Dare to be a Tourist

BeatnikBird

Recently, I’ve been tackling a variety of DIY tasks — things like repairing a peeling bathroom ceiling, putting the suck back into a vacuum that had gone kaput, and battling some carpenter bees that have moved into our deck. My motivation has been simple — a personal challenge to see if I could actually do-it-myself and an attempt to save a few dollars in the process.

It’s been strange terrain for me as I’ve never been terribly handy (i.e., probability’s high that I will cause unintentional harm to myself or others when I climb a ladder, grab a hammer or drop a tool.) Yet, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results.

By asking questions, getting help from in-laws or parents, and doing extensive online research, I’ve developed the courage to try. To my delight, I’ve found that I am indeed (as my 4th grade teacher once assured me) lovable and capable.

Thinking about these new challenges reminds me of something I experienced last summer and jotted down in a little, pocket-sized notebook that I’d brought along on our trip to France. Here are those notes — with a touch of editing — that I hope express my new mantra that trying is more than half the battle.

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When I lived in New York, I never had any trouble spotting tourists: they were the goofy looking ones wearing practical shoes, neon windbreakers and staring up at the towering skyline.

I couldn’t help laughing the other day when I found myself sporting exactly the same attire and striking the identical pose. There I was, part of a nature and wildlife expedition,  searching the sky for a “fantastique” bird that everyone else seemed to see.

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Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s ?#$@!!

I started to feel like the legendary Emperor presented with a spectacular new wardrobe of the transparent variety.

Should I play it cool?

“Oui, bien sûr! Je le vois… il est magnifique.”

[Yes, of course! I see it… it’s magnificent.]

Or desperate?

“Mais où??! Je vois rien de tout!”

[But where??! I see nothing at all!]

It’s an interesting predicament. Is it better to try to blend in and pretend we understand or should we ask questions, thereby admitting our lack of knowledge?

The best path I’ve found is to allow ourselves, at times, to be novices — and join the ranks of fellow tourists in the world.

Ever said “yes” to something out of politeness or pride when you really would have said “no” had you known the terms of the deal? You probably regret not asking that clarifying question.

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If we happen to be around helpful, patient people, we have everything to gain. And, if we’re around jerks who don’t want to help at all — good riddance. They’re not the ones we want to be with anyway.

Wandering a wooded path in a small provençal town, I found myself in totally unfamiliar territory. Even in English, I would be lost trying to follow a lecture on birds and wildlife. In French, with layers of precise foreign terminology — patterns, wing spans, habits, and habitats… fuggedaboutit.

Here, it was obvious I was a tourist; I was wearing the fluorescent clothes to prove it. So I went ahead and asked my questions.

The more daunting task is admitting one’s a tourist in what should be familiar situations. That’s what often happens when traveling or living abroad. Exchanging a dress, buying groceries, and simply eating become pitfall-prone treks through the wilderness.

But we have to be willing to observe, participate and ask questions if we hope to grow and become, well…  less touristy.

After all, it’s OK and even wonderful that we do things differently in our respective cultures but learning the codes of etiquette are an important, continual and necessary process.

Allowing ourselves to be beginners, whether the new frontier is birding, building or learning a foreign language, is a noble pursuit. What good would we be if we stopped learning? We’d become stagnant, boring creatures, waiting to wither away.

So, in that spirit, would somebody finally tell me how to properly slice French cheese? And how much is appropriate to take the next time the plateau is passed my way?

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If I could put time in a bottle

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No matter where I go, I always receive the same advice from total strangers:

“Squeeze those boys tight!” says the cashier at the grocery store.

“They’ll be grown before you know it,” says the lady down the street.

“I remember when my kids were that small,” says the grey-haired man in line behind us.

Their eyes glistening, I immediately know one of two things. Either a.) their own children are grown and have moved away or b.) their own children are teenagers, have not moved away and are driving them completely bananas. Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about how I would capture my five year old and two year old in words right now. Here are some memories that I’d like to bottle up and save for later, if I could.

Noah is starting kindergarten in just a few days. Even though I’m secretly freaking out, he seems to be taking it all in stride. He’s eager to meet new friends, take the bus, and learn French at his new immersion school. He tries so hard to be a good son and big brother, wanting to please his parents and do the “right thing.” But I know it’s sometimes a struggle for him to be a big, brave boy. At times, he longs to be the baby.

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He has two loose teeth and nothing could be more thrilling or terrifying for him. He wonders, when will they fall out? What will the Tooth Fairy do with them? And what would happen if he keeps them instead of handing them over? Perched on the footstool and stretching his neck just so, he can finally see his face in the bathroom mirror as he wiggles those teeth.

He gets frustrated trying to tie his own shoes, unable to solve the riddle of twisting “bunny ears” into knots. Yet, he’s a whiz at legos — concentrating for hours while building a new plane, car or robot. He loves cooking and has a surprising passion for the Food Network series, “Chopped.” When he talks about growing up, he imagines multiple simultaneous career paths. He’ll be a race car driver, a lego engineer, a chef in his own restaurant and a soccer player for the U.S. national team.

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Most nights, he carefully pastes stickers into his World Cup Panini soccer book alongside his dad and little brother, even though the matches are long over now. He can identify every player’s country of origin, with a simple glance at the flag that decorates each Panini card. Beyond soccer, his world is all about superheros, water balloons and icees. At night, he dozes off while listening to the “Curious George, the movie” soundtrack. He has a blessed obliviousness to the greater problems of the world which I hope will last for some time still.

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His little brother has just turned two. What a beautiful age. It’s all about unbridled enthusiasm for EVERYTHING. It’s pizza night and Mateo run-skips through the house shouting “PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! YAAAY!” He bobbles, not quite able to balance his oversized head on his pint-sized body. He surprises us all the time with new words and phrases.

He’s a little ray of sunshine who thinks his big brother is THE greatest person in the entire world. He wants to be just like him and imitates almost everything he sees him do. (As if to punctuate this thought, he starts singing “Let it go!” at full voice, for no other reason than he’s heard his brother do it too.) Eager to nap on most days, he waves and says “night night” to anyone nearby. Like his older brother, Mateo’s a polite little guy — often uttering a “please” or “thank you, Mama” without any prodding.

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He’s picked up the delicious habit of sprinkling French words in his spirited chatter: “non, merci;” “Time for dodo;”  “Bisous, Mama!” He thinks the best joke in the world is adding the word “heiny” after any name. It’s sure to be a hit with his new preschool friends, whom he’s just days away from meeting.

At night, he sucks his thumb and cries for a “tag.” Unlike other kids who nestle with a stuffed animal or blanket, he has a mania for the labels on t-shirts and other articles of clothing. Snug in his PJs, he loves starting books together and then declaring we’re “all done” a few pages in. He grabs another book and insists “not yet!” when we tell him it’s time for bed. He finally lies down, thumb in mouth, rubbing the tag between his fingers, when I sing a lullaby.

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Most of all, both boys crave attention, recognition, stability and warm hugs. “Mama, Look!” they shout, as they do their own version of breakdancing in the living room or in the cereal aisle. Life is still simple and I cherish it. They are happy, healthy and we don’t embarass them… yet.

* Less than 24 hours after writing this, Noah lost his first tooth. Seems I just can’t seal that bottle tight enough, no matter how I try.

It’s a New Year: Profitez-en bien! (“prah-fē-tay zahn bē-ehn”)

I know what you’re thinking. Oy – another blog about New Years?! And it’s already February… But the way I see it, I’m right on time for Chinese New Year and well ahead of the game for the Jewish New Year next September.

The truth is, my resolution this year is quite simple and enacting it is part of the reason I’ve been slow to write it down. I’m officially designating this the year of (drum roll, please)…. the present.

Not as in the kind you give, I mean actually being in the moment, every day…

from the little things (like paying attention to what I do so my deodorant doesn’t mysteriously end up in the kitchen and my car keys in the kids’ toy trunk) to the big – focusing on the people I love and the activities that make me happy.

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These days, my kids are constantly looking ahead – wanting to be big and able to do more. Meanwhile, my parents are looking back, reminiscing about “the way it used to be.”And here I am, just a few steps away from meeting the Queen Mother of mid-life Birthdays. Like it or not, that little lady has every intention of drop-kicking me from one side of the proverbial hill to the other.

But just because she’s sending me over doesn’t mean that I need to start sliding down the other side! Au contraire! I intend to stick around the summit for as long as I can. This is the time to do, to enjoy, to live every moment without looking too far ahead or behind. As the French say, it’s time to profitez-en bien (prah-fē-tay zahn bē-ehn): “enjoy and make the most of it!”

We get into a routine and sometimes forget to pay attention to the details of our daily lives. We naively go about our days, acting as if the world stands still – that the people we know and love will always be here, that opportunities will wait for us to act, that our children will always be giddy to play superhero and pretend to fly around the neighborhood with their Mama.

Alas, it isn’t so.

This is the time to do, to enjoy, to live every moment

without looking too far ahead or behind.

This time is precious and I don’t want to miss it by multi-tasking my way through life. I want to slow down and pay attention, do things in a meaningful way, and to the best of my ability. My hope is that by really trying to live in the present, I can make the most of every day – so that when tomorrow comes, I can enjoy it without regret.

Here are some personal goals for this year. Maybe some of them will speak to you too…

  • Spend more time playing with the kids and less time posting about them on Social Media. Life is meant to be experienced in actual size, not through the little screen on the back of my phone.
  • Work during work-time and play during play-time: when combined, neither the experience nor the results are satisfactory.
  • Try to do a little bit every day to organize my living space with the full realization that the house may not ever look exactly how I’d like until the kids are grown (in other words, don’t sweat it if I awake to find my child has “decorated” the house for Halloween 10 months early by affixing dozens of stickers to the wood floors, walls, kitchen table, and door knobs.)
  • Keep in touch with the people who are important. Call or write actual letters to friends and family.
  • Invest energy in the activities I want to pursue instead of putting them off for another day.
  • Read more.
  • Share more – ideas, books, laughter, music, food.
  • Exercise more, not to thwart some future health ailment, but because it makes me happy.

Feel free to check in and ask me how I’m doing on my resolution and my new goals. I’m sure I won’t always live up to my aspirations. That’s ok, too. I figure that accepting I’m still a work-in-progress may be the best 40th birthday gift of all.