Explaining Myself to a Twenty-something

Now that all the hoopla has died down — two birthdays and a book launch party in one week, surprise out-of-town guests for said launch party and a delicious weekend of basking in the glow of friends, family and accomplishment — we’re back to business-as-usual and the daily slog of work, deadlines, school and the dishes and laundry that seem to mysteriously pile up when I’m not looking.  Add to that high school tours, flu, a middle-aged basketball injury and it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Oh yeah, I wrote and published a book.

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You may have seen me decked out in a red dress and heels the night of the party, but it was also me you saw this morning at 6:55 in my pajamas, robe and Uggs at the ATM in downtown Ballard getting the forgotten funds for Daughter #2’s lift ticket, so she can go on ski bus tonight (we were wise to get D#1 a season pass; I realize this now).  Tonight, at 11:00 p.m., Jeff and I will hop into our respective cars and head to the daughters’ respective schools to pick them up from their ski forays.  We’ll be off to D #2’s  basketball game in the morning.  I will be grateful that there is no weekend swim meet requiring me to sit on uncomfortable bleachers for four hours to watch D#1 swim for less than ten minutes total, as I did last weekend (I entertained myself by reading Getting to Calm:  cool-headed strategies for parenting teens and ‘tweens, but kept the book cover hidden, so D#1 wouldn’t be mortified).

I'm not the only member of the family interested in this book.

Someone else seems to be interested in these pearls of wisdom.

Tomorrow afternoon we will make dumplings with a group of Chinese exchange students to celebrate Chinese New Year.  Today I’ll need to find a mango-based Asian dessert recipe and prepare said dessert for said party.  Someone needs to buy a gift for a birthday party on Sunday. The beat goes on.

A few days ago I was scheduled to be interviewed about my new book by our local newspaper.  By local, I mean neighborhood. Seattle is a city of neighborhoods and my neighborhood, Ballard, has a particularly strong community, a community newspaper and a popular blog.  Until D #2 started going to school across town, I rarely left Ballard. There is some truth to the bumper sticker you sometimes see around here:  “If you can’t find it in Ballard, you don’t need it.” My friend Peggy, a columnist for the Ballard News Tribune, beautifully summed up our attachment to our neighborhood. The interviewer was to be a journalism student at the University of Washington named L.  “Go easy on him,” Peggy said.

L. and I arranged to meet at Caffe Fiore.  There are actually two Caffe Fiores in Ballard — one in the Sunset Hill region of the neighborhood, that is favored by families and people with dogs, but doesn’t have WiFi, and one in downtown Ballard, that is favored by childless hipsters and WiFi aficionados.  I gave L. the address of the Sunset Hill Caffe Fiore, where I do much of my “business,” because it’s closer to my house and it’s easy to park there.  Still, I wasn’t surprised, while sipping my double short non-fat latte, to receive an email from L. saying he was at the other Caffe Fiore.

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I found him amidst the laptops, he turned on the voice recorder on his iPhone and we settled in to talk.

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I interview people for a living but have rarely been interviewed myself.  To be honest, I expected L. to ask me some rote questions about my book, which I am fairly certain he has not read, and to go through the motions of interviewing a 50-something year-old-woman with whom he has nothing in common.

L. surprised me.

How many times have you encountered young relatives at large family gatherings or seen the college-aged kids of your friends and asked them about their studies and their plans for the future?  These conversations always seem rather one-sided:  you, the experienced adult, offer suggestions about internships. You offer to put in a good word with the friend of a friend, who may be able to offer some help.  You inquire about hopes and dreams and inject some practicality into the conversation.

L. was not particularly interested in my book,  but he was interested in my life.  He asked me to reflect on which accomplishment made me proudest (Foreign Service officer, mother, journalist or author) and I had to think before responding that I was proudest to have figured out how to have accomplishments in each of the different phases of my adult life.

We talked about the differences in international travel in the pre- and post-Internet world.  “Don’t underestimate the value of truly being away and unplugged,” I said.  “The examined life is important, but not if you are living your life so it can be examined.”  Then I sheepishly remembered that I am a blogger (and a person, Jeff would point out, who is tethered to her iPhone).

slice of mid-life logo

But here’s what really struck me.  L. wanted to know about my future.  He asked me about  my hopes and dreams. He questioned me about my values and how I would apply those to whatever I hope to do next.

At 51, it’s easy to think the course has been set.  We get so caught up in thinking about our kids’ futures that we forget to think about our own, other than squirreling away money into retirement funds.

It’s not that we don’t grapple with what we want out of life, it’s just that we’re busy being practical and making sure our kids get to ski.

teenager mom

Seeing yourself through the eyes of a twenty-year-old, who is not your kid, can be revealing, especially when they turn the tables on you and ask you to dream.

I’m looking forward to reading L.’s story, to see how our conversation resonated with him (turns out, my aerobics buddy K. is L’s journalism professor and will have a hand in editing the story.  I’m hoping, in fifty-something solidarity, she ensures I come across well. Another perk of living in a small community).

For the record, I want to tell L., his professors and his parents that I think he has a bright future ahead.

But I especially want to thank him for for reminding me never to stop asking yourself the big questions, even if the answers are not on the tip of your tongue.

There is an interesting article about “twenty-somethings” in the January 14 issue of The New Yorker called Semi-Charmed Life, that I encourage you to read, along with the Letters to the Editor in response to this article (some from fifty-somethings), which appear in the February 11&18 issue of the magazine.

Years ago, when I was in my twenties and living and working in Thailand, I met New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn in Laos (I think on a flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabong).  They were young too, living and reporting in Beijing, where the Tiananmen Square uprising had recently occurred.  They won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting from China, Kristof became an Op-Ed columnist, often focusing on the plight of disenfranchised peoples around the world, and they wrote Half the Sky:  Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

 Kristof, a native Oregonian, has written about the importance of wilderness experiences, describing the annual backpacking trip he takes with his family on the Pacific Crest trail. 

He’s just announced that he is taking a leave from his column to write another book with Sheryl WuDunn.  He says, “The theme is the benefits to ourselves when we engage in a cause larger than ourselves, and, given that, how we can engage in a way that actually works. In other words: the emerging science of how to make a difference.”

I appreciate contemporaries of mine, such as Kristof and WuDunn, who continue to ask the big questions and share what they’ve learned to benefit us all. 

Freeing My Inner Gloria

This weekend I had the honor of participating in the Ballard Writer’s Book Slam, featuring 22 writers from our neighborhood (must be all the coffee shops) reading for three minutes each as well as delicious food and drink.  The event was organized by Peggy Sturdivant, neighborhood champion and author of the At Large in Ballard column and blog.  We had a great turnout.  I encourage you to check out these fine authors.  

Sri Lankan Love Cake - as sticky and delicious as love itself. (you'll find the recipe in my previous post)

Here’s my three minutes of fame:

Shortly after I turned 50, I began taking a Zumba class at the Sonny Newman Dance Hall in Greenwood.  Taught by an infectious Peruvian woman named Ida, the participants come in many shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities and even include one 60 year-old transgender person in pink sweats. While we attempt a series of complicated salsa and meringue steps and the cha, cha, cha, Ida carries on a running commentary, translating the meaning of the songs. “Oh,” she wails.  “It is so sad!  He loves you, but he cannot have you, because you are promised to another.  But he says he will always wait for you.  Now esqueeze your butt chicks!”

I am intoxicated by the music, my classmates and especially by Ida, whose voice and personality remind me of Gloria, the passionate, outspoken buxom Colombian trophy wife played by Sofia Vergara on the sitcom Modern Family.  We all are. When a hip -hop band commands “If you’re sexy and you know it, clap your hands,” everybody makes some noise.

Not long after I began dancing Zumba, I found myself in the bathroom, brushing my teeth side-by-side with my husband, who had been away on a business trip.  He looked fondly down at me, in my cheerful green pajamas, and said “My wife, the pickle.”

Not me

Me

He called in our twelve year-old daughter.  She is savvy enough to bank brownie points whenever possible, so when she saw the frozen look of horror on my face she said, “Actually mom, I think you look more like a snap pea.”

I’m pretty sure that was the moment I decided to liberate my inner Gloria.

The original plan was to dress like Gloria, talk like Gloria and act like Gloria solely for the benefit of my family, waiting for them when they came home from work and school.

My friend L, who is going through a divorce and knows a thing or two about personal transformation, had other ideas.  “You need to be Gloria all day.  You have to go to the grocery store as Gloria, pick the kids up from school as Gloria …”

I imagined myself in the organic produce section of the Ballard Market, leaning forward to reach a zucchini, in stiletto heels and a buttocks-hugging pencil skirt, ample cleavage spilling out of my tight blouse, calling for help:  “Excuse me, can you get me a tickitini???”

Though Ballard has its share of artists and tattooed moms and restaurants worthy of review in the New York Times, it still bears more than a passing resemblance to Lake Wobegon.

I couldn’t go through with it.

So I settled on being Gloria for Halloween and I started a blog instead.

As all of the writers in this room can attest, putting your work out there can be as intimidating as pretending to be Gloria in the Ballard Market.  There will be editors and agents and critics and inner voices who may tell you that your work isn’t good enough or that your book can’t be marketed to fit into one of today’s popular genres.

But as Michael Schein said at this gathering last year, if you want to write, write.  Don’t worry about whether anyone will read what you write, just write.

And if you think you are sexy enough, then dance the meringue, even if you are a 60 year-old transgender person in pink sweatpants or a 50 year-old minivan-driving mom who looks like a pickle.

Revel in your crunchy, sassy, half-sweet, half sourness and don’t forget to esqueeze your butt chicks with passion and with pride.