Monday, May 23, 2011

Birthday blues

As the birthday season looms before me, I’m reminded of my parents’ approach to gift giving. Yes, they gave wonderful, personalized gifts from time to time. But often the gifts they gave were more about the gift than about the recipient. They simply fell in love with an item and bought a lot of it and had it wrapped and put the packages on a shelf for the next occasion, and the next.

Of course, this meant that when an occasion arose, they often forgot which shelf they had put it on, so sometimes a birthday was spent largely watching them paw through closets and listening to them mutter, “I know I put it somewhere” or “I’m sure I have one left.”

It also means that everyone in my parents’ family and circle of friends has certain identical objects. We’ve all gotten boxes and boxes of See’s candy, and we all have the Leatherman multipurpose tool and the Bushnell PowerView binoculars and books like Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Brigade and Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong. I think this year we’re all getting rice cookers.

There’s nothing wrong with this brand of gift giving, though sometimes you get the same gift more than once. My brother and sister-in-law have multiple concurrent subscriptions to the same crossword-puzzle service. I never got that gift, so one of their subscriptions was probably meant for me—or someone else, it doesn’t matter whom.

I wish I could adopt that breezy attitude. Or that my children could. Somehow gift giving has become terrifyingly important in my nucular family. My daughter often wants luxuries I’m reluctant to indulge her in. My son always wants nothing—or just a donation in his name to a worthy nonprofit. But I know they mentally compare, and equate any inequality with unequal love.

For a couple years I got around the luxury problem by getting my daughter kittens. Nobody could not love a kitten, even if it came free from a shelter. The gift of life is always right. But there are just so many cats a household can support.

So this year I’m at a loss again. Maybe when I’m in California next week, I’ll poke around my parents’ closets and see if I can find any of those misplaced gifts. I’m sure there are some they never found ...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A bench at the Fisher Landau Center for Art

And here's the thing: it actually CAN be helpful!

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Manhattan Mother's Day

My mother-in-law dismisses Mother’s Day as lower middle class. (I suspect her disdain is a defense mechanism against potentially negligent children.) My mother, on the other hand, is unaware of such socioeconomic distinctions and seemed pleased by the hydrangeas I sent.  As for me, I have no feelings one way or the other about the day. I love it when my children remember but don’t take it personally (much) if they don’t observe it. That’s a good thing, because both my kids were in transit this weekend and unable to make direct contact.

So I celebrated with my friend B by bird-watching in Central Park. Neither of us has a lot of experience in this domain, and I personally couldn’t get the hang of fine-tuning the opera glasses I was using. Mostly we looked for other people with binoculars and tried to look at whatever they were peering at and eavesdrop on their identifications. Here’s what (we think) we spotted: a cardinal, a white heron, a great blue heron, a wood duck, a robin, an unidentified yellow bird, a squirrel and a bunch of sun-bathing red-eared sliders (turtles, above).

But just because my birth kids were unavailable didn’t mean I went florally unfeted. As we were leaving the park, my cell phone binged with a flower pictogram misaddressed (sorry, Anon Mom, I got your lilies from area code 860; they were beautiful). Then the waitress where B and I had lunch handed each of us a Mother’s Day rose. And when I got home, four of the five little girls who live downstairs (their apartment throbs with girl gusto), plus three of their friends, arrived with a bouquet of carnations—and a quickly unmasked desire to chase cats.

If I had to rate this Mother's Day, I'd have to say it was upper middle class.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The trouble with work

So many times in the past week—an utterly exhausting one because of news events requiring quick turnarounds at the magazine I work for—I longed for time off to do what I really wanted to do. Now I’ve finally hit a three-day weekend, and I’ve spent the first day pacing and feeling anxious because I’m not being productive.

That’s the trouble with work: when you work really hard for long hours, you yearn for time off, but you don’t have a clue what to do with that time once you get it, because you’ve been working too hard to plan ahead.

I think that’s why retirement is such a difficult undertaking. You’ve spent your whole life working rather than developing interests so you don’t know what to do with yourself when you finally have the time to do it.

The more you work the more you have to work because you really don't know what to do when you're not at work.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Farewell to S

An old friend died last week. She was indeed old: 94. She was my friend H’s mother, and she lived in the same retirement home that my mother-in-law lives in. Her name was S. There were a couple of things that were particularly endearing about her. One was that she could never get my last name right. It’s Rutherford. But to her it was always Witherspoon, a substitution that was better than the original. And the other was her transparent, totally uncool sincerity. You have to understand that the retirement home seems sometimes to be populated largely by Stepford seniors. It’s a society of women—widows mostly—who maintain a veneer of upper-middle-class propriety that can feel impenetrable to an outsider. There are moments when they seem like mean girls with wrinkles—not actually cruel, perhaps, but looked to as arbiters of acceptable comportment. In fact, S once told me how touched she was to be included in my mother-in-law’s circle, since my mother-in-law was so “popular.” So we were sitting around the table in the dining room one night when I was visiting about seven years ago—my mother-in-law, S and several other elderly ladies—discussing the Sarasota opera or some such thing, and suddenly S sighed and said wistfully, “Don’t you just long for a man’s touch sometimes?” The other ladies exchanged horrified looks, and after S left for the evening there was much clucking about how much she had deteriorated. But the thing is, I knew that every single one of them totally knew what she was talking about.