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Lately I’ve been thinking of the relationship between my various selves: who I am now, what I owe to my younger self, what I should do for my older self. So I decided to write them both a letter. Here is the first one:

Dear Anya-of-the-past,

First of all, don’t worry. I’m not going to spend this whole letter scolding you. Okay, maybe just a little. But I want to say the good things first.

I really appreciate that you paid attention in school. This might sound trite, but it actually made a huge difference. The things you learned there proved the most useful in my life – like fractions, and elementary statistics, and geometry. It was great that you paid attention in your honors history and literature classes, because the man that you, I mean I, am with now, just happens to be a philosopher, and you – I wouldn’t be able to even feign understanding if we didn’t know some basic concepts or names.

Also, thank you for sticking with orchestra all through high-school, and for piano. You don’t know how much joy I am still reaping from the experience and knowledge gained there. And in case you’re wondering, neither you nor I will ever really regret not going to parties or getting drunk or wasting away our teenagehood. But for that I guess you or I should thank our parents and friends – that lifestyle was never even a temptation.

Now about you-know-what. Those student loans of yours – ouch. I understand you were not very well informed. And I understand your situation perfectly. I’ve been there…. I know. But you should have thought of me. YOU took them out, and I am left paying them, only now they are much larger, and now I have children to support. And unlike you, I am actually thinking about Anya-Future: she’s gonna be old and feeble, and won’t be able to support herself, so I have to put some money away for her too. If you had gone to community college your first two years, you would have saved me, and us all, a lot of grief. But alas, you were consumed by your present self, which is typical.

The other thing I’d like you to think about is this: why do you do the things you do. Now I know what you’re gonna say, so don’t bother. Just think about it. Some of your undertakings will prove long-lasting, others will prove a waste of time. It would be nice if we could tilt the scale in favor of the former.

Overall, though, you’re doing good. Take care of yourself and spend more time at the beach.

– Anya

*                                  *                                  *                                      *

Surprisingly, a few days later I got a response in the mail. In a hurried, scribbled chicken-scratch is said:

Dear Anya,

Thanks for dropping me a line – I appreciate the sentiment, although it is kind of weird hearing from you. I’m glad the stuff I learned ends up being useful. Don’t take it personally, but I was doing it more for me, the process of learning was enjoyable.

As for the loans, I had to do what I had to do. You’re reaping the benefits of my education now, and so it’s only fair that you should pay now. I will try to take it easy once in a while, but life is so short, you know? And there is so much for me to accomplish, to try, to experience. I have to run.

Catch ya later,

Anya-of-the-past

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About a month ago we celebrated my son’s 6th birthday. There were other mothers at the party, and I got to talking to one of them about children. She mentioned that she had an older son, and when I inquired about his age, she said he was 18. I instinctively thought, “Wow, she looks so young but her son is almost my age…” Only a few minutes later, looking out at my children playing did I realize: I am almost thirty.

Now, as I sit here eating the remnants of my birthday cake, I wonder about age, and growing up, and growing old.

More and more often I find myself thinking, “…but that was ten years ago”. What have I been doing these past ten years? Where have I been? Most of my friends on Facebook are people I met in my teens, kids from school and church, their parents, and, curiously now – their children. Having them so vividly in my memory, I cannot help but notice the physical changes that time has impressed. From 20 to 30, about 70% of my friends gained weight. From fresh and peach-fuzzed they have become amorphous, slushy. Those who have maintained their physical appearance have turned more crisp, all of their features settling in, emphasized by fine creases. For example, now when someone smiles, the corners of their mouth fall into pre-defined crevices – smile wrinkles that weren’t there before. This is a definite indication of age. Also, while ten years ago the softness below the cheekbones protruded ever so slightly to give faces a smooth, roundish complexion, now the cheekbones are exposed, and the cheeks aren’t as full as they used to be. It’s as if the face has become more rigidized: it bends only along its familiar lines of expression.

Physical inevitabilities set aside, thirty, for me, raises several important questions. Do I have to start wearing make-up now? Should I stop climbing the playground equipment with my kids? Should I stop climbing trees? At which point does looking like a fifteen-year-old stop being advantageous? At which point does “looking youthful and silly” turn into “being old and looking pathetic because you’re in denial about your age”? I also wonder about how long I get to look forward into the future for “grand and magnificent things yet to come”. I wonder about when my metabolism will slow down and I won’t be able to chow down cheesecake and donuts with no penalties to my waistline.

There is also that nagging fear that maybe this is the decade in which natural self-regeneration mechanisms start slowing down (which means I’ll have to actually watch my diet, how much I sleep, how much I exercise). Maybe this is even the decade that the little quirks in my body will stop going away on their own. I will have to go to the doctor and “get things fixed” and then pay attention so that they “don’t get broken” again.

The most poignant part about turning thirty is that now I can look back and realize that this is the way my life is turning out. Some mysterious have been revealed. I will live to see thirty. I will get married. I will be divorced. Some of these realizations are painful: I will have only two biological children. I will not have a nuclear family of my own. I will not be a gymnastic Olympic champion. That ship has sailed. Some other revelations are joyous: I will have two children! I will get to work for NASA, doing important things for the ISS Program. I will reach 30 with three of my grandparents still living and in good health. I will get to fall in love, I will get to be happy.

Time did crazy things with me my first two decades of life, but I can say that I was fully cognizant for the past 10 years. I was an adult this whole time, and hours did not seem to go on forever, while years actually took some time to pass. Looking back I have a good feeling of what “ten years” is, and looking forward, I can say that I have just five or six of these chunks of time left. At best. Just five of these finite, tangible pieces of time on Earth. That imparts some real urgency and yet, less and less I find myself wanting to run around grabbing blindly at every activity, thought or project that comes my way. I have a slight suspicion that a lot of the things I’ve done don’t really matter. But something else matters. Something somewhere just out of reach. Maybe I get to figure that out this decade too.

We got Suzy over a year ago, when she was still a baby. Once she got used to our smells and our hands, she was a genuinely happy, easy-going hamster. When we held her or played with her, she never bit us, didn’t poo on the carpet, and didn’t chew through our clothes. She could have easily passed for the archetypal small pet, were it not for one outstanding quality. Suzy was dead set on escaping.

The problem was that we housed her in a glass aquarium (with bedding and a igloo home and a wheel and everything), so there was no way for her to get out. She really tried though. First she perfected the “belly polish”. What she did was try to climb right up the vertical, slippery walls of her encasement. She’d jump against the wall, feet and little paws flailing wildly, and slip down, and stand back up on her hind legs, jump again and slip down. This, in real time, looked like she was doing the boogie with the aquarium. All you could hear were little claws on glass and an occasional thud as she pounced on the wall with ever-present determination.

Then there were the couple of times that she actually escaped – once because she brilliantly pushed the rolling wheel on its side, against the glass wall, climbed up and out. Another time because she managed to pull herself up on top of the wheel without it spinning (a feat in itself) and jumped out.

Suzy’s most elaborate attempts at escape happened at around 11pm each night, when you’d begin hearing a rhythmic thumping noise, as if plastic was hitting glass. This was the sound of an acrobatic hamster trying to wedge herself between the corner of the aquarium and her water bottle, and using the pressure of the bottle against the wall to hoist herself up.

Observing these rituals night after night, I began suspecting that our hamster was not having the quality of life that she deserved. She didn’t play with her wheel, didn’t relax and enjoy the evening sunlight streaming through the windows. Instead, she dedicated most every waking moment to the futile task of running away, each night “forgetting” the failures of the previous evening and committing herself all over again to her limited repertoire of escape tactics. In time, this became unbearable to watch – her predicament so closely mirrored our own. And so I decided to buy her a new home.

After an eventful trip to PetSmart, the kids and I brought home a three-story hamster haven, complete with water bottle, feeding plate, ladders, slides, and a plastic running wheel. We also got her the off-white, super-absorbent baby-soft fabric “chips” instead of the woodchips we previously used. Her luxury home was finally ready and we showed her inside. Suzy seemed excited to be in her new place – she carefully clambered up and down the stairs, made a cozy nest in the corner, and ate the food lovingly placed in her dish. We watched her for some time as she explored, but then bedtime routines got underway and she was left to her devices.

Later than evening, when the house was finally quiet, I heard a curious noise coming from Suzy’s corner. I came closer and there she was, chewing maniacally on the green metal bars that formed her cage. After everything that we did for her, she chose to spend her evening (and many evenings to follow) planning and executing various attempts of escape.  Seeing her this way, something turned within me. Finally I had greater insight into the tragic plight of the hamster condition.

(The tale continues here , when Suzy writes about her owner…)

A while ago a good friend and I were talking about time management and restlessness. I have an issue with there never being enough time, and with an inability to dedicate the little time I have to one single thing. I get distracted, start wondering if this is really the best way to spend the 1 hour gleaned between work and picking up the kids, and in the end get nothing done and feel a failure. Or even – I DO get things done but don’t enjoy the process. Exasperated, I shared all of this with him. He patiently listened, smiled, and nodded, “I totally understand. I used to be the same way…”

Being 20 years his junior, I get that a lot.

I told him that I want to live life fully, to live each day as if it were my last. He responded, “I’ve come to realize that you have to live life as if you’re going to live forever.” I raised an eyebrow. He continued, “You have to be generous with your time. Do you want an hour of my life to complain about your boss? Sure – here you go. Would you like 30 minutes to keep me on hold – go right ahead. Are you all going to keep me stuck in traffic for two hours? By all means – I’m not in a rush, I have all the time in the world…”

Wise man, he is. This idea, at first counter-intuitive and absurd, has the potential to be life-altering. Think about it: in the end we’re all going to be dead. At that point it’s not really going to matter whether you rushed around like a headless chicken your whole life, accomplishing, checking things off your lists, not being present but being transient. It only makes the difference now. And now wouldn’t you rather live calmly, peacefully, being present in the moment and not just rushing through it to get to the next?

There is something deeply comforting in spending time with this friend. On a psychological level, it is painful, traumatic when the person you are trying to interact with is constantly being distracted. You feel as if you are not important. You notice they are already thinking about the next lunch date, planning their evening, or fretting about work instead of just being there with you. When you perceive this, you are not likely to open up. You feel trapped in a short time-slot and don’t say much beyond the platitudes and stock phrases that the other person reacts to in the usual, accepted way. With this friend it’s different. It’s as if he is there to stay – you really feel like he has no place to go, like he could just chat with you for many hours. And it is because he has made the decision to live each day as if he will live forever.

I have tried to implement this principle in my interactions with the kids, because I have noticed that they’re often at a high level of anxiety, especially at home. Since I am (usually) not able to give them my full attention for very long (I get distracted), they must feel that they don’t get the attention at all. As a result, they are always demanding, begging, bartering, or stealing it. If you think that yearned-for attention can be abruptly removed from you at any moment, you act out: you’re loud, obnoxious, annoying. You tell stupid jokes or don’t stop to listen for fear of losing your audience. The other extreme is just as dangerous: you retreat within yourself and don’t make contact, because making it and then losing it hurts more. So I am trying with my kids to give them time.

It is extremely difficult, but very important. As I do, I feel the changes in me, and in them. As for what I could have been doing instead – I try not to panic. Because I do have almost all the time in the world. At least I have as much as the world will give.

One day in the life of Anna Sergeevna

Wake up! (wake up)
Grab a brush and put on a little make-up!

It’s 6am, still dark outside, the home is sleeping peacefully. In my near-sleep I go through the familiars of waking up. Of course there is no make-up, and a brush only on a slow day. Which is not today. Waking up has lost its sting years ago, and even now on a good day I will wake up at least 2-3 times. Someone invariably wants to go pee, or drink some milk (the never-ending cycle) or has a scary dream. The problem is not getting up. It’s staying up. But that comes later.

Half an hour sputtering around the house, and now I am driving to work. There, I prepare to interpret at a teleconference on software development for the International Space Station mockups. I have never done this topic before. I brace myself for the worst as 7:30 am rolls around, and the telecon gets underway.

I get what I asked for. The connection with the Russians is terrible, nobody really knows what they want and/or what they’re looking for from their counterparts, I don’t hear half of what is being said, and don’t understand the other half, and towards the end of the conversations, comments like “I don’t think we’re understanding each other” and “I am very confused” start popping up more and more often. I sort of want to shoot myself.

As the US specialist makes closing remarks, the Russians are completely silent. The tension is palpable. Then, to top off an already miserable hour, he throws in: “I just have a last quick question: is the functioning described in single or multiple form?” Say what? I translate, sort of, and wait for a reply. None comes. After a pregnant silence, the US gentleman continues, “Well that’s Ok. You don’t have to answer that today…” Awkward!!! Still silence. Turns out, the Russians got disconnected several minutes ago. I thank all of the interpretation gods for this one bit of mercy, politely close the telecon with the Americans, and schlep myself out of the office.

Then…madly dash to the car, drive home, dress and mostly feed everyone, stuff them all in the car, drive the kids to school, talk to the principal about painting a mural for Miss V’s classroom, back to the car and back to work. An hour passes.

At work I work. This is the slowest eight hours of the day.

I leave work early. Right as I step outside, Hubby pulls up, perfect timing, and we drive home together. There, another whirlwind through the house, as if a perfect reflection of the rush in the morning. Dressing down. Grungy paint-colored shorts, Revolution! shirt, grab them keys and fly out the door. Destination? Climbing gym. (I’ve been here before).

On my way to the Space City Climbing Gym I call Dad. It’s becoming a habit – calling Dad while driving to climbing. I talk to him about the myriad of fascinating information I picked up while not really working at work. Particularly, I dwell on fairy tales and their grotesque nature, and how they were never really meant for children. Dad mentions that the realities were different “back then”, and so perhaps it was not so shocking to think that, for instance, parents would take their children into the forest to be eaten by wolves because there was a major famine in the land. I also mention that haunting tale of Bluebeard, written by Charles Perrault. Great story line for a Hannibal sequel, not so much for a bedtime story. Gory, gory…I cannot fathom what the author or the publishers were thinking (and continue to think…I mean, violence, deceit, rage, vengeance…are these the values we want to be teaching our children?)

Dad talks to me about tilapia.

A few years ago, when I was studying at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, one of my professors mentioned a great, just-getting-started business opportunity: tilapia farming. The key is that it should work as a closed circuit: you grow plants (like tomatoes) in the pools where the tilapia is raised. The excrement from the fish is perfect food for the plants (no need for soil, even), while the bacteria growing on the roots of the plants is perfect food for the fish. In theory, this is a lovely, sustainable scheme. I shared the idea with Dad back then, and he’s been thinking about it ever since.

Problem is, the food provided by the plants is not enough for the fish, and the excrement from the fish is not enough to feed the plants (unless you have a very high fish density…which is not healthy). So it turns out that in practice, much of the cost of this whole enterprise is the cost of the fish food. Dad has been thinking about how to create this fish food for free, and make the whole system more sustainable and independent…A very interesting idea which must be developed and realized. Only not at this moment, as I have reached the climbing center.

There, I am reminded of the most debilitating quality in any adventurous endeavor: fear. A few years ago I went through an experience that made me feel, through and through, that I am, in fact, mortal. Since then I have been more fearful, on a nearly unconscious level, and less eager to take risks. And with climbing, risk-taking is a necessity. I may boulder peacefully over the lower strata of the climbing terrain, but as I clamber higher (note: bouldering is done without a harnass – if you fall, you just fall. There is a limit to how high you are allowed to climb this way, and that limit is a line drawn across the entire gym, about 13 feet off the ground), I begin thinking of the discomfort I may experience if I fall. If I am on a sloping down part of the wall (one that looks like this /, with me on left), I begin imagining how that jagged hand-hold or foot hold will feel as it graces my entire abdomen as I glide down the slope to the bottom. If I am on the other side of the /, hanging on for dear life, I start picturing the breath knocked out of me if I fall flat on my back. Of course, nothing happens. But it does make for a more careful, and thereby less adventurous, climb.

Then…back to the car, drive to pick the kids up from school, rush home for a quick dinner, and out to dancing lessons for little Miss V. While she is plie-ing and tumbling her heart out, Mr.Leo and I hit up the near-by grocery store, load up on cellulose and vitamins A-E, grab a sausage for good measure, and head back to pick up the ballerina.

At home there is grocery unloading, crying, tired children, bedtime routines, books read, teeth not brushed, house not cleaned, lullabies sung and children finally asleep at around 10pm.

Their shell-shocked mama bums around for another two hours or so, picking up a stray sock here, munching on a carrot there, oh yeah, having some dinner at around 11pm, and dozing to guitar serenades by her guitarist husband. Sometime later…

The house is quiet, everyone is sleeping peacefully, and I clock out too. A day well spent.

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