Thursday, June 17, 2010

Beauty is in the Eye of the Five-Year-Old

A conversation with my daughter.

Teresa:  "Mommy, you look so SKINNY!"

Me, very flattered, proud of working out, not so proud of the chocolate covered caramels that I've been eating:  "Why, thank you!"

Teresa:  "No, really, Mommy.  Look at yourself.  You are so skinny!"

Me, having an increasingly bloated ego:  "Thank you!"

Teresa:  "Mommy, what does 'skinny' mean?"

Me, with the air slowly leaking from my balloon:  "What do YOU think it means?"

Teresa:  "I have no idea."

So much for that.

Monday, June 7, 2010


My daughter said to me, "I don't need to study history because everything I like is modern."

I gave a reply from "The Grown-up's Guide to Standard Responses" manual.

"If you don't learn from the mistakes of the past, you're destined to repeat them."

This is listed, of course, after the entries "Because I told you so", "Because they're good for you", and "You'll understand when you're older."

Geesh, I sound like a parent.

We are in Washington, DC, the requisite family vacation.  In this case, the kids are subject not only to the history of our nation, but the history of their parents.  My husband and I met here as interns once upon a time.

The trip has just begun, but already we have learned about the connection between the past and our present, and about the necessity of reinvention.

The history is obvious.  We walked the mall, seeing the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capital.  This was made all the more exciting when we were watching "Evan Almighty" on HBO last night and the final scene involves an epic flood of the same area.  My five-year-old pops up and declares, "That's DC!"  My work is done, thank you very much.  I have successfully made my children even more interested in cable.

It is reinvention that I am most drawn towards, however.  The ability to take our past and make our future better because of it.  This was demonstrated to us all day yesterday as we wandered the Colonial-lined streets of Old Towne Alexandria.

In our dream world, we would move back to this area, and visited three open houses just to torture ourselves.  Built in the 1700s, I could only imagine the decades upon decades of families that have called them home, and marveled at the reinvention of them into places that a modern family could be comfortable.  The basement of one smelled like a smokehouse, but was fitted with a washer and dryer and Corian counters in the kitchen.  Another sloped like a bunny hill at a ski resort, but was outfitted with stainless steel appliances and flat screen tvs.  At only $1,240,000, this tiny dwelling could be ours.  I was ready to bring out the checkbook.  All but one of the kids was in agreement.

Reinvention followed us at dinner.  We ate at an old favorite, Il Porto, the Italian restaurant that faces King Street, the main thoroughfare of the town.  We hungrily reviewed the menu items, but it was my nine-year-old history buff that was drawn, instead, to the story of the restaurant itself.

The eighteenth-century building was built by a sea captain, and lost to him when stolen articles were discovered in it.  It was then converted to a butcher shop, and eventually became a whorehouse.  Of course, the kids wanted to know what that was.  The little teaching moments that we don't expect.  Later, it was a trinket shop owned by two eccentric sisters, and now it serves up Alexandria's favorite pasta.

What a lesson in reinvention, and what a parallel to life.  The structure remains the same, weathered a bit and updated for the times.  So are we.  We are baby, toddler, child, adolescent, young adult, employee, parent, grandparent, retiree, great-grandparent, senior citizen, dust.  We live through a changing world, adapting with it to survive, journeying on a spiritual path.

The lesson became personal later when we met with an old friend over ice cream.  She is the one person that gets younger and happier every time we see her.  It's been eight years since our last visit, and she's doing great.  What was the secret to her luminescence?  Reinvention.  A self-described "Type A", she suffered through the untimely death of a little loved one a few years ago, and realized what a precious gift every day is.  She lives for the day, she devours the day, she rejoices in the day.  She becomes what the day demands while retaining the solid foundations of her history.

It is easy to see why everyone is drawn to her.  She believes that God will provide, and has erased negativity from her psyche.  She is abundantly generous, and gives all of her energy to the moment.

I ponder this as I traverse the cobblestone streets in my Nike Air sandals, trodding upon stones that have seen thousands before me.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ten Years Later

I wrote a letter when I was thirteen.

I wrote it to a stranger, someone whom I had never seen.  I had a cloudy understanding of her and a heartfelt wish that she would turn out to be everything I'd hoped.  She was accomplished, I was sure.  A published author.  A world traveler.

I drew a circle on a blank area and sprayed my mother's perfume on it.  I wondered if it would fade by the time she received it or if she could still detect its flowery scent across the uncharted distance.

I can't say that I loved the stranger, but I envied her.

I envied her freedom and her choices.  I envied her friends and her adventures.  I wanted to BE her.  But it was impossible.

I asked her a series of questions, knowing that the answers would come with much time and probable effort.  I was impatient.  I wanted the answers now.

"Have you written a novel?" I asked.  Surely, she had.  She was always writing - journals and letters, and counted scores of pen-pals among her friends.  She must have turned all of that into stories, and she must be famous.

Little did I know that letters are, in fact, obsolete to her, replaced by the instant gratification of a keyboard and the internet.  Whatever that is.

"Have you seen the pyramids?"  This was a dream of mine.  Did she share that dream?  She did, I would learn, and marveled at them the first moment that their time-worn peaks appeared in her airplane window.  She thought that she had found love in Cairo, only to be wounded by naivete and a carpet salesman that turned out to be married.

But, of course, I didn't know this yet because she hadn't answered me.

"Where do you live?"  I asked, a conundrum because I wouldn't know where to send it.  It must be in New York somewhere because surely she appeared onstage seven nights a week in the chorus of a Broadway musical.

She wouldn't tell me until later that she gave up on the theater in high school because the director gave the lead roles to the students that gave him "favors" in return.

"Are you beautiful?"  I hoped that she was.  I imagined her to have long blond hair like Rapunzel and the bosom of an opera singer.  Not like me, the skinny kid with braces who couldn't make Band-Aids look good.  She must have a dozen boyfriends and a dozen more waiting in the wings.

I continued with my innocent interrogations and sealed the envelope with I when I was finished.  I slipped it into the bookshelves next to my yearbook until I could find her.

She told me later that I had asked the wrong questions.  I had asked about career and money and men and all sorts of things that label a person but don't define them.

I had neglected to ask if a person is worth more than a certificate on a wall, and talked about love as if it is an irrational, frenetic passion instead of a cozy commitment made daily for better or worse.  I hadn't known to ask if the first cry of a newborn baby makes the function of that coveted bosom infinitely more valuable than its cosmetic worth.

She opened the letter just when I'd hoped she would, ten years later, and she laughed.  The baby had just gone down for a nap and her husband was finishing the dishes.  She glanced sideways at the mirror, seeing the reflection of the idealistic teenager whittled into the wise smile of the adult, her dreams fulfilled in ways she'd never imagined.

Dear 23-year-old Self.....

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Airplane Bathrooms and Other Works of Satan

I am traveling alone, carry-on only, and speed through security like a bullet train.  Oops, I probably shouldn't say "bullet" in an airport.

They wave me on, approving the boarding pass that is displayed on my phone.  Completely paperless.  I am impressed.

I see a mother pushing a stroller, and a father laboring over a cumbersome carseat.  However will he fit it into the sardine-like seats of the airplane?  I hope he's not my seatmate.

But I feel sympathy.  I feel his pain.  I never travel without my husband and four kids, with bribes and protestations in tow.  We are the family that people fear in the security line.  What they do not know is that we have traveled enough to be adept at taking off our slip-on shoes, folding the stroller with the flick of a wrist, and not packing liquids over three ounces.  In and out, we make it through faster than most.

Even so, today I relish the solitude.

I am stopped by security, as something was flagged in my bag.  I wonder what it is.  I had tweezers and a razor in there, but I hadn't been stopped last time with those.  It borders on humiliating to have your things checked so thoroughly.  But, alas, he gets to the feminine products and quickly zips my bag, handing it to me. I once snuck a camera into a U2 concert, hidden by such girly necessities.  Forget the box cutters.  The terrorists could wreck havoc with items intelligently disguised in a box of tampons.

It turns out that I have no seatmate, at least not one sitting between my aisle seat and the man at the window.  He is blessedly odor-free, unlike the unfortunately flatulent one on the first flight.

A pleasant aroma wafts into my direction just after takeoff.  It smells like steak;  maybe it is.  It's coming from first class, just two rows ahead.  I'm remembering the McDonald's breakfast burrito from a few hours ago.  If I tilted my head to the right, I'd see what they were eating.  We are separated by transparent blue netting.  It doesn't actually provide privacy, but sends the clear message that there is a distinct difference between the elite and the coach.  What glass ceiling?  The blue netting is the barrier to break.

Halfway through the flight, emaciated from hunger, we are offered hot dogs.  I take one, having no other options.  It is wrapped in plastic, and a scorching spray of steam momentarily blinds me when I open the package.  The hot dog is shriveled, unappetizing.  I look for a packet of ketchup to mask the taste, but they only provided mustard.  This is America!  Ketchup with hot dogs is as necessary as apples in pie.

I douse the crunchy white stems of the iceberg lettuce with room temperature Caesar dressing.  The package says, "Keep refrigerated".  But there is salvation.  The bottom of the box provides one more surprise, a little brown one with my favorite word - "Hershey".  Anything can be forgiven with chocolate in my world.

Inevitably, it's time to go.  You know, to the airplane bathrooms that are coffins in disguise. I check the aisle.  It is clear, as the flight attendants have already served our meals and taken our trash.  I'm in row six.  Although the nearest one is just two rows ahead of me, I am separated by that blasted blue netting.  I wonder if the toilet seats are lined in gold.  Instead, I walk with trepidation down the long and skinny aisle, achingly aware that only a few feet of cargo separate me from miles of nothingness over the geometric farm patterns of the land.  I try not to think about it.

It is ironic to me that my biggest passion is travel, and yet I am afraid of heights and flying.  The travel wins out by a hair, so I endure the turbulence and think about my destination.  It is for this reason that I drink just enough water to stay hydrated, but not enough to have to use the restrooms on board.  It never works. 

I am the second in line for two lavatories.  (Why do they call them lavatories?  Too elegant a name.  They are just one step up from a Port-o-Potty.)  My co-waiter and I avoid contact with each other, and with everyone, in fact.  Private space is extinct on an airplane and you have to hoard every scrap you can get.

The lock clicks and the perforated door opens within seconds.  A guy comes out, and I'm glad that it's not my turn.  I hate going in after guys.  The toilet seats are usually up and they ignore the sign on the mirror asking you to please clean up before the next guest comes in.

I give the briefest of glimpses to the back row.  Two passengers are sleeping, so I feel my eye space radius loosen up.  I dare myself to peek out the window and glance away as soon as I see that we are far above the clouds.

I turn my attention to the flight attendants.  They are the bell weathers of a flight.  If they are calm, all is well.  If they look shaken, bring out the rosary beads.

At last.  The VACANT light goes on and the lavatory door opens.  A guy walks out. Great.  I instinctively breathe through my mouth.  But he has been considerate.  The seat is down, the cubby is clean.  I exhale, a silent blessing for him escaping my lips.

I slide the latch.  The lavatory is OCCUPIED.