Jun 21 2016

I’m still a lot like I was

Then and now.

Then and now.

Lately, the refrain from the Neil Young song Old Man has been circulating around in my head. “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.”

A recent edition of the Kultur section in Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm’s morning newspaper) had an interesting article by Slavenka Drakuli, a Croation novelist who lives here in Stockholm, about how women’s aging is perceived and especially how women are writing about their own aging. It was a translated and shortened version of the longer English article by her at Eurozine.com. The original article can be found here.

Drakulic writes, “Only after my mother’s death at eighty-six, when I stopped being a child, did I start to think about my own aging.”

The words, when I stopped being a child caught my attention. While I must admit that I have been thinking about aging long before my mother died four years ago at age 85, it feels very true to me that only after she died did I feel like I was suddenly no longer a child – being forced to see that I was an adult, like it or not. Like Drakulic, I am now 60+ and what it means to be growing older, how to do it and what the physical changes that occur are,  especially after experiencing my own mother’s illness and death, are topics I find myself often thinking of. I found her article very interesting and definitely worth taking the time to read in its original English.

My generation, the baby boomers, thought we were always going to be young – never growing old. But surprise surprise, like so many things we once thought, it turns out to not be true. The slogan, almost a battle cry really, “Never trust anybody over 30!” permeated the air at my college when I was 19 or so. To not be 30 anymore, or for that matter even 40 is almost like a surprise to me. And things will not be getting any better. The internet is filled with consolatory comments like 50 is the new 40 – designed to make us feel like we aren’t really aging. And perhaps it’s not the aging itself that is the problem. The important thing is that we don’t look like we are getting older. That is the lesson we are taught when 50 year old actresses work so hard to look like they are 30. And Jane Fonda at 75+ looks (with a bit of help) like 50+. We are made to feel like that should apply to all of us. But for most of us it is not really a reality.

I live in a city – the kind with subways and buses and sidewalks. Not the type of city where one drives everywhere – encased in a bubble – protected from contact with other people. In my daily life in that city, I see all sorts of people, many of them my age or older. I find myself watching them, almost greedily, looking to see signs of aging on them. To see what it looks like. To see how they walk, how they sit, do they look confused, tired, in pain. So that I know what to expect – what my future is. Because to be getting older is the only direction I’m going. Unless of course, I don’t.

I also look at all the younger people that are riding the buses and subway cars with me: so full of hope and optimism. And that’s where the Neil Young song comes in. Because I look at them with their young bodies and long futures ahead of them and think to myself, “I used to be a lot like you are.”

While Young’s song is sung to an old man,  I think it applies equally well to us aging women today. Drakuli says that when she was looking for articles or stories by women about aging she found very little written. Most of what she found was self-help information about how to look better. Women weren’t talking about aging. But when she changed her search parameters to include Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss, there she found what she was looking for. Because women weren’t, at first glance, discussing aging by the way it affected their physical bodies.  They were coming at the topic by first describing the experience of memory loss, of losing one’s sense of self. Describing their mothers or aunts or sisters or themselves. And in the descriptions of the progressive loss of the sense of who we are, also comes the descriptions of what is happening to our aging bodies. When I was 19, to me, an old lady was someone with short permanented, curled hair and wearing a proper wool suit; good jacket to the hip and a just below-the-knee length skirt. Unless of course they lived in Florida and then they had bluish, curled hair and wore polyester. But now members of my generation have become the old ones and the signature outfit of my fellow baby boomer ladies is more likely to be a pair of blue jeans and a denim shirt worn with natural color hair, sometimes still down past the shoulder.

There were a whole lot of us baby boomers born during the years after the second world war between 1946 and 1964. According to what Wikipedia says of us, we tended to think of ourselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before. Because of our numbers we were everywhere and influenced everything. But we are no longer young and hip and oh so cool any more. But as I wander through my adopted city of Stockholm I see us everywhere still. Alongside of all those hipsters who have invaded Södermalm and now even my neighborhood of Hornstull, are all these aging baby boomers, often still well-dressed while pulling their shopping carts into the Hemköp grocery store, waiting on line for the next available druggist at the Apotek to fill their ever growing list of prescription meds that keep them going. They wander though H&M looking for a new top or pair of pants. And they come in all shapes and sizes, the boomers that is, not just the pants. They may not always walk as fast and steady as they once did but they still push their way through the crowd. The lines on their faces show they have lived a life. Their hair colors may have faded but they are still very much visible.  And these baby boomers are still my demographic. They belong to my age box as they did even when I was 19.

In just about a week I will be turning 65.  I consider myself, so far, still fairly well preserved. I’m still 6 feet tall so still get noticed wherever I go whether I want to be or not. My hair is still curly though no longer its original auburn. I admit I am no longer as thin as I once was and the dressing room mirrors in H&M are a rather unpleasant reality check. My knees hurt more and more, not just when going up and down stairs. My joints creak, my feet hurt and I no longer run to catch that bus. But I still remember what to do with that key even though sometimes I can’t remember where I put them. And most importantly, I am not invisible! I was in the make-up section of a department store recently. I asked the very young sales clerk (she must have been all of 20) where they kept or even if they had black kohl eyeliner. She found something for me that had black on one end and white liner on the other. Then she started to explain what the white pencil was for. There is lots of talk these days of Mansplaning but I realized that I was getting Youngsplaned! I looked at her and said, “I’ve been putting on makeup way before you were born. I know what this is and I know what to do with it!” I said it with a smile. I hope I didn’t intimidate her too much. But its always nice to be reminded that I am still what I once was.

Here is Neil Young singing Old Man when he was a young man.

Here is Neil Young singing Old Man when he had become one himself.


Jun 11 2016

Twittering

I can’t remember why I joined Twitter in the first place. Perhaps because of work. Or because of a friend suggesting it. But I can see on my profile that I joined in March of 2009. My first tweet was “Im not sure what Im doing” and my fourth tweet was “My goodness-I actually have people following what I have to say. How bored can you get??” (those first followers were my son, my husband, my cousin and two friends) I had already been on Facebook since 2007 and was very active there. I posted a lot and even still do. But I never just shared articles. When I shared something that I liked I always told why I was sharing it – what I thought about it. I also posted a lot of stuff about what I was doing or thinking or feeling. And I didn’t use those feeling icons to substitute for my own words. I wrote my own words. I liked talking – still do.  I guess I’m just a blabbermouth, with lots of opinions about things. But except for a very few people most of my contacts on Facebook were real people who I had actually known in Real Life. I rarely Friended people who I had never met or had only met once for a very short time. So this meant that most of the posting and sharing I did on Facebook went out to people who actually knew me in person.

Twitter was a whole different ball of wax.
First of all I had to confine myself to only 140 characters!! I like words. Words have meaning and nuance and syntax and even grammar. To say a whole idea in only 140 characters is very hard for me. As I said I’m a blabbermouth. So much nuance has to be removed in order to fit that parameter. I have spent my whole working life as a professional graphic designer – visuals not text. I have never considered myself an artist, a person who makes Art with a capital A – Art that is created to serve the artist’s own vision. I do commercial stuff. I like getting assignments. I like working within defined parameters. So I figured Twitter was just a matter of learning how to edit, to work to fit the parameter. Knowing how to and being able to edit is always a good thing.

Anyway, after 6 tweets in 2009 I didn’t do anything until about 4 years later when in 2013 I put up a new picture as my avatar. And then again nothing until March 2015 when I twittered this, “I’m following people’s tweets only due to my Outlander obsession.“.

Since then I’ve written 451 tweets, liked 1,217 tweets by others, I have 45 followers and I follow 136 mostly, total strangers. All because sometime in the late fall of 2014 I got introduced to Outlander, the Starz TV series and have been addicted ever since. I’ve read all the big, enormous books, most of the smaller novels and some of the bulges, as author Diana Gabaldon calls her handiwork. And I have of course watched the TV series’ first season episodes a zillion times and the second season episodes, so far shown, at least 3 or 4 times. I’ve probably watched most of any Outlander panel discussions and interviews with stars that I can find on the Internet. I joined the Facebook group called Outlander Sweden (since that is where I live) Both my husband and my 24 year old son think I’m a bit nuts (they thought that before but now they think they have evidence) And my former co-workers wouldn’t let me even mention the word Outlander at lunch breaks. I have one good friend here who I have caused to follow in my addiction. So yeah, I guess you could say I am a bit obsessed. You can read more about my obsession here. And here. And even here.

And now there’s Twitter
First, I have to get one thing straight – I don’t only post, read or share Outlander stuff on Twitter. I also post pictures from my summer house, I announce posts from this blog, sometimes a political opinion creeps into my posting, I also follow CNN, New Scientist and the New York Times among others. My Twitter posts also appear on my Facebook feed where my real-life pals like my posts or even respond. But yes, I admit it, most of what I do on Twitter has to do with Outlander. I’ve become a Fan! I’ve joined a Fandom! And its lots of fun. I read what Sam or Caitriona or Tobias or Graham or Ron or Diana or Maril or Terry or JON GARY or a bunch of others involved with the series have to say. In some ways I feel like I know them. But I never cross the line to think that they are my actual friends or I am their personal friend. What I am reading are the public personas of the private people that they really are. A tiny glimpse that they allow me to see. And I am grateful for that.

As a former Fashion Design student in my way-back-when life I like reading what the Outlander costume designer Terry Dresbach posts. She often starts really interesting discussions in 140 characters. Sometimes I have been able to partake in those discussions. Once, at 2am, lying in bed with my smart phone glued in front of my nose, desperately trying to keep up with a fascinating discussion, I rapidly typed out a comment to the conversation and suddenly Terry answered my question! I sat up in bed and yelled, “Oh My Gosh! She answered my question!” My husband, suddenly awakened, looked at me as if I was crazy and told me to please go to sleep. I have to admit, from that moment I felt like I was talking to someone I knew. It was really cool. I’ve followed and even participated in a number of other conversations started by Terry and always enjoyed them. The very fact that I can be sitting in my home, having discussions with people from all over the world at the same time is just amazing.

But it seems like there is trouble in paradise.
It seems like there are twitterers out there who feel like they have the right to say whatever they want or feel to the people they follow; who feel like they have the right to be mean, to chastise, to demand attention, to spread rumors without any regard to how their 140 characters can hurt the people they are aimed at. And in addition there are others who feel they themselves have been terribly hurt and thus have the right to hurl hurt back at anyone they can. The Internet can be a fantastic place but its defining anonymity can also cause it to be a very terrible place. So all I seem to be reading from my favorite Twittering people is how twitterers are throwing mud at each other, blaming others for feeling hurt and abused.

As a kid growing up I remember being called a lot of unpleasant names. Tall, skinny, freckled and with out of control curly dark auburn hair; beanpole, stringbean, jolly green giant were just some of the things I got to hear thrown at me. My mother telling me that “Sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you” didn’t really make me feel better. I knew that names definitely could hurt me. I had to learn very early that the names people threw at me didn’t define what I thought of myself. Perhaps I just learned to grow a thick skin. And I learned to develop a very fine-tuned sense of humor about things. Maybe the younger generation, a product of helicopter parents have never learned the lessons that I did, never learned how to grow a thick skin.

As I said earlier 140 characters are not really enough to convey nuance. In response to all this recent discussion of misery and unhappiness on all sides, I posted a tweet that was trying to remind people that 140 characters do not always offer enough nuance to accurately be able to distinguish between humor, irony and satire and what might be meant as a joke could sound like an attack. It can be very easy to misinterpret what is actually being said and a bit of a sense of humor was necessary when responding to those few characters. I suggested that people should lighten up. I was accused of possibly sounding dismissive and unfairly minimizing other people’s feelings – two things I was most definitely not doing. My #lightenup was being offered as a bit of humor but that obviously wasn’t coming through and it was judged to be judgmental instead and assumed to be hurtful.

There are plenty of other things out there to feel hurt and sad and just plain awful about: child slavery, climate change, decimation of animal species, ocean acidification and the bleaching of coral reefs, poverty, hunger, lack of clean drinking water, small children picking up a gun and killing their parents. Go ahead, pick one to feel bad about. But don’t let 140 characters, without any nuance, do that to you. Its really not worth it.

My mother also used to say, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again”. She didn’t make that up either – she got it from the song but there she was actually right. So I am going to paraphrase what Terry said (if she allows me to) “Hopefully we are all done now.” And even if she feels that she and Ron will never get closure, she still felt ready to say, “I am moving on.”

And on one final note, as a fan, I am remembering our own favorite Jamie Fraser, telling his daughter how he was able to forgive and move beyond the terrible things that Jack Randall had done to him. (If this is a spoiler for non-book readers, then I am sorry) Can we in the fandom be any less than our favorite hero? Can we forgive? Can we move on? Can we take what is written in 140 characters not so to heart but with a bit of humor and try to expect the best of people rather than the worst so that I can wholeheartedly enjoy following my obsession once again? Life is much nicer that way too. IMHO.


Apr 26 2016

Passover 2016

This year was a very busy one for me Passover-wise. I organized or celebrated or participated in almost 4 Seders this past weekend. The planning process started many weeks ago for two of them. While not an actual Seder, the weekend started off on Friday evening with dinner at the home of the chair of the Progressive Judaism i Stockholm association. Together with other board members, I had a chance to sit down to a wonderful dinner and a lively conversation with Rabbi Eli Reich who would lead the PJS Seder that I would attend on Saturday evening. Later that night, at 12.30 am, I sat down with my cousins in New Jersey at their Seder via SKYPE. And finally on Sunday was my own J.A.P.S.* Seder which I have been leading since the late 1990s. 

I had the following words to say before we started this year’s Seder.

Passover seder 2016

Passover seder 2016

 

Hi everyone. I want to start off by saying that I am very glad to see all of us gathered here together again to celebrate Passover.

Two days ago, on Friday night, I was able to take part in the Seder that my cousins held in New Jersey. At midnight, my laptop sat on my kitchen counter while I prepared the matzah balls which we will all share later this evening. A similar laptop sat at the dining table in my cousin’s house in the US. Through the miracle of modern tech, I was able to say hello to my uncle & aunt and all their children and grandchildren. And they were able to see me sitting here in Stockholm as I listened to them saying the prayers and eating their matzah.  

I think our group of Jewish Americans here in Stockholm have been gathering, most of us at least, to celebrate this holiday since about 1998. Back then our children were all little kids and now as I look around, a good many of those kids are looking pretty grown up these days. When I used to make my list of who were coming to a J.A.P.S. gathering I usually grouped people by family and the emails went out to the grownups. But now our younger family members are starting to have their own position on my list. Many of you have had your own emails for quite awhile already. You, Carly coming with Peter, you have your own space on that list, as do Nadine with Mattias. As one gets to the point of volunteering your own contribution of what to bring to our holiday gatherings, you get your own place on the list. And that is as it should be.

For all the years I attended Passover Seders when I still lived in New York, I don’t think I ever brought anything more involved than a bouquet of flowers to either my mother or my aunt’s house. My Mother and my Aunt took care of all the food. My Grandmother while she was alive contributed the chopped liver.

The holiday of Passover is a time for looking backward, as we remind ourselves of the days when we were slaves in Egypt; a time for looking at the present and being grateful that we can live our lives as free human beings; and a time for looking forward when we end the service with the thought of next year in Jerusalem.

Probably the idea of looking back is why, as Passover draws closer, I often find myself thinking of past Seders which I have been part of with my family and my cousins.  Most of my family members were loud, noisy and opinionated and seriously lacking in any diplomatic skills. Traits which I have also inherited, for both good and bad. No one was able to finish a sentence before someone else butted in and every statement was met with a rebuttal. My father and my aunt, who both married into the family learned to keep pretty quiet. Each family gathering contained at least one argument about something and rarely did we get through a whole meal without someone leaving the table crying. We just accepted that as normal and saw no problem with it. I don’t know what the outsiders I occasionally brought with me must have thought of us. But regardless of all that, I still find myself remembering those Seders fondly because of the memory of family that they bring back. And that was something I missed, here in Sweden, family.

This group of people, all of you sitting here tonight are here because I gathered all of you together! I didn’t do it for any of you or to satisfy your needs. I did it totally selfishly – I did it for myself. Because I wanted a family that I could feel comfortable sharing Passover with. I had no way of knowing if the people I met almost 20 years ago would still be here with me, sitting in front of me, today. But here you are.

Starting in June I will officially be retired, a pensionär as we say here in Swedish. I have no idea how this happened. How did I get so old? I admit that it was not something I was looking forward to. But here I am. Standing on the brink of a new chapter of life.

The words at the end of the Seder about “next year in Jerusalem” are often believed by the orthodox to express the hope that in the future the Jews will return to Israel and rebuild the temple. I don’t take it so literally. I believe that it is a metaphor used to express the belief and the hope that we Jews will have a next year. And another. And another. That we will have a future.

And I for one can say, that as I enter this new chapter of my life, this uncharted future, I am so glad that I can start this journey with this family that sits before me.

So now let us start our Seder, and retell the story of our past, be grateful for our present and look forward to our future.

 

*J.A.P.S. – Jewish American Parents in Stockholm


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Mar 5 2016

PTSD

Its been over two months now since I last went to work at my job as graphic designer at IGBP. In December, I had a great time during my week in San Francisco with my now former co-workers. In January I met up with a few of them again when I went to my former work place to hand in my elevator key and assorted final documents. We sat around and had fika together. We talked about getting together again later in the month – maybe for drinks or even dinner.

At every workplace, there are always going to be people who find new jobs or whatever and leave. And that is normal. Sometimes one stays in touch, sometimes they are never to be seen again except maybe unexpectedly on a street corner. Many of my oldest and closest friends are people I’ve taken with me on my life journey from a place of work. And the thing is, you never know in advance who, from the job, that will be. Some workmates fade away and some stick around.  But the closing of IGBP was a bit different. Yes, a few souls saw the writing on the wall and left before we closed but it didn’t feel like they really left. They still felt like part of us anyway. But when a place closes down, scattering everyone, all at the same time, that feels different. Its almost too abrupt to really take in. So I sit here wondering what happened to my life. Because the place one works is a very large part of one’s life.

This morning a former co-worker called me. She reminded me that I had never answered her email from more than a month ago. How was I, she wanted to know. Yes, how am I, in my current stage of unemployment? I don’t really know.

I do the things I have to do. I dealt with försäkringskassan regarding my sprained ankle and cracked elbow when I first got home from California. I signed up with Arbetsförmedlingen so they would know I was unemployed and with my A-kassan so that I would get unemployment benefits while looking for a new job. I had a meeting with my adviser from Trygghetsrådet to once more discuss my updating of my CV. I worked to finish my updated Graphic portfolio and put it up online. And I made appointments with my physical therapist to get my injured limbs back in working order. All of this took time and lots of paperwork, phone calls and the odd meeting now and again. Getting myself to do it was like pulling teeth but since I had to do it, I did it. And in between doing them I did very little else.

I slept a lot, often not rising till noon. I stared at the face of my smart phone, obsessively looking at Facebook and Twitter. I re-read Outlander novels while lying on my bed and played the various episodes on the TV while I made dinner in the evening. I didn’t need to look at the TV – I knew each episode by heart so listening was good enough. I went to the grocery store to buy food. Occaisionally I would actually go out and meet some friend but mainly I stayed home. Hiding in my cave. Like the good crabby Cancerian that I was. Life had just gotten too big for me. Too overwhelming. Too confusing. So I am just hunkering down and working on ignoring it as much as possible. Until it figures itself out.