Press 1 for a Quick Call, Press 2 to Vent, Press 3 to… Advice v.s. Listening

Mobile-phone-keypad

 

Inventors, are you listening? Here is my idea for what I know will be a wildly successful new product for women of all ages.

A “press the button” system for phone calls from friends.

Model it after the automated services you reach when you call any business number these days. Perhaps my friends will find it annoying at first when they call me and have to push a button before I answer  – but it would be very  helpful for me (for you, too?) to be able to categorize in advance what a call is about.

Here’s how I suggest setting up a “press the button” system for conversations with friends:

  • Press 1 – if this will be a quick call where you just want to know the Name of the Restaurant we went to last weekend.
  • Press 2 – if this will be a longer call where you want to Vent to me about a Problem with your (select one: husband, child, mother-in-law, colleague at work, other)
  • Press 3 – if this will be a longer call where you want to Vent – but also Want Actual Advice from me for the problem with your (select one: husband, child, mother-in-law, colleague at work, other).
  • Press 4 – for a Health problem that may require my Immediate Assistance (acknowledging my superb self-taught medical diagnostic skills).
  • Press 5 – or simply stay on the line if your Beloved Dog has died. That is a problem that will always require my Immediate Assistance.

Some of my friends seem to be experiencing various life changes this fall – an illness, a troubled child, a demanding boss, a difficult spouse. But when friends call, I somehow respond to Press 2 calls with my Press 3 approach and to Press 3 calls with a Press 2 approach.  This has not worked well.

Perhaps the world of friends is divided between two types – the advisors and the advisees?

I was pretty much born to give advice  (just ask my younger sister)  – which must be maddening to those who don’t want to hear my advice.

All those years when I was a practicing lawyer – real life people (we called them “clients”) actually paid me for my advice! So it is a hard button to switch off. Even while in the law biz, my listening skills were on the weak end of the scale. A client would call and start to explain his problem – it wasn’t that I was so psychic but after 30 plus years, you have a pretty good grasp of what is likely to come next. Often I would start with the advice part of the client call before the client had finished actually asking for the advice. It may not have won me awards for listening but it was an efficient way to do business.

So now that I am in the land of the semi-retired when a friend calls me to talk about a problem, I am still automatically primed to give advice. I’m tapping my fingers, struggling to keep silent while my friend describes the latest issue with her husband, the jerk (“he said what?”) – or her daughter, the “challenge child” (“she did what?”) – or her demeaning and difficult boss (“she asked you what?”).

The words are still coming out of my friend’s mouth but my head is already spinning into advice cycle. I like to think I offer insightful, direct, to the point advice.  Why don’t you suggest a compromise to your husband? Why don’t you set more limits (or fewer limits) for your daughter? Why don’t you quit that job already?

You called me, remember, if you didn’t want to get advice, then why did you call?

Gently, ever so gently, the other day my sister (she counts as a friend even though we are related) pointed out to me that not everyone wants my advice.

Shocking News.

Really, so why did they call me?

Again, in a soft kind voice that implies I am a very slow learner, and that she is telling me the most obvious of facts, my sister explains that maybe friends call just because they want to vent. Only to vent.

To tell me that their husband, the jerk, made a nasty remark – again. Or their “challenge child” may drop out of school – again. Or that her boss told her to work on a project that was cancelled but forgot to tell her about the cancellation part, so she spent 20 hours on it –  again.

Having to press 2 for a call that will simply be a vent would help me prepare to hold my tongue, to be a better listener, to not take it personally if my friends simply want to vent and not get advice.

Some people are actually good at listening. You may know them as “therapists”. They get paid to listen. The idea is that they listen so well that you will actually come to your own conclusions, sort of a self-advice system. For instance, a good therapist will listen to you talk for 10 minutes about the fight you had with your husband (who may or may not be a jerk) and then say something really insightful like – “And how did that make you feel? or “what do you think you should say when that happens the next time?”

Of course if you understood how that made you feel or if you knew what to say the next time, you wouldn’t be seeing a therapist, now would you?

(note: I have been seeing the same therapist for a few years, going in for monthly tune-ups and she is both a good listener and advice giver so I hereby exempt her from this over-generalization.)

But our friends don’t call us because we are therapists. Friends call because they want us to listen, it is expected of us, the part of the relationship like the old kids’ toy – the paddle ball where the paddle and the ball take turns – one stretches out while the other coils in. The push and pull of friendships.

Since it looks like I am, as always, ahead of my time as to my brilliant idea of a “press the button” friendship phone call system, I plan to take my sister’s advice. Learn to listen better, Nancy! You can do this. My friends will no doubt appreciate having fewer interruptions and not hearing my always very well intended and sometimes (I think rather helpful) advice.

So next time you call me, no need to press any buttons. Of course if you tell me upfront, “Hi, I just need to vent…”, the old-fashioned pre-button system, I will get prepared to fully listen to you, I promise.

 

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Filed under Communications, Female Friends, Lawyers, Relationships, Women

Of Coffee, Ice Cream and Soccer Shoes

6-8Soccer

My friend Liz and I are in that sweet spot between Menopause (been there, done that) and Medicare (not there, not needing that).

She called me the other day and said, “I have two things to ask you.”

“O.K., what’s up?”

Did I want to see a new movie she thought we would both like?  That led to a discussion about possible restaurants to go to after the movie (if we could stay awake that long.) Which led us to talking about why she eats so much healthier than I do.  (I like kale, I do, but really, 3x a week?). After several more stray conversational tangents, I asked her,

“What was the second thing you wanted to ask me?”

She replied, “I forgot.”

“Fine, no problem. Call me back if you remember.” I said.

Maybe she will remember, maybe she won’t.  This happens to me often too. I like to think that we have all the time in the world to try to recall what that second question was, to get together with friends, to make plans. But will we have the time?

Getting older worries me. Specifically, it is the “aging” part of getting older that worries me. My Dad is 91 and Liz’s mom is 90. They are elderly. We see what aging looks like for them. It has its good moments and some not so good. My Dad, who goes into his office every day, is still quite sharp, especially when he remembers to wear his hearing aids. Liz’s Mom’s vision is failing but she enjoys getting a regular manicure. They both appreciate every birthday that they have.

What will aging look like by the time we get there? I’m not ready to be considered “old”, I told Liz recently, although more often I feel that younger people see us that way.

A few Saturday mornings ago my husband and I went to a small coffee shop known for its fabulous brew.  It was packed with 20 and 30 somethings, as it is in a trendy neighborhood near new condos, pilates studios, wine bars and hot restaurants. We stood in line, I ordered my skim latte, my husband his espresso, one scone to share and then with the newspapers (the actual print kind) under our arms, we hunted for a place to sit.

Was it my imagination or did all of the millennials hunch even more closely over their laptops as we walked by silently telling us – hey look, Mr. and Ms. Oldster, every seat in here is taken, shouldn’t you be having a nice bland cup of coffee at the nearest generic place? When no seats opened up at the cool coffee shop, we had to leave, with our coffee in to-go cups, my husband grumbling that espresso is not to be served in to-go cups.

The next Saturday morning we reluctantly did go to the nearest generic Starbucks. At around 11 a.m., it was filling up with young families, the kids in their soccer uniforms, moms texting, dads checking email, chatting about their next activity on a busily over-scheduled Saturday. Looking at them, it seemed like it was only a few years ago that my husband and I were the ones digging through the front hall closet to find shin guards, soccer shoes that still fit and preparing the orange quarters for halftime snacks.

I thought – very briefly – about going up to one of the young soccer families in the Starbucks, and saying, hey, enjoy it while you can, it seems like this stage of life, this being parents of young kids, that it will last forever. You think that the new soccer seasons will keep coming around each fall, but they won’t. In a snap of an eye your kids will be teens, then gone, then grown. Oh sure, the parents would say to me, you are such an oldster. Go back to your coffees, you have all day to hang out, we are a very busy young family, this is a Saturday;  you’ve had your prime time, leave us to our fun.

Has our time for fun passed?

I hope not. I heard an interview with Dr. Atul Gawande (surgeon, public health researcher, author of a new book called “Being Mortal”) on the radio the other day about how we should change the way we approach aging. We have “medicalized” aging, he says, putting far too much emphasis on keeping elderly people safe, rather than happy, by minimizing their risks in restrictive nursing homes to the extent that they have nothing to live for in lives with few pleasures. He suggested instead that we create places where the elderly can live with their own pets, their own kitchens, their own art, being able to eat and sleep when they want. Hey, I wanted to tell him through the radio waves, I am all for that. (and yes, I will send in my pledge donation to my nearest NPR station very soon.)

Last Friday night my husband and I went out to dinner to a neighborhood restaurant that serves “contemporary American food”, you know the kind with menu choices designed to please the old and the young.  The dining room was filled with people of all ages, including young soccer families, maybe not the exact ones we had seen in Starbucks but close enough to be their cousins. Mom and Dad in their 30’s or 40’s, looking harried and hassled, squabbling with each other after a long work week, two or three bored looking kids in elementary and middle school, staring at their individual tablet screens, pushing their siblings just for something to do, everyone ready for dinner out to be over.

Then I saw (and I swear I am not making this up, this was not a hopeful mirage) in the middle of the restaurant a table of maybe five or six women. Just women, all old enough to classify as elderly, in full throttle aging mode, out for Friday night dinner together. Unlike the young soccer family, they were laughing, talking to each other with smiles on their faces, really enjoying being out and – dare I say it?  – having fun.

Dessert arrived at the all-women, all-elderly table and I was close enough to see what they ordered. A giant white bowl with multiple colorful scoops of different flavors of ice cream. Each woman had her own spoon and they all reached in to the center of the table and eagerly dug in. More laughter, more talking.

I called Liz from the car as my husband and I were driving home.

“Hey, Liz, I’ve seen the future of aging. And it looks pretty good. We are all going to be sitting around a table together and eating ice cream.”

She, of course, had no idea what I was talking about it. She also has yet to remember that second thing that she was going to ask me. The future, assuming we get there, will have its fun times, I’m now sure. And I always thought soccer was pretty boring to watch anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Female Friends, Moms, Women

The Nice Jewish Girl and the Macedonian Mother-in-Law

tina bake

Today is Day Six of a Nine Day visit from my mother-in-law –  and you know what? I am fine, really, I am. I am actually enjoying her visit.

This was not always the case.

When I first met my husband-to-be’s parents when he and I were in grad school, they were pretty sure I had just dropped in from outer space. They were welcoming and friendly but I still felt like an alien in their world. Let’s count some of the ways in which we differed:

  •  I grew up in a green-lawned suburb in Connecticut. His parents lived in a working-class town outside of Detroit.
  •  I am a college graduate (then grad and law school too.). His parents ended their schooling in 6th grade.
  • My parents were born in the U.S. His parents were in their early 20’s when they immigrated, with a toddler in tow and my husband in utero, to the U.S. from a small village in the Macedonian region of northern Greece. (look it up, it exists, I had to look it up too.)
  • I was (still am?) a nice Jewish girl. His parents belonged to their Macedonian Orthodox church.

The only thing in common, I thought back then, was that we both were deeply in love with the same person. My husband-to-be. Her son.

It took me some time to get used to their ways of doing things.

And it took them some time to get used to my ways, too.

On an early visit to my husband’s house, we went with his parents to visit relatives. When we arrived at their house, I saw that the dining room table was all set up with platters of food, a few uncles were already sitting around the table. I took a chair. My husband whispered in my ear, “Uh, no, you don’t sit down at the table. That is for the men. You are expected to go into the kitchen and help the women with the food.”

I bristled (Ms. magazine, I was an early subscriber) but dutifully followed my mother-in-law into the kitchen.

A few years later I went with my father-in-law to the supermarket where he was a regular to stock up on kid-friendly snacks for our week long visit (my kids were too little then to appreciate feta cheese and pickled cabbage.) When I put my bottles of Perrier water down on the conveyor belt, the supermarket check-out lady raised her eyebrows at my father-in-law, and he nodded sagely at her, “That’s my daughter-in-law, she’s from Washington.”

Yes, that pretty much explained everything. I can see now how they must have seen me – I thought bottled water was sophisticated, they must have thought I was a being a snob.

We are a Jewish family (my husband converted) so we didn’t feel right joining his family for their Christmas day family celebration.  Instead we would make the 11 hour drive to Detroit on December 25th, telling his parents to please go ahead and have Christmas dinner without us. But if we arrived at 9 p.m., Christmas dinner would still be waiting as were the presents under the tree. The next year we arrived at 10 p.m., still the waiting dinner and the presents. I didn’t want his parents to give my kids Christmas gifts. I insisted my husband convey that message.

Looking back I wish I had been a little less strident on the subject. A few packages wrapped in green and red from their grandparents would not have harmed my kids’ Jewish identities.

It was also obvious from the start that my household standards were more casual than those of my mother-in-law. At her house, the phrase “it’s so clean you could eat off the floor” had real meaning. During our family visits wastebaskets seemed to be emptied hourly and laundry was done daily, with sheets folded just so.

When she visited our house, she would venture into my husband’s sock drawer to see if any socks needed darning.  She would rearrange my linen closet. And looked disappointed when she learned we don’t own a mop. (Does an old Swiffer count?). After she left, I would grumble a bit when I found stray objects put away in odd places, her trying to help but it made extra work for me.

My mother-in-law has also always outshone me in the baking department (easy to do.) Her chocolate chip cookies (so much butter!) are legendary. My friends and their kids come to our house during her visits to sit and talk with her and enjoy the warm cookies.

And best of all, she makes Macedonian cheese and spinach filled phyllo pastries, “pitas” she calls them – with the phyllo dough made from scratch. That would be by combining flour and yeast for those of us who don’t get the baking thing.

During this week’s visit she made a batch of cheese pitas to bring to a family party on the weekend.  72 of them disappeared within an hour.  The weekend over, my husband went back to work downtown and my mother-in-law and I have spent the weekdays together at home.  We watch and talk about the news (CNN should give her a merit badge for her daily loyalty). She is fascinated by world events and asks great questions. (“Why can’t Ebola be cured?” and “How could the Secret Service miss that guy?”). We look at old photo albums and play with the dogs. She makes dinners that my husband likes to eat. While she says she is fine being at home with me, I see how her heart brightens when my husband arrives home from work each night.

At night they sit on the couch in our family room and chat mostly in Macedonian, with some English thrown in for my benefit, about how relatives are doing, who is ill and who isn’t, how could so-and-so get divorced and what her two other sons, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren are doing. My husband loves to talk with his Mom about her memories of the old days, life in the village -“and then I took the rooster by the neck, stepped on its feet and killed it. ” and she remembers that her own mother-in-law, when she met her at age 18,  “thought I was too skinny; she told me that my fingers were too thin for cooking.”

We are now at ease with each other. It no longer bothers me that she can’t eat off my floor as I could off of hers. I am more patient with her questions and she is more satisfied with my answers. We have learned much over 36 years from each other.  How much we really do have in common.

She makes the phyllo dough, I eat the pitas, we both her love her son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging Parents, Family, Holidays, Midlife, Moms, Relationships, Women

What Apples, Honey, September and Writing Share in Common

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It seems odd to me that September, a month which turns the corner towards fall, is also a time of many new beginnings.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the start of the New Year according to the Jewish calendar, began on Wednesday night, September 24, so happy 5775 to those of you who celebrate it as I do.  (and aren’t we lucky that we don’t have to start writing 5775 on our checks? I have enough trouble getting 2014 right each time. And yes, I still write paper checks. I haven’t switched to an all e-commerce world – yet.)

Another new beginning in September is the start of the school year. One of my kids returned to college this fall, to finish what he started some years ago; hurrah!  Cautious optimism, lots of support and encouragement. It isn’t easy being the oldest kid in the class.

Also in the department of new beginnings: several friends of ours have kids who are starting their first real life jobs this September; as policy types, research assistants, lawyers, marketers, all venturing into careers where you don’t get three months of summer vacation anymore. Welcome to my prior world!

And two friends of ours just retired from long-held jobs this month; retirement being both an ending and a new beginning. (there’s a blog post in that, I know.)

What is new for me this September is that (a) I am healthy and (b) I am writing.

September in years past has been a month where either I or family members have found ourselves in hospitals, and not wearing badges that say “visitor.”  A rabbi friend of mine, noticing that ill health tends to strike my family closely coinciding with the timing of Rosh Hashanah each year, suggested that we move to the planet Mars each September where she is confident the Jewish New Year is not likely to be celebrated so we can avert the chance of illness.  But so far my family has made it through September without having a close up view of the sign that blazes the words “EMERGENCY ROOM”.

Another new beginning is that I started to take a writing class earlier in September. I began writing this blog in May of 2014 so thought taking a writing class would help me find my narrative voice. Perhaps just a coincidence (or is my writing teacher that good??), but shortly after the class began, two of my blog posts were published by the Washington Post.  And the editor who liked my posts let me know that many others did too. I was “trending”!  Hah, trending at my age.

When the New York Times, the newspaper I’ve read daily since childhood, featured a post on my blog in its “What We’re Reading Now” column last Tuesday night, I was stunned into silence. (rare). When you write a blog, you put a post out there into the social media ether, and you think it is pretty good and hope others might too.  But you have no idea, really, and what you can not anticipate, I am finding out, is what words of yours will truly resonate with others, which ones might hit a nerve, and I am profoundly grateful to have found this out.

After an unexpected cardiologically-required departure from my law firm in 2013,  getting the chance to return to writing in 2014 is a new beginning. Finding readers who follow my blog has been wonderful (and I thank all of you – and appreciate all of your comments.)

But I also worry. (The word “worry” appears in the title of this blog for a reason. I do a great deal of it; one of my best skills.)  Does a single successful post begat others? Not necessarily. Think of the many one-hit wonder songs, and the authors who wrote one best seller followed by a series of duds.

But I, having grown up in New England with many vacations in Vermont, may try to model myself after Grandma Moses. She picked up a paint brush for the first time when she was 77 years old. Heck, I am a mere child by that standard; still in that sweet spot post-menopause but pre-Medicare. With the cooperation of whoever is in charge of these things, I hope to have many productive and creative years ahead.

So cheers to new beginnings for all of us!

Wishing you a sweet and healthy year.

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Filed under Adult Kids, Aging, Careers, College, Family, Holidays, Midlife, New Grad, Raising Kids, Retirement, Semi-Retired, Women, Writing

In Defense of the Empty Nest by a Defensive Mom

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It was at a college night meeting of  high school parents when I realized that how I felt about having an Empty Nest was not the majority view.

September of our son’s senior year in his small high school, the college counseling office held a meeting for parents. Noting that for some of us, it would be our last kid off to college, the counselor asked us how we felt about becoming empty nesters the next fall.

I was the first to respond; not a good idea in retrospect.

“Frankly I can’t wait, I’m looking forward to having time alone with my husband again.”

The other parents looked at me aghast, you would have thought I had just vividly detailed the various new sexual positions we planned to try on the first night after our son left for college. A ripple of dismay filled the room.

One by one each of the other Moms chimed in, “Really? I don’t feel that way at all. Oh, I will miss my daughters so much.” and “I am just dreading having an Empty Nest.” and “It will be so awful not having them come home from school every day.”

And the Dads spoke up, too.  “Who will I watch baseball with? I’m really going to miss my son.” and “Our family has lots of fun together on weekends. I don’t want that to change.”

I slunk a bit lower in my seat. My husband, embarrassed by my typical over-sharing, patted my hand feebly.

It has been almost a decade since that college night meeting and you would think that by now I would have gotten less defensive about my stance on the Empty Nest – but I haven’t.

This fall there’s been the usual flurry of articles offering advice on how to adjust to life in the Empty Nest. Wisdom for parents whose kids were now off to college, you will miss them like crazy, you will be sad that they don’t need you as much, your role as a Mom or Dad has changed. You and your spouse may sit in silence at night wondering what to say to each other. The articles encourage you to develop new hobbies, new interests, take up running, learn to knit, join a book club, anything to take your mind off of the dreadfully quiet house, the empty rooms, the loss of your children.

Ummm, that wasn’t my experience.

After 18 years of 24/7 parenting, I was more than ready to for some well-deserved (IMHO) time off.  And I wanted to get back to the reason I married my husband in the first place. Because I loved him, he’s smart, funny and clever; I wanted to spend more time with him. Just with him. How we used to be, before kids, if I could recall what that felt like.

I love my kids very much, just as you love yours (there goes the defensiveness again!). I loved being a Mom, all of it, from that early exhaustion of toddlers and nap time, to school days, lunch packing, spelling tests, to high school with homework stress, talking about drinking and sex, and wondering if they were listening, and worrying over college applications.

But children do fill up all of your mind space, so much so that there is little room leftover for whatever interesting conversations you may have once had with your spouse on a non-child-related subject.  Who will take David to Tae Kwan Do? Do you have time this Saturday to get Dana new sneakers? Don’t forget that next Wednesday, or maybe it is Thursday, let me check, is Back to School night? I forgot to send in the permission slip for that field trip, aaargh. Did you bring home the posterboard for the science project? And David could use another hair cut…

At least that is how it was with us. My husband was a very involved Dad. He didn’t miss a school play, coached soccer and basketball and helped with algebra. (the latter most important since my math knowledge stopped at fractions.) We spent lots of time together as a family, going on outings to museums, concerts and fairs. My husband and son went camping, my daughter and I bonded at Nordstroms. While my husband and I did spend as much time as we could as a couple, we would often find that we spent our precious hours out of the house talking about, you guessed it, the kids. One night at dinner we tried to see how long we could go in a conversation without one of us mentioning one of our kids or something kid-related. I don’t recall who won that contest. But it was over in less than three minutes.

Back to senior year in high school when I looked forward to finding out if my husband and I could be alone as a couple again.  Sure, I was worried that we wouldn’t manage so well. We didn’t have, and still don’t have, a marriage that to the outside world appears harmonious. At our wedding reception 36 years ago, many of the guests, I was later told, took bets on how long our marriage would last. Lots of yin and yang in our relationship. We squabble, we bicker, we disagree.

Once our teen daughter spent a weekend with a friend at their family’s vacation house.  I asked her when she returned how the weekend went – “Oh, Mom”, she said, “It was fine, Jessica’s parents fight just as much as you and Dad do.”

So it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I approached the Empty Nest. Of course, I missed the kids after they left for college. I was always happy to hear from them, worried when they got sick, thrilled when they visited, even content doing their mountains of laundry and dealing with the messy rooms they inevitably left behind. But I knew that they would be fine. We had prepared them as well as we could. They were off to lead their lives, as it should be.

The Empty Nest meant that we were given a chance to lead our own lives again – as husband and wife. Yes, we’d be parents forever, but just being  a couple, no guarantee. I’d seen plenty of my friends’ marriages struggle once the kids, the glue between Mom and Dad, were no longer in the house.

Thankfully our marriage thrived. It didn’t take us long to adjust to the Empty Nest. At first it felt like we were playing hookey from school. We both worked downtown, and after work one night, it occurred to us that we didn’t have to rush home. We could go out to dinner.  Downtown. On a weeknight. Imagine that. Without checking in with anyone. Just us. So we went to a restaurant that neither of our kids particularly liked. And we talked about subjects that they didn’t particularly care about. And we didn’t discuss either of them, at least not for the first 10 minutes. The Empty Nest, it turned out, was as I had thought it would be at that college night meeting, well worth waiting for. And hardly empty either. The two of us have filled it up just fine.

 

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Filed under College, Family, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Relationships

My Wonderful Senior Year in High School. NOT. (It got better in College.)

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In high school I was that girl who was attractive enough to date the captains of the basketball and football teams (not at the same time, of course) while smart enough to be in the top honors classes. Being attractive and smart was not a good combination in 1970.  The pretty girls thought I was not cool enough to be friends with – and the smart girls thought I was too cool to be friends with. Neither fish nor fowl, I thought I was a solo specie.

By September of my senior year I could not wait for high school to be over.  Perhaps there are still girls out there like I was, nice-looking but not popular, smart but sensitive, sitting in their bedrooms writing poetry, and working on their college applications; hoping that once they reach college, they will finally find a community that fits who they are.

That is what happened to me.

My parents wanted me to go to the same college my mother had gone to – Smith College -a highly-regarded women’s college in Massachusetts. My Mom loved her time at Smith, still had many of her college friends, and happily returned every five years, dressed all in white to march in the campus reunion parade.

A women’s college? I didn’t think so. Let’s not beat around the bush here, I liked to date guys. And yes, I had a thing for athletes who happened to be smart. Maybe because I completely lacked athletic ability (always was, still am, the last to be picked for any team) so dating an athlete was the closest I could come to peer acceptance in my sports-obsessed high school where cheerleaders ruled the popularity pyramid.

The boys I dated did very well in school, too, but somehow their intelligence wasn’t seen as a social handicap as it was, at least then, for girls. We were advised by the teen magazines to hide our smarts if we wanted to keep a boyfriend. So I wrote the requisite soulful poetry holed up in my bedroom but showed it to no one; I would not have dreamed to show it to one of my boyfriends.

I applied to Smith, as I was asked to do by the parental unit but put my hopes on my applications to five other coed schools. Come April 15th, our mailbox was filled with four thick envelopes and two thin ones. The thickest one was from Smith and the thinnest one was from my first choice – a top men’s college on the cusp of its first year of co-education, telling me I was not going to be in their entering class. My parents insisted that Smith offered the best academics, and wasn’t that why I was going to college?

So off I was to a women’s college. Yes, I grudgingly admitted, the extensive course catalogue did impress me. And how hard could it be to find boys to date? I read that they regularly showed up in droves on weekends.

And surely I would find girls in my class who were attractive as well as smart and not afraid to show it to each other –  or to the boys they dated. My mother reassured me on that point too.

On the second night of college, I went with a small group of girls from my dorm, all of us new to Smith and to each other, to walk down the hill to see a movie called “Anne of A Thousand Days.” It was a British historical drama about Anne Boleyn, the wife, briefly, of King Henry the 8th, until she failed to produce a male heir to the throne and was subsequently executed. I was a big fan of British history so loved the epic story of politics, religion and romance.  My kind of thought-provoking movie; one that I never would have even suggested seeing with friends in high school.

After the movie ended, we started to walk back up the hill to campus. I waited, then said, a bit tentatively, to the girl walking next to me, “Didn’t you think that was an amazing movie?”

She quickly responded, “Oh yes, but I wonder if it was all historically accurate. Do you think the meeting between Anne and King Henry shortly before her execution really happened?

We talked about historical accuracy versus the need to make a movie appealing to the masses all the way back to the dorm. Wow, I thought, maybe I could really be my true self here in college.

High school has evolved since I was a student but some things stay the same; the athletes are still popular, the pretty girls are in demand and the smart kids join the debate team. While being a female with a good brain is no longer as uncool as it once was, I am sure that there are still many girls, and boys, who like I was, are on the social fringe, for whatever reason, afraid to really be themselves for fear their peers won’t accept them.

Let me reassure you that things do re-sort themselves once you get to college. It happened that way for me; it can happen that way for you, too.

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Filed under College, Female Friends, Moms, Relationships, Women

Late Summer Conversations with Strangers at the Beach

 

beachchair

If only we could tell strangers exactly what we really think. But we don’t.

While my friends will tell you (ask them!) that I am overly-candid when offering my opinions, I don’t go around sharing my inner thoughts with complete strangers.

Not that I wouldn’t like to do so. But probably saying “those horizontal stripes aren’t your best look”-  or “have you considered eating with your mouth closed?” would not endear me to others.

So I keep my own counsel. Mostly.

An incident at the beach last week makes me think this may be changing.

My husband and I like to spend the last week of August at the beach when it is at its uncrowded best.  During the rest of the summer, when we go on weekends, people are wedged in tightly with little room between the clusters of umbrellas and beach towels. You can hardly see patches of open sand.

But the week before Labor Day is different. School has started, college is back in session, worker-bees are at their desks.  The crowd has thinned out to some families with toddlers, couples and singles here and there. And as fascinating as overheard conversations are on a crowded beach, hearing the sound of the surf rather than the noise of human voices is lovely.

So relishing the sandy spaces, on the first day of our August vacation, my husband put up our umbrella in a wide open spot, and I settled in under the shade. He left to take a bike ride in town and I was happily alone with my book and the breaking waves.

20 minutes later, I looked up, startled when, just over my left shoulder, one of the young men who works at the umbrella rental stand stood with a woman about my age, about to plant her umbrella within a few feet of mine.

A voice arose from my inner heretofore-mostly-contained-don’t-talk-to-strangers-self.

“Umm, excuse me, but could you possibly put your umbrella a bit farther away?”

The woman turned to look at me, a shocked look on her face,

“What did you just say?”

I responded,

Since there is so much room to spread out on the beach today, if you could possibly leave more space between where my umbrella is and yours…”

The young buff umbrella rental guy stopped in his tracks, looked at the woman for umbrella planting direction, while she continued to stare at me.

Did I ask something so terrible?  There were yards and yards of open sand; she was violating an unwritten beach courtesy rule.

Isn’t there a concept of personal space even in a public place? Or shouldn’t a stranger speak up when someone breaks a rule?

The woman huffed a bit and moved away with umbrella rental guy in tow. The rest of the afternoon she kept (so I imagined without looking up from my book) looking back at me with a critical eye. I felt uncomfortable, my sense of relaxation diminished.

My husband joined me in the late afternoon.  Around 6:30 p.m., we packed up to leave; he went ahead to retrieve the car. As I was trudging up the hilly path over the dunes, I noticed a young woman trekking up the sandy path just behind me.  As she came up alongside me, she said,

Aren’t you the woman who asked that other lady to sit farther away from you with her umbrella?”

Wow, so much for non-overheard conversations.

“Yes”, I admitted, “that was me.”

The young woman hitched her beach chair higher up on her shoulder and started walking faster up the sandy path (pretty much everyone walks faster than I do these days.) She turned her head back towards me, as she was walking away, and said,

Good for you, she was going to sit way too close to you. That was gutsy of you to say.”

At least that is what I think she said.

Or she might have said,

How rude of you, why didn’t you let her sit close to you? That was nasty of you to say.”

I’m not sure which it was. The sound of the surf muffled her voice.

So just in case – to the woman about my age who I shocked by asking her to set up her temporary beach camp farther away from me last week, and to the young woman who overheard my surprising candor, I apologize, sort of.

I broke my own rule and said what I was really thinking to a complete stranger. But having my very own patch of sand to myself in late summer was well worth it.  I think I am going to like being a rule-breaker.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Books, Communications, Midlife, Reading, Women