Friday, December 9, 2016

A Titanic Birthday

I just turned 40, so I’ve been doing a lot of rumination and taking stock of my life, so far. I thought I’d craft a witty, insightful blog about how I’m fine with aging (I’m being totally honest…really. That wasn’t even sarcastic! I swear!) and how I embrace getting older/having more life experiences/savoring the wisdom that comes from experience. My basic philosophy is this: age is just a number, and I didn’t turn a year older on my birthday…I was just one day older than I was the day before, which is the same truth as every other day. Then there’s this: the alternative to aging is…well…death, and if I have a choice between getting older or dying, I’m on the side of aging. Hands down.

So I’ve been doing an inventory at this “milestone” of 40 – marriages (one), kids (four), boyfriends that lasted longer than a month (five), houses bought (two), cats (ten), cars (seven), places I’ve lived (12 homes in two countries and six states), births witnessed (six), surgeries (two), countries and states I’ve been pulled over/ticketed in (three and three), roadtrip miles embarked on – alone - with kids (more than 10,000, with kids between infancy and age 10). Yep, that's a lot of living and a lot of adventures, indeed.

In the mental blog I’ve been drafting, I was going to parrot how I’m still no genius, even though I’m so much smarter than I used to be. And that, hopefully, I will grow wiser and better with the years that are hopefully still ahead of me. I wanted to acknowledge the good juju I’ve been feeling these past few weeks…put together, somehow, with a new maturity and sense of peace.  Either my medication has finally kicked in, or I have reached some kind of inner peace. Wow. Forty really is fabulous!

Then, as I was lying in bed last night perusing Facebook, I took one of those quizzes that I think are stupid but still occasionally take, just to reaffirm how stupid they are. The quiz was “Which movie best sums up your life?” I didn’t know if I was headed for Forrest Gump or The Godfather or Napoleon Dynamite, but I was anxious to find out. I thought it might make a good tie-in for the ‘Turning 40’ blog percolating in my mind. And then, twenty-eight questions later, I got my answer. The movie that most resembles my life is….drumroll, please…Titanic.

Titanic?!?!? Are you freaking kidding me, Facebook?!?! My life most resembles Titanic?!?! What is that even supposed to mean?!?! And that’s when my newfound maturity and composure went straight out the window, just like the billions of gallons of water that rushed in Titanic. At the age of 40, according to the renowned social scientist called Facebook, my life most resembles a movie about a sinking ship in which three-fourths of the people involved died in freezing water. How the hell is that supposed to make me feel, as I reach the tender age of 40!?!?!? Thanks for NOTHING, Facebook. Thanks. For. Nothing.

I often joke that I’m up the proverbial creek without a paddle, or that we – as humans – are all in the same boat together…I just didn’t realize that the paddle-less boat was actually Titanic. Am I supposed to be the ship? Am I the vessel that rams the iceberg and tries to stay afloat? In all honesty, that kind of sounds like me. The iceberg is my life. I personally am the ship, and it parallels my life because, like the ship, I’m just trying to stay above water. Yikes. How depressing.

Could I be the heroine, Rose, perhaps? There’s a scene early in the movie where she says to Jack, “I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a crowded room, screaming, and no one hears me.” As a parent of four, I live this statement – both literally and figuratively – every day. Sometimes I am actually screaming (Pick up that meatball! Stop sitting on your brother! Who drilled a hole in the bureau?!? Where are the scissors??) and no one  acknowledges me. Sometimes the screaming happens inside my head and is only visible in my eyes, but I definitely can relate to Rose. Damn you, Facebook…suddenly, I feel less put together, less confident and even slightly doomed.

I definitely couldn’t be Jack. I never win at card games and I can barely draw stick figures. I’ve never even been to Wisconsin. I’m certainly not of the ilk of a Cal Hockley or any of the wealthy passengers…no parallels in the mindset of privilege or class-based society. I could, perhaps, be Molly Brown. She was a sassy broad with a conscience, and that’s how I like to think of myself. But that’s probably not where Facebook was going with its choice.

I kept thinking about what the meaningless Facebook quiz meant. I needed a positive spin, to recapture my turning-40 buzz. So maybe I’m the latter-half Rose, and that’s my blog tie-in. Maybe I’m on my way to being the adult Rose and, eventually, the old broad who lives long enough and survives adversity, who makes the moments count - and comes out on the other side stronger, better, and wiser. Maybe I’m that woman – the one who will wow people at age 100, with stories from my past. And hopefully I’ll have a giant diamond in my possession as I recount the stories. Yes, this is the parallel I choose to take from the stupid quiz.

So my 40-year-old-good-juju is back. There are so many perspectives to be found in a singular story – both good and bad. And maybe the lesson is that, when you get old enough, you can see more of them and find the one that suits you best. Maybe that’s what wisdom is. Or maybe that’s where inner peace comes from. Maybe I'll have the answer in another 40 years.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Sometimes Porcelain, Sometimes Metal Throne

I blame this turbulent political season and the constant reminder that our political system is in the crapper, but I’ve been thinking a lot about toilets lately. I was 17 when I first realized that, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two public toilets are alike. I was on a school trip to France – my first trip abroad – and, of all the amazing things for a 17-year-old to learn in a strange land, one of the most profound for me was the discovery of the wide variances between French and American toilets. From the bowl itself, to the style of flush, to the location of the handle, using a public toilet in France was frequently an adventure (clearly, I grew up in a pretty small town, but an adventure it was!). In my collection of photos from the trip, there were A LOT of photos of the many public toilets I used; including a self-sealing/cleaning variety on the streets of Paris and a rudimentary hole in the ground with two footholds, complete with an overhead shower-style flush (get out of the way!!!!!), at an old chateau. Twenty-two years later, some of my strongest memories from that trip are of those toilets.

But the toilet fascination didn’t end there. Six years later, when I was 23 years old, Mike got stationed in Germany and my appreciation for the public toilet – formerly just the French variety – expanded to include the many variations of European toilets we found in the many countries we were fortunate enough to visit. In Italy, my favorite restroom featured a sliding sink that alternated between being in the shower (if you happened to be using the toilet), or over the toilet, if you happened to be using the shower (I love practicality).  In Germany, I encountered a metal toilet, with no lid or seat. It was the equivalent of a butt-sized metal mixing bowl, with exactly the same comfort level. In Poland, I was shocked by the human-staffed, pay toilet, where no one cares how badly you have to go if you don’t happen to have any money…no zlotys, no toilet! In Switzerland, there was a wood outhouse on the side of a mountain, with a view like no other toilet anywhere.  

While my toilet experiences have been limited to North and Central America and Europe, Mike (that lucky bastard!) has also gotten to experience public toilets in many Asian countries, ranging from luxurious porcelain to less-than-luxurious holes in the sand.  He implies I didn’t miss much, for whatever that’s worth, but I do hope to someday explore more public toilets in more foreign places.

My appreciation, if one wants to call it this, for public toilets in America exists for completely different reasons. In America, it’s almost always less about the physical toilet and more about the ambiance, and oftentimes the lack thereof.  On a recent pit stop in West Virginia, it was the reading material on the wall of the bathroom (the ladies room, of course) that got my attention…an advertisement for a “treeing contest,” advising me to bring $5, along with my “guns, knives, bows, arrows, dogs and traps.” I had no idea what was being referred to but the picture of the raccoon on the flyer helped me put it all together. Though I completely oppose this practice that I know nothing about, I find it a fascinating social commentary that it was advertised in the ladies’ room. Recently, in the raccoon-friendly, chill area of upstate New York, I encountered the cleanest gas station bathroom EVER with this hopeful graffiti: “Everything will ALWAYS be alright.” I left that bathroom feeling so much better about the world than how I felt about the world after reading the treeing contest advertisement in West Virginia.

Occasionally, an American toilet will move me based on aesthetics or engineering. It was in Kansas that I first discovered the porta-trailer, which transforms the disgusting porta-potty experience to a whole new level of luxury. Imagine, if you will, walking into an air-conditioned room with several toilets, complete with a flushing mechanism and fresh smell, in private stalls, as well as a row of individual sinks with faucets with running water. But the “room” is a trailer on wheels – a glorified, souped-up, porta-potty on wheels. I still get a tear in my eye, remembering the magnificence of that first experience.  It just goes to prove that ingenuity is alive and well in America.

I never gave much thought to the toilet before that first French adventure, but in the years since, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about toilets than most people.  By no means am I bragging but, in my defense, after lots of travel, four pregnancies and four kids, I’ve seen A LOT of public toilets in a lot of places. Sometimes I think I might be on to some deeper sociological discovery exploring a culture’s level of toilet ingenuity and their level of overall success. But until I write that exhaustive study, I quietly relish in the occasional discovery of a unique toilet. After the trip to France, I wrote a note to my French teacher, thanking him for exposing me to the wider world, and to an amazingly wide world of public toilets. Who knew, 22 years later, this dubious relationship would continue?


The Sometimes Porcelain, Sometimes Metal Throne

I blame this turbulent political season and the constant reminder that our political system is in the crapper, but I’ve been thinking a lot about toilets lately. I was 17 when I first realized that, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two public toilets are alike. I was on a school trip to France – my first trip abroad – and, of all the amazing things for a 17-year-old to learn in a strange land, one of the most profound for me was the discovery of the wide variances between French and American toilets. From the bowl itself, to the style of flush, to the location of the handle, using a public toilet in France was frequently an adventure (clearly, I grew up in a pretty small town, but an adventure it was!). In my collection of photos from the trip, there were A LOT of photos of the many public toilets I used; including a self-sealing/cleaning variety on the streets of Paris and a rudimentary hole in the ground with two footholds, complete with an overhead shower-style flush (get out of the way!!!!!), at an old chateau. Twenty-two years later, some of my strongest memories from that trip are of those toilets.

But the toilet fascination didn’t end there. Six years later, when I was 23 years old, Mike got stationed in Germany and my appreciation for the public toilet – formerly just the French variety – expanded to include the many variations of European toilets we found in the many countries we were fortunate enough to visit. In Italy, my favorite restroom featured a sliding sink that alternated between being in the shower (if you happened to be using the toilet), or over the toilet, if you happened to be using the shower (I love practicality).  In Germany, I encountered a metal toilet, with no lid or seat. It was the equivalent of a butt-sized metal mixing bowl, with exactly the same comfort level. In Poland, I was shocked by the human-staffed, pay toilet, where no one cares how badly you have to go if you don’t happen to have any money…no zlotys, no toilet! In Switzerland, there was a wood outhouse on the side of a mountain, with a view like no other toilet anywhere. 

While my toilet experiences have been limited to North and Central America and Europe, Mike (that lucky bastard!) has also gotten to experience public toilets in many Asian countries, ranging from luxurious porcelain to less-than-luxurious holes in the sand.  He implies I didn’t miss much, for whatever that’s worth, but I do hope to someday explore more public toilets in more foreign places.

My appreciation, if one wants to call it this, for public toilets in America exists for completely different reasons. In America, it’s almost always less about the physical toilet and more about the ambiance, and oftentimes the lack thereof.  On a recent pit stop in West Virginia, it was the reading material on the wall of the bathroom (the ladies room, of course) that got my attention…an advertisement for a “treeing contest,” advising me to bring $5, along with my “guns, knives, bows, arrows, dogs and traps.” I had no idea what was being referred to but the picture of the raccoon on the flyer helped me put it all together. Though I completely oppose this practice that I know nothing about, I find it a fascinating social commentary that it was advertised in the ladies’ room. Recently, in the raccoon-friendly, chill area of upstate New York, I encountered the cleanest gas station bathroom EVER with this hopeful graffiti: “Everything will ALWAYS be alright.” I left that bathroom feeling so much better about the world than how I felt about the world after reading the treeing contest advertisement in West Virginia.

Occasionally, an American toilet will move me based on aesthetics or engineering. It was in Kansas that I first discovered the porta-trailer, which transforms the disgusting porta-potty experience to a whole new level of luxury. Imagine, if you will, walking into an air-conditioned room with several toilets, complete with a flushing mechanism and fresh smell, in private stalls, as well as a row of individual sinks with faucets with running water. But the “room” is a trailer on wheels – a glorified, souped-up, porta-potty on wheels. I still get a tear in my eye, remembering the magnificence of that first experience.  It just goes to prove that ingenuity is alive and well in America.

I never gave much thought to the toilet before that first French adventure, but in the years since, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about toilets than most people.  By no means am I bragging but, in my defense, after lots of travel, four pregnancies and four kids, I’ve seen A LOT of public toilets in a lot of places. Sometimes I think I might be on to some deeper sociological discovery exploring a culture’s level of toilet ingenuity and their level of overall success. But until I write that exhaustive study, I quietly relish in the occasional discovery of a unique toilet. After the trip to France, I wrote a note to my French teacher, thanking him for exposing me to the wider world, and to an amazingly wide world of public toilets. Who knew, 22 years later, this dubious relationship would continue?


Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Curious Nature of Time...or, An Ode to North Jersey

I had some free time this week, thanks to the time in the van driving to and from New York, and spent a lot of the drive-time thinking about the curious nature of time. It was probably just a waste of my time, but I still had a good time ruminating about the philosophy of time. While I’m confident I had no thought that hasn’t been thought before, I say with admiration and some trepidation that time is a very peculiar thing. The debate whether time is linear - a continuous, forward march away from a start point to an end point - or cyclical - with patterns and repetition - has been around since the Greek greats of philosophy. And while I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of time, and the changes brought about by time, I also enjoyed my personal discovery of another component of time - what I will call stationary time, the random point that connects to nothing else, without change or progress or movement in any direction. 

Whew, I just got dizzy! I don’t know if it’s all the deep thoughts or the stiff margarita I’m working on, but I need to slow down. Over spring break, the kids and I drove to New York for a few days. For many miles, I thought about how, road trip after road trip, the kids have grown up and changed so much - linear time - from four infants who needed me for absolutely everything, to one tween who is frequently embarrassed that I even exist, a nine-year-old who is developing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Star Wars, a near-six-year-old who uses words like “magnificent” to describe the new juicer, and a four-year-old with an advanced vocabulary who says things like, “This freakin’ chair!!” with an excessive amount of disgust. 

For the record, to put into perspective how much time I’ve spent in the van with those kids (and these are trips with just me and the kids, not Mike), I easily tally at least 10,000 exclusive miles on various cross-country or coastal jaunts (not including moves). I became a little sad thinking about time in this reference, which is clearly linear, moving me away - every day - from where I am, where I’ve been, where I know, away from the good times, and away from the bad, always changing, always evolving. I have mixed feelings about linear time, but one of those feelings is definitely melancholy. 

And then I had a brush with the cyclical nature of time. While we were in New York, against my better judgement, I let the girls watch the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg movie, Daddy’s Home. After the movie, Nadia commented on Mark Wahlberg’s delightful abs, which reminded me of his frequently-shirtless, Funky-Bunch days (c’mon…feel the vibrations!!) and how I’ve actually met Mark Wahlberg twice. Realizing Nadia didn’t know this, I told her, and now she thinks I am famous, simply because I met a famous person…twice. My coolness factor, at least in Nadia’s eyes, totally skyrocketed with that nugget of knowledge (yay, me!!).  And that’s when I realized that time is as much circular as linear. Twenty-five years ago, I was admiring Mark Wahlberg’s abs and cracking up at Full House (while also having the hots for Uncle Jesse and his marvelous mane). Today, two-plus decades later, my kids are admiring Mark Wahlberg’s abs and commenting on how fabulous Uncle Jesse looks, as they watch Fuller House in binge doses. And so I have mixed feelings about cyclical time, as well, including some worry and skepticism, as I know that time embodies change and things evolve…except, apparently the mysterious hair of John Stamos and abs of Mark Wahlberg. 

And speaking of mystery…enter New Jersey, which is where my theory of time-as-a-fixed-point developed. I hadn’t driven through New Jersey in almost a decade but when I did this week, it was like time had stood still. As soon as we reached North Jersey, Liam immediately asked, “What smells so bad?!? Who farted?!?” And I had to explain to him that that’s just how North Jersey smells, that it’s always smelled like that and, I fear, may always smell like that (ironically, as soon as we hit North Jersey on the way home, Liam said exactly the same thing). Then one of the kids said, “It’s so ugly here,” and I remembered various road trips through New Jersey over the decades - the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and now the ’10s -  and realized how nothing had changed for so many years. For the record, I hate stereotypes and I apologize to the state of New Jersey, but that state does all it can to enforce every New Jersey stereotype in existence.

For those of you who many not have had the pleasure of driving threw New Jersey for four decades, go watch the opening credits of The Sopranos to see what I’m referring to (the scene could’ve been filmed a half-century ago, or 15 minutes ago). There was the delicious irony of the “luxury apartments” I saw in The Oranges, starting at a mere $600, with the complex almost sitting on one of the dozen lanes of highway. Off the highway, I discovered a Lamborghini dealership next door to a Hooter’s (hats off to you, Paramus!) and couldn’t help but smile, chuckling at every boy’s ambitions, rolled into one glorious, pot-holed, New Jersey parking lot. At one point, I was sidled up next to a silver pick-up truck being held together by hot pink Duck tape and driven by your classic bleached-blonde, heavily-tanned 50-year-old Jersey girl; at another point in Clifton, I swear I saw Paulie Walnuts’ younger brother driving an ’80s model, red, convertible Cadillac. The sun glinted off of the heavy gold chain around his neck and all I could think was, Thank you, New Jersey, for your constancy in an ever-changing world. 

And, unexpectedly, for 40 miles or so, in the marvelous bastion of North Jersey, I reveled in ‘stationary’ time and felt a little better about change and the peculiar nature of time, or at least this particular embodiment of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Someone Has to Set a Bad Example

I’m pretty tired of feeling bad about myself. So, in the spirit of empowerment, it’s long past time to do something about it. Which means I’m giving up Facebook and my latest failed diet (not necessarily in that order). I often mentally lament that I didn’t live during the Renaissance, when “plump” was pleasing (as evidenced in all of those magnificent paintings of fat-bottomed girls making the rockin’ world go ’round) and Facebook didn’t exist, but then I come to my senses when I remember that women probably didn’t live past 30 years old. Socially, I like to think I’m ahead of my time; physically, I’m a few centuries behind my time, at least when it comes to societal standards of beauty. But I digress.

While I’m airing grievances and handing out blame for my inferiority complex, I’d also like to assign some blame to the Founding Fathers and their magnum opus, the Declaration of Independence. For a long time, I confused the “all men are created equal” business with the misguided idea that we all have equal things to offer to the world. With age and wisdom, I’ve seen the errors in my thinking (but still am blaming the Fathers for their ambiguity). While I now know that it meant we are all equal in the eyes of our varying deities, in our value as human beings, and in the eyes of the law, talent and natural ability are other matters altogether, and I definitely got the short end of the stick in these departments. 

I was recently complaining to a ridiculously crafty friend (who is also an amazing cook and one of the truly good people in the world) that I feel really ripped off that so many people get actual and useful talents, while all I got was an abundance of sarcasm and a painfully sharp sense of humor. If only I were musically or athletically inclined, I suspect I’d probably be happier, and likely less in need of the aforementioned diet. Created equal, my ass… Which brings me back to Facebook. If ever anyone needs a daily reminder of all the ways they lag their peers or fail to measure up, look no further than Facebook. For this, I, of course, blame Mark Zuckerberg who, in the process of being a visionary and making himself a gazillionaire, essentially made the vast world a smaller and more interwoven place, and yet also, nearly singlehandedly, enhanced the inferiority complexes of more than a billion people and counting. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, right?

I’d like to put out a disclaimer and say that I mean no disrespect to all the people whom I genuinely like, but I just can’t be happy for all of you and your various accomplishments any more. It’s exhausting, and even more so when I’m calorically deprived. So, for all of the Facebookers with amazing abilities, talents, child-rearing skills, genius offspring, culinary prowess, craftiness, ways with animals, incredible fitness and health, phenomenal careers, etc, you are oftentimes inspiring, yet you also serve as that constant reminder that while we may have been created equal, we certainly don’t get blessed with equal ability. My meals won’t be featured in a Bon App├ętit spread any time soon (though last night’s Fried ’Nana & Nutella Sandwiches were pretty spectacular). My house isn’t particularly clean, and I rarely know whether the cat is indoors or out. My idea of trendy was captured beautifully in Macklemore’s Thrift Shop video, and I have more socks missing their mates than with mates. My kids aren’t award-winning athletes who started training for the Olympics in utero, nor are they STEM geniuses who brought wifi to Third World countries using only a paper clip, rain water and a watch battery — which is, surely, all my fault because I’m not that gung-ho, home-schooling mom who was simultaneously teaching her children their first words in both English and Mandarin. Pig Latin, maybe, but definitely not Mandarin. 

So, it is with a heavy heart that I announce the only thing I seem to excel at — besides sarcasm, inappropriate comments, and taking naps — is NOT excelling. I excel at being entirely average and, as I’ve said before, being a good bad example (click here for just a few examples of how well I set the bad example). In the constant attempt to find the silver lining of my mediocrity, here it is…I lower the bar for everyone else. After all, we can’t all be spectacular, because then no one would be spectacular. I don’t do it on purpose, and I don’t do it for the gratitude, but someone has to set the bad example, and that someone, apparently, is me. You don’t have to thank me, but you’re welcome. I do it so you don’t have to.