Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.

 

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Goodbye Sucks

airport-signEight years of expat (migrant) living has thickened my skin…to an extent. I can generally hold it together at the flag ceremonies and stand un-quivering through a chorus line of hugs. Depending on where on I am on the roller coaster of emotions I find myself riding these days, you’ll find me anywhere from stoic to sniffly, but I’ve gotten adept at saying goodbye.

Despite the increasing alligator hide thickness of my skin however, goodbye always sucks.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my mother and my sister and my in-laws who had all come to celebrate an early holiday with us. My mother and I had the inevitable conversation, the one about our next moves on the chess board of migrant life.

They are questions for which I don’t have an answer. I wish I did, but I don’t.

If I had to hazard a guess, there would be several phone calls between my mother and myself that stand out in her mind:

Hey, Mom, I met a guy!
Hey, Mom! We’re getting married!
Hey, Mom! I’m pregnant!
Hey, Mom! I’m pregnant (again)!

I know the one she is waiting for now, the one which will likely round out her top five:
Hey, Mom! We’re moving back!

air-travel-scenes-from-the-1930s-to-1950s-10

And yet I can’t make that call and I can’t even tell her when I may be dialing it in. There are too may cogs and wheels spinning that are keeping the whole mechanism running to separate out just one and answer it with any certainty. Why am I telling you all of this? Because all of this makes something which sucks on its own suck even harder.

Like I said, goodbye sucks.

They suck on either end, whether you’re staying or going. They suck the life out of you as well. Every time I see my mother (once every six months or so), I am walloped over the head with the fact that she is six months older. Then, as soon as I raise my head from the first blow, I’m blindsided by the fact that my kids are six months older as well. And that everyone will be six months older the next time we are all together.

And if you’ve ever felt the swift passage of time, let me tell you, when you’re only working in six month chunks, it’s like doing the time warp.

Children get older…and less cuddly, less interested in making gingerbread houses with their grandmother or playing a silly game with their auntie. They get older and grow less interested in spending any real time with Granny and Granddad. It hasn’t happened–yet–but doesn’t take too much imagaination to envision a time when it will.

It could be in six months.

Or six months after that.

airportWhenever I say goodbye, after I get over my irrational fears about planes and fireballs and Bermuda Triangle disappearances, the real fears rush in to take their place.

My kids marching toward teenager-hood is an eventuality which supersedes where we live. But…somehow the idea of my headphone adorned teenager ignoring my mother once a month is more palatable than the idea of him ignoring her once every six months. The idea of my little one preferring a computer game over a game of gin rummy with his aunt tugs at my heartstrings a bit more when it’s only twice a year.

Yeah. LIke I said. Goodbyes suck.

 

Pssst…Millennials–Gen X Here. Can We Have a Word?

10e0ca10f66a0b8442b7f31e3a68ebc7Dear Millennials,

I keep reading about your disillusionment with the political process, about your lack of enthusiasm for the candidates you have to choose from.

I get it.

Try, if you will, to cast you mind back to the 80s. We were a generation that came of age at the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis. We were living under a thinly veiled threat of nuclear fallout. The Berlin Wall was still standing. Nancy Regan was consulting her astrologist and pleading with us to “JUST SAY NO!”

1988 was the first year I was eligible to vote. My choices for president? George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. I can already hear you asking, Michael Who-what-is?? Yeah, I wasn’t very excited either. Neither was the rest of the country. Bush won handily.

I thought the whole country was going to hell during the first Bush administration. I worried the draft would be reinstated, I worried my male friends would be shipped off to the Middle East to fight a war none of us believed in. I was convinced of a lot of things.

Many of us were disgusted with the government. We protested the war. We marched on Washington for reproductive rights. We marched in NYC to take back the night.

It didn’t do any good. No one was listening. And so we started to distrust the system. The same way the flower children started to distrust the system during Vietnam. The same way some of you do now.

I get it.

For all our quaint John Hughes movies and bad hairstyles, all our James Spader rich boy sneering, we were you once upon thirty years ago. Faced with political choices that fell flat. Trust me. It was really hard get excited about Dukakis.

polbhem1fed-bldg-sit-in-1991

Gen X wasn’t all Duran Duran and parachute pants. There was a momentum. There were movements. LGBTQ rights were on the horizon, women in shoulder pads were, if not busting into boardrooms, then knocking at the door. There was fire and crackle and sizzle. Rage at the fuddy-duddy process. Demands for faster progress.

So what happened? In the most boring predictable of clichés, we grew up. The economy boomed. We fell in love. Got jobs. September 11 came along and upended the way we viewed the world. Kids were born, parents died. We got divorced, remarried. Lost jobs. Battled cancer. You know, life.

Life happened. And on that spectrum of life you realize things aren’t always as cut and dry as they seem.

I read about the fire in your belly paired with a sense of  helplessness, the feeling no one is listening to your (mostly spot-on, legitimate) demands. Here’s the thing: That feeling’s not new. I think the folks who write these articles forget what it’s like to be in that 18-25 year-old age bracket. Or perhaps they just haven’t left the bracket yet themselves.

But, damn you guys! You have ushered in an era where it is not only easier for LGBTQ youth to come out, but one which supports them, both socially and legally. Don’t think that’s big deal? Go check out those John Hughes movies Generation X are so fond of. There aren’t any gay characters in them. That is a seismic cultural shift. You showed the country there was room in The Breakfast Club for the “gay one” as well.

You did that.

You live in a world where you don’t understand why it’s such a big deal that a woman is on the top of the Presidential ticket. The year some of you were born I sat in stunned silence as Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. And then watched as Congress approved him for the Supreme Court of the United States anyway. Yeah, we’ve still got a long way to go on that one, but we need your help.

Your detractors call you lazy, entitled, apathetic. I think you haven’t had time to live yet.

Life is experience and experience is nuance. You get older and you live longer and you realize, quite clearly, there are terrible things out there in the world. As a young adult there is love. There is war. There is right. There is wrong. There are clear lines in the sand. And that is as it should be. You need that clarity, that focus. If at eighteen you realized how many different ways you could be truly fucked, you’d never get out of bed. We’d lose an entire generation.

You may look at us, slightly pudgy and graying, comfortable shoes reminiscing about our youth and think the fire’s gone out. But the thing about fire is that if you can’t control it, it burns the whole place down, the good with the bad. The trick is learning how to tame the flames enough to make them useful.

I guess what I am saying is don’t give up. You have the elasticity to bounce back. We may be living life with our slightly less radical and slightly more centrist ideas, with our boring policy talk, doing things the only way we know how. But you? You have the opportunity to live the lives never offered us. Use that gift to tame the flames in a way to make them work for you.

act-up-phila-on-broad-stI know you won’t listen. I know because I wouldn’t have when I was eighteen, nineteen. I would have looked at the middle-aged person trying to give me advice as a relic of the past. A pudgy fossil on their way to Shady Pines.

I’ll say it anyway. Don’t throw a bucket of cold water on your fire because it’s not burning in the direction you hoped.

You can’t fake experience. You have to live it. So sure, we may seem stodgy and middle-aged now. It may look like we sold out, became complacent, gave up. But really we’re just getting ready to pass the baton.

It’s up to you to run with it. Don’t sit down on the track before you even start.

Love,
Generation X

Fade to Pink

older-womenOver the summer, I watched my mother get ready to go out with friends. She stood in front of me, smoothing her top, and asked if she looked all right.

She looked fine.

(By fine I mean eh.)

“Come on,” I said. I pulled out a hot-pink blouse hanging in her closet. We dug out some chunky, turquoise jewelry, pulled out a pair of strappy sandals and voila. My mother recently let her hair grow out to a beautiful silvery white and it looked gorgeous against the pink.

“It’s not too…much?” she asked.

“Fuck it, Ma,” (how I love being an adult with my mother—which inevitably involves many four letter words–and booze), “you’re seventy-one. Now’s not the time to fade into the background.”

I wasn’t saying it to appease her, I really meant it. She smiled and then, in an act reminiscent of my kids, spilled something down the front of her blouse. Luckily we found a sunshine yellow one to take its place.

Women are expected, after a certain age, to gently fade into the background without muss or fuss. It’s generally assumed that somewhere between child bearing age and death we should gracefully make room for the next generation of young women who are, presumably, pea-cocking and preening in order to attract a mate.

whenn-im-an-old-woman

Screw that.

I shall not fade gently into that good wall. No thanks.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire, intention, or even capability of attracting attention of the sexual kind. Far from it. In fact, on a night out with a group of women recently, I realized with relief that I have reached an age where I could legitimately be the mother of some of those young men. And not like a teen mom either. Far from filling me with dread, I felt a tremendous sense of freedom, because even though I’ve never defined myself by my sexual attractiveness quotient, let’s face it–I live in the real world and I’m not a cyborg. But just because I’m not interested in attracting sexual attention doesn’t mean I am going to suddenly embrace beige and fade into wall-flower status.

(A note to the young women on the dance floor suspiciously eyeing a group of slightly drunk mothers happily grinding to Justin Timberlake: Rest assured, we’re not competing for the attention of your male peers. Most of us have kids up our asses all day long, the last thing we want is someone else hanging around near there. The idea that a group of mothers on a night out are after anything more than a few glasses of wine and not having to put their kids to bed is….well, hilarious, really.)

The older I get, the louder I get, in volume, opinion, and color. Over the past five or seven years, a swath of hot pink has insinuated itself into my wardrobe and lifestyle. My cell phone was pink. My Danish bike is bright, hot pink. Hell, I even dyed chunks of my hair hot pink last year.

Think about that for a moment. Instead of letting my hair fade to gray, I dyed it hot pink.

Hot pink is not ultra feminine or soft. It’s kind of in your face. I’m old enough to realize I am not ultra feminine though I gleefully embrace certain aspects of femininity. I’m not particularly soft either (unless it’s orphans, then marshmallow soft). I guess I am kind of in your face though.

If the maiden phase of a female is all about sexual attraction and the mother is about softness, then the path to crone is definitely paved with, Oh, hell no.

I’m not advocating if you’re over forty you should go out and drown yourself in hot pink. I’m not opining that you should march into your hairdresser and demand blue streaks in your hair. I’m saying don’t hide yourself away. Don’t assume you have reached a point in life where all you can do is fade away until you blend into the concrete.

I don’t know about you but I have a LOT left to say.

So buy the sequins if you love them. Buy the sparkle. Buy the stilettos or the mini-skirt if you want. Buy the bikini and the screaming orange scarf. Swathe yourself in color. Dye your hair fuchsia. Or don’t. Do what makes you feel good, not what some market researcher tells you you should be doing. Don’t be afraid to call attention to yourself. You still have a lot left to give and do and say.

Don’t buy into the fact that after a certain age we have nothing left to offer just because our breasts are headed south and our asses are starting to sag. Don’t fade into the background. Sing, dance to Justin Timberlake, wear bright colors. Live.

advanced-style-ladiesWhen my mother came home from her lunch I asked if anyone commented on her outfit.

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe how many compliments I got!” she beamed.

At seventy-one, my mother’s got plenty of brightness left.

At forty-six, I’m just starting to realize how much I have.

Screw fading to gray. I’m fading to pink.