Summer’s Lease Up

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Labor Day is a bittersweet holiday. The day is meant to celebrate working men and women all over America and, for most, to provide a day of rest and relaxation. But it also marks the symbolic end of summer. Kids not already in school will go back tomorrow. Morning commuters will once again have to share the crowded roads with back-to-schoolers. And summer vacations are over for families.

It’s still hot outside, of course. Today on my walk, I saw people out on their front porches enjoying the relative cool of early morning. Later on, the neighborhoods will be filled with the sounds of kids playing and the smells of burgers cooking on outdoor grills. A last hurrah of summer.

Soon in my part of the world, the evening air will have a slight chill in it. Then the trees will deck themselves out in glorious colors for one last celebration before the cold winter sets in. Before we know it, we will be huddled inside by the fireplace eating leftover Halloween candy and feeling wistful about our always too brief summer.

I’m not complaining, exactly. I do love the change of seasons in the Midwest – the way nature marks the passing of time. I did miss it when I lived on the West Coast. But I will also miss the free and easy feeling of summertime: sandals on my feet, an easy summer dress, an ice cream cone, and a fun, frivolous book to read.

Farewell, summer. See you next year.

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Gift Horse

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A friend and I were bemoaning the state of gift giving in modern society the other day. She complained that when she tried to purchase a baby gift in a store, she was told that it had to be ordered online. This has become a trend in recent years with the ubiquity of online shopping platforms.

Of course, there’s nothing new about gift registries. It’s great to be able to get a couple just what they need or want for their new home or their new baby. But my friend and I agree that we enjoy going to the store and actually seeing the items we might purchase for an occasion. We want to take the item with us and present it in person at the shower or wedding or birthday party.

My friend also said that she was disappointed once at her niece’s baby shower when the event came and went without her niece ever opening the gift she had brought. My friend had gone to some effort to give her niece a lovely gift and wanted to see her open it. This is also a pet peeve of mine. Particularly with showers, where the whole purpose of the party is to give the lucky couple gifts, it’s incumbent upon the receivers to open the gifts in the presence of the givers.

Even with children’s birthday parties, I think it’s important for the child to open the gifts his or her friends bring. I remember attending parties in L.A. in which the gifts were whisked off into another room and never seen again at the party. My kids were terribly disappointed not to see their friend open the gift they had picked out. I realize that there are all kinds of pitfalls in the gift-giving ritual when it comes to kids. But with a little prepping of the birthday boy or girl in advance as to how to receive gifts graciously – and a healthy dose of humor at the inevitable faux pas kids will commit anyway – the opening of gifts at a birthday party is usually a highlight of the festivities for children.

As “Manners Mentor” Maralee McKee says, “Gift givers are kind enough to search for, buy, wrap, and bring you gifts. At a party, or one-on-one, it’s gracious to open presents in front of them so they are there for the “unveiling” and so you can thank them in the moment.”

Obviously, there are occasions at which it is impractical to open gifts, such as during a wedding. A wedding is such an orchestrated event, usually with hundreds of guests, and it would be impractical to spend time opening each and every gift. at the actual event. That is what post-wedding thank you notes are for.

Gift-giving rituals evolve over time. But I think some traditions are worth holding onto, as gift giving is an important part of every culture the world over. It’s worth taking the time to consider the needs of both giver and receiver when taking part in them.

Land of the Free

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IMG_1229“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With these famous words, our Founding Fathers began a justification for the thirteen American colonies’ Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, setting the stage for revolution and the creation of the United States of America.

Of course, the equality espoused in the declaration of 1776 applied only to white men, and that reality has been the source of many hardships and injustices that have stained the greatness of our great country. The fight to live up to that ideal goes on even today.

But the moral ideal encompassed by the most well-known words in the Declaration of Independence has also inspired a fight for freedom and equality in many parts of the world. And it continues to give America its conscience hundreds of years after it was written.

The idea that human beings have certain rights helped framed the U.S. Constitution. It guided us out of two terrible world wars and helped established international standards to which all nations on Earth are meant to be held. And while even in our own democracy we struggle to assure the dignity of each person, the concept that we share “inalienable rights” gives us something to strive for in our laws and policies.

Freedom is a tricky thing. Fifty states with different laws and customs must somehow stay united as a nation. Our democratic institutions allow for a certain amount of unrest and strife that is not seen in more autocratic countries. Even the current state of caustic discourse that is roiling our democracy is the fruit of that freedom.

When my children were young, I learned a method to teach them about freedom and responsibility. It involves locking the thumbs and forefingers of each hand to form interlocking circles. One circle represented freedom, the other responsibility. With the circles locked together, it was clear that as the kids grew and gained freedom, they were also saddled with more responsibility.

That is our challenge as a nation as we celebrate our two hundred forty-second birthday. We need to remember our responsibility to the ideals that gave birth to our great republic. We need to hold them as applicable not only to ourselves, but to every American – indeed, to every human being on this planet.

Happy Independence Day!

B.F.F.

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It’s my best friend’s birthday today. (No, my best friend was not Adolph Hitler although my kids do think we were contemporaries.)

I met my best friend at the beginning of eighth grade. I was a small, insecure teenage girl who was new to town and the intimidating junior high in which I found myself. She was tall and blond with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile. Finding ourselves in every single class that eighth grade year, we became fast friends.

Over the years we shared secret crushes, had numerous sleepovers, and spent many of our high school weekends inexplicably dressed in 50s costumes. I was from a family of 13 while she had only her mom, dad, and one brother. We spent many hours in her quiet house, where she annihilated me at the game Stratego.

We stayed friends through college, rooming together freshman year. Our only real arguments were over what music to play on her record player. She favored Aerosmith and Peter Frampton while I enjoyed Elton John and Linda Ronstadt. And even though we pledged different sororities, we still managed to keep in touch.

We have had one major falling out over these past several decades. When we were in our mid-twenties, she became involved in a romantic relationship, and I felt left out of her life. Out of spite, I failed to inform her when my path took me on a move out of state. I’m still ashamed of being so unkind. But true to form, my best friend forgave me, and we reconnected. She even went so far as to visit me during my short sojourn in Florida in the mid-80s.

My best friend has stood up at my wedding, and we have traded photos and stories of our children and our married lives. Time and distance haven’t really changed much about how we relate to each other and how easy it is to be in each other’s presence. At our 40-year high school reunion a couple of years ago, it was almost as if we were still roaming the halls together and gossiping about boys.

So happy birthday to my best friend! You know who you are. I predict that we truly will remain Best Friends Forever.

 

 

A New Hope

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IMG_1605Over the years, my piano teacher and I have become friends. B. has always been generous – bringing cards and treats at holidays, making cakes for various occasions. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. I have known B. for over ten years.

So when B. was diagnosed with cancer last August, I was upset and concerned. With no family of her own and no means of financial support when she isn’t teaching, it was going to be a struggle for B.

Over the past six months, B. has endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She has trouble eating and drinking, and she has been in hospital or nursing home care for the better part of these past six months.  Two weeks ago, as the hospital got ready to discharge B., I was extremely concerned. She had been so frail, and I was worried that she would not be able to care for herself all alone in her apartment.

About a year ago, B. gave me an orchid plant. A lover of these notoriously finicky flowers, B. instructed me to care for the plant by putting a few ice cubes in the soil, letting them slowly water the roots. The orchid bloomed for a time and then went dormant. For the rest of the year, the plant’s large green leaves stayed glossy and alive. But the stem remained bare. Then in February, I noticed the roots climbing over the side of the pot, so I replanted the orchid in a slightly larger pot. Sure enough, large buds began to form. And just last week, the first blossom opened up in all its purple glory.

At home in her apartment, B. is also starting to get better. She is eating and drinking on her own, her hair has come back, and the color has returned to her face. As she regains her strength, I see glimpses of the fiercely intelligent and independent musician and opera singer she once was. I showed her a photo of the blossoming orchid she had given me so long ago. We agreed it is a sign of hope.

As Easter approaches, we celebrate resurrection. And I feel hopeful for B. and the new life that seems to be slowly unfurling for her. And I pray for all those struggling that they find a new hope in this Easter season.

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

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Tomorrow is a favorite holiday for Irish-Americans and, well, just about everyone else: St. Patrick’s Day. In Chicago, the river will be dyed an unnatural shade of green, and a big parade will course down (ironically) Columbus Drive to the wild cheers of the Chi-town throngs. Hardier partiers will start their pub crawl at an ungodly hour, and green beer will flow.

Being Irish has always been an enjoyable part of my life. My Dad loved to sing old Irish songs, some of which are very plaintive and touching. So did my red-haired Uncle Jim, who favored the  funnier ones, such as “Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” I myself loved to listen to and create funny limericks, thought to be named for an old Irish song, “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” (Of course, I was never privy to the bawdier versions of these poems.) And Irish tales of leprechauns and banshees and other magical lore from the Emerald Isle were endlessly fascinating to me.

On St. Patrick’s Day, our Catholic school took a holiday, and we would wear our kelly green sweaters. My mom would make corned beef and cabbage, the traditional Irish-American fare, for dinner. If St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday, the Catholic Church would even give us a dispensation from going meatless on Lenten Fridays. One year my parents even braved the crowds downtown and took us to see the parade.

As I got older, I delved into the history of Ireland and learned that being Irish certainly did not come with a pot of gold. The story of my ancestors was one of privation and persecution. A particular story I read in English class, “The Sniper,” made a big impression on me. It’s a story about the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, and the reveal at the end of the story is that the sniper ends up being killed by his own brother. It  is a metaphor for the tragedy of civil war and the age-old enmity between brethren.

I also learned to appreciate both the beauties and the struggles of being Irish from reading Frank McCourt’s trilogy of memoirs, beginning with his Pulitzer-prize winning book Angela’s Ashes. His memoirs are filled with laughter amidst the sadness, which is a very Irish way of looking at the world.

I think that’s what I love about being Irish most of all. It’s an irrepressible zest for life coexisting with a maudlin sense of doom. The Irish are drinkers, dreamers, story-tellers, and poets, singers and dancers and revelers. That’s the side of being Irish we celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day.

And it’s in that spirit that I say, Erin Go Bragh! Ireland Forever!

You’ve Been Bullied, Charlie Brown

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The other night I watched back-to-back Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day specials. It had been years since I had watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my kids, and I was in the mood for a bit of nostalgia. Imagine my surprise when I found myself slightly disturbed by the stories in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The gist of the plot in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” is that Charlie never gets any valentines from friends or classmates. He sits forlornly by his mailbox waiting for the impossible: that someone will like him enough to send him a heart-shaped missive. I’ve always known, of course, that the whole persona of Charlie Brown from Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip and TV specials is that of an unpopular loser. His classmates openly make fun of his attempts to direct a Christmas play and his choice of a spindly little tree that is like a kindred spirit to Charlie. He’s clumsy and glum and never seems to catch a break.

But something in these Valentine’s Day specials really struck me as hard and mean-spirited. First of all, from today’s perspective, it is horrifying that kids would be allowed to bring to school valentines for some, but not all, of the children in their classes. Charlie stands there empty-handed while Schroeder publicly hands out all the valentines. Of course, there are none for Charlie Brown.

On top of the humiliation regularly heaped upon Charlie Brown in these cartoons, the other kids are openly hostile to each other. When Charlie’s little sister Sally pesters Linus about getting candy or a card from him, he shouts at her and tells her he’s not getting her anything. Ditto with the exasperated Schroeder dealing with the ever-persistent Lucy. Even Charlie himself is no Galahad as he spurns the advances of both Marcie and Peppermint Patty in “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The world of Charlie Brown is perhaps meant to signify the meanness of adults as seen through the eyes of children. Or maybe modern society has evolved into insisting that children treat each other better, at least on the surface. Imagine a modern elementary school that would allow kids to openly exclude another child from a valentine or an invitation to a birthday party. Maybe we have turned into a kinder, gentler society after all.

My sense of nostalgia definitely was not awakened as I watched the lovelorn world of a Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day special. When you really think about these stories, an apter title for them all would be “You’re a loser, Charlie Brown.” Next time I’m in the mood for nostalgia, I’ll pick something more wholesome, such as “Psycho.”