A NON-ANECDOTAL LIFE

I keep getting congratulated for taking the “less traveled road.” But it’s not true.

Sometimes, I took a back road because it was the shortest road to where I was going. More often, I traveled highways, because they offered the fastest, most direct routes.

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Always a pragmatist, I was goal-driven. I don’t remember thinking about if it was a more or less traveled path. Sometimes, I made a good choice. The rest of the time, I did the best I could with whatever mess I’d gotten myself into.

I’ve had an interesting life, but not as interesting as it probably sounds. I don’t talk about the boring parts because they’re boring. That’s the thing about blogging. You get to write your life and leave out the tedious stuff.

I don’t write about staying up late cleaning when I wanted desperately to go to bed. Because there was work in the morning. I had to make the kid’s lunch, get him on the bus. Make sure the dog didn’t eat his homework.

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All the parties I didn’t attend because I couldn’t find a babysitter … or was too tired to think about going anywhere. The nights I fell asleep in front of the television, unable to keep my eyes open past the opening credits.

I had good times. Exciting, weird, funny experiences. Tragedies and triumphs interspersed with long hours, short nights, and exploring the wonders of all-night supermarkets.

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Most of life isn’t memorable. It doesn’t bear retelling. My life was just like yours, whoever you are, whatever you did. Most lives are more alike than different.

I’ve had my share of crappy relationships, horrible bosses, and tedious jobs. I had a husband and child to raise, groceries to buy, a house to clean. I was lucky because I also had wonderful friends who were there for me when the going was tough.

Don’t be misled by anecdotes. Between the anecdotes is where life really happens.

WHAT AM I MISSING?

Working backwards from Gen X, I must be Gen W. My parents were Gen V. With the turning of the earth, we Baby Boomers are now {trumpets and drumroll} the “Older Generation.” When did that happen?

I’m not entirely sure how it became our job to “understand” younger generations. I am of the opinion it is their job to understand us. They might learn a few things.

My 6th Grade class.

Gen X, my son’s group, are now in their forties. No longer young, they are an odd bunch. Many grew up convinced they had a date with destiny, that their birthright was The Good Life. Some realized achieving the good life would require work and education, but a big percentage didn’t get that message. Or, on hearing it, felt it had been incorrectly delivered. It was clearly meant for someone else.

I did my best to be a role model for the work ethic. I strove to be good at my job.

As a group, many people of my own and previous generations were obsessive about doing good work. Whatever we did, we did it wholeheartedly. As a generation, boomers believed in education. Were sure work would redeem us. We expected to be grunts before getting promoted.

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Thus you can imagine with how much trepidation heard my son say “I don’t want to waste my life working all the time like you, my father, and Garry.” If he had been the only one from whom I heard these or similar words, it would not have been so alarming.

Say what? I realized — finally and rather late — that there’d been a serious, generational disconnect.

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The “success will come because I want it” thing did not work out well for Gen X or Y.

My granddaughter’s Gen Y group seems focused on personal happiness. They are entitled to a stress-free life. Anyone who forces them to do stuff which they don’t enjoy is a bully. An abuser. What nonsense.

Clueless or not, reality will bite them in the ass. Ultimately, Generations X and Y won’t have parents or grandparents to run to for comfort and a quick loan. Unless they re-evaluate their direction, life is going to prove a huge disappointment. We want the best for them … but they have to make it happen. It isn’t free. Everything has a price tag. Pay up front or later, but pay you will.

On the positive side, if you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work. Maybe that’s the most important part of the missed message.

WHISTLING AND FISHING IN HEAVEN

As playlists go, this is short, but it says a lot. Not everyone has heard of John Prine, but he wrote many songs other people sing, and he sang a lot of them himself on various records, most of which I owned on vinyl. He has always been a favorite of mine, somehow cheering me up when I’m blue. So, whenever WordPress prompts for a playlist, he’s my go-to guy.

And lo and behold, there’s a new CD collection of his work available … just $10, double CD. I ordered it. Of course.

John Prine sings about life. He always had a sense of humor, too. He wrote great, witty lyrics, and singable melodies. What more do you need? Because to me, that’s music.

A sentiment … several sentiments … to which I can really relate. John Prine. Singing one of  my favorites. Musical philosophy.

The meaning of life according to John Prine. He sums it up for me. Thanks John!

Finally, a musical look at aging. Talk about summing it up. Tom Paxton was always a favorite. Which shows my age as much as my shining silver hair.

DON’T STOP LAUGHING

Everything and everybody changes, but recently a couple of people I’ve known for a long time have changed suddenly and dramatically. Overnight, they became dry and humorless.

It appears they had a humorectomy. While they slept, their sense of humor was removed. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but it’s deeply disturbing. Have they been replaced by pods, like the  “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?

I could not survive if I did not see how ridiculous my life is. If the absurdity of it didn’t make me laugh, I would do nothing buy cry and bewail my state. Laughter heals me. It’s better than sex. Better than yoga, meditation, medication, or street drugs. It’s free, unrestricted by laws, available to anyone who is not yet dead and is acceptable behavior under almost all religious systems.

Many friends are going through rough times. Their problems vary, but the results are the same. Stress, anguish, fear, worry, insomnia. You worry, try to keep it together until you’re ready to explode.

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What can you do? When the light at the end of the tunnel really is the headlight of an oncoming train, I say: “Buckle up and let your hair blow in the wind. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

Laughing at the craziness, insanity, ludicrousness, the utter absurdity of my life — and the demented world in which I live it — is my first line of defense against despair. Take away laughter, strip away my sense of humor, and I’m a goner.

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I laugh any time I find a reason. At anything that strikes me as funny, which isn’t always appreciated by other people. I even laugh when I’m alone (weird, right?). It reminds me why it’s worth staying alive.

My friends make me laugh. I make them laugh. When our lives are in tatters and everything around us is collapsing, we laugh. Then, we take a deep breath, and laugh some more. The more awful the situation, the more dreadful and intractable the problems, the funnier it is. We are not laughing at tragedy … we are laughing at life.

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The difference between tragedy and comedy is how you look at it. Laughter is the antidote for everything. Try it. It’s a cure.

SPODE’S TOWER

Blame it on my upbringing, the odd traditions of my mother’s family. Basically, we say “I love you” by giving each other stuff. All kinds of stuff. Art, furniture, gadgets, clothing, books, whatnots. We were never a touchy, feely, huggy family nor verbally effusive. We rarely said “I love you.” I’ve had to learn to say the words. I’d still rather buy you a present.

spode's tower plateOver the course of life with my family, I got clothing (used and new), pottery (ugly and uglier), jewelry, paintings (“No, really, it’s okay … you keep it … please!”) and whatever else came to hand. If someone had a sudden unplanned attack of the warm fuzzies, they might give you the nearest small object — ashtray, silver cigarette holder (from my mother, who never smoked), old souvenirs from Coney Island, empty cigar boxes (Uncle Abe). No wrappings or bows. Spontaneity precluded amenities. It was my family’s version of a hug.

One time, my dearest favorite-est aunt gave me the coat off her back while crossing 6th Avenue in Manhattan. It was mid-winter in New York and definitely not a good time to be coat-less, but I had said I liked it and she needed to express her love right then and there.

“Please, Aunt Kate,” I cried, hoping the people swirling around us didn’t call the cops, likely thinking I was mugging my elderly aunt. “I am wearing a coat. You gave me this coat years ago. I wear it all the time. I love it.”

Which only made it worse. “That old thing,” she cried. “You need a new coat.”

“When we get home,” I promised. “You can give me the coat at home.” And she did. And I wore it. For many years until it fell apart. I knew I was wearing her love and it kept me very warm.

When I lived in Jerusalem, I bought a box of odds and ends from a little shop on Bethlehem Road. They had been cleaning out their back room. They said “We don’t know what’s in here, but you can have it for five dollars.”

I took the box home and began to sort through it. I found tiny carved ivory elephants, amber beads, buttons from dress shirts, old agora and a green, crusted thing I was going to throw out until a friend said “Hey, that’s an old coin.”

I stopped. Looked at it. “How can you tell?” I asked.

“That’s what old coins look like,” she said. “Soak it in lemon juice for a few days and see what happens.”

I soaked it for two weeks and it still looked like a piece of green crusty metal. Finally, using a toothbrush and copper cleaner, I extracted an ancient bronze coin, circa 77, the second year of the First Jewish War Against the Romans. The date was on the coin in old Hebrew script.

I had the coin appraised at the Rockefeller Museum. It was the real deal, but not worth a fortune – maybe a couple of hundred dollars, if I could find a buyer. So I turned it into pendant and wore it on a ribbon. When my mother came to visit, she admired it. Of course I gave it to her. When my mother died, my father gave it back to me, but it disappeared. I suppose it will turn up someday in another box of odds and ends and become someone else’s treasure.

You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something you were going to own it. There was a hideous pottery owl that looked like its eyes were bleeding. Chartreuse with scarlet eye sockets. I was caught staring –and had to say something. It was a masterpiece of sculpting, but the overall effect was gruesome. So I said: “It’s … really interesting.” It was, in a ghastly way.

“It’s yours!” cried my mother. I detected a note of triumph. I still harbor a suspicion she had gotten it from some other family member and was just waiting for the chance to move it along. Tag, I was it.

The ultimate example of family love en passant were the dishes. It was my fault. I started it. I bought them from a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition, all for $30.

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It turned out to be Spode’s Tower. The dishes were old and delicate, so I never used them fearing they’d get broken. They stayed in the closet and gathered dust. Years passed.

One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them. One day, my Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need any more, the days of big dinner parties being long over.

My mother didn’t need such a large set either, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave it back to me and we took it home. She had saved them all those years. Of course, I never used them. I eventually gave them to Owen and Sandy who had the sense to sell them. They knew they would never use them and neither would anyone else.

Love can be wrapped in paper and carefully protected. There is love. There are dishes. And there are memories of my family, carefully stored, ready to be given. To you, if you like.

ROCKS. BOULDERS. LIFE.

A rerun (with editing) from 2013. Shorter. Pithier. No less true.

Asking for help is easy. Getting it may not be.

I don’t mean getting someone to review your post or help you carry a heavy box up the stairs. Those are easy things, no big deal. You’ll happily do such things for anyone, even a stranger … and they for you.

What about when you can’t manage the basic stuff of life on your own anymore? When a bag of groceries is too heavy? When a flight of stairs looms Everest?

Ask you family for help? They’re busy. Maybe they can find a little time around Thanksgiving. Or New Year’s.

“But I need help today!” The silence is deafening.

Growing older has plenty of good, solid reasons for fear. Real issues of being left to the care of unfriendly strangers, unable to manage day-to-day tasks are more than a little scary. There’s nothing psychological about them.

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Everyone would rather not need help. Universally, people prefer self-sufficiency. When that’s no longer an option, the world has a frozen, dark look. It’s not your world any more.

There are boulders in the middle of your life. Immovable. Huge, heavy, solid. Waiting.

ON THE EDGE, OFF THE LEDGE

What keeps me on the edge, but off the ledge? Dogs. Friends. Writing. A new camera and a good lens. A husband who is always a challenge. A movie that makes me laugh.

Speaking of Garry (were we?), he likes to hang around on ledges. He’s an edgy, ledgy kind of guy.

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Me? Not so much. I prefer not to tempt fate. Curiosity keeps me going — and safely off ledges. I want to be around to see whatever is coming next.

Survival is nature’s way of keeping the species going. We survive because. I don’t think we need a reason to follow our instinctive need to be.

As for edginess? “Getting old is not for the faint of heart.” Getting through any day is quite a balancing act.

On the edge …

ALL OUR YESTERDAY’S

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

Whether or not it’s a tale told by an idiot or a slightly less stupid narrator, I doubt there’s an action anyone takes in their life (assuming they’ve made it to adulthood) which is not in some way shaped by past experience. What other point is there is “learning the hard way?”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the hard way seems pretty much the only way. That’s the way my life has gone. If someone has found an easier, less bumpy path to learning how to live, would they please be kind enough to tell me?

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Is your life in shreds? Out of work? Homeless? Hiding from the repo guy? Other half dump you? Bank threatening foreclosure? Don’t take it personally. It’s a joke. Your debacle is life’s way of pointing out how little control you have over your fate.

No weeping. No one likes a cry-baby or wants to hear your sad story. Unless you turn it into a funny story. Then everyone will listen.

The first time my world went to pieces, I walked away from a dead marriage, gave everything to my ex and moved to another country. The joke was on me because I promptly married a guy infinitely worse. After that fell apart, I staggered — bloody, dazed and penniless — back to the USA. When I stopped feeling like I’d gone through a wood chipper, I married Garry, which I should done in the first place. Except he hadn’t asked.

All that seemingly pointless pain and suffering was not for nothing. Stories of hideous mistakes and calamitous outcomes are the stuff of terrific after-dinner conversation. A few drinks can transform them into hilarity. Misery and disaster fuels humor.

Funny movies are not about people having fun. They’re about people in trouble, with everything going wrong, lives in ruins. The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that tragedies usually end with a pile of corpses. Comedies (usually) don’t. Otherwise, it’s just timing and style. Funny stories aren’t funny when they happen. Later they’re funny.

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Our personal traumas are collateral damage in the battle to survive. Mindful of whatever tragedy lurks just over your personal horizon, why not prepare some clever repartee? You can give it a test drive at the next get together with your pals. Something to look forward to.

So no matter how bad things are, not to worry. Black depression will ebb. That crushing weight on your chest will be replaced by a permanent sense of panic you will call “normal.”

Life trudges on. Everyone will point out: “Life doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” You have my permission to whack anyone who says it over the head with something hard and heavy.