Our Own Worst Enemy

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There has been a rash of car thefts in my neighborhood lately. I’d be a bit more concerned about the safety of my area if I didn’t know that in almost every case, the stolen car had been left outside unlocked and with the keys inside. These car owners are practically inviting a car thief to help himself to their vehicles!

In so many ways, human beings are their own worst enemies. We willfully do things we know to be unhealthy or dangerous – to the point that the state has to pass laws protecting us from ourselves. Seatbelt laws and newer ones banning cell phone use and texting are evidence that we just don’t know what is good for us.

Another thing I see a lot of is people pumping gas with a cell phone to their ear. Have they not heard of static sparks igniting a fire. And speaking of igniting things, how can anyone in this day and age take up the habit of smoking? I truly feel for older adults who became hooked on nicotine before we knew the dangers inherent in smoking. Nowadays, though, when I see a teenager smoking, I just shake my head in wonder. Are their heads in the sand? Did they not see the diseased lungs during their D.A.R.E. lessons?

To top it off, vaping has become a craze among teens. Flavored substances make vaping attractive to kids, despite the fact that they are still getting hits of nicotine (and sometimes other substances). Recent illnesses and deaths due to vaping have made using the product even more scary. But do you think a photo of a teenaged kid on a ventilator due to a vaping-related illness will stop anyone from picking up a Juul? Fat chance.

What is it about human nature that makes us our own worst enemies? Is it our pleasure-seeking id that seeks only its own gratification? Do we have a sense that we’re immortal until it’s proven to use dramatically that we’re not?

I myself am not immune from the tendency to act against my own interests. Despite mounting evidence that sugar is a cause of many modern health problems, I can’t seem to quit the stuff. The problem is that if I eat a sugary, fatty donut, I don’t immediately keel over with a heart attack. Those smokers and vapers and gas-pumping cell phone users have performed those actions numerous times without dropping dead or setting themselves aflame.

I guess we’re our own worst enemies because danger seems abstract when it is not right in our faces. The chances of a thief selecting my car out of all the other cars in town to steal seems remote. Still, I won’t take any chances. I’ll choose to learn from the mistakes of others and lock it up tight.

 

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Bailing on the Bucket List

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Every year in late summer, the fall color sighting guides come out in my local paper. Each year I save these articles, fully intending that this will be the year I go on an expedition to see the glorious changing of leaves in a nature preserve near my home. Better yet, I’ll take that fall color trip to New England that has been on my bucket list for the last 30 years.

I’d never heard of the term “bucket list” until a movie of the same name came out. It was a comedy about a couple of older gentlemen who meet in the hospital and decide there’s no time like the present to do all those things they’d wanted to do over the years. Soon people were talking about their own bucket lists and announcing that they’d checked one off after a certain trip or experience.

Most of us have ideas of things we’d like to do and places we’d like to visit someday. The problem is the generalized nature of that “someday.” We never get around to these dream activities. For me, fall color treks, bird watching, maple syrup tapping exhibitions, museum visits, and the glass pumpkin event at a local arboretum sit forlornly on my bucket list, waiting to be accomplished.

One of the reasons I’ve had for never getting around to these activities is time, or the lack thereof. As my children grew, I had the best of intentions to make time for these ambitions, but I always seemed to be busy with the kids. Invariably, the weekend of an event I’d always wanted to attend coincided with an important athletic event or recital for one of my kids. Even taking piano lessons had to wait until I could find an hour of time within my day free from childcare responsibilities.

Another thing that has happened as I’ve gotten older is that I no longer have the energy or physical stamina to accomplish some of the items on my bucket list. For instance, I’ve always thought it would be fun to take an extended biking trip in Europe. I used to think a Windjammer Barefoot sailing cruise sounded like an exciting idea. But who am I kidding? I’m lucky if I get myself to take an hour-long walk around the neighborhood these days. Some bucket list items are for the young, or at least the young at heart.

I also can’t handle crowds anymore. My favorite thing to do when I was young was to go to the free festivals on the lakefront in Chicago: Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, Printers Row Litfest. I always intended to take my kids downtown for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Michigan Ave. and the Fourth of July fireworks on Navy Pier. But the thought of traffic, parking hassles, and especially the hordes of people at these events discouraged me from my best intentions.

Some of my bucket list items have simply faded in importance over time. I’m no longer enamored of the idea of spending a week at a boozy all-inclusive resort in Jamaica or the Bahamas. (Plus, I’m married and don’t look good in a bikini anymore.) I’m not really interested in getting a Masters degree, becoming a gourmet cook, or opening a cafe/bookstore at this stage of my life.

As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that if something is really important to me, I’ll find a way to fit it into my life. A good example of this is an annual event in Chicago called the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, which features local authors as well as some renowned nationally-known writers such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and the late great Toni Morrison. The event is a fundraiser for the Chicago Public Library system, and friends of ours, knowing my love of literature, invite us to attend it every year. No matter what else is going on in my life, I make a point to be available that evening for the dinner. I’ve even attended without my husband when he was unable to make it.

Another example is taking my children downtown to see the light show at Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham Fountain is a majestic creation that sits overlooking mighty Lake Michigan. In the summer, the fountain is turned on, and there are nightly light shows with music that enhance the majesty of the beaux arts sculpture. Visiting Buckingham Fountain is a fond memory from my childhood, and I was determined that my children experience its magic.

Whatever the items on our bucket list, it’s okay if we don’t accomplish all of them. Respecting our ever-evolving priorities and making the effort to do what is truly important to us can be a fulfilling way to live a life.

 

Dressing Our Age

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I’ve often said that my standard for age-appropriate dressing is: If one of my daughters would wear it, it’s not for me. Given that there are more than 40 years between myself and my younger daughter, however, this doesn’t seem like a very useful guideline.

Every so often I see a woman – or, less often, a man – who looks faintly ridiculous in an outfit that seems too young for them. A super short dress, for instance, or “anatomically correct” leggings with a crop top are just not looks that the 50-plus woman should be wearing. Yet I myself sometimes wonder whether I am dressed appropriately for my age. Who is there to be my fashion police? I’m not personally acquainted with Melissa Rivers, after all.

We’ve come a long way from middle-aged women in their house dresses. Women of a certain age still want to look stylish, and there’s a certain obsession with youth in our culture that makes the latest fashion trends tempting at any age. A good example of this is the “cold shoulder” top that came into fashion a couple of years ago. While not only favored by the very young, the style gave me pause. Is it too trendy? Are my shoulders attractive enough to peek out of my sweater? In the end, I thought I’d just be cold wearing it and need another sweater to go over it.

Still, the style dilemmas continue. I guess a good guideline for women of any age is how you look in a given style. If you have fabulous legs, go for that short skirt. If your skin is soft and supple, a low-cut blouse or strapless dress would be lovely. Since I no longer have the figure of a 20-something, I’ve tended to err on the side of coverage and forgiving drape.

Of course, sometimes the situation is reversed. My daughter and her friends used to wonder aloud if they were old enough to rock Skechers Go Walks. They look (and are!) so comfortable that it was tempting for these young beauties to throw fashion sense to the wind and flirt with the “morning mall walking” look.

In the end, how we feel about ourselves is more important than any arbitrary guidelines from fashion critics (or our own children). Wearing what makes me feel comfortable and happy is the goal at this point of my life. If a style doesn’t meet those criteria, I’m giving it the cold shoulder.

 

Generation Gap

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WoodstockThe other day my teenage daughter sat at the kitchen table and started reading off a list of 100 famous movie lines: everything from “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” A few were vaguely familiar to her. But for the most part, she had no idea where most of the lines came from or what they meant.

“How is ‘Rosebud’ such a famous line?” she demanded. She also wanted to know why Humphrey Bogart was the speaker of so many famous movie quips. As she went down the list, occasionally she asked me to replicate the intonation of the line as it was spoken in the movie. But it’s hard to convey, say, the hair-raising quality of the little girl in Poltergeist when she turns away from the television and says, “They’re h-e-e-e-re.”

My husband and I realized right then that we had failed to indoctrinate our children in the all-important canon of memorable films. Indeed, in so many areas – music, theater, television, history – there’s a generation gap between our own experiences and knowledge and that of our kids.

Much was made of the so-called generation gap during the 1960s. After the hardships and deprivations of two major world wars, members of the “Greatest Generation” were cautious, conventional, and level-headed. They enjoyed the economic well-being of the Fifties and saw it as a result of hard work and sacrifice. Self-expression was not valued as much as order and peace.

The Baby Boomers, children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, were born into relative peace and prosperity. As they grew up, they chafed at the older generation’s insistence on conformity and favored freedom and experimentation. Hence, the social unrest, drug use, and wildness of the hippie generation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the famed three-day music festival in the farmland of upstate New York. There have been all kinds of retrospectives on Woodstock and what it represented to the people who were there. Interestingly, my daughter has been captivated by Woodstock and has spent hours with my husband watching a PBS documentary on the subject. She even had a conversation with a family friend who was at Woodstock, and I’m sure in her mind she was comparing his experience with her own immersion in Lollapalooza a couple of weeks ago.

The friend explained that he and many of his friends had planned to meet at the festival, but that, in the days before cell phones, there was really no way to connect with them once he’d arrived at Woodstock. There were hundreds of thousands of people amassed on the Yasgurs’ farm. Security consisted of volunteers with no weapons at all simply trying to convince the crowds to be cool. When food ran out, people from nearby farms contributed produce, and festival-goers themselves prepared and served the masses.

Although it’s definitely not my cup of tea to attend a huge music festival, there was something magical about the way Woodstock unfolded. Many of the greatest musicians of all time performed there. The PBS documentary showed footage of Jimi Hendrix rocking “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed live for only their second time on the Woodstock stage. It was music history in the making.

It’s hard to describe to young people what it was like growing up in a different era. Mine was one less saturated with media and technology. My kids can scarcely believe that my husband and I would be out and about on our bikes all day long without any contact with our parents. Now if they don’t pick up their cell phone on the second ring, I immediately go to DEFCON 1!

I think it’s great that my 18-year-old daughter has become interested in the past, especially the recent past as experienced by her own parents. After all, we are not only creatures of the present but of the accumulated past, the men and women and events that came before us. And learning about that past is one way to bridge the inevitable gap that each generation experiences with the one before.

Summer Song

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A summer morning is the best time to hear the birds. High up in the trees, they tweet and trill and shriek their secret language while I walk along, out early to beat the August heat. Summer mornings in suburbia are quiet. Many of my neighbors are off on summer vacations. Kids sleep in, and parents enjoy the unaccustomed hush. The only other sounds I hear on my morning walk are the hiss of lawn sprinklers and the occasional whoosh of a car on asphalt.

The sounds of summer are pretty much the same ones I remember from my childhood. As the day gets going, lawnmowers roar, garbage trucks squeak by, and air conditioners hum. (Well, I guess some sounds are newer. No air conditioning in my childhood!) Kids come out and play, and their laughter and chatter can be heard on the breeze, as well as their splashing at the local public pool.

One of my favorite summer sounds is the rumble of thunder in the distance as heavy clouds roll in and a storm heads our way. Of course, I only enjoy these storms when I am safe inside with a good book. But when we lived in California, thunderstorms were one of the natural phenomena I missed most. They’re so fleeting, yet so dramatic.

As the sun goes down on a late summer day, the symphony takes to the trees once again. This time the sound is the pulsing whistle of hundreds of cicadas hidden in the upper reaches of our giant maples and elms. It’s so mysterious. You seldom actually see one of these hideous creatures other than the occasional cicada carcass that falls on the ground or the shell left behind as one grows. Yet they are undoubtedly there, singing and mating and enjoying their too-short lives.

By the time darkness falls, I am usually safely ensconced indoors, away from mosquitoes and their blood-sucking ways. Inside I’m surrounded by the sounds of modern life: the drone of TV voices, the hum of the fridge, the gentle clinks and sloshes inside the dishwasher, and nowadays the occasional ping of a smartphone receiving a text.

Tomorrow there will be the same nature songs to enjoy even as summer starts to wane and my daughter heads back to school.

Thinking about the sounds of summer reminds me of an old Chad and Jeremy number titled “Summer Song.” “They say that all good things must end some day,” sing the pop duo. So let’s enjoy them while we may.

Keep the Old

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Throughout our lives, we meet new people and forge new friendships – from childhood besties to our college posse to the circle of parents surrounding our own children. Someone once told me that our friendships naturally change as our lives change. But with any luck, there are those friends with whom we forge a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Last weekend, my husband and I got together with a group of his old pals from college. We converged at a lake in Michigan, the state in which these bosom buddies had met a few decades before. Of course, the group included spouses, some from the same college and others met later along life’s path.

From the moment the first arrivals gathered over pizza and beer, we enjoyed an easy rapport, a sense of picking right up where we had left off that I have experienced with some of my dearest friends. There is something comforting about hanging out with people who knew you when. No pretense is possible when you and your friends go way back to your more youthful and foolish days. Some of the fun, in fact, is in reminiscing about those crazy times and those “near death” experiences or humiliations you suffered in your callow youth.

The weather was hot and the sun plentiful in Michigan. We had lots of good food and drink, plenty of laughter, and the gift of time – time to catch up on each other’s lives, time to bask in each other’s presence. Since our salad days, we have married, divorced, become parents and grandparents, experienced health problems and the deaths of those we dearly love. All of that has become part and parcel of who we are, etched on our faces and in our hearts. Keeping in touch through the vicissitudes of life has only strengthened those bonds.

When my kids were little, they loved a video titled Wee Sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In it, the characters sing a song reflecting the need to hold onto our earliest friendships. The lyrics go: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

As we head into our golden years, let’s cherish those golden friendships and keep them close to our hearts.

 

More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.