Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Childhood Homes (Or, Say What You Need to Say)

The window was too high, so I climbed onto the air conditioning compressor next to the abandoned house. I felt adventurous, though it doesn’t take much at middle-age.

When I peered in the window, I knew I would find the kitchen.

What I didn’t know was how suddenly my insides would tighten and then spring loose, sending a knot of pressure into my throat that took my breath away.

The abandoned house was my house, the one I had grown up in but was forced to leave in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew ripped it apart. I had heard it had since been put back together and occupied by two different owners. Now it was deserted, a torn “Final Eviction” notice still taped to the front door.

Nostalgia is a strong and confusing feeling, even more potent than joy, I believe, and certainly more complex. As I walked around the outside of the house, cursing whoever was responsible for the sunburned grass cracking beneath my sneakers, I peered into all the windows. I felt sad. And angry. My house was so exposed, so naked, so vulnerable. And so dead. I found it hard to believe that anyone had ever lived there, even me.

It was a long time ago that I left that house. It had actually been my parents who stayed there until 1992. That house had stopped being my base years earlier, when I had moved into my own apartment in an attempt to be an adult. But even when the house was not my base, it had always been my anchor.

I peered into my bedroom window, which faced the front of the house, and then turned to look at the white convertible whose engine purred softly in the driveway. It belonged to my childhood friend, Jennifer, whom I had come to visit that day, for the first time in a very long time. Too long.

I had heard the house was “on the market”, though buyers seemed not to be chomping at the bit to pick it up, and Jennifer suggested we drive by to see what I could see. And oh, what I could see.

I saw my purple bedroom walls decorated with a Richard Gere poster alongside my horse paraphernalia. Now those walls were white.

I saw the apple green carpet littered with album covers (Styx’s Paradise Theater, REO Speedwagon’s High Infidelity, Journey’s Escape) as Jennifer and I decided which music to rock to on our sleepover. Now the floor was tiled in beige marble.

I saw my banana-yellow, rotary-style telephone, the one on which I spent countless hours chatting with Jennifer, my other girlfriends, and some of the adolescent loves of my life, all now grown with children who would never know what to do with a rotating phone dial.

As Jennifer sat patiently in her car, the sun beating down on her long wavy hair, she suddenly looked like the sixteen-year-old version of herself instead of the forty-three-year-old mother of teenagers. I realized how much I missed her. I didn’t miss the past. Lord knows – and so does Jennifer – that it wasn’t always pretty. I didn’t even miss that old house so much. I simply missed my friend.

I didn’t say much as I climbed back into the car and allowed Jennifer to take me away from that house, driving me down my street, away from my past. She turned on the radio to a classic rock station, and the song just starting to play was Feels Like the First Time by Foreigner. (I am not making this up; it’s too corny for that.) It was the first rock concert Jennifer and I ever attended, in the now demolished Miami Orange Bowl.

That is when I cried. For what felt like many minutes but was probably less than one, I sobbed for times lost and, more importantly, for missing friendship. Jennifer, to her credit, said nothing while I bawled.

Finally composing myself, I announced very matter-of-factly that she and I had to see each other more often. Jennifer agreed. I then told her that I missed her.

She let out an “Aw”, so obviously trying to hide her own tears that were swiftly being blown away by the summer breeze. “I miss you, too.” Which made me think of a present-day song by John Mayer, who sings that you should say what you need to say.

I’m glad that I did.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On UPS Drivers (Or, The New Stewardesses and Mailmen)

Tanned skin, sexy smiles, lean legs, and such excellent service providers. Those of my parents’ generation might think I was describing airline stewardesses, who were always associated with glamour, sex appeal, and great service in the sky. But as their titles have changed to flight attendants to reflect a more politically correct climate, I dare to propose that their place in American culture has been usurped by those drivers of the brown trucks, in their matching brown collared shirts and coordinated brown shorts. Yes, I am talking about those UPS guys.

The other day, I was looking at a photo of my friend’s son. “He looks nothing like his father,” I commented.

My friend agreed.

“Are you sure your husband is the father?” I teased.

“Well, my baby looks nothing like the mailman,” my friend responded.

“Ah,” I jumped in, “but does he look like the UPS driver?”

She laughed, seeming to share my belief that not only have those hard-working drivers surpassed flight attendants in sex appeal, but perhaps they have also replaced mailmen in their infamy as the cure for the housewife blues.

Before I go any further, I must say that I have never been a victim of such blues, or browns. Nor am I implying that UPS drivers, any more so than other drivers, are busy sleeping with their package recipients.

I also recognize that there are surely female UPS drivers out there, though I haven’t seen any, but I am focusing here on the men because, well, just because it’s fun to be a bit sexist from time to time.

I’ve always noticed, on a subtle level, that UPS drivers seemed to be more handsome than their FedEx counterparts, which makes no statement whatsoever about either carrier’s ability to deliver their goods. But the discrepancy became more blatant to me the other day while sitting at a red light of a major intersection. As I approached my red light, I couldn’t help notice the plethora of UPS trucks. As I drove past one and then another (eventually I counted six, no kidding!), I peeked into the front cabin to see if my theory of the sexy drivers could be proven, rather unscientifically, I realize.

I was not disappointed.

One truck after the other was occupied by a driver so attractive that not even the poop-brown uniform could dull those shiny boys. I wondered what brown could do for me as I drove slowly, appreciating the beauty being presented literally on display. I momentarily questioned UPS’s hiring practices but then turned my thoughts to God. Thank you, I whispered, for creating such beauty on this planet.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, Wendy is nothing more than a middle-aged woman fawning over young men in uniform.

Well, let me tell you that I am no such cliché. I’ve been told that the 40s are the new 20s, which means I am not middle-aged. As for the men in uniform argument, okay, maybe I have a thing for brown. It is a power color, isn’t it?

What really matters here is that whether or not UPS openly hires based on physical attractiveness (which I would never be able to prove, nor is it a legal battle I would tackle), it’s simply nice to know that the next time I order something over the Internet or am due to receive birthday gifts from around the country, I can look forward to having my package – no sexual pun intended – delivered with the utmost care and with a sexy service-with-a-smile driver.

As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go shopping online right now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Happiness (Or, Why Wasn't I Born in Bhutan?)

A few mornings ago on PBS, I saw a program about the small Asian nation of Bhutan, and I was jealous of these people. Admittedly, before watching this show, I could not have told you where on the map this tiny country rested, thinking it lay somewhere in Southeast Asia. In fact, Bhutan is a kingdom nestled in the mountains, bordering southwest China to the north and India to the south. (Nepal is just a hop, a skip, and a jump to the west.)

In this program, I learned about the concept of Gross National Happiness and how this concept relates to Bhutan’s Buddhist philosophy of following the Middle Path. The idea is that too much gluttony does not bring internal happiness. (And obviously, neither does the suffering of poverty.) It is through taking the Middle Path that happiness is achieved. The Bhutanese appear to be in inherently contented people, which is not to imply that they run around smiling and giggling all the time on their happiness high. No, their happiness is just a part of who they are. They are simply happy people.

One Bhutanese man was quoted as saying, “If money is important to you, you have to worry about it being stolen or getting lost. But with happiness you do not have to worry. No one can take it away from you.”

I asked myself how many Americans honestly believe that nobody can take away their happiness. Probably not many. We are quick to blame others for ruining our happiness because our happiness is inextricably tied in with our self-worth, which we naively attach to our monetary or material achievements. If someone steals these from us, we can no longer be happy.

And as I watched the Bhutanese people plowing the earth, dancing their cultural dances, and discussing their views on the state of our planet (not at all coveting thy neighbor, I must say), I envied their successful Gross National Happiness. They live their lives in harmony with their environment instead of plundering it for its material worth, not unlike another native people who once inhabited this beautiful land of ours but were forced to follow the White ways instead of those of Mother Earth.

So I ask, Where did we go wrong? If our way is so wonderful – this freedom and prosperity in which we live – why aren’t I as inherently happy as these literally down-to-earth Bhutanese? Why do I see them with their often crooked teeth (no expensive orthodonture there, I imagine) and their unfashionable clothing and wish that I could feel, for at least one minute, the pure happiness they feel inside?

Perhaps the answer is to follow the Buddhist way as my husband kind of does. (And please don’t ask how one “kind of” follows the Buddhist way. Too many arguments will ensue.) But in this American world in which I live, I don’t feel it would work. I think a life philosophy perhaps only works in an environment that fosters it. And our way of life certainly does not.

As my daughter played next to me with her friend while I watched the television program on Bhutan, I felt sad for her. I wished she could grow up in a world where her heart wouldn’t break if she didn’t get the items on her birthday wish list. I’m sure it’s my fault that she reacts the way she does. But I’m going to pass the buck to my culture for a moment because when all is said and done, it’s painfully difficult to teach a lack of materialism in a culture that so ostentatiously flaunts it in my children’s faces.

Maybe some day I’ll be wealthy enough (there, I said it) to take my children to Bhutan so they can see what other options exist about how to live life. I only pray that, if that day comes, Bhutan will still be immune to the rest of the world’s desire for more. That will make me happy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On Unrequited Love (Or, Why Spin the Bottle Is a Stupid Game)

As an introduction to On 'n On 'n On, I invite you inside my head. It’s not as gross as it sounds. It’s simply a bit of insight into the mindset of a writer, professor, mother, wife, and traveler. Though what I really am is just a girl trapped inside in a woman’s body, leading this life I’ve created and looking around at my world, wondering how it all happened.

I’m constantly observing things that affect my days, from the mundane to the poignant. I’d like to focus on the latter, to start with, as I recount an incident that happened just last week.

I was sitting at my computer, asking the monitor to reveal to me some words of wisdom or whimsy, when I got this response: “I do not want to kiss a boy!”

My eight-year-old daughter shouted this declaration from her bedroom while playing with her best friend. Then I heard screeching, or maybe I should call it squealing, the way happy pigs would sound when about to receive their swill after a day of near starvation.

What were they talking about?

I dared not take a stab at this one. I remember myself at that age, too curious for my own good.

When I was in Kindergarten, I spent most of my recess time chasing the boys and trying to kiss them. (Hint: five-year-old boys love this!)

(Here I am, ready to kiss the boys.) That behavior waned by the first grade and didn’t show its head again until (hold your breath) second grade when I decided that Vincent was going to be my boyfriend. My precocious nature rubbed off on him, and he finally showed me his privates one day while playing at my house. Seeming to already understand that give and take was necessary in any good relationship, I reciprocated, much to my mother’s chagrin.

Vincent was never invited over again.

When Vincent and I were not placed in the same third grade class, our love was officially doomed. Which was actually quite all right with me.

Love did not bother me again until the first day of fourth grade when J.D. stood in front of his seat and introduced himself to the class. I think I actually swooned. Of course, I had no idea I was about to become a victim of unrequited love, the most painful illness to afflict human beings and one that has no prevention or cure.

I spent the fourth grade pining for J.D.’s attention alongside almost every other girl in my class. Apparently, when it came to my taste in men, I was not yet a trailblazer.

In the fifth grade, I was lucky once again to be in J.D.’s class. Lucky enough, that is, to be close to him every day and suffer the heartbreak that came from knowing I was invisible, even when laughing at his jokes and trying to prove my own special talents by flaring my nostrils like a dragon in heat.

Since the object of my affection lived only blocks from my house, we had many friends in common outside of the classroom. I felt slighted one Monday morning while walking to school, when I found out that I had not been invited to play Spin the Bottle with J.D. and the kids on the block.

“Who did he kiss?” I asked my friend Andrea.

“I don’t remember,” she said, turning her eyes away from me in a gesture I now recognize as shame.

“Spin the Bottle’s a stupid game,” I declared.

Andrea said nothing.

Had she kissed him? The idea of my friend kissing the boy I loved was sickening. Even at ten years old, I understood that friends didn’t do that.

In sixth grade, J.D. and I were in different classes. So I spent my last year of elementary school loving him from a distance, which I now realize was God’s way of preparing me for what would happen when that school year ended, when J.D. would move away.

The point of all this is that by the time I had reached the ripe old age of nine, I had already kissed a boy, shown off my privates, and fallen in love. Nowadays, I hear horror stories of children having sex by that age. I tremble to imagine how old little girls are when they first kiss a boy, let alone show him the goods.

And as my daughter and her friend squealed in disgust at the notion of kissing a boy, I was grateful, if not curious. Let them be grossed out all they want. I wish the Ick factor had stuck with me a bit longer. Because when all is said and done, love is a many splendored thing that can also rip up your insides, run them through a shredder, and then stomp on them, just for good measure. My daughter has plenty of time to learn that, and I need time to get myself ready for the Big Fall again. I know that her pain will become my pain. That’s what happens when you love someone that much.

And though I dread to imagine my daughter suffering the insanity that accompanies unrequited love, I pray that some day she will be brave enough to say to love, "Bring it on!" Then she will walk – no, run through that tunnel of love with arms wide open.