May 30 2020

First the bell bottoms came back

The crowd on Day 1 of the Woodstock Festival on August 15, 1969. Clayton Call/Redferns

Back in the 60s, my baby boomer generation rode the interstate buses into the south to protest segregation in the southern states. My generation protested at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and were met with the use of extreme violence by the Chicago police force. My generation stood up and called out shady backroom politics. We demonstrated for clean water and clean air. We toppled a dishonest president. We ended an unjust war. We wore our bell bottoms and we changed the world. We thought we had fixed things.

The word Boomer seems to have become a bad word lately, connoting all kinds of unpleasant things about my generation. By now we have gotten old, and people have forgotten what we did. 

I no longer live in New York, the city of my heart. I haven’t lived there for over 30 years. I view America from afar. When I meet someone new and we spend a bit of time exchanging the Cliff Notes of our lives, I usually summarize myself by saying “I’m an old hippy”. Perhaps this isn’t completely honest. Though I went around braless, I never lived in a commune. I didn’t practice free love and have sex with anyone who seemed interested. I attended a few peace marches but that was mainly because a boy I liked wanted to go. While I smoked pot on occasion I didn’t spend my days in a daze. I didn’t attend Woodstock. But I still feel I can nevertheless call myself an old hippy. That’s how I identified back then when I was young, wearing long flowered skirts and sandals (in the summer) and my hair a wild curly mass…for a short period of time. Life is usually lived in short periods of time. We are something for a while and then we evolve. Inside we stay who we are. It’s just our outside trappings that change. I gave up my patched bell bottomed jeans for mid-calf length flowy dresses that were replaced by broad-shouldered suits that became baggy-waist pants that turned into tunics over leggings. But I’m still me underneath.

I still love New York though I no longer belong there. I still love a good argument. I still believe people are fools, all of us, but we should at least be friendly and show consideration and respect. I still love science fiction and hate oysters. And while I believe in the equality of all human beings and their right to be able to live a decent life within a just system regardless of race or gender or social status or hairstyle or clothing choices, I still reserve to right to choose who I like and wish to be friends with. Though everybody is equal I have no desire to love everyone equally.

I read my electronic New York Times subscription from here in Stockholm. I read articles from CNN or the few stories I am allowed from the Washington Post without a paid subscription. I look at the things people share on Facebook and Twitter. And I get very scared. Black men get killed while jogging and a white woman threatens a black man with a bold-faced lie to the police about him endangering her. The only thing new about this is that they are being filmed, live as it is happening, like the reportage from the Vietnam war in the 60s and 70s. Synagogues are attacked. And churches. Men with military grade weaponry feel they have the right to threaten State capital buildings and the police just look on. Right wing fascists are rioting, burning buildings, reminding me of Kristallnacht in the 1930s, though this time it isn’t specifically aimed at only Jewish citizens. But the purpose is the same – to create havoc, to tumble society. Demonstrators are marching again, protesting injustice. And like at Kent State, the police are firing on them. 

I read all this and it worries me, a lot. There is a vacuum in the place where the head of state of the USA should be. Instead there is a man totally unfit to be there, filled with anti everything that is good and decent and humane and sane. There is so much wrong with America now and once again it is all coming to the surface, into plain sight. My generation thought we fixed things. We had that hope at least. We obviously didn’t. Hans Rosling, the Swedish academic, believed that statistically the world was improving for the majority of people. But the things that are still wrong in the world can’t be fixed all in one fell swoop. Perhaps it is up to each generation to stand up and say “This is wrong” and demand change. Time to protest, time to demonstrate, time to march, time to stand up and be heard. Change for the better won’t be able to happen until the current administration is voted out and its enablers in the Republican Party are also voted out.  

But right now, it’s the 60s all over again baby. The struggle is here once more. Put your bell bottoms on and start getting on with it. 

And just for a bit of memory and inspiration…My Generation by the Who.
Photo credit: The crowd on Day 1 of the Woodstock Festival on August 15, 1969. 
Clayton Call/Redferns


Feb 3 2020

60+

I recently attended the birthday party of a friend who had just turned 60.  After I got the Save-the-Date, I told my friend that I probably wouldn’t be going. Not because I didn’t want to celebrate his birthday but because the party location was a bit out of my comfort zone – after all it was beyond the borders of the Stockholm subway map and everyone knows that I hate traveling. But in leu of my presence I decided to send him the Just Hilarie blog piece which I wrote nine years ago when I turned 60.

He wrote back to tell me that he read my piece but what he really wanted to know was if I had any advice for him about what to expect or consider in the next decade now that he was also turning 60. And then he made me feel guilty for not wanting to come to his party. Guilt I understand. Afterall, I am Jewish. So I told him I would be there. And…that I would give some thought to his question and try to find something pithy and enlightening to say at his party.

First I thought I could just cobble something together from some of the other pieces I had written about aging (you can find them under Aging in the word cloud to the right) but after doing some copy/pasting I felt nothing was working. Instead, I decided to start at the beginning and make a list of what had happened to me in the 9 years since my big 6 0. I figured if I made a list of the life changing, influential events that took place since that summer day nine years ago at our country house, I would be able to come up with some ideas for him.

Here was my list of events, not in order of importance but just as they happened in the timeline:

  • Mom spends a slow month dying as I sit by her bed and watch.
  • Lawsuit for unpaid (and unknown) American property taxes puts my anxiety levels through the roof and I end up taking anti-anxiety meds just to get through my days.
  • The organization I had worked for as a graphic designer, for almost 10 years, closes 6 months before I turn 65 and I am left jobless.
  • Håkan gets sick, spends 2 months in hospital and needs brain surgery.

Yeah, that should do it. That should be enough to fill a decade. No wonder I don’t want to get out of bed sometimes. But what should I tell my friend so he doesn’t end up drinking all his own booze at his party?

My first piece of advice was this:
Stay healthy. I know that everyone gives advice about exercising, taking all your vitamins and not eating a bunch of junk food. But you know what? That’s all a bunch of crap. If it helps to make you feel like you are in control of your life by doing those things, then by all means keep doing them. But if catastrophic illness strikes you, it probably doesn’t really have anything to do with exercise, vitamins or junk food. After all, James Fixx, the guy who started the jogging craze with his best-selling books about running and who preached the gospel that active people live longer, died of a heart attack on a Friday while on a solitary jog in Vermont. He was 52 years old! So, I don’t know…maybe it just means don’t jog by yourself.

Piece of advice two:
Keep on top of all your financial obligations. Know what taxes you need to pay and pay them. Don’t collect more stuff than you can afford, or need. Pay off your credit cards each month. (my mother taught me that one) Make sure you have money saved or a pension. After all who needs to have all that worry about money.
It is the real cause of wrinkles.

Piece of advice three:
Work – Keep working as long as you can (because this also applies to the previous point) but make sure it is work that you love. Or at least like. It should be something that makes you feel good about yourself, competent and appreciated by others. If you don’t get that from your work it’s time to think about retiring and finding something else that makes you feel useful and appreciated and competent. If you have been careful about point two you might be able to do this fun stuff pro-bono.

Piece of advice four:
Make phone calls. We all have that fabulous smart phone in our hands. Texting messages back and forth is great. Showing what you ate for dinner on social media is great. Email is great. But making a phone call is even greater.  A few days ago I called an old friend in New York and by old I mean I have known her a very long time – she’s actually almost 10 years younger than me. The first thing she said after hello was, “Are you OK, is everything alright? Is Håkan OK? What happened?” It took me a while to reassure her that we were all ok and that I was just calling her to say hi. We talked for over an hour. So don’t wait to call friends and family only when you have bad news. Call just to talk. Better yet – have lunch together if you are close enough. But we live in a big world and people are often far away, so call them. Use Skype if you are far away. You can look at each other and see if the other person has more wrinkles. And its cheap. See point two.

And finally, last but not least, point five:
Figure out how to laugh and do it often. Learn how to tell a joke and make other people laugh. Because life is just so crappy sometimes. It hits you when you least expect it and if you can’t laugh then you’re doomed.

So, health, work, money, loved ones and laughter.
That pretty much sums up all the advice I have to give right now. We’ll see what I can come up with in a few more years after I’ve started my big 7 0.

 


Dec 14 2019

Calling Mom

December 14 would have been my mother’s 93rd birthday.

She died about two weeks after she turned 85. I was with her the last month as she progressively passed away as the result of a no longer functioning pair of kidneys. There was no birthday cake served on that birthday, neither was her very favorite treat, ice cream. She didn’t really know that it was her birthday as she lay in her bed surrounded on both sides by hospital bed bars. The hours passed quietly that December day in the middle of New Jersey. A few friends called me but other than that the day itself went unnoticed. The next day, my uncle Wally, mom’s little brother and his wife Rosemary came out to us with a cake. My cousins Ed and Nora came too. Rosemary brought a lovely cake she made for Mom. We showed it to her but she was in her own world by then and couldn’t really notice it. We went out for Chinese food – mom stayed in her bed serenely unaware that we had been there.  After we came back we ate the cake together, without Mom, in the small staff dining room near her room. When Wally and Rosemary and Nora and Ed left, I gave the cake to the staff to share.

Today here in Stockholm, was a cold, grey day full of rain. The kind of day you don’t really want to go outside in, unless you absolutely have to. The kind of days we have had a lot of the past two months. I needed to go to the grocery store so, there you are…I had to go out. As I walked trying to avoid muddy puddles, my hood up against the rain, dragging my shopping cart behind me, I found that the day seemed to suit my mood. I thought about how long it had been since I last called my mom and told her about the weather here in Stockholm. Eight years. Hard to figure. I have spent my entire sixth decade without my mom.

She had spent her entire sixth decade without me, except for the two weeks a year that I came home to visit. I moved to Sweden when she was 61. Back in those days international phone calls were expensive and thus infrequent. Did she ever tell me that she was sad that I had moved so far away. That she missed me and wished I was there? That she loved me? Not really. Those were not the kind of words that passed between members of my family very frequently. I know she did though – miss me that is…and love me. I think she was happy that I had finally found a guy who was willing to put up with me and marry me. That he dragged me across an ocean was something else. And then we had a kid and made her and my father grandparents. That made her happy too. The once a year visits to help my parents get to know their grandchild were always too short. Then SKYPE happened and we could do more frequent calls and she and Bevin could actually look at each other when they talked. That made the distance less.

The last years before she moved to her independent living apartment at Monroe Village, I called her a lot. We didn’t really have much to say. She wasn’t so interested in talking about the past and the future was so uncertain. We talked about dinner and weather and how Bevin was doing in school. She frequently asked when we would next come to visit. I kept saying we would come visit but later. After a while, the reason I called her every day was to make sure she could answer the phone. After she met Marty, I didn’t have to call so often. She was busy and not so alone. There was someone there who looked after her. And I think she looked after him. They kept each other company.

But today, on her birthday, as I walked in the rain, I really felt like I wanted to call my mom, to talk to her. To say hi, to tell her how I was doing, how we are still trying to get Bevin to move into the apartment he bought, how life was going.

I lived far away from my mother for so many years. But I always had in the back of my mind that she was just over there, out of sight, but just a phone call away. I am an expert at procrastination. So as I walked, trying to keep my boots from getting too muddy, I said to myself, I’ll call her tomorrow.

And tomorrow, I will say it again.

Me and Mom eating Chinese food at home in Stockholm. 2006


Nov 2 2019

My Mini High School Reunion

I graduated from high school fifty years ago! I find that hard to believe. It goes along with realizing that fifty years ago my generation went to Woodstock and fifty years ago human beings walked on the moon.

This past July, a group of fellow former seniors from West Morris Regional High School in northern New Jersey attended our class’s 50th reunion. A reunion committee had spent almost a year planning the event and I admit to feeling a bit nostalgic as I kept getting planning updates. But I didn’t go. I rarely travel back to the States during Swedish summer – my husband and I have a country house that the only time we can be there is in the summer.

Only fifteen years ago, the majority of my classmates had become just dusty memories from an old yearbook. The last time I actually met – in person – anyone from my New Jersey school days, was 40 years ago when I attended our tenth reunion. But now, many of my former schoolmates are friends on Facebook and even though I haven’t met them in real life, I’ve seen pictures of their grandchildren.

A few years ago, I finally had the chance to unpack a load of books carted over here from New York City and never seen again in almost 30 years. My high school yearbooks were among them. Opening the books was a walk down memory lane. I discovered, much to my surprise, that my senior class had had an exchange student that year who came from Sweden! What a weird coincidence, I thought. I had not shared any classes with him so didn’t really know him. I had a vague memory of sitting in at a talk he gave about Stockholm with slides showing pictures of the city but that was all.

Britta Jacobsen was a high school friend who had Swedish parents, something I gave little thought to, even when she came into school wearing the most unusual clogs with perforated white leather tops that she got on a trip back to visit her parent’s homeland.  Her mother and brother eventually moved back to Sweden – but to the Gothenburg area, not to Stockholm, so we have not had a chance to meet. As part of the reunion planning committee, she messaged me last year, asking if I could try to track down our former Swedish exchange student, Lars Göran Thambert. Luckily, he had a rather unusual name and I was able to locate him on LinkedIn. I wrote to him there, explaining who I was and about the reunion. He never wrote back and I let it drop. I did however send his LinkedIn info to the reunion committee and Wayne Myers also sent him a message. This message landed just when Lars was on one of his rare visits there. He wrote back to Wayne and eventually made a video about himself that was shown at the reunion. Lars also discovered my letter to him and answered me. We exchanged a few emails and decided to get in touch and meet for Swedish Fika in Stockholm after the summer. I told him I would let him judge for himself how good my Swedish had become after living here for over 30 years.

We planned a date in the middle of October at my favorite cafe here on Södermalm near where I live. I wondered how I would recognize him, a person I never knew all those years ago but I took another look at the video he made to get an idea of what he looked like today. We exchanged phone numbers and I figured if we couldn’t recognize each other we could call the other’s phone and listen to see who in the cafe’s phone was ringing. Modern times!

Its been along time since I’ve been on a blind date but I still remember that feeling of worrying if we would have anything to talk about. Lars had said in his video that he was an architect, so I figured conversation could flow no matter what. Back in high school, the two career paths I was considering were either Fashion Design or Architecture. I choose Fashion but after two years at Pratt, I switched to Commercial Art/Illustration. I had been scared of choosing architecture because I felt math and science were not really my thing. Once I got to Pratt, it turned out that many of the guys I became best friends with were from the architecture program anyway. And many of them told me that math and science were not their thing either. Go figure.

The day came and I sat myself down at a table in Vurma with my latte, a cardamon bulla and with my yearbook clearly visible.

This is how we looked in 1969

I recognized him immediately as he came in the door and gave a wave. He ordered a sandwich and we started talking. We started off by looking though the yearbook, pointing out people who we had been friends with and just reminiscing about life in NJ all those years ago. He is still in touch with the family that hosted him back then. I told him about Art School. He told me about the architectural projects he has worked on here in Stockholm, some of them quite large projects. We both have had our own companies and agreed we like being able to choose who and what we work with. I told him my story about how I landed here. He told about his grandchildren and I told how I am still trying to get my grown son to move into his new apartment. We discussed art and architecture and design. The almost 3 hours flew by. I had to finally go home to make dinner for my family and he was about to meet his daughter to go to see an exhibit of furniture design. We said good bye, agreeing to keep in touch.

I am so glad I met Lars. It was a lovely afternoon. But more than that, knowing that there is someone here in my adopted homeland who shares a part of my long distant past is somehow comforting. The world is a big place and when you are young you never know where your life will take you. For some people the journey is not very far while for others like myself you end up a long way from where you thought you would be. And that just proves that in spite of its size, the world can be a very small place indeed.


Jan 16 2018

Death and life

The North Chapel

The North Chapel

I went to a funeral on Friday; for a woman who was exactly the same age as I am. I have to admit that I didn’t really know her very well. We circulated amongst the same circle of American friends here in Stockholm. While I had socialized with her IRL a number of times, it was mainly through the modern world of social media that I got to know her. She was a writer, among other things, and it was through her blog that I knew her best – that was where she kept us updated on the progress of her illness that eventually got the upper hand.

It was a very nice funeral. It wasn’t the first I had attended here in Sweden so I sort of knew the ropes; I think it was my 7th actually. Is that odd to keep count of, the number of funerals one has occasion to attend? The weather was better than one might expect in Stockholm, in January – it wasn’t snowing at least or even raining but just a cold gray cheerless kind of day that we have had more than enough of this past winter. She got a pretty good turnout, in spite of the weather and it being just an ordinary Friday. I saw a lot of the Americans I know here, the people she knew too, as we all stood outside waiting to go into the chapel. Some of them I had seen recently, others – it had been a while, most of them I meet on Facebook. You search through the crowd finding the familiar faces, you go over to them, you hug, ask them how they are – an unnecessary question actually. You could tell by their faces how they were. And a funeral was not really the appropriate place to catch up on things. 

The service was calm, lovely and felt meaningful, personal. Her husband and two daughters gave emotional heartbreaking eulogies. Other friends of hers went up and talked about her. Two recorded songs were played towards the end of the service. By that Hawaiian singer. The notes of his ukulele floated up and filled the small chapel with images of sand and beach and warm sunny days. The second song was “Over the Rainbow”, one of my favorite songs since I was a small child. It wasn’t Judy Garland but maybe almost better.

After the service we all went back outside and waited for the hearse with the casket to begin a slow advance towards the gravesite with everyone following behind. That was new for me. It felt very ceremonial, to walk behind the hearse – a sombre procession on a cold gray day. At the gravesite, family members carried the casket to the grave and it was lowered in. A rectangular hole, six feet deep with a pale casket at the bottom. I know I’ve seen graves in movies or in photos but this was the first time I stood next to an open grave in real life. “It’s so deep.” was all I could think. And so final. I tossed my pink rose onto the casket lying there at the bottom. And said good-bye.

When I started writing this piece, I had only planned on putting a few words up on Facebook – to say I had been to a funeral and it had gotten me thinking about the whole getting older thing. And then I would link to a post I had written about aging. But the words grew more and more about the funeral and so ended up here instead.

I don’t think, when I was younger, that funerals disturbed me all that much. I was young. Illness and death were far away. Sad. But far away. As I age and as my Baby Boomer generation ages, death is less far away. But the people who I have known, cared about, loved, who have died, don’t seem dead to me. They are still alive – in my head. But I just can no longer call them. My smart phone seems to have lost their number. And even if I could call them, they wouldn’t answer me. But I am not going to spend my time thinking about death. It’s not really interesting to me. I’d rather think about the journey  – the process of aging. Who am I at 66 years old, the same age as my friend whose journey is over? What am I becoming? How am I different from my 25 year old self. Or am I still the same?

 Here’s a link to that older post I was going to link to on Facebook. It’s called I’m still a lot like I was and its actually about life not death.