The Freedom to Feel Ridiculous

Everybody looks ridiculous in the lazy river. That’s why you should plunge in.

Can you dress up like an Oompa-Loompa even if you are not a handsome 20-something like this guy?

Put Margaret Thatcher, the Dalai Lama or Mitt Romney in an unflattering swimsuit and an inner tube, and set them afloat on the “lazy river” that snakes through the nearest water park, and you start to see them a little differently.

Even the most dignified people look and feel ridiculous in this moving river of chlorine, which I discovered when I did it myself a few days ago. It is the sober equivalent of dancing with a lampshade on your head or singing a Taylor Swift song off-key at a karaoke bar.

Looking ridiculous has been a longtime insecurity for me, and being middle aged has made it worse. For this reason I have avoided swinging my arms too much when I am out walking, even though I’ve been told it will turbo-charge my workout. Until about 10 years ago I enjoyed boogie-boarding at the beach with my children, but now I don’t relish being tossed around by the rolling waves, so now I go in up to my knees. I don’t like cold water and what the salt does to my hair and most importantly I worry about looking ridiculous. I have plenty of company…most beach bathers are under 20, except for an occasional hardy septuagenarian swimming against the tide for exercise.

Sometimes I take this too far. Years ago we visited beautiful and historic Cape May, New Jersey, with our kids and we rented one of those 1920s-style surreys powered by bike pedals. I feigned enthusiasm but secretly worried about looking like a tacky tourist. While I did have a great time — and our kids were thrilled — I was happy to take the photos that day, so there are no records of me sitting in one of those things.

But a few days ago I took our teenage son John and two of his friends to Water Wizz, near Cape Cod. It was hot and sticky and we were lucky to get there early enough to snag a spot in the shade, where I thought I’d be content to lounge while the boys tackled the water slides and wave pool.

Soon the humidity began to stick to my face, the heat even in the shade became unbearable, and the river beckoned me. So I worked about a half cup of conditioner into my recently colored hair, tucked it under a baseball cap, waded into the holding area near the river, and placed myself in the long queue of people waiting their turn for an inner tube.

Once I had mine, I awkwardly hoisted myself onto the tube, settling my butt into the hole and dangling my arms and legs over the soft edges. I got settled just in time for the river to put me under a brisk waterfall that quickly penetrated my baseball cap and nearly knocked off the big sunglasses, that I wore to hide my face.

The day was so hot and the river was so crowded that I quickly became part of a mammoth clump of human jetsam, looking like a small version of that colorful wreckage from Japan drifting across the Pacific. We were tube to tube…a middle-aged blogger secretly fretting about her hair, a toddler in a life vest, a heavily tattooed guy, a gaggle of middle school girls in bikinis, a young dad hanging on to his preschooler’s toe, two women in Red Sox caps taking photos of each other with waterproof cameras. We floated under waterfalls together, under bridges where people gawked at us, past water slides where teenagers waited 45 minutes for their turn.

That first loop around the river leached out any decorum I had left, and I was ready for a second loop. Then a third. Then, after a rest on the lounge chair, a fourth, fifth and sixth. At one point my tube caught up with Naquaan, one of my son’s friends, and I grabbed his hand so we could float together.

Refreshed physically and mentally, I thought as we left the park that every adult should do some time in the lazy river at least once a year. It helps you rediscover the thrill you felt when you were young and brash and unafraid of looking silly.  So I’m wondering: What’s your favorite way to remind yourself not to take yourself too seriously?

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

A few years ago my old neighborhood — which included dozens of kids — had a reunion. All middle aged, we picked up where we had left off. Do new friendships get harder to form as we age?

One of my favorite Harry Chapin songs, called “Taxi,” includes this memorable line:  “And she said, ‘We must get together.’ But I knew it never’d be arranged.”

The scenario was a faded taxi driver discovering that his late-night fare was a long-lost love, who had gone on to become a famous actress while he drove a cab and got perpetually stoned.  But it might as well be the empty pleasantries that many of us exchange with people who pass in and out of our lives after age 30.

That was the theme of an intriguing column, “Friends of a Certain Age,” that appeared in the New York Times recently about the difficulties of making lasting friendships as we grow older.   Alex Williams, the author, wrote about his own travails finding new male friends in New York.  He cites studies and experts who confirm his theory that it’s harder to find deep friendship after age 30.

“As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading,” he writes. “Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

“No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”

That column hit home with me.  While I’ve been blessed with great friendships, some of them dating back more than 50 years, I’ve noticed we do have a more difficult time forming deep new friendships as we get older.  Why is it that our most profound bonds are formed over sandlot baseball games; whispered confidences at preteen pajama parties; all-night study sessions at college?  Then one day our established lives — spouses, children, jobs, household responsibilities – make us less open to it.

My widowed mom moved a few years ago to a small town outside Pennsylvania that on the surface seems to be everything a retiree would want:  safe, walkable, plenty of shops, a few minutes from my brother, who watches over her.  Yet she finds it hard to make friends.

“Everybody is already part of a clique,” she laments.  So she ditched the senior center where nobody wanted to sit with her and instead volunteered at a local school, where the young people appreciated her.  And she commutes by train to her old hometown to see the relatives left behind; and drives on treacherous roads to meet with the good friends from her long career as a high school secretary.

Many adult friendships seem to be more transient, or more “situational,” as Williams pointed out.  We become fast friends with fellow volunteers on the PTA or with people who share the early-morning shift at the gym or the 7:05 train home after work.  We bond at the playground with the fellow moms whose children are friends with our children.

Then, when we volunteer for a new committee or join a new gym, or a playground mom goes back to work, or when our children stop being friends, those bonds loosen.  We’ll run into those onetime BFFs in the supermarket after months or years and spend a few moments catching up with their lives and promise to get together, but we know it never will be arranged.

Even our deepest friendships have ebbs and flows, depending on the pulls from family, work and household duties.  I’ve learned to take it in stride when friends need to cancel plans because one of their adult children needs a ride to the airport, or when they can’t meet for dinner because they need to put up their Christmas decorations.  We’ve done that ourselves.

My Mom always has said, “Don’t expect too much from people and you won’t be disappointed.”  I think she is right.

As time goes on I gain the emotional strength I need from my husband and six children, my siblings, my mom and my husband’s great family.  And I have lucky to have some really wonderful friends and neighbors whom I can always count on.

Sometimes a friend will call and lament that it’s been so long since we’ve spoken and I always tell him or her the same thing:  I am a philodendron friend, not an African violet.  You don’t have to feed and water me every day.  Pay me some attention when you get a moment and my friendship will thrive.

Do you have any strong and lasting friendships that you made in midlife or beyond?

Gimme Swelter: 10 Tips for a Retro Summer Day

Your clothes will dry outside in less than an hour on a day like this.

Italian ice immediately lowers the temperature by at least 10 degrees.

What did we do before everybody had air-conditioning? We sought out the shade. We licked icy things. We ran through the sprinkler. We crowded in front of the most powerful fan in the house, which dried our sweat and garbled the words we spoke into it like a primitive synthesizer. We wore cotton baby doll pajamas and lay crosswise across our beds to best catch the breezes.

Soon the humidity is supposed to return to Boston, but today was still mighty hot and I wrestled with pushing the A/C button. Instead I gave myself a retro day and recreated the hot summer day of my 1960s youth…when nobody had air conditioning except for a few stores that advertised: “Come in, it’s Kool inside.” (Featuring a pack of Kool cigarettes.)

Here are a few things to try at home, guaranteed to lift your spirits and help you savor the summer regardless of the heat index. Of course, you need a clear schedule to do this.

Go barefoot through the grass early in the morning, and enjoy the cool feeling of the dew before the blazing heat turns the crabgrass all crunchy. I did this as I watered our window boxes.

This time of year gives me the blues.

Pick blueberries. They are at their peak in the sweltering days of July. Look for the ones that have shiny blue patches on them; the opaque purple ones need a few more days. Go in the morning before the heat gets unbearable.

This zucchini is great on the grill.

Visit a farm stand. Keep a local farmer in business. I found freshly picked zucchini, summer squash and the season’s first corn. I’m planning to grill the squash and make corn fritters for dinner some time.

Get some really fresh eggs. Chickens lay more eggs in hot weather, and luckily a friend of mine happens to have some in her back yard. She let me take a dozen eggs off her hands so that I could…

Make deviled eggs. The quintessential picnic food; one I never see during the winter. I use plenty of mayo, some mustard, pickle juice, salt and pepper.

Deviled eggs are the perfect retro summer snack.

Hang your clothes outside. They will dry in about an hour. When you carry them inside for folding, bury your face in the pile and inhale deeply.

Make iced tea. A half gallon of ginger peach tea is chilling in the fridge right now.

Go out for Italian ice. Cherry ice reminds me of Fourth of July in my old home town in suburban Philadelphia. The Rosati Water Ice company always gave out free cups of water ice on the fourth, complete with a wooden spoon for scraping out every bit of goodness. Today’s, alas, had a plastic spoon but it still brought me back.

For added nostalgia, make sure your purveyor of Italian ice has a window that looks like this.

Have a siesta under a whirling ceiling fan. I spent part of this afternoon reading the New York Times on our screened-in porch under the fan.

Finally:

Take a shower at night. It will wash off the day’s sweat and cool you off, and you’ll feel mighty good slipping into the sheets.

A Near “Miss” in Washington, DC

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Come to the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC, where flattery will get you everywhere.

How many midlife women remember the first time they crossed the bridge from “miss” to “ma’am”?  Was it at age 35, 40, later?

I was around 40, in a supermarket in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, pushing a cart when it happened.  Can’t remember what I was looking for, but an earnest young guy in a green apron saw my perplexed look and asked, “Can I help you find something…ma’am?

I froze. What had I done differently?  Had I forgotten the sheer pink lipstick? Was my last haircut too short?  Did I dress too much like Margaret Thatcher that day?  Was I frowning too much? All I knew was that despite workouts, lots of salad and a trunkful of Clinique, as of that day I could no longer pass as a younger woman…someone had outed me as a “ma’am.”

From that time on I noticed every time that somebody called me ma’am until I stopped counting. The ma’aming intensified when my daughter Rachel went to school in Virginia, where properly-brought-up southern youths call every married woman “ma’am.” As I grew into my middle-aged life I grew into my ma’am-dom, accommodating it gradually like a pair of jeans with lycra.

So imagine my delight last week, 17 years later, when a courtly young waiter in a white apron gave me my youth back.  We were visiting Washington, DC for some sightseeing and museum-browsing over the July 4 weekend, and found a welcome respite from DC’s relentless heat wave at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a restaurant a block from the White House.  The air conditioning, the antique paneling, the bar filled with character and characters, and the superb crab cakes brought us there for two visits.

After we sat down for our second visit, we chatted with our waiter, who looked about 27 and strongly resembled our California nephews.  We talked about those nephews, about DC and the record-breaking heat, the politicians and staffers who frequented the Pub, and the day’s specials.  When he took my order, he smiled at me and dropped the bomb:

“And what will the young lady have?”

After making sure that there were no toddler girls nearby, I looked into his eyes for a glitter of mockery but saw none…just good old-fashioned southern courtesy and warmth.  And even though I knew I really couldn’t pass any more for a much younger woman, I felt for one brief moment like I had my miss back, thanks to someone young enough to be my son.  I felt really happy and ordered that second glass of wine.

The extra wine kicked in as we stood up to leave after paying our bill, just in time to see our debonair waiter turn his attention to a nearby table, where a couple that appeared to be in their late 70s was ready to order.  He smiled warmly at the wrinkled, age-spotted woman at the table and asked, without a trace of mockery,  “And what will the young lady have?”

Are We Busy For All the Wrong Reasons?

Most of us wear way too many hats and have lives too busy for introspection. Photo courtesy of livinggreenmag.com.

The most emailed article from Sunday’s New York Times is one by writer Tim Kreider, who extols the benefits of being less busy. The article claims that for most people, busyness is more pointless than purposeful; something we do because we are afraid our lives will be meaningless if we don’t fill every second.

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider writes.

This article was timely because I just got back from vacation, which always clears the debris from my head and makes me ponder just what distractions are worth putting back in.

Kreider points out that most people keep their lives so tightly scheduled that it leaves little room for idleness and spontaneity, which feed the soul, recharge the mind and make one far more productive. He mentions a friend who left New York to live a bucolic life in the south of France and over time became a nicer, more relaxed and creative person.

The article, and the comments that follow, really struck a chord. Kreider cheerfully admits to being a bit of a slacker, working just four or five hours a day. “And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?” he adds.

A few commenters chided Kreider for taking on a topic that is really a problem only for well-to-do people who can afford to slack off (although he does acknowledge that many people have no choice but to work very hard to make ends meet.) One commenter even called the article “tragically elitist” and accused Kreider of being upper middle class or writing his essay from a family-owned vacation spot. But many more agreed that a slower, more lumbering pace is better for them, even if it means fewer creature comforts.

So why do so many people who can afford to be less busy keep up their frenetic overscheduled lives? One friend of mine recently confessed that he had to keep checking his work emails over his entire vacation. He said that people who don’t respond to his company’s group emails – even while on vacation — are talked-about and marginalized as lightweights. Another friend spends several hours a day touching base with her staff even when she is “on vacation.” She is keeping her eye on the ball: retiring early within the next five to 10 years. Even one unplugged week leaves her too far behind.

Some might say that extreme busyness is the price we need to pay for the right to be non-busy some time “in the future.” The bait shack owner in Fiji, the ski instructor in Telluride, the organic arugula grower in Nantucket, the hippie-ish adjunct professor of cultural studies…how many of them were once over-scheduled bond managers or 80-hour-per-week mid-level executives somewhere? But others might say that life is too short and we may be dead before the payoff comes; that it’s best to work in some downtime now.

What do you think?