Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Captain Von Trapp and Maria

I think I first saw The Sound of Music when I was about eight years old.  I remember my grandparents cramming into the car with our family of five to make the Sunday afternoon sojourn into Vancouver for a matinee performance.  Understanding that my parents are of German/Mennonite extraction and they, too, had to vacate their homeland during World War II due to their religious convictions and pacifism, this was a particularly poignant cinematic experience for the grandparents and parents alike.

For me, on the other hand, it was akin to an awakening of religious proportions.  In one fell swoop, that movie answered all my questions about what I would do with my life and how I would do it. I was destined to be a nun (in spite of not being Catholic), meet an ornery yet dashing sea captain (it's good to have a little challenge and I felt sure (and still do) he would be mightily effective in the romance department ), and give up my religious fervor and serenity for a family of seven difficult children and the riches of the von Trapp fortune.  Surely I could reinact this scenario in my own life!

The funny thing is: I know I am not alone.  What is it about the charming Maria with her pitch-perfect voice, pixie hair and waist the size of a pin? Who wouldn't want to wear a dirndl and run through the Alps lugging a guitar?  Honestly, even now, I still find attraction in that lifestyle and that ectomorph frame of Maria's.

The closest I've come to a dirndl: at my sis' wedding!

Over the years, I have had many close encounters with the cloistered life.  During my early university years in Vancouver and then much later during my post graduate studies in Minnesota, I would find myself in nunneries or monastaries for weekends at a time, using it not so much as a time of meditation, but a time to cram, to write, to focus without distraction.  I found that the hours I spent in my simple rooms, eating in silence with other guests in echoing dining chambers, were not only my most productive times, but some of the most peaceful times I have experienced in my life.  There was nothing to do but what was in front of me so I did it.  (And when I didn't want to do it, I slept.  A lot.)  I always came home refreshed, accomplished and full of zest and energy.

I'm sure Maria must have felt that way too, and that was why she had to run around in the Alps so much, missing her chapel time (though never her meal time) and, why, ultimately, she had to leave the abbey.  Her abundant energy was more than those sisters could handle and so off she went, straight into the arms of the dashing Captain von Trapp.

And what titillating guilt she must have gone through as she fell in love with this stern man!  Who WOULDN'T want that kind of guilt on their hands? Oh, Maria, to have to choose between man or God when the man is a god-of-a-man...

Of course, after the marriage in the cathedral, the Nazis coming to get them, and the trek over the alps to freedom, the gild was off the rose somewhat, but the build-up, the waltzing, the do-re-me-ing was so enticing that one felt ready to take on those Nazis what with the new clothes made out of curtains, the blush of first lust, and the clarion voices of the family singing Edelweiss rising in crescendo as Rolph and his crew plotted the family's capture.  Who wouldn't be willing to scale the Alps in nothing but an Austrian dirndl and some sturdy shoes in the name of love?

So, yes, I have on occasions in my life pined for both the cloistered life and the unseemly unraveling of it as well, and I have had a wee bit of success on both counts.  I'm no Maria (though it is my middle name), but her story has certainly influenced my own life plot in quite a few ways.

My girls are still a bit frightened by the movie itself, but they're suckers for the soundtrack.  One of our favourite things to do on the way to or from school is to blast the songs from the car stereo and sing them at full pitch.  Charlotte wants to drink her first champagne before she goes to bed many nights and Emily is six(teen) going on seven(teen) and already the fellows are falling in line...

Honestly, I'm pretty darn happy being Leah Marie, but my new start might need to involve dirndls and calling my sweetheart captain on occasion.  Or maybe we just need five more children to round it out to an even seven.  I don't think I'm cut out to be a nun (the habit would hide all my best assets), but a bit more of a contemplative life could be calling me.  A trip to Vienna wouldn't hurt, either.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

In Praise of the Mundane and Trivial

There is so much sadness in the world that sandwiches me in, that I need to take a break from it all, in the same way that I need the occasional junk food overdose to balance out my healthy diet.

I used to be a news junky and I like to consider myself a "global citizen" so it's important for me to be informed, but it easily gets to be too much too fast.  These days I prefer to get my sound bytes from Comedy Central along with a quick perusal of the paper at work and CNN in the background while I'm getting dressed in the morning.  Oh, and the constant streaming of NPR that my sweetheart has tinging the background of our daily lives with intelligent commentary and the occasional pledge drive.

The reason I love a bit of celebrity gossip or an episode or two of the Kardashians along with some of my favorite podcasts like The Satellite Sisters, Pop My Culture, The Chaos Chronicles and How Was Your Week? is because life needs some levity.  There's enough horror to have us all overdosing or throwing ourselves in front of the nearest train, but when we allow a bit of humor or fashion or silliness into all that intensity, it just lets us breathe a bit again.  And laugh.  Laughter is highly underrated.

Just yesterday, I was doing some standardized test practice with my students (Ugh!), and we came across a word problem that we needed to deconstruct for mathematical reasons.  I can only assume the statistics they used were not made up: they stated that the average child laughs 400 times a day and the average adult just 20.  Because I work with children I would say I laugh at least 10 times as much as the average adult, but that still puts me at half of the amount children do.  I hope that statistic is seriously skewed, but I fear it may not be.

My personal manifesto (simple as it is) is to practice kindness and to have fun.  The kindness part comes out in my interactions and reactions with people and the way I choose to live.  The fun part is the gravy that coats the kind life I try to live.  Therefore, I try to laugh a lot and very often I laugh when I am in active pursuit of the mundane and trivial.

I won't be so far as to say that reading US Weekly or watching 30 ROCK is a form of meditation, but it most certainly is a form of relaxation and escape that allows the thinking me to rest a bit and just be the receptacle for a bit of (hopefully) harmless nonsense.  Everybody's version of fun is different, but in between the massive (yet happy) responsibilities of life, my solitary fun interludes are likely to include:

  • crosswords
  • realistic fiction with wit (Amy Bloom is my next author I'll be downloading on to my Kindle)
  • all magazines of a celebrity, inspiring or fashion bent (though PEOPLE is a bit too "geriatric" for me: I want celebs and celebs only, not "real-life" people - it's too real-life for me!)
  • facebook (I'm surprised and not happy with the amount of time I spend on it, but there you go.  I'm not judging myself today.)
  • E TV (Again: not proud)
  • jigsaw puzzles with my family humming in the background (not literally, of course: I don't pay them to entertain me while I interlock pieces)
  • the bathtub (along with many of the above-mentioned pleasures, though not the jigsaws)

Out of pride, I need to say that I do engage in cerebral pursuits: it's just not what this blog is about.  I'll save my intelligent meanderings and hobbies for another blog.

In the meantime, have a happy, fun Sunday, folks, and make sure your interludes are full of trivial pursuits that give you pleasure!  That's my new and ongoing start for this day!  (And as I write this on my lapdesk propped up in bed by my plethora of down pillows, I am in quick reach of my Vanity Fair, a new Zadie Smith novel, my New York Times Sunday puzzle and a cup of joe.  Ah, happiness in the confines of my bed.  What could be better?)

Beds are the best!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Gift Time? Make Your Man a List!

I have the best guy in the world as a husband, and while he shines like the sun in almost all categories, he has not always been famous for being the best of gift-givers.  Amazingly, I have heard similar complaints from other women about their significant others.  While being careful not to make massive generalizations, I think I have had enough conversations over cocktails with women to say that many men could use AND WANT some help in the gift-giving arena.  Am I right?

A friend of mine recently told me that her then-boyfriend, now-stellar husband (and he REALLY is a wonderful man), wrote her into his will as a make-up gift when he failed to deliver in the gift department for her birthday.  Really?  He sincerely believed this was a romantic gesture.  Generous?  Perhaps. Romantic?  Not so much.

I know you've heard it before, but I'll say it again.  Be specific!  If you want something done (and you're not prepared to do it yourself), let your partner know exactly what you want.  If you want to be surprised, then provide a list with plenty of options and update it regularly.  You can even have a "plant" in the form of a mutual friend who can say something like, "Here are some things I think ______ might like.  I thought you might want to know since her birthday/Christmas/Mother's Day/Insert Occasion Here is coming up."

Another massive generalization?  Men do not analyze comments like this in the same way that women might. Believe it or not, they might take them at face value, not suspect a thing, and be pleased that they are now armed with the list they need to go shopping, get on the internet, or call in the catering crew and travel consultants, all the while believing they have come up with these gems out of their own genius minds.

I just heard last week of a woman who has her "wish list" on Amazon and her husband needs only to go and check in order to fulfill her desires.  She mentioned it off handedly years ago, and he's been using it ever since in his gift buying for her.  They've never ever talked about it, yet everyone is happy.  I'm thinking I may do the same.

I just have an ongoing list that I keep in the back of my date book.  When my darling asks me what my deepest desires are, I just invite him to peruse my "things I want" page.  I've  had great gifts ever since.  (I have super cool Prada sunglasses and a Coach handbag, among other lovely accoutrements, none of which I would ever have dared to buy for myself, but were easy enough to write down on a piece of lined paper.)  Big. Small.  I list them all.

Me in my Pradas.  Super-cool, right?

Meantime, if you need some help to get started on making a list of what you want your partner to do for you, feel free to cut and paste my list and add and delete to suit your own agenda/tastes.  Then leave it lying around for your sweetheart to "accidentally" find.  Or better yet: just hand it to him and say, "Here.  I know you have no idea how I tick and what it will take to make me happy.  Take your pick."  I promise: he'll love you for it!

The following is a list I like my sweetie to refer to regularly so the love can keep in coming, "just because," not because of any particular event.  

List of "Surprise Me Anytime" Leah Desires:

  • Share a bottle of wine down on our village beach
  • Anytime flowers (that aren’t from the grocery store and don't involve carnations or baby's breath)
  • Magazines or books specially chosen (from my wishlist on Amazon)
  • A sprig or flower randomly plucked and given whilst strolling together
  • A voucher for a massage 
  • A breakfast on the balcony off the bedroom with coffee and mags and cinnamon toast and berries
  • A surprise cocktail 
  • Setting up a movie or tv show to watch together/pop the corn – make it a surprise
  • A cup of Earl Grey tea with sugar and lemon suddenly showing up beside me and my computer
  • A special card with your own sentiment/poem in it
  • Take me to some new place we haven't been before and make it a surprise instead of me always choosing (even though most of the time I DO want to)

Am I high maintenance?  You bet!  Am I worth it?  You'll have to ask my guy, but I'm guessing he'll say yes.  Here's hoping...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Is anyone dead? Is anyone missing a limb?

My daughter is stretched out on the bed beside me reading Ramona Quimby Age 8, a classic for the ages.  The lamps are glowing.  I hear my husband and other daughter pottering downstairs and Bill Clinton's speech from the Democratic National Convention being replayed on Youtube.

I feel hopeful tonight.  I feel hopeful that people are decent.  I feel hopeful that we can take care of others and ourselves through kindness, willingness to compromise, through being present with people and really learning to listen to each other.  To our children.  To our colleagues.  To our so-called enemies.

Expending energy on "what if's" and "why don't they justs" is so not worth it.  Everything is what it is.  We are where we are.  Of course, that's easy for me to say today.  I ate fresh bread for supper, I am cozily curled up on my new Ikea chair with a daughter who loves reading by my side, my back is pain-free and my pants are actually a bit loose.  What's more, I am conscious of my breaths, I am relaxed, I am at peace.

My life is a frenzy.  I could go twenty-four hours, and I could certainly think of plenty of problems that I have, but why?  Why focus on that?

I'll never forget the day we missed our flight from Hawaii back to the US for our summer break.  We were living in China, had just completed the adoption of our second daughter, and we had to (what a travail!) spend several days in Hawaii on the way back to the States in order to apply for their American citizenship.  In between all the paper work, we somehow managed to have a fun-filled time on that island where the sky was blue, the ocean was warm and everywhere we went, people smiled at our lovely, new family that we were (and are) so mightily proud of.

Perhaps in all the euphoria or cacophony of being a new parent, I somehow mis-shelved in that usually-tightly organized mind of mine, the time in which we were meant to depart for Seattle.  My memory was we left at two o'clock in the afternoon so at nine that morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I went to double check our flight and see that it was on time.  My reaction was unmitigated panic upon seeing our scheduled flight was boarding the very time I was checking the internet!

I went into overdrive and started pulling out all the stops to see what could be done.  Nothing.  No help.  Nada.  The next available flight was next week.  We would have to pay full price for new tickets and the summer season was in high swing.  There would be a penalty for not arriving at the flight.  Our check out time was in two hours and there was no room left in Hawaii for under 300 dollars a night that we could find.

After the overdrive, came the tears, and then came the resignation.  I took full responsibility for the mistake and with quiet certitude I told Don to pack the bags and be ready to go at a moment's notice.  I took a taxi to the airport and allowed the wiser side of me to talk the hysterical side of me down.  By the time I entered the airport I was breathing easier, though unhappy with the certitude that we would be spending our year's savings on another week in Hawaii and another set of four tickets.  (Oh, the other news was that we would NOT be able to use our return ticket back to China since we hadn't appeared for the first of the two flights.  Ouch.)

I lined up in the "people with problems" aisle, which was surprisingly short given the state of airline travel these days, and listened to people yell and threaten and harass the man behind the counter.  I was impressed that he took everything in stride, dealt with everyone efficiently and kindly, and people left, one by one, as if hypnotized into a state of calm servitude.

When my time came, I stepped up to the counter, took a deep breath, and broke into a flood of Niagra-like tears that I had no idea were coming.  When I came up for air, the gentlemen stepped in:

"May I ask you two questions, ma'am?"

I nodded in between my heaving sobs and kerfuffling.

"Is anyone dead?"

I took a massive blow into an-already used up tissue and resorted to the sleeve of my shirt for my undignified response.

"No," I heaved.

"Good, then.  Question two: has anyone lost a limb?"

I let out a small guffaw.  "No, sir."

"There you go, then. Let's start from there, shall we?"

I managed to pull myself together and recount my story.  He listened intently, taking notes and "uh-huhing" at all the right places.

"I have a third question."


"Are you packed?"

"Pretty close."

"Fourth question: can your husband and two daughters get themselves here within the next hour and a half."

"I think so," I snuffled.

"Last question."


"Are you prepared to stop on three Hawaiian Islands before landing in Seattle?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Let's plug this in, then."

He tapped into his computer furiously for a few minutes and announced, "You'll arrive in Seattle at two pm tomorrow.  I'm afraid it's going to cost you three hundred extra dollars, though.  I wish I could do better for you.  Is that acceptable?"

Acceptable?  We were landing three hours earlier than the flight we were actually scheduled to be since it had a five hour stopover, and he had just saved us our retirement savings.

"Yes, it's acceptable, very acceptable," I answered thankfully.

End of story, pretty much.  We got home.  We had a wonderful summer.  Our Chinese daughters became American citizens.  We went back home to China and carried on with our happy little lives.

Lesson learned?   Unless someone is dead or missing a limb, it's not worth getting your knickers in a knot over.  Things work themselves out.

Thank you, behind-the-counter Delta man.  You taught me a valuable lesson that day that I've never forgotten.  Aloha style.

Our flight to the US this summer, which we did make!

My new start every day all day is to remind myself that it's all small potatoes.  If nobody's dead and nobody's missing a body part, I'm going to chill out and try to enjoy the ride!

Frequent fliers, even on their own steam!

PS: Since the "Hawaii Incident," I have caused our family to miss three more international flights!  I have each time heeded the advice of the angel-disguised-as-a-Delta-customer-service-rep and managed to get us on the next flight out without any extra expenditure.  Clearly, however, I require a personal assistant!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Phone Phobia

Does anyone else have this?

The phone rings (do phones still ring?): I jump.

My mobile vibrates: my heart does a belly flop.

Someone comes online on skype: I'm terrified they'll call me.  I hide.  I appear offline when I'm not.

I want to be inaccessible, unreachable, untethered, until I want to reach out.  I don't exactly know why I don't like being reached out to (in fact I do in so many ways), but when it comes to the phone, I appreciate being undesired and unpopular.

I will happily talk to any of you in a public forum.  Come to my house, let's meet at a party, we can even go to a bar (though my heart is beating faster now considering these options), but I must see you face to face to have real, meaningful, non-threatening conversation with you.

Skype, the life-blood of many, scares me.  I don't want to be caught off guard, never mind having to turn on the video for my interloper to see my bra-less, make-up less, frazzle-haired self.  No, I have to plan my conversations, work up to them, finesse them and be able to make eye contract and show my listening skills through tilted head and appropriate uh-huhing.  For me, none of this can be accomplished through audible technology.  The pauses and interruptions are frequent and the discomfort I feel is palpable to the people I'm "chatting" with.

I am, at heart, a very private person.  Even at home, I hover in the bedroom while my children and husband horse around downstairs.  I hope for them to come up and read with me or do yoga or discuss world issues or watch "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, but I do not gravitate to people and noise and music even.  I go toward the silence, the comfortable chair, the 800 page character study novel that renders most people stupefied by its incessant banal detail.  That is my life blood.

My sister, not me, doing what I love best.
(She's a bit phone-phobic, too.)

I am so glad I met my sweetheart before Al Gore invented the internet because I am not a long distance relationship kind of gal.  I want you to be right there in the next room, ready to talk on a moment's notice, not down the street or in another town or in another country, god forbid.

All this makes me sound like I'm completely anti-social.  I'm not.  I love being with people.  I love my friends.  I love intimate gatherings with wine and finicky little appetizers that come on toothpicks.  I love telling stories and being the center of attention.  But talk as I might and as mightily as I do, when I am done, I am done. Then I must be promptly teleported home to the bedroom with the door closed, a hot bath run, crosswords ready, clever comedies geared up, some popcorn thrown in for good measure.

I have high expectations for the quality of my relationships but not for the frequency or duration of connection. I am quite lovable, I think, and I think those I love are too so we are in happy company when we find ourselves in the same room.  It just doesn't have to be all the time.  And it certainly doesn't have to be on the phone.

My new start for the day?  To text my friends more often in order to set up more face time.  Real face time, not the virtual kind.

Yes, I DO take pictures with phones, I just don't TALK on them!