Friday, August 31, 2012

The simplest summer fun

The timeless truth of summer vacation is that sometimes the simplest parts are the best.
Yesterday, the kids and I spent the afternoon playing games in our driveway. First we played Frisbee; then badminton; then ladder ball; and we put all the games away only because it got to be 4:30 and I still needed to go grocery shopping.

It was a fairly notable contrast to other events this summer, days we’ve traveled farther, taken part in somewhat more exotic endeavors, and certainly spent a lot more money. And yet it was just as much fun.
For the most part, this summer has kept us relatively close to home, but we’ve still fit in a decent amount of variety in our activities. We’ve gone miniature golfing. We’ve taken several beach trips. We’ve put in lots of boating hours. We’ve swum in a local pond and in the backyard pools of various friends and relatives. There were birthday parties and graduation parties. We took a canal tour in Lowell. We took part in an all-you-can-eat ice cream tasting in Maine, and watched fireworks over the harbor on the Fourth of July. We attended a few minor league baseball games. We spent a day at the Museum of Science in Boston. We visited art exhibits in Lincoln, Concord and Lexington. And we spent a week exploring Disney World, with its myriad wonders and peculiarities, from Cinderella impersonators to roller coaster rides.
And all of it was a lot of fun. But so was yesterday. We were busy with various things indoors all morning; after lunch I told the kids it was imperative that we find some kind of outdoor activity that we all wanted to do. I suggested swimming at the nearby pond where we have a summer membership, or walking through the woods to the ice cream stand.
They preferred Frisbee. And badminton. And ladder ball. In the driveway.
So that was how we spent the afternoon. Not exotic fun, and not a lot of cultural immersion or exploration of nature involved. Just traditional backyard games, on one of the last days before summer vacation ends and school begins.
Yesterday afternoon probably won’t make it into any “What I did over my summer vacation” essays, other than this one. It was trivial. It was mundane.
But sometimes those are exactly the characteristics of summer fun. Yesterday, anyway. I’ll remember the afternoon of games in the yard, even if the kids might not. But my guess is that they’ll remember it too. Maybe not to brag to their friends about. But maybe when they’re my age and looking for something fun to do with their own children, they’ll remember Frisbee. And badminton. And ladder ball. And simple ways to have fun on an August afternoon.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Home from away

The greatest sense of anticipation I've ever felt about returning from a vacation was after our honeymoon. We had a fun and memorable visit to Margarita Island, but it was strictly a do-it-yourself kind of escape – we were staying at an isolated villa; research before we left had yielded very little information about the surrounding area; and since this was pre-Internet, we spent a large percentage of our time there scouring maps and trying to figure out what was worth seeing and how to get to it. By the time I buckled my seat belt for the flight home, all I was thinking about was the kitchen full of new appliances and accessories given to us as wedding gifts that I couldn't wait to start using.

I'm a little bit sorry to say that my sense of eager anticipation about returning home from travels has steadily decreased over the years. I still love my coffee grinder and my stand mixer, not to mention my home itself, and our community, and our many friends who live nearby, but it seems the more time passes, the more obligations await me upon the return from any trip: work assignments, kids' activities, household tasks.

Yes, I missed my own home-brewed coffee and sleeping in our own bed. I missed the dog too. But it was also so great to get away. A week at Disney World isn't everyone's dream, and truth be told, it isn't really Rick's and mine either: we did it because Holly insisted if we were going to plan a family vacation anyway, this was the destination she most wanted to experience. On some level, we adults went just to cross it off the list so that we could go somewhere else next time.

But these days there are always things I'm happy to escape from at home. No dishes to wash when we're staying at a resort. No activities to plan when you're at Disney World. No meals to host or events to organize. We were truly at leisure.

Now we've been back for twenty-four hours and it's re-entry time. I have existing assignments to finish and new ones to start. The kids and I need to go shopping for school supplies. They have doctor's appointments before school begins in two weeks, and I have at least three household projects I really wanted to complete before the summer was over.

Not surprisingly, it's good to go away and good in other ways to return. I still remember what it was like to walk into my childhood home after one of the month-long trips out west that we used to take every summer while I was growing up. In the August humidity, the house smelled dank, but there was something exciting about it as well: it was a smell reminding me that summer was ending and new things were about to begin.

Every house that has been closed up for a week in August has its own distinctive smell. Arriving home from the airport yesterday, we were quick to open windows and turn on fans, but I was still happy to take a moment to absorb the home-from-summer-vacation smell of the house. I may not be quite as excited about meal-planning or organizing the placemat drawer as I was when I returned from my honeymoon, but fall still means that new things are about to begin. I have about a week to re-organize, and then a new season gets under way. It's good to be home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

It's not fair

We don’t deserve a trip to Disney World. None of the four of us has done anything particularly exemplary this year. Rick and I have performed reasonably well at our paid employment, taken as good care of the children as we know how, and devoted time to our friends and families, but we haven’t done anything to merit a luxury like a week at the world’s most popular theme park.

Objectively, neither have the kids. They’ve been helpful around the house and kind to each other, their friends and relatives, but they haven’t done anything much more than what it’s fair to expect of a ten- and thirteen-year-old.
We haven’t donated an organ or contributed hours to a charity. We haven’t sacrificed for the benefit of those in need. The most generous thing I can remember doing in the past few weeks is making it a habit to let people cut into traffic ahead of me when I’m on a busy road.
Our record of stewardship to the earth isn’t any more impressive. We recycle cardboard and plastic, but we haven’t given up our automobile. Truth be told, we don’t even compost, because I so despise the fruit flies that abound in the kitchens of all the composting households I know.
We’ve done nothing that merits a week in Disney World.

And yet as I write this, we’re on a flight southbound to Orlando. Just because we can. Because money for airline tickets and theme park admission was sitting in our checking account. Because we think it’s fun to go on family vacations. Because we both have jobs at which we’ll still be welcomed back even if we leave for a week.

I had a lot of work to do before we left town earlier this week, but the hardest task was writing a friend’s obituary. She entered hospice care in mid-July, and her husband called me during a rainstorm last Sunday. “It seems now that our time left is in days, not weeks,” he told me. Silent on my end of the line, I noted his use of the plural first person. Really it was only one member of their family whose remaining time on earth was probably down to days rather than weeks or even years: he and his two daughters were in fine health. But from where he stood, the plural first person simply made sense: facing the loss of wife and mother, it may as well have been all of them whose time was down to days.

“I want to ask you a favor,” he went on.”I’m going to need an obituary. Would you be willing to write one?

Of course I would, I told him. I started writing, and twenty-four hours later, I received notice that my friend was gone.

The day before we left for vacation, I had a lot to do, as mothers always have before leaving for vacation. Laundry. Packing. Cleaning out the fridge. Bringing the dog to my parents’ house. Paying a few bills.

Plus completing my friend’s obituary, and sending it to the local newspaper. The time of her memorial service had been set; there was no need to wait any longer to finish it.

So I completed it, and her husband – in what is surely the most heartbreaking compliment I’ve ever received in my career as a writer – thanked me profusely for writing so well about his deceased wife.

Less than twelve hours later, we left for the airport.

We don’t deserve this vacation. Our friends don’t deserve their immeasurable grief. Books have been written and sermons delivered on why bad things happen to good people; en route to Florida, I muse over why good things – like this trip – happen to strictly mediocre people.

I don’t know. It is perhaps the abiding mystery of the universe, to my mind. In an interview with the 47-year-old writer and actor David Rakoff just a few months before his death from cancer, Terry Gross asked her subject if he ever asked “Why me” about the second bout of cancer he was then undergoing.

“No, I never ask ‘Why me,’” he answered. “Because the only answer to ‘Why me?’ is ‘Why not you?’”

Why them? Why not us? Why are we going to Florida while they’re preparing for a memorial service?

Like all kids, my two sometimes whine “it’s not fair.” I’ve heard a lot of adults answer that timeless plaint with “Life isn’t fair,” but that’s not what I tell my kids. To their occasional laments, I say, “You want things to be fair? Be prepared to give up an awful, awful lot.”

We don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve that. And I don’t have any answers as to why. Not for us, not for them, not for anyone.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Neither grandmother could cook -- but nostalgia for their kitchens strikes anyway

Earlier this summer, the Boston Globe Magazine ran a piece in which a middle-aged writer reminisced about her grandmother's cooking.

At first I skimmed right past the essay. Sentimental pieces about someone's grandmother's cooking never resonate much with me. One of my grandmothers resisted cooking at all costs – and “costs” may indeed be the right word, since instead of cooking she employed kitchen staff and had a storeroom full of designer canned goods for when the staff had a night off – and the other grandmother seemed to like cooking just fine but never noticed how utterly dismal her results were.

So when I hear anyone waxing nostalgic over grandmotherly recipes or cooking techniques or kitchen aromas, I usually just pause for a moment of gratitude that as sorry as I may be that my grandmothers are no longer on this earth, at least I don't have to eat anything they've prepared anymore.

But once in a while, some long-lost sensory memory makes me think maybe I'm being a little short-sighted in my dismissiveness. Although there are no recipes from my grandmothers that I crave – in fact there are none I've even kept copies of – when I try, I can come up with a few specialties of theirs that I miss.

My father's mother used to make coconut squares – treacly and heavy, but memorable – and noodle dishes and scalloped potatoes and brownies studded with mint chocolate chips. Just writing the list reminds me of how I always left their house after a family dinner feeling moderately nauseated, but as an adult with a broader awareness of nutrition, I can see why: that's how anyone would feel after a meal of noodles, potatoes, fatty meat and baked goods.

My other grandmother sometimes made tuna salad, not so much as a way of fussing over her grandchildren but to entertain the tennis-playing luncheon guests she hosted throughout the summer months. My sisters and I still sometimes giggle over her famous saying, “Make tuna salad only if the guests are all ladies. Men do not like salad.” This was the late 1970s, and most of the messages imparted to us about the genders involved very politically correct insistence that there was no difference whatsoever between them, so we found it endlessly amusing that she worried about serving tuna salad to men, though now I have to admit that she was basically right.

Still, as much as I might eschew their culinary talents, the smell of black coffee is what reminds me most of both grandmothers' kitchens. When I turn the coffee maker on in the morning, I can see my maternal grandmother in her bathrobe, toasting rye bread and spreading it with jam before pouring coffee into a pretty china cup. And the same smell reminds me of my paternal grandparents' lakeside vacation home, where coming from the guest house to the main house for breakfast was a much-anticipated and proudly executed act of burgeoning independence for a child of four or five.

So unlike the essayist and the many letter writers who have responded since the piece ran, I don't miss either grandmother's cooking. But that's not to say I never miss my grandmothers. I remember them drinking coffee, and cooking badly or not at all, and it reminds me that there are all different kinds of ways to feel nostalgia.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Friendships after 30 -- not so challenging, at least around here

I thought this recent feature from the New York Times about how it’s more difficult to make friends after age 30 or so was interesting, and I enjoyed hearing the author of the article discuss the same topic on NPR’s Talk of the Nation a few days later, but the more I mull it over, the more I realize my experience is the opposite of his. I had wonderful friends in high school and college, but I have a lot more friends now, and the whole friendship thing seems easier somehow.

The New York Times staffer who wrote the story, Alex Williams, highlights two reasons he believes people over 30 make fewer friends. First of all, he says, there’s the time factor: he met a guy he got along with beautifully (a meeting that was apparently the inspiration for the article), but in the four years that followed, they managed to get together only four more times. It’s really hard to find time to cultivate friendships, in his eyes.

Also, he says that there are so many more players involved in developing a friendship at his age. He meets a guy whom he is certain he would have hung out with if they were in college together, but to spend time developing a friendship as over-30’s, the two men would have to determine that their wives and children all get along as well.

Though his explanations are well articulated and plausible, I’m glad that’s not the case for me. I feel like I have a much wider range of friends now than I did in my 20’s, and I think the primary reason is simply that our lives are more settled and everyone isn’t going off in so many different directions at once. When I was younger, it seemed that everyone I knew was developing a career, fitting in as much exotic travel as they could before the commitments of parenthood hit, and even devoting their non-travel leisure time to a rigorous schedule of small-scale adventures like training for a marathon, writing a screenplay, or applying to graduate school.

The fact is that now we’re all a little more boring. We’re all okay with beer and hamburgers on a Saturday afternoon rather than organizing a whitewater rafting excursion, and we’re all happy to stay close to home, so an invitation to a backyard barbeque from friends across town is suddenly more appealing than a weekend in New York City.

But it’s not just that we’re lazy or sedentary. Whereas Alex Williams feels that being a parent makes it more challenging to develop friendships, this is another aspect in which my experience has been the opposite of his. My children’s friends offer a wealth of social opportunities to my husband and me, and again, it’s about trading adventure for contentedness. If our kids get along with their kids, we’re perfectly happy to get together for pizza with another family even if the other couple might have found us too provincial or we might have found them too politically conservative back when we were all younger. Having children who play happily together is a major form of currency in our friendship circles these days.

Still, I don’t want to make it sound like this is about bonding with other parents merely out of playground boredom. Lots of the friends I’ve made in the past five years or so aren’t connected to me through my kids at all. One recent friendship was formed because a neighbor and I discovered we both walked to the post office at the same time most days. Other friends have come from church, volunteer groups or the poetry section at the library. What makes the most difference, it seems to me, is that we live in a small town. Once you’ve decided you like someone, it’s easy to run into them all the time.

Unfortunately, the converse seems to be true as well: I’ve made so many new friends by virtue of proximity, whether we meet up at Little League games, local campaign drives or our town’s Farmers Market, and yet as these friendships strengthen, I realize how difficult it is to maintain friendships long-distance. Some of my best friends from high school seem simply too far away to stay in touch with regularly. Even the casual friendship of our twenties, whereby it seemed sustainable to see another couple two or three times a year and to always drive a half-hour or more to get together, have pretty much fallen by the wayside.

I hope Alex Williams finds this to be true eventually as well. I’m guessing he’ll make plenty of friends in the upcoming years. Spend enough time watching the same kids frolic in the same ball pit at the same birthday parties and suddenly these people seem like your bosom buddies. And as for my high school friends, I’m just hoping some of them will move here eventually as well.