Becoming First Lady

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I had mixed emotions while reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir Becoming. On the one hand, I was filled with admiration for the integrity, grace and determination Mrs. Obama has shown since her early days growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the child of blue collar workers who sacrificed everything to give their two children the best possible chance at a good life. On the other hand, I felt saddened and angry at how swiftly the improbable Obama ascendancy to the White House and the substantial progress made during Obama’s two terms in office are being dismantled and discarded by the Trump presidency.

Like many First Ladies before her, Michelle Obama was a reluctant political wife. Her main concerns as her husband campaigned first for state office, then U.S. senator, and finally for the highest office in the land were for her two daughters and their well-being. She strove to keep their lives as normal as possible and did not allow them to become pampered princesses in the White House. She also found a way to use her stature as First Lady to further the causes on which she had been spending her professional life before Barack Obama became president.

During the Obama presidency, the White House became a more inclusive and vibrant place. The many minority staff members were made to feel valued and important. Lesser known minority artists and regular citizens from less privileged backgrounds, especially children, were welcomed time and again to special events and to help with Mrs. Obama’s signature mission: helping children become healthier. Kids from a local school came regularly to tend to the giant fruit and vegetable garden initiated by the First Lady. They were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors quite literally with dishes made from the produce they harvested.

The crucible of political life was not always kind to the Obamas. Too often, mean-spirited antagonists criticized their looks, clothes, or gestures, looking for ways to cast them as “other” and not quite American. Even their teenage daughters were criticized for rightly finding the whole presidential Thanksgiving “turkey pardon” ludicrous.  Through it all, though, Michelle Obama kept her dignity and hope, reminding herself that the majority of Americans she had met in her life were good and compassionate people.

Reading Becoming made me nostalgic for a truly kindler and gentler administration. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the Obamas to relinquish the White House to the hateful man who had spent years questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and had campaigned on a divisive, racist platform.

Still, I will take a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook and choose to be hopeful. I will choose to believe, as she clearly does, that we are all still in the process of becoming – hopefully, becoming better people bringing a better world for our children.

A Galápa-Good Time

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My family had the great good fortune to spend our Christmas break in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.

Prior to our trip, my daughter had taken to saying things like “Galápa-Guess where I’m going” or “That’s a Galapa-good idea!” It became our own little private joke as we counted the days until we were on the equator in this otherworldly place that helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution.

It’s hard to do justice to the remote beauty and fascination of the Galápagos Islands. Each island reveals new marvels: playful sea lions, prehistoric-looking iguanas, giant tortoises who live into their ripe old hundreds. All these creatures live in an environment that time seems to have forgotten.
We have learned so much from our naturalist guides, whose presence is required in almost all parts of the islands in order for tourists such as us to explore the area. Every precaution is taken not to disrupt the habitats of these creatures, many of which have been on the brink of extinction.

When we weren’t being intrepid explorers, we were spending our time on a small ship with other visitors from across North and South America. We became friends with each other through our close proximity and shared wonder at the natural world surrounding us.

Best of all, we got to be together as a family enjoying this once in a lifetime experience. We rang in the New Year in a boat crossing the equator – hosted by the exceedingly friendly crew hailing from both the islands and mainland Ecuador.
It’s safe to say that on this adventure, we had a Galapa-good time!

The Kids Are All Right

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Millennials-stock-image-e1479316113621Everyone loves to bash Millennials. There seems to be no end to the stories and complaints about how soft, spoiled, and pampered these children of the 80s and 90s are. My husband likes to call them “the shared plate crowd” and mocks the way they are always taking pictures of their food.

All kidding aside, though, Millennials do seem to have different characteristics from their hard-charging Baby Boomer parents. They have grown up surrounded by advanced computer technology, and their comfort with and reliance upon it has surely shaped how they see the world. They want things fast: information, consumer products, general gratification. They don’t seem overly concerned with privacy in the way earlier generations do when faced with the ever-increasing sense of “Big Brother” watching us through our phones and laptop computers.

Unlike their parents, most Millennials have not known great want. Nor were they raised by Depression-era parents who harped upon their own deprivations during the 1930s. Critics like to point out how Generation Y (the lesser known name for this cohort) has grown up receiving participation trophies for sports and thus been deprived of a killer competitive edge.

But I think we are selling our kids short. If anything, my older two kids have faced a way more competitive workplace as children of the giant Baby Boom generation came of age in the early part of this millennium. They have faced a changing landscape in our country as traditional types of jobs become obsolete and the need for advanced technological knowledge requires even more education than earlier generations needed.

I also think many Baby Boomers criticize Millennials because they are frankly a bit jealous of them. Millennials are changing the workplace and society in general by demanding a better quality of life. For instance, after unseating longtime Congressman Joe Crowley in the House of Representatives, New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez drew mockery for saying she was going to take some time for self-care after the whirlwind of a political campaign. This is a particularly Millennial outlook and one I feel will benefit future generations. There is nothing especially heroic about killing oneself for a job, yet Baby Boomers still insist on carrying this trait as a badge of honor.

Millennials have also brought a degree of social enlightenment with their more open and tolerant attitudes. It’s no surprise that as they have come of age, acceptance of gays and gay marriage has increased in our culture. And as widespread social media have highlighted racial injustices in our society, it is our young people out front demanding change. This trend seems to be continuing with Generation Z, Millenials’ little brothers and sisters. Think of how the Parkland High School activists have developed a high-profile presence to protest the horrible scourge of school mass shootings.

My biggest criticism of Millennials is that they don’t vote. And because there are so many of them, their voter apathy has real consequences. With more election participation on their part in 2016, we might have seen a Bernie Sanders presidency. However, the Trump presidency may be waking up many Millennials who have been too cynical and disengaged to participate in politics in the past. Their new cohort in Congress may be a first step toward their greater influence on the political scene.

Every generation disparages the ones that follow. It’s our age-old fear of becoming irrelevant. (Remember how Greek god Cronus deposed his father Uranus and then suffered the same fate at the hands of Zeus?) And the older generation can feel judged when their children make different life choices. We don’t want to think there might be a better way.

But I see Millennials as a bit more self-centered, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We Baby Boomers wanted a better life materially for our children. Millennials seem to be looking for more balance in their lives. They take themselves less seriously – although not, apparently, their food (see above)!  I’m hopeful that Generation Y will usher in a more healthy and open society. And if so, I think it’s to our credit – we Baby Boomers – who gave our kids security and tended to their self-esteem in a way that was not available to us.

So mock all you want, but I think the kids are going to be just fine.

Remembering Y2K

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I remember as a child doing the math to figure out how old I would be in the year 2000. That millennial milestone was such a far off phenomenon to my young self. But as it loomed closer, people around the world started losing their minds.

The reason for this anxiety stemmed from a so-called Y2K (i.e. Year 2000) bug in the systems of computers that it was thought would cause massive malfunctions when the year 2000 arrived. Back in the 70s when I was calculating what an old lady I would be in the Year 2K, we could scarcely dream of how many essential systems would be impacted by the computer revolution. Computers back then were giant, unwieldy machines held in university labs. My business school friends were always wandering around campus in a haze with computer programming punch cards spilling from their backpacks.

But the acceleration of technological progress meant that by the year 1999, computers were running utilities, telecommunications systems, military weaponry, and all manner of operations that affected day-to-day life. Therefore, when news of the Y2K bug appeared, people started planning for Armageddon. We stocked our basements with water, batteries, and nonperishable foods. Most people I knew made plans to stay close to home with their families rather than go to lavish New Years Eve parties out on the town. The widespread panic gave new meaning to the famous Prince lyrics, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.”

Y2K fears proved to be largely unfounded. Other than minor glitches, most systems sailed through the New Year without a problem. People woke up on New Years Day to the dried up Christmas trees and other remnants of holiday revelry that they had on previous New Years. Life went on.

It’s important to remember in tumultuous times that there were many events in the past which caused people anxiety and worry. In some ways, our country has always been on the brink of conflict or disaster of one kind or another. Our politics have always been fraught. Our young people have always been criticized for not being exactly like us old fogeys  seasoned veterans.

As 2019 approaches, let’s remember Y2K and, as my husband likes to say, “Don’t panic. There will be plenty of time to panic later.”

Happy New Year!

 

I’ll Be There For You

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Rumors that Netflix was about to drop the iconic Nineties series Friends from its lineup put my daughter and me into a frenzy. We’d started watching reruns of the smash hit 10-season comedy the year before and were determined to make it through to the final episode, which originally aired on May 6, 2004, and was the most-watched series finale at the time.

I’d watched Friends on and off when it originally aired but never really encouraged my kids to tune in to the inevitable reruns that popped up in syndication a few years later. For one thing, there’s a lot of frank talk about sex and hooking up, a subject I didn’t really want my kids being privy to. I also thought the series might seem dated to the generation growing up on smartphones and laptops. By the time our youngest was in high school, I had relaxed my standards. After all, she was already watching shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill.

So the two of us started capping off our days with a nightly viewing of a Friends episode or two. The series starts off awkwardly. The laughs seem forced, and the chemistry among the characters takes a few episodes to develop. My daughter seemed unimpressed as she sat through those first few episodes stone-faced.  After a while, though, she and I found ourselves laughing hysterically at the foibles of the six young adults living and working in New York City.

Never mind that Friends shared the unrealistic depiction of NYC that almost every movie and TV show has over the years. Despite their lack of funds or spectacular jobs, the friends live in spacious apartments in the heart of Manhattan. They spend inordinate amounts of time at a coffee shop instead of at their jobs. Ross and Rachel each have young children, but they are conveniently out of the picture for entire episodes.

But looking for realism in a sitcom is a fool’s errand, and over this past year, my daughter and I have found much to enjoy about the show. There are just so many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Joey gets a turkey carcass stuck on his head. Recurring characters such as Janice with her donkey bray of a laugh also add to the humor. The actors who portray the six core friends are expert physical comedians. Sometimes their facial expressions alone cause hilarity.

But what truly makes Friends a special series are the many moments of true love and sacrifice that the characters make for each other throughout the series. There are serious subjects tackled in Friends, including a sexual abuse storyline that is played for laughs but also gets the point across that what happened to Joey as a child and then Chandler as an adult was inappropriate and wrong. The series also deals with infertility, adoption, excessive drinking, and the pain of divorce. And the way these six friends help each other through the bad times is a reminder of the theme song lyrics, “I’ll be there for you.”

One of the other most popular sitcoms of the Nineties was Seinfeld. It also featured a group of friends living in New York City. But the tone was more cynical and heartless. Not one of the main characters was particularly sympathetic, and they weren’t all that kind or supportive of each other. So it was easy to laugh at each of them when bad things happened to them. You kind of felt that they deserved it. Friends was an entirely different kind of comedy. Although the characters could at times be selfish and competitive, when push came to shove, they always chose their friendship over themselves.

It turns out the rumors about Netflix ditching its Friends were unfounded. The series will continue to be streamed through 2019. That gives my daughter and me a little breathing room as we head into the home stretch in season 10. But as hooked as we are on our late night bonding over the trials and tribulations of Monica, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe, I suspect we will have finished the series before we ring in the New Year.