You’re Never Too Old to Set New Goals

Yesterday, I ran my longest race – the 10K Cherry Blossom Run in Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ.  I kept the tunes flowing to drown out the sound of my labored breathing and the strikes of superstar runners all around me.  I kept cranking up the volume as I heard the cheers at the finish line growing closer.  I knew it was there in the distance, but if I focused on it, I feared the road would feel much longer.  I don’t usually have that eye-of-the-tiger, “you got this” mentality.

Intellectually, I know I can do this, but during the race, I started to fray at the edges.  By the fourth mile, the weight of my legs felt heavier with every step.  On a quick walk break, I texted Sam that I was “losing it” and was “delirious”, which was so misspelled that auto-correct didn’t even bother.  How the hell does Dean Karnazes do 100-mile marathons?  Boy, the Cathedral bells sound beautiful this morning!  Is that a dead skunk I smell?  Sam had crossed the finish line before me and came to cheer me on.  I kept my head down as we ran together the last quarter-mile.  I squeezed my eyeballs hard to restrain the tears.  When I saw that my finish time was better than I expected, I bawled.  Sobbing and shuffling across the finish line, I sniffled with tears of pride as I thanked the nice lady who gave me a medal.

As I’ve grown older, it’s been harder to accomplish goals.  Adult responsibilities vie for our time as we battle decades of intrusive self-talk.  Sometimes, I’ve decided giving up is easier than combatting the yelling in my head.  But lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic about the upcoming anniversary of an accomplishment.

During my freshman year of college, a family hardship forced me to leave school unexpectedly.  It felt like the world collapsed on me.  After the initial shock, I refused to roll into a ball, even though attending community college often made me want to.  My dream was to leave the town I grew up in and get a college education, even though I would be the first in my family to complete one.  It took me over two years of letters (the kind you write on paper, slip into an envelope, and drop into a blue box with an eagle on it) and telephone calls to figure out how I was going to get into a college I could pay for on my own.  At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I was at the mercy of using what is now called a land-line which was frequently out of service due to my mother’s difficulty keeping up with her bills.  During those periods, I’d stockpile pocketsful of change and walk to the convenience store at the corner to call admissions, financial aid, and the registrar at the University of Pittsburgh, all while cars idled behind me in the parking lot.

Soon after my twenty-first birthday, I rented a 20-foot U-Haul truck with my car on a trailer behind, and drove six hours, alone, out to Pittsburgh to the roach-infested efficiency apartment I rented from a lady who had lipstick on her teeth.  At first I didn’t know a soul until I connected with a friend from high school who was also a Pitt student.  It took me two hard years to finish my degree there.  Without support from my family, most days felt like a struggle.  For a long time, I drowned in self-pity.  It felt like students all around me spent their days playing Frisbee on campus, studying abroad, and going to parties, all while their parents kept their money flowing.

So when I recently decided to move my career in a different direction, I set a new goal.  On Sunday, May 3rd, I will run my first half-marathon in Pittsburgh, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of my graduation.

I will celebrate those years of struggle.  I will celebrate every cockroach in my apartment.  And every day that I had to work with a lecherous guy who made comments about my appearance.  And every time I chuckled seeing Handyman Joe Negri from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood walking through the music building.  And every time the bus downtown made the turn that showed the spectacular Pittsburgh skyline and I felt so blessed to be working toward something I so desperately wanted.

Some people achieve enormous goals, but accomplishing a degree from the University of Pittsburgh felt like climbing a mountain at times.  I’m sure parts of the half-marathon are going to feel that way, too.  I will call on that focused and fearless young woman I once was to mute the volume on my inner critic.  I can guarantee that I could probably fill all three of those Pittsburgh rivers with tears of joy when I cross the finish line.

…So Can You!

The concept of self-help has played a role in my life since adolescence.  It appeals to the seeker side of me that is always looking for hope and is also bound up in a complicated web with my spirituality and faith life.  It has its flaky side for sure, but I’ve always approached it with a healthy attitude of skepticism.  A fair amount of what comes down the pike as self-help often only benefits the bank account of the pusher.

I’m not sure that I want to reveal myself as a fan of Oprah, per se, but I do watch shows on her network.  My DVR records Super Soul Sunday because I enjoy the discussion of faith, creativity, and how people overcome obstacles.  I will admit that the Oprah Cheese Factor turns me off – like at the end of the opening credits, she holds up a mug and says “get your chai on”, which is a plug for her Starbucks tea line.  Oh, and if her guest says something she deems profound, she will call it a “tweetable moment” and say “tweet tweet”.  Sigh.  I am a dork for continuing to watch this show.  However, she has had some wonderful guests on like Brene Brown, Steven Pressfield, and Diana Nyad.

I am cynical about empires of indoctrination like the one Oprah helms.  Her reach is so powerful that her company commands $375 for a weekend pass to attend workshops and events presented by gurus who claim to help you “Live Your Best Life”.  Having been exposed to a fair amount of content by many of these people, I am well acquainted with their tone of “If I can do it, so can you!”

Oprah-Car-Giveaway-4

So often, these stories involve light-bulb moments where the protagonist has a revelation that includes one of these possible scenarios:

  • A marriage falls apart/family problems emerge due to over-work
  • Near-death experience or loss of a loved one
  • A non-life-threatening tragedy, like a fire or when health has limited one’s abilities to continue living life as usual
  • Some sort of mistake that has repercussions on one’s relationships

As a result, they can no longer keep going in the way they have been for the last several years.

As a consumer of Oprah culture, I’ve asked myself how much impact this content has had on keeping my own life on track.  I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and have gone through some times that, frankly, I can’t believe I’ve emerged from.  I, too, have had a light-bulb moment in the last several months that shares similarities with some of these stories.  While rowing a boat for the first time in my life on my honeymoon, I realized I had missed out on valuable time with my loved ones due to a rigid work schedule.

The difference with my own “Aha moment”, as Oprah would call it, is that I’m not like these folks who appear on TV, blathering about how wonderful life is, now that I’ve had this moment.  I have no book deal, product line, or anything of the sort to promote.  Every one of these guests is there to hawk something.  These folks might allude to things “being hard”, but it’s a safe bet that none of them were exactly a paycheck away from homelessness when they had their moment.  People who work themselves to death at the expense of their families can probably afford to scale back…sell off a vacation home, nix the weekly family ski trips, or get rid of the BMW and drive a Honda instead.  For most normal people juggling their jobs and families, suffering through ongoing rate hikes on their rent, transportation, or health insurance while not getting raises, just picking up and changing it Oprah-guru-style probably feels pretty impossible.

I suppose the allure of watching these stories isn’t much different from the appetite millions of us have for diet books.  Or reality shows.  Or lottery tickets.  Maybe we want to keep hope alive that these relatable people on TV are just like us.  After all, if they can do it, so can you!

 

 

Gloat-Free Zone

For a second straight year, here in New Jersey, we’ve had a challenging winter.  It’s only February so it’s hard to say what the rest of the season will be like.  And who really puts stock in a rodent that emerges from a hole to a flurry of flash bulbs?  I recall last year at this time, it seemed we had a snowstorm at least every week and most of our lives were disrupted in ways large and small.  I still chuckle thinking about going to visit a girlfriend in Connecticut and one of the highways had only one lane open because of a snowstorm earlier in the week.  Our patience and driving skills were put to the test last year in a major way.

This year, we’ve had a few small snow events, including a storm that was expected to yield up to 30 inches of snow never quite materialized.  Temperatures are rougher this winter than the snowstorms.

I am not a winter person.  I stop exercising outside when the temps go below 45 degrees.  Life became more tolerable for me about ten years ago when I started wearing a hat and bought my first down jacket.  Every couple of years, I buy a new one (always in brown to lift my spirits above all the black clothing in the dreary winter) and it has cut down on the cold blowing through my body.  I may not be a fan of the cold, but I absolutely love snow.  When a snowstorm is predicted to occur overnight, sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m anticipating what it might look like in the morning.  Snow also changes up our routines and sometimes allows us to leave work early or hang out with our honey on the couch.  And before the snow blowers start up, the quiet hush of silence is peaceful.

What has bothered me this year more than any other year is not the winter itself.  It’s all the gloating.  As a frequent user of social media, the onslaught of photos of thermometers in warmer climates bugs me.  Not because I am necessarily jealous.  Living in the northeast, we get fabulous seasons so even if winter feels interminable sometimes, the probability is rather high that we will experience the joy of basking in the sun on the beach in July.  The photos of thermometers aren’t “oh hey, look at our weather” it feels like “hey stupid New Jersey person, look how much better it is to live in [your warmer location here].”

It’s not a popular opinion among people, but I happen to love living in New Jersey.  It’s comical to say so now that I’ve lived here for nearly fifteen years, but as a college student in Pennsylvania, the New Jersey kids seemed so much more sophisticated than I was.  They shopped at the Garden State Plaza and it was so easy for them to hop on the train and go “into The City” to “go see a show”.  I’ve lived a few other places in the Northeast and New Jersey felt like home immediately.  Not only is our proximity to “The City” and “The Shore” a great perk, but I have also found the people to be warm, passionate, bossy, mostly kind, and assertive.  I’ve made friends more easily here than anywhere I’ve lived, other than the chunk of pals I’m still tight with from grade school in Wilkes-Barre.

So you live in [your warmer location here] while I live in what you might think is a pit of disgusting gray slush and a thermometer making another descent into single-digits.  There’s no reason to gloat.  This weather creates hardships for people who have to work outdoors, people with health problems, or those who might be struggling to afford their heating costs.  And while you are having a drought, tornado, hurricane, or earthquake, you will not see me rubbing it in your face.

I wouldn’t trade my Garden State for 365 days of sunshine.  Not yet anyway.  (Besides, my Eastern-European complexion could never handle it.)  If a fabulous opportunity were to come my way to move elsewhere, maybe I’d consider it.  But the crazy weather gives us New Jerseyans something to talk about and bond over.  We all have stories about our year-round weather events:  snow shoveling mishaps, traffic delays, and tales of surviving Hurricane Sandy without heat and electricity.

So whether you like me or not, New Jersey, you’ve got me.  Winter, spring, summer, or fall.

Throwing My Weight Around

This week, I learned about 29 year-old Tess Holliday, a model who became part of the roster at a London agency.  I bet it happens pretty often if you follow the modeling business, but she made news because she happens to weigh more than the other plus-size women Milk Management represents.

Ms. Holliday is beautiful by any standard, just like every woman is beautiful in her own way.  Her size neither diminishes nor increases her worth.

beauty-guru-tess-munster_7

What has churned around in my head is that all the stories mention her weight.  If she were your run-of-the-mill 120 pound model, would anyone pay attention? The media has also run with her story because of the zippy hashtag for Ms. Holliday’s beauty movement:  #Effyourbeautystandards.

I get the hostility.  The media is saturated by underweight women and thinness has been pervasive of what constitutes beauty, even though the average woman is a size 12.

The message of effing the beauty standards is well-received by girls and women who have endured snide commentary about their bodies from all sorts of people.  As a result of this seemingly positive message, they may post pictures of themselves on social media, articulating the confidence they may have once lacked.  Movements like Ms. Holliday’s have given people who once felt voiceless a forum to express themselves.

I happen to carry around the sort of dull pain that inspired me to hop on the bandwagon of a movement like this in the late 90s.  Poor body image was a lifelong struggle for me.  Peeling back the layers, I recall a visit to my pediatrician, who told my mother that her three year-old daughter needed to lose weight.  To encourage weight loss, he recommended hot tea and a lock on the refrigerator.  (She refused to lock the fridge, but I clearly remember the tea and I still avoid unflavored tea because of this.)  I am not certain whether my memory of this appointment is actual or crafted through the memory of my mother’s relating it to me.  But my life is saturated with memories of crying on scales or in fitting rooms or countless situations where I believed I was less than because I weighed more than other people.

I stuck with the fat acceptance movement for a few years.  I read magazines with positive messages about our bodies and tried to convince myself that I could just buy the next size up.  Over the next decade, I continued gaining weight despite regular workouts.  I was unable to admit to myself that I rarely said no to a cheeseburger and I never met a candy bar I didn’t like.  In fairness to women who are genuinely pleased with their bodies, I bet there are women who do indeed take good care of themselves.  And I applaud them for their ability to accept themselves no matter what they look like.

I was not strong enough to continue deceiving myself that I was happy with my appearance.  It took me a few years, but I lost a sizable amount of weight, most of which I have kept off for over six years.

Beauty movements like these may be truly helpful for girls and women who have been tormented about their appearance.  But I am put off by the thread of hostility concealed beneath a pro-body message.  Using the polite abbreviation for the F-word is not the tone of “hey girls, aren’t we beautiful?”  It feels like a big middle finger in my face.  Would I be perceived as a traitor to the body acceptance movement because of the changes I made to my life?  If you are indeed happy and healthy at whatever weight you are, have at it.  I personally was miserable.  I am by no means thin and I’m always trying to lose ten pounds – not because society is telling me to or because I hate my body.  For me, losing weight and learning to love the beauty in all its shapes and sizes has made me a less miserable human being.  Overcoming the shackles of my own unhappiness has led me to experience life in ways I never thought were possible for me.

I’ve been churning about this video in the last week.  I might write more about it another time.  This is a message that I am thrilled to throw my weight behind:

 

 

The Giving Tree

Leaving the gym the other day, I plucked an ornament from the Giving Tree standing in the lobby.  Each ornament lists the types of gifts a needy person would like to receive with some information like age or size.  One in particular stood out and I tucked it into my bag.

Girl, age 14. Size XL.  Workout clothes, hair bands.

I’m not a super-generous giver of my time nor my treasure.  Sure, I kick a couple of bucks here or there to charities.  Because I dial up Wikipedia pretty frequently, I just sent them some money for the first time.

The Giving Tree is something that I buy for every year, though.  So at least I have one thing I do a year.  And it’s nowhere near enough.

I went to Target yesterday to pick up the gifts for this fourteen year-old girl and I have to admit, my heart broke a little bit every time I thought about her.  I stressed about whether she would like what I bought her.  Having been a size XL (and various other sizes above and below that), I have experienced the disappointment of receiving a gift of clothing that did not fit my thighs or had an unflattering pattern.  I was less concerned about the hair bands, but then I thought, maybe if I knew what kind of hair this girl had, I could buy her something even more special.

I cannot know what the home life of this young woman is.  I don’t know if she has a loving mom or dad or if she has enough to eat.  I don’t know if this will be the only gift she will be receiving.  Although I don’t know this girl, I do know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of charity.  Life got rough for me as an adolescent, after my parents split up.  And though my parents both worked, complications existed whereby there was often something lacking.

If you’ve never had to do so, accepting meals through the Free Lunch program as a student of a Catholic high school is no picnic.  The little golden tickets you received from your homeroom teacher every week were hard to accept when some of your classmates went on frequent ski trips or their parents drove them a hundred miles each way to Philadelphia for weekly piano lessons.  No one had ever said anything to me directly about them, but adolescent awkwardness planted that seed in my head that everything I did felt like it was under a huge spotlight that seemed to magnify my every move.

I was no charity case necessarily, but without the generosity of teachers who knew my difficulties, I would not have been able to see Les Miserables with other students in the drama club.  Nor would I have been able to cover the expenses involved in attending various choral competitions.  Until now, I had forgotten that the school even generously covered the fees involved in sending out my college applications.

And if you think skipping off to college led me to a life of financial security, guess again.  Because that is a whole other story in itself.

I bet Girl, Age 14 lives in a world different from the one I grew up in, but she is more like me than she could realize right now.  And may never realize.  Maybe in her mind, she assumes the person who picked out the black and neon hair bands and the purple workout shirt is some rich lady driving a Benz.  I mean, this tree is located in the Summit YMCA after all.

I think, for me, it’s time to get on the stick.  I’ve made excuses for not volunteering or contributing more.  But I have more to give back than I think.  We all do.  And there’s a whole world out there that has needs that cannot be met without help… from someone like me who has been helped so much along the way.

Pas de deux thee to the Ballet!

I’ve been a weekend subscriber to the New York Times for about five years now.  I’ve always enjoyed reading a newspaper, even though times have changed. Skimming the Times online, I really miss those clunky advertisements for old-lady orthopedic shoes or the obituaries about all sorts of people who must have been a hoot to know.  Depending on what life is like, sometimes the papers tend to pile up on the shelf under the coffee table and I make a ritual of putting them into chronological order and reading them section by section, usually saving the Book Review or the Magazine section for later.

But, I have to admit.  The New York Times makes me feel dumb.

When the paper thumps against the door in the morning, she already has internalized the unspoken understanding we have.  Yes.  The paper is a she.  Kind of a know-it-all and definitely way smarter than I am.  And she knows it.  No lady who can pull off wearing a blue polyethelene bag everyday when she arrives would be the kind of girl to fade into the wallpaper.  My New York Times is no “gray lady”.  She is electric and she wants you to know it.

Recently I’ve felt a deep attraction to ballet.  The concept of dance has always intrigued me, but I’ve never made an effort to see a performance.  Having frugal tendencies, I’ve always feared that I would shell out a ton of cash for a performance and then fall asleep like I did the last time I saw The Nutcracker over twenty years ago.

Maybe the passage of time has made me more curious and open-minded to take in new things.  I linger on all the articles I come across in the Times about dance.  I study the pictures, the forms of the body and the sinewy leg muscles that I have desired my whole life.  I ask myself what this art form is saying.  What could this be telling me about the world that visual art or music is unable to communicate?

An article I found very enjoyable recently was about a 47 year-old woman who is about to retire from the New York City Ballet.  Plenty of people are mentioned in the article, but with the understanding that the reader knows exactly who they are.  I only recognize a couple of the names (Millepied is married to some famous actress with dark hair and I was first introduced to Baryshnikov when I saw him in the video for “Say You, Say Me”), but I imagine that sophisticated New Yorkers know who they are by mere mention of their last names.   Ballet feels like a world so far removed from my own that I don’t mind wondering who half these people are.  It thrills me to sit out in the suburbs on my couch and stick my sturdy Ukrainian nose into the business of this mysterious world.

This lackadaisical attitude shifts when it comes to articles about music.  I can’t even read the advertisements for Lincoln Center without flying into a guilt-filled pity party.  It’s rare for me to see an article about a performance by the New York Philharmonic, drive right in, and consume it with glee.   Every sentence ends with a reflex statement I hear said, in my head, in my own voice:  I don’t know what that means.  With ballet, I have no frame of reference, except for the couple of months I took ballet in the church basement as a little girl.  An institution of higher learning gave me a music degree and I should at least have some idea of what is going on at the New York Philharmonic, right?

Music has been both a joy and a lifelong struggle for me.  I have always felt pulled toward music and started taking piano lessons the year after the ballet teacher packed up and left town.  I’ve been fortunate to make a living as a musician off and on for several years.  And I always say that one of the few places that I completely lose all sense of time is when I’m singing with an ensemble.  Music matters to my soul, like it does for probably almost every human being on the planet.  But I’ve been caught in this middle place between being truly in love and striving to improve my own practice of it.

Reading the music articles in the paper feel like all the times I felt like I didn’t know what in the world I was doing in music – as a youngster, a student, and as an adult.  What business did I have taking lessons or declaring music as my major?  Reading about music baffles me because I never understood how music could be described by words, only by the burning fire I feel in my gut when something I hear or play just feels right.  I’ve struggled with the rudiments of learning technique and the repetitive execution of scales and Hanon exercises because I simply didn’t feel anything. And writing countless papers on music history in college and getting average grades always seemed like pushing a boulder up a hill.

And that is where the joy of this newfound love of ballet comes in.  There is no middle place about it.  Dance is completely foreign to me, other than what I learn when I take the shiny plastic overcoat off the newspaper every weekend.  A few more weeks of reading ballet articles on the sly and I think I better buy myself some tickets.  I think I’ll stay away from The Nutcracker to be on the safe side.

Sing Along with Sweaty Mitch Miller

This post contains mild profanity.

A friend of mine from high school, also in his early 40s, recently mentioned that his wife’s cousins, who were visiting for the weekend, never heard the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”.  They made a joke about Meatloaf, and segued into an “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that” comment.  My friend and his wife dug through their CD’s to play that song for a laugh, but they could only find the Bat out of Hell album, which the cousins never heard of.  It was as if sweaty 70s Meatloaf never existed.

Sweaty Meatloaf

My friend related this story on Facebook and it generated numerous comments from the 40-something crowd.  Most were pretty good-natured, but these sorts of comments graze right around the perimeter of fuddy-duddiness.  Some of us are facing the reality that middle-age is a millimeter closer than it was last year, and even though I hope to never say it (or believe it), expressing “I’m so old” has become a more frequent statement among our peer group these days.

As time goes by, I have been surprised that I have a decreased interest in popular culture.  Last year watching the MTV video awards, I had to Google Ariana Grande and just realized the other day that Chris Pratt has apparently been “a thing” for the last few years and I never really knew who he was.  People around my age and older sometimes look at whatever is going on in pop culture right now and simply write it off as “crap”.  And truly, sometimes it is.  I mean, how is it possible that the Kardashians and Justin Bieber are still drawing crowds?  But, in fairness, I am really trying to be open-minded.  Every generation has their artistic expression, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent.  Just because we might not like it doesn’t automatically classify it in the “crap” bin.

At some point toward the end of my high school years, Aerosmith released a song called “The Other Side” that I couldn’t get enough of.  I loved that song and played it over and over and over again. One of my mother’s boyfriends mocked me mercilessly because, to him, it was crap.  It wasn’t the highest quality music, but it was what was popular in 1990.  He insisted that because I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about music and I always thought that was unfair.  What he didn’t realize was that I already knew all the Aerosmith classics by then as well as some of their songs that weren’t even hits.  Because he lived through the original Aerosmith, he naturally dismissed anything that seemed to be of low quality solely because it was new.  He hated anything that was new and current.  Except for the Traveling Wilburys.  God help you if you said one wrong thing about the Wilburys.

My friend’s Meatloaf story got me thinking about how any generation develops an appreciation of music – not just the current popular stuff, but also of the music that came before.  My parents always played records and 8-tracks on the massive TV console – TV in the center, record player on the left, radio and 8-track on the right – in our living room.  We consumed a steady diet of our parents’ music:  Chicago (that heavy brassy stuff with lots of moaning trombones playing glissando), Barry Manilow (the 8-track that changed right in the middle of the Chopin part of “Could It Be Magic”), Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.  I remember so fondly putting the needle down on the revolving turntable, the static so satisfying when the needle made contact, and then sitting down on the carpet with my head placed next to the speaker, drawn into the pictures on the albums.  One that really sucked me in was the image of the Rolling Stones pressed against glass on the covers of Through the Past Darkly.  There was a poem inside the album cover written by Brian Jones that I found sad, only to learn later that he had died in a drowning accident a couple of years earlier.

Older siblings also influence our exposure to what we hear.  Somewhere around the time I received First Holy Communion, Cheech and Chong’s movie Up in Smoke came out and my 11 year-old brother acquired a cassette tape containing the legendary skit The Finkelstein Shit Kid.  We played it over and over again, roaring with laughter.  I could still recite it by heart at the drop of a hat, thirty-five years later.   You get a goddamn job before sundown.  Or we’re shipping you off to military school,  etc.  Please tell me if you know any seven year-old child who could recite the Finkelstein Shit Kid from memory because her parents definitely should be reported to the authorities.

So if parents are the primary musical influence in a child’s life, what will happen when Mom or Dad are born in a time when only clean-cut, short-haired, ballad-crooning Meatloaf only existed?  And then in a few generations, folks wouldn’t have first-hand memories of any Meatloaf, because by that time, everyone will be vegetarian.  A parallel for me is my exposure to Mitch Miller.  My grandmother, who was born before WWI, played his records and I was shocked when I realized that many people my own age have never heard of him.  My mother certainly never played any Mitch Miller in our home.  In 1999, there was an Amazon Christmas commercial in the style of “Sing Along with Mitch” and I found that most of the people I knew at the time didn’t get the reference.  If a Sweaty Mitch Miller existed, certainly, he has long been forgotten.

In terms of how children today develop an understanding of music, I don’t think anything is necessarily bad.  Just different.  Those of us who grew up listening to records tend to see the past through a soft-focus lens.  I don’t begrudge younger people for their music or the technology they use to access it.  It will be interesting to see how those born in the mid-2010s romanticize their consumption of music when they get to be on the cusp of middle-age.  Will they get a tear in the eye recalling the time they bought Taylor Swift’s twentieth album on ITunes?  (Sigh…she sang so longingly about knitting an afghan with a dozen cats on her lap…and that duet with the 128 year-old Tony Bennett was simply breathtaking…)

Developing technologies and the passage of time will alter our consumption of music and our tastes, just like it has since my grandmother bought her first Mitch Miller record.  Fortunately, we live in an age where we can see Mitch and Sweaty Meatloaf by way of a few keystrokes.

Let’s Just Be

What is it about us that we are often looking ahead?  I don’t necessarily mean that in a “preparedness” sort of way.  We can look back at any number of destructive weather patterns many of us have experienced to see that we all live at different degrees of readiness.

What I mean is that, why can’t we be happy in the now?  Why must we always be looking ahead?

Can we possibly be happy with here and now?

As a participant in social media, I’ve noticed (and heck, I’m guilty of it from time-to-time) that folks seem to get easily riled up about what’s coming next.

There seem to be two camps of people:  those who truly look forward to the next season and those who simply cannot cope with the fact that it’s out there.  The latter are the people who practically get the vapors when the first Christmas commercial airs (OK, in fairness, I did post a status about seeing the first Christmas commercial last year on Labor Day.).  It’s not only about Christmas.  The vapors can strike individuals under a variety of conditions:  the first time they need to scrape their windshields, when they first turn on the air conditioner, the second they see an advertisement for a pumpkin spice latte during the summer, the moment they see bathing suits hanging in Target in January, and so on.

It seems that so many people are aggravated by seeing Christmas decorations in August or school supplies even before the kiddos have gotten out for summer break, but from the retailer’s perspective, I imagine the stuff wouldn’t be out unless consumers were buying it.  I would also guess that for the people who work in retail, they spend summers putting together all the Christmas displays.  Working as a church musician isn’t much different;  Advent and Christmas plans are in progress by August.

I’ve noticed the holiday merchandise in the stores more this year because I spent more time than usual shopping for craft supplies for our recent wedding.  It doesn’t bother me too much. As someone who shops almost exclusively in Target, I know exactly which areas of the store have the seasonal merchandise so if I don’t need a light-up reindeer in August, I simply turn down the next aisle.

I’m also not much of a decorator.  I don’t fancy the set-up and take-down of decorations nor am I particularly diligent about dusting.  Plus, storing decorations in an already cramped apartment can be an issue.  But a few weeks ago, in early August, Sam and I were in a grocery store and noticed that the fall decorations were out.  Initially, we said, “wow…fall stuff” and had no other feelings about it.  My eyes settled on a silly looking ceramic turkey/votive candle combo that I had to have.  That and a bag of candy corn.   More than anything, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to have that turkey.  We got home and put it on top of the piano as if it were full-on October.  I love the thing.  It’s adorable and it makes me smile, even though my ideal world would be basking in the sun in 90-degree weather every day of the year.  I don’t like the cold too much, but I love that little turkey.

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Surely there are people who are merely observing when they say, “wow…fall stuff”, but there are some downright nutso people who are exclamation-pointing all over the place that there is a light-up reindeer!  In Target!  On August 30th!!!!!  [Insert various peeved-looking emoji here.]

It’s kind of too much, all the exclamation pointing.  Here’s an idea.  Tomorrow is Labor Day.  Yes, school goes back in a few days for many people and things get back to its autumnal pace.  Probably in a month, we’ll need a little jacket.  But we have tomorrow.  Let’s just enjoy that day and not jump the gun.  We don’t need to rush out and buy a pumpkin spice latte even though Starbucks has PSL embossed on signs all over their establishment.  We don’t need Christmas wrap or snow boots.  Let’s just enjoy where we are, what we have, with the people we have around us, or with the books we have or the animals we have or whatever. Let’s pull back on the reins of always jumping the gun.  Let’s just be.

 

 

 

 

It Keeps You Runnin’

I’ve always wanted to be an athlete.

Maybe, more accurately, I wanted to be something other than fat.

Running became a part of my life a little over a decade ago when I was a student in a masters program.  And yes, I was fat at the time.

I don’t know how much overlap there is between these two conditions – of wanting to be an athlete and wanting to be something other than fat.  To my younger self, people who were athletic in nature appeared to be a lot more fun than the rumpled, chafing self that I was for most of my life.  Girls who played sports were usually tall, had thighs that never rubbed together, had boyfriends, and were able to wear their hair in a ponytail and manage to keep all the hair in said ponytail, no matter how much energy they exerted.

I didn’t really know athletic people until I got to high school.  Sports were less widely played in elementary school then and the only thing available to us was intramural basketball as well as varsity teams who played other schools.  (I played intramural basketball for one season in fifth grade and it was embarrassing.  I was on a team called the Suns.  We played on Friday nights in the gym of a local public school.  The highlight of those games was buying ink pens out of a vending machine there because we never saw something so fantastic before.  I scored only one basket all season, during our last game.)  In school there was no physical education requirement nor did we have a space for physical activity, unless you counted the asphalt parking lot we had recess in, with its death-trap merry-go-round and the obligatory Our Lady of Fatima grotto, surrounded by two concrete kneelers, way in the back.

Although I had watched some ice-skating and gymnastics during prior Olympics, the first women’s sports drama that mesmerized me was during the 1984 Summer Olympics.  The year of Mary Lou Retton and Joan Benoit and the high drama of Mary Decker being carried off the track by her boyfriend after a suspicious fall during a race.  I don’t know what this says about my perception of my own feminism (or lack thereof?), but I don’t remember being excited about them being powerful women athletes.  I just remember thinking, wow, they’re not fat and they are sure getting a lot of attention.

Maybe that’s part of what also fell into the stew of my own identity of being female and having a serious weight problem as a child.  By the time I turned twelve that summer, I already had a whole slew of items bubbling around in that stew:  the knowledge that a pediatrician told my mother to put a lock on our refrigerator when I was five, suffering the mortification of being weighed by the school nurse annually in front of my peers, seeing a picture of myself as preschooler in a bikini and counting the tiny fat rolls on my stomach that looked like a pack of hot dogs.

Girls today seem to be so in tune with how great it is to be a girl and sports seem so focused on their gender.  I’m not sufficiently informed about feminist issues to comprehend all the factors at play with how all these things affect our self-image as women.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me that Mary Lou Retton was a girl;  my 12 year-old brain realized that I also had brown hair and maybe if I took the town bus to the mall and used my allowance for a haircut like hers, maybe I would feel like I mattered.  I surely could not articulate it at the time, but I probably wanted to feel like I mattered to boys and also to some of the girls who began turning into mean, cliquey girls.  And in terms of feeling like I mattered, I don’t necessarily think it was big, bad society’s fault that I felt on the fringe.  I think I just felt like a 12 year-old girl.  With a weight issue.

After a few moderately successful attempts to lose weight, I managed to lose – and keep off almost all of it for over six years – sixty pounds.  Because I never lost the image of Joan Benoit or Mary Decker or all the ladies I watched every year in the Boston Marathon, I kept running.  Losing a significant amount of weight changed my life in so many positive ways and I continue to make an effort to keep myself at a weight that feels comfortable for me.  In addition to avoiding some foods that used to be a problem for me, I work out frequently.

I’m not sure what the emotional repercussions will be in the future, but recently a doctor told me to stop running due to some pretty ugly arthritis in my knees.  So many thoughts have passed through my head since hearing this news, including hopes of striving across longer finish lines than I currently do, knowing I’m not meant to cross them now.

There are many great things about not being twelve anymore.  My worth is not wrapped up in whether my ponytail is intact or that I can get a cute haircut if I want.  My worth is also not tied up in the identity I’ve created as an athlete.  I’m pretty sure I’ll still be crossing finish lines, even if they are only figurative.  Or who knows.  I may not have the image of Joan Benoit or Mary Decker as my models, but I’ll always have Diana Nyad!  Time to advance beyond the doggy paddle.

 

 

Think of Laura

It’s been three years since my beautiful friend Laura passed away.  I think about her every single day.  She was an extraordinary human being, inside and out.

News of her passing reached me two days after she died, through a Facebook message I received after playing organ at one of two Confirmation Masses. It sounds melodramatic, but it really floored me.  How could this happen?  While her youngest son was still a toddler, she received a shocking diagnosis and radical measures were taken.  She and her family moved forward and she rarely spoke to me about it after the immediate crisis was averted.  When she passed away, I had not spoken to her for some time and that sadness will linger with me. Our lives had taken the types of turns that cause people to fall out of touch.  Her sons were involved in a lot of activities and we were both busy with work and our other activities.  She wasn’t much of an emailer and keeping in touch on the telephone was a challenge.  I had also been struggling with issues in my marriage that I was embarrassed to share because I never wanted her to be disappointed in me.

I knew Laura a little bit when I was a freshman and she was a junior, but it wasn’t until the next year that we became close friends.  I don’t exactly remember a defining moment when we started hanging out, but it involved one of the many musical activities we were part of.  Laura was like a big sister and I was so flattered that she wanted to be my friend because I was only a sophomore.  We shared a love for piano, sappy 70s love songs, plays on words, and singing alto.  She was a fantastic listener and her intelligence blew me away.  When she was named salutatorian of her graduating class, I was in the auditorium while she practiced her speech.  The teacher who was coaching her suggested that she remove the word “integral” from her speech and for some reason, the slightest bit of criticism of her speech aggravated me.  How dare she tell Laura to take out the word “integral”!  Who did this lady think she was?

Laura was my first friend who had a driver’s license and during my sophomore year, we put so many miles on her parents’ car driving by the homes of the various boys we had crushes on, developing theories of what the families inside might be doing.  The radio was always on and we were lucky it actually had FM.  Laura and I bonded over our love for cheesy love songs.  Barbra Streisand, Frankie Valli, Barry Manilow – all kinds of schlock and sap.  Laura had a thing for the song “He Ain’t Heavy;  He’s My Brother” and we leapt for the joy when one of us figured out the intro to the Nilsson song “Without You” on the piano in the music room in high school.  For my sixteenth birthday, Laura gave me a book called “Songs of the 70s” that contained some of our favorites.  We were awestruck that the music for “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb was completely identical to the song on the radio.  We also had a collection of choral pieces that we “forgot” to turn in at the end of the school year that I kept in a tote that she dubbed “The Bag O’Music”.  Over the years when we would get together, I lugged the bag along and we sang for hours at the piano.

The day of her wake took place on my 39th birthday.  A cluster of us joined the hundreds of people who waited in the line around the block for hours to pay our respects.  Afterward, a dozen or so of us ended up at Chili’s, one of many places I hung out with Laura, and we talked and cried and laughed for hours.  The funeral the next day is something that is still hard for me to think about.  In the afternoon, I returned to the hotel and waited until other friends were finished working so we could get together.  A sappy song entered my mind that I never thought much about.

Think of Laura but laugh don’t cry

I know she’d want it that way

When you think of Laura laugh don’t cry

I know she’d want it that way

 

A friend of a friend, a friend till the end

That’s the kind of girl she was

Taken away so young

Taken away without a warning

I quickly looked it up online and listened to it.  And I listened to it probably a dozen times in a row.

Laura and I shared loads of memories over the course of a twenty-three year friendship and I can’t imagine putting them all in writing.  So many of them are the mysterious glue of inside jokes and song lyrics and silliness that means little to anyone else.  My loss is nothing compared to what her children, husband, sisters, and parents experienced.  I will never forget her presence in my life and I feel it every time I hear one of those sappy love songs.

I know she’d want it that way.