Archive for August, 2006

Travel Light

The first time I spent time with my father’s father, I was 28. My aunts summoned me to the suburbs of Chicago to make sure I wasn’t crazy like my dad. No pretenses, we all knew my father wasn’t right before he took his life. They had known how he died longer than I had, of course, but nonetheless, as much as I ached for my father to still be alive I knew that something had gone awry in his head before he locked himself in a garage with a car running on the street where my best friend in high school lived. When went to see my grandfather, it was the bravest thing I had ever done.
The first time I saw him on that trip, it was very awkward and formal. The second time was when I knew I loved him. I called him in the morning to arrange a time, and then took the El and then the bus to his apartment, walking past the Northwestern stadium and scores of buildings he hadn’t seen since he taught at the university. I would have rather stayed in my friends’ apartment rooting through the keepsakes my father’s family had given to me. I wanted to wallow in the hurt I felt at these people who were as close to me as the family I grew up with according to bloodlines but who I had never met before. I wanted to keep imagining my father sitting across from me at coffee shops and in backyards, anyplace where the October Chicago weather chilled me, reminded me that my father was dead dead nowhere close and never had been.
My grandfather was too real for all that. He invited me into his apartment, showed me how he’d gotten along for so many years seeing only shadows with his newspapers on tape and the machine to magnify the books he had piled around the apartment. We sat in his living room and he talked candidly about my grandmother’s last years on earth, how Alzheimer’s destroyed her to the point she tried to kill him in the middle of the night because she didn’t know who he was and he couldn’t see, how she tried to stage a grand breakout in the home they put her in, how he visited her grave every Sunday after church until he got too sick. He talked about the trips he made with my grandmother around the world, and he told me that they never packed more than they could carry on the plane. It was a great source of pride for my grandmother to board the plane with one carry-on bag apiece. Of course, he said, they always came back with more than they left with. He taught me how to make him a sandwich knowing on what shelf each part was kept, and then he took me to the hallway. ‘The kids got me good cigars every year, even though I couldn’t taste them anymore. This is a special occasion. Can you come outside with me?’
We sat on his balcony, the same one he sat on to listen to the Wildcats games. He told me about the money I would get and why, and then he gave me the most important advice I’d ever hear. Puella Pulcher, he called me, beautiful girl. I didn’t understand him at first because of his New England accent, and he laughed at that. ‘Never did get rid of it, no matter how many places I lived. I can’t see you much, but you are a puella pulcher, a beautiful girl. Don’t think too much about what you should do with your life. I didn’t plan a thing. I led a full life and held so many important positions because things happened to me. You’ll do great things as soon as you stop worrying about them.’ He walked me out to the bus stop with his whitestick, saw me onto the bus.
I still think about this a lot as I make decisions about my life. Since that afternoon, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to step back when I get too wound up and think about what my grandfather taught me. Don’t overplan, let things happen to you, think people are beautiful. Keep things where you can find them, have guilty pleasures, love deeply. Most of all, you can fit anything you need into one carry-on bag. Travel light and you’ll have space for all of the things you really want.

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I have the tendency to want to address people who exhibit the magic combination of poor manners and blatant idiocy as ‘you dumb bitch.’ Perhaps this is why I don’t talk to that many people.

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My daughter loves Ronaldinho.

And by loves, I mean loves. She owns a Brasil shirt, she does her ‘Ronaldinho practice’ in the living room, she watches Nike commercials on the computer, she has declared him ‘cute.’ Ronaldinho is Lucy’s first crush.
We went to the Barcelona-Red Bulls match on Saturday night. She spent hours getting ready. In the shower, she washed her feet for Ronaldinho. When she got out, she picked out clothes for Ronaldinho. And, for the first time in her life, she acquiesced to hair-brushing so that her hair would look nice for Ronaldinho. She waited anxiously for the bus with us, a look of awe and anticipation on her little face despite the long lines at Port Authority.
Once we got to Giant stadium she was more concerned with going potty and eating. We missed the penalty, and I think she was a bit overwhelmed by the 79,002 other people there. She’s more a fan of soccer commercials than actual games, although she’ll half-watch here at home and periodically comment on good saves or goals. She enjoyed doing the wave and watching the game on the Jumbotron. Until, of course, Ronaldinho scored. I will never forget in my life the look of glee on her face as she watched the goal and the subsequent replays while looking from field to parent to field with her mouth open in delight and amazement. And when Ronaldinho was subbed off, she cheered with the rest of the crowd.
Despite the egregiously long lines for the bus to get home, despite total exhaustion at standing in a crush of people in the chaos that is NJ Transit, despite not having access to a bathroom for the close to three hours from the time we exited the stadium to the time we entered our door, she declared that the game made the travel worthwhile. I think so too.

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Vacation Comedown

The first day after vacation is always such a strange day. It’s wonderful to be home with our own space and cats and Lucy’s toys. It’s even almost a rush to get back to the day-to-day minutia of grocery shopping and dishes and pick-up. The quiet can go either way. After a week of being in a houseload of family, especially in a houseload with three kids, it’s nice and unnerving to have so much quiet. And I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t miss having a pool out back and a collection of beaches in easy driving distance.
I passed from 32 into 33 uneventfully yesterday. We had a small surprise cake deal on Wed. night at my MIL’s house, and it was really sweet. C got me the Fudgie the Whale cake I’ve wanted since I was a little’un and that’s some good cake. I didn’t pout, didn’t spend too much time self-reflecting, and just generally had a good time. Maybe I’ve finally grown up.
The past week was full of water and sun and sand; all things I can either love passionately or hate. This time around I let waves crash around my waist and dug my toes into sandy pits. I held winkles and slipper mussels and dried out blue crab claws and refereed Lucy and her cousin in altercations over sand toys. At the house, we swam for hours and I devoured serial killer novels. I can’t think of a better way to spend a week.

Today it’s back to the grind, and despite my rampant hatred for our neighborhood grocery, I can’t wait to be back in charge of what food we have around. Then it’s unpacking, catching up on phone calls and mail and hopefully puttering around those blogs I haven’t read since we left. First, though, there is coffee to drink and windows to open. Oh, and wish me luck. I’m sending out the essay I wrote today to Modern Love. It’s my second choice venue, so I’m not sure if I want it to be accepted or rejected 😉

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In spite of my rampant social anxiety and general lack of tact, I am a big fan of community. I think that community is an incredible tool for inspiring kindness and courtesy. Community can take people from disparate backgrounds and give them a commonality. It erases the ‘us against them’ mentality that can be so very damaging.

When I lived upstate in Albany, I lived on the edge of a ‘bad neighborhood,’ meaning a predominately poor, black and latino neighborhood. Across the street from me began the upper-middle class, white neighborhood. Nobody really knew where my block fit in, and frankly, I don’t think most people realized there were people living above the stores. I think most of my neighbors were pretty suspicious when a purple-haired white girl moved in. It wasn’t until I began working on the block as well that I really got a sense of what it meant to live there.
By virtue of living and working on this stretch of street, I got to know a lot of people in the neighborhood. They were my customers, the people I stood in line with at the bodega, and the people I passed on the street. I became friendly with a number of people I would never have anticipated–the devout Muslims in the pizza place, the Latino boy upstairs who always held the door for me when I was carrying bags and called me ma’am, the Nation of Islam men in their bowties and suits who called me sister. We were neighbors, we cared about our community, and we helped to support each other by patronizing each others’ businesses.
I have lived in a bunch of different places, and have never experienced that level of belonging. Not only did it feel nice to be looked at as a person rather than a type of person, it also enabled me to see the people around me as people rather than a bunch of bodies bumping about. When we see people as people, we look out for them. When we see people as nameless masses, we don’t. When community is present, we have a commonality. When it is not, we have no reason to see what is going on around us.

America as a whole seems to be suffering from a huge lack of community and we are all suffering for it. Our local businesses are apt to be chains. The staff at our stores come and go before we can develop even the most shallow connection to them. We are rude to people around us, we gripe at each other, we cut each other off in traffic and we talk more about ‘them’ than ‘us.’ I don’t know exactly why this sense of community is gone, but I think we’d do well to try and get it back.

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