Archive | Lifestyle

Why Taking Vacations Is Hard

vacation
Image: Chen Mizrach via Unsplash

When my mother died earlier this summer, I went back to the U.S. for two weeks and cleaned out her apartment. Most people wouldn’t consider clearing out their mother’s apartment a holiday. Trust me, it wasn’t.

And yet, I came back feeling like I didn’t deserve another break, even though – after her death and five months of lockdown – I was completely burnt out. My daughter pleaded with me to take a vacation in Europe while it was still possible and still cheap. (American friends who can’t even travel to the next state right now, apologies for what is to follow…)

I said yes, even though it felt wrong. We went to Venice and Malta for 10 days. I’d not been to Venice in 22 years. But with the most amazing walking tour book EVER in my hand, it was like discovering the city all over again. Meanwhile, I couldn’t even place Malta on a map before we went there. Now I’m completely au fait with the island, including the likes of the proverbial Blue Lagoon. (Paging Brooke Shields…)

Needless to say, that trip was the best thing I did this summer. It was fun, culturally stimulating, and totally relaxing. I bonded with my daughter and enriched my understanding of the world. (Top tip on Malta? Don’t eat the horse. Or the rabbit liver…ahem.) Lord knows when – in the current environment – I’ll be able to travel again.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is me. Work was slower than usual this summer due to Covid. That – ironically – created more time for a vacation. Lord knows there have been many summers over the past 15 years where the best I could muster was astaycation, a micro-trip, or no vacation at all. And yet, I felt that on some level I didn’t “deserve” to go away this summer.

Moreover, as an American with that firmly ingrained notion of “two weeks of vacation per year” lurking somewhere in my subconscious, it seemed like I’d already clocked my time when I went to the U.S. This, despite all the research telling us why vacations are actually good for productivity.

And let’s face it. When your work mantra is “more,” rather than enough, taking a vacation will always feel wrong.

But on the principle that if you want to change your life, you need to actually practice being your future self, I took the plunge and don’t regret it at all. I think about that trip every day. In fact, now that work has ramped up considerably, I firmly believe that trip is helping to fuel my energy.

How about you? Have you ever struggled with taking vacations? How did you cope?

Creating Holiday Traditions When You Live Abroad

Christmas tree ornament

Christmas tree ornamentI got an email from two of my siblings recently asking my opinion on a family matter. Apparently, one of our aunts used to send a tub of popcorn to each of her grown-up nieces and nephews every Christmas to share with their children. My siblings thought that this year, as our aunt passed away six months ago, my mother should carry on this tradition.

“Huh?” I responded. “What are you talking about? I never got any popcorn…”

The Cost of Living Abroad During the Holidays

I’ve lived abroad or 13 years. While there are many things to recommend expat living, one thing that’s never quite the same is the holiday season. You can institute new traditions within your own family, but you will always feel slightly bereft.

I was reminded of this when reading a delightful account of Thanksgiving traditions by New York Times medical columnist Perri Klass. Klass talks about how, once she had children of her own, she could no longer travel to her parents’ home for Thanksgiving. But she quickly found herself quickly replicating many of her mother’s Thanksgiving traditions, which ranged from singing the hymn “We Gather Together” before eating the meal to preparing the requisite Indian lasagne.

I could relate. Like Klass’s mom, my mother also hails from the so-called  traditionalist generation. On Christmas Eve, our family would light the advent wreath before dinner and recite the Roman Catholic hymn, “Drop Down Dew Ye Heavens From Above,” my mother intoning the refrain. After dinner, we would take turns reading aloud from the Christmas story in the bible. We didn’t read from the Good Book itself, but instead from a yellowed Life Magazine version of the story my mother must have obtained cerca 1947. Beneath each segment of the story, she had carefully inscribed a designated Christmas Carol that matched the text. So at the appropriate junctures, we would sing “Joy the World” or “Silent Night” in unison.

Afterwards, we hung our stockings and one of us read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas aloud to the rest of the family. As we got older and had our own children, the youngest available grandchild became the designated reader.

New Continents, New Traditions

I don’t do any of that with my own family here in London. For starters, my husband is Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah with our kids. The 24th is also my son’s birthday, so that has added a new element of tradition into the mix.  On Christmas Day, like all good Jews, we now go out for Chinese food and watch a movie. Plus, in England, you have the whole Boxing Day thing to contend with on the 26th. (Personally? I’ve had enough celebration by then, so I usually stay inside and read.)

I’ve managed to sneak in a few holiday rituals over the years. I’ve amassed a random assortment of dreidels and non-religious Christmas ornaments which I delicately array in a sort of Omnist collage on our dinner table every year throughout the month of December. (As a Jewish boy who attended a Christian high school, my husband is allergic to overly-Christian iconography.)

In keeping with my dual British citizenship, I also dutifully ensure that we have a sufficient supply of Christmas Crackers, so that we can all be a bit silly at the annual Christmas Eve/Hanukkah/Birthday celebration. I also try to attend at least one Carol service a year at a random church of choice. Last year, I went to the local Unitarian Church. The alter featured a chair made entirely of conch shells, while doll-sized toy Unicorns adorned the windows. It all felt oddly appropriate.

Renewal

I don’t think I’ll ever quite recreate the intense holiday traditions of my youth. It wouldn’t suit my family. And and at this point in my life, it probably doesn’t suit me either.

But the virtue of being part of an inter-faith, bi-national family is that you always have a chance to try something new. This year, for example, I’m hosting a “Christmas Drinks” cocktail party at my home for a bunch of friends from my old job. I never host large gatherings, but I’m really excited for this party. I think I’ll wear some reindeer antlers to mark the occasion.

I’m also making a huge batch of Christmas cookies with some Christmas Tree and Santa-shaped cookie cutters I inherited from the previous tenant in this house. He left them when he moved out, whether by choice or by accident, and I feel that I’m carrying on some of his traditions by employing them myself.

The holiday season will still be a patchwork of traditions. At the 11th hour, I’ll need to rush out and buy those special, slender candles you need to place in the Menorah. Hanukkah falls on the 23rd this year, so I’ve invited a friend’s son who enjoys cooking to prepare a special feast for my own son, who’s been away at college in America for four months.

There will always be a bit of sadness mixed in with the merriment. But as the Christmas carol of my youth, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, would have it, “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy…

Perhaps we’ll sing that too.

Image: Happy Holidays! By Michael Levine-Clark via Flickr

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Why I Hate Pets

pets

petsA friend of mine just returned from a four-day international conference in Wales. It wasn’t a gathering of journalism professors (her profession). Nor was it an extended family reunion.

It was a global gathering of owners and supporters of – wait for it – Welsh Terriers.

Yes, that’s right. One of my closest friends in the U.K. just went to a dog conference. One that was replete with guest speakers on Welsh terriers, a special break-out session on how to groom your dog, and even a fancy dress party (for the dogs).

I could barely mask my dismay.

Boxers vs. Briefs

On many of the world’s pressing issues, most people sort neatly into one of two camps: Coke vs. Pepsi. Boxers vs. Briefs. Yankees vs. Mets. At the risk of alienating 90% of my friends and family, I’d like to add another category to this list: pet vs. anti-pet. I don’t think I have to tell you where I fall.

I was reminded of this recently at a neighborhood get-together. We were sitting on someone’s patio, enjoying some cocktails, when a friend pulled up a photo on her phone.

“Guys,” she said, breathlessly. “I can’t wait any longer…”

And sure enough, it wasn’t a picture of her daughter, or her newly remodeled kitchen, or even (God forbid) her husband. It was a picture of the Chocolate Labrador she’d just adopted. In a matter of seconds, everyone followed suit, nodding and cooing over the veritable museum of pooch snapshots emanating from their own iphones.

Everyone, that is, except me.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Sweet Pets by Sweet Spots via Flickr

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What Do You Look For in a Neighborhood?

coffee shop

coffee shopI went home to visit my mother last weekend in New Jersey. She’s 88 and lives in one of those vast, American, multiplex retirement communities where they have more activities than you can shake a stick at. You can join a hiking group, go into New York City to visit museums, or see a contemporary film on the premises. You can even get a Sam Adams for $2 at the weekly happy hour!

This one-stop shopping model is great, especially if you’re 88 and have limited mobility. Everything is right at your fingertips.

The problem occurs if you’re not elderly and want to do something “off campus.” Then you need to schlep down a long driveway and make your way out onto a piddly-ass state highway that contains…not much:  The odd pizza joint. Some discount rug stores. And a Target (natch).

Other than seeing my mother, I was miserable. Leave aside for one moment that I no longer drive. There was nothing I wanted to drive to. (OK, that’s not entirely true. I did manage to frequent two diners in the course of 24 hours. Lordy, how I love a New Jersey diner!)

Research shows that people are happiest when they live within 15 mins of amenities they value:  parks, libraries, coffee shops, and gyms. When you live closer to such things, you have more human interaction and also get more involved in your community. Makes sense.

The punch line of this research is that when looking for a place to live, you should focus less on the actual dwelling than where it is located. My husband and I are exhibit A. We were once trying to buy a house in Oak Park, IL (frequently voted the “coolest suburb” in Chicago.) We called the real estate agent in advance and instructed her not to show us anything that wasn’t within “10 minutes of good coffee.” (Good coffee was a proxy for everything we held dear about urban life and were reluctant to give up, despite having a 5 month-old baby at the time.)

She didn’t understand how literally we meant that statement. The first place she showed us was a lovely little bungalow that was a good 15 minute walk from nearest coffee shop. We told her it was too far. She stared at us in amazement. “Wow,” she said. “When you said 15 minutes, you really meant 15 minutes.” The next place was a five-minute walk from good coffee. We bought it.

Obviously, which amenities work for you will vary tremendously. I had breakfast with some friends recently who have a one-year old. They currently live in the city but have decided to buy outside of London. Their number one criterion? “We want to wake up and be able to see green and go for long walks.” I have another friend who simply wants to be able to walk to Church.

I currently live in a neighborhood in London where, within a 15 minute walk –  I can go to an arty film, swim in my local pool, and crucially, buy from a selection of over 400 high-end beers. (Are you sensing a theme here?)

How about you? What makes your neighborhood work for you? And if it doesn’t, what kind of amenities would you seek out?

Image: Cafe-Restaurant-Boutique Cafe via Pixabay

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Clubs for Grownups

ironing

ironingMany of us sent our kids back to school this week, so I am re-posting a blog on the  “back to school” theme.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably just finished purchasing (or dusting off) all the backpacks, pens, pencils and athletic equipment that your kids will need for the upcoming school year. Now you’re grappling with after-school activities: which ones your kid should join, which ones to drop, and how to coordinate schedules across different members of the household.

Even if you’re not a parent, Autumn invariably brings a spirit of renewal. Just out of habit  – from all of those years of going to school yourself – you’re probably thinking about what activities you’ll be participating in this coming academic year: which book groups, health clubs or religious social organizations you’ll be frequenting on a weekly or monthly basis.

As you do that, I want to encourage all of you to join a new club. And I want you to reach outside the box. In other words, feel free to carry on with the clubs you’re already a member of. But push yourself to try something different – really different – on a whim that speaks to one of your secret interests. (By way of example, here’s a club in New York City that was inspired by members’ love of kidlit.)

Why do this? Because pursuing hobbies in adulthood is loads of fun.

To get you started on your brainstorming process, I’m going to propose some out-of-the-box suggestions I got by soliciting ideas on Linked In. Here are five “clubs for grown-ups” that sound absolutely fabulous to me:

1. Language Clubs – I was struck by the number of people who wrote to me about clubs that were organized around speaking another language. Sometimes, these took place around a meal (e.g. French or Italian Cuisine) or a wine from a particular region. Others coalesced around a film or book by a foreign auteur. But in all cases, you are required to participate in said activity while speaking a language that wasn’t your native tongue. Fun!

2. House Exchange Clubs – We’ve all heard of house swaps. Usually, someone who lives in, say, Tokyo exchanges houses with someone who lives in New York City. It’s an affordable way to have a holiday abroad. But some friends of mine are about to join a house exchange club in their own city. The idea is to meet up monthly at one member’s home while everyone else browses around to see what kinds of art, music and decor are on display. Then, over the holidays, you arrange to swap homes with that friend. I love this idea – a way to explore your own city but from a different vantage point. So clever!

3. Fix-it Clubs. One of my friends who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. wrote to me about a fixers collective that’s sprung up in her neighborhood. Here’s the website. Every Thursday, a group of people get together and place broken objects on a large, common fixing table. They then share ideas and techniques for repairing, mending, enhancing or re-purposing the objects, with “Master Fixers” there to offer support and guidance. The larger social message behind this club is to encourage people to value more things in their environment. If I had even a hint of a DIY bone in my body (and lived in Brooklyn!), I’d be all over this.

4. Admin Club. Another gem. This comes from a friend of mine in Washington, D.C. who gets together once a month with friends to tackle all those dreaded tasks that would otherwise languish on their to-do lists ad infinitum. It might be tax returns. Or a gazillion phone calls to the insurance company for a reimbursement. (Gosh, I don’t miss American health insurance.) Or writing out 25 party invitations for your cousin’s bridal shower. Whatever onerous task is dragging you down, you go deal with it…among friends, who offer both support and company. This club has my name written all over it. (Ironing name tags on school uniforms, anyone?)

5. Procrastinators Club. Finally, let me end with my hands-down favorite, which is a sort of gambler’s version of the Admin Club. Here’s how it works:  Upon joining, you kick in $20 and name a project you are working on and how much progress you will commit to making on it by the next meeting. If, by said meeting, you haven’t hit that goal, you lose your stake to whomever has completed their task and you have to ante up again. (In actual practice, the friend who wrote to me about this club subsequently volunteered that everyone in it continued to be unproductive and – not surprisingly – eventually lost all energy to keep the club going…) But hey, they get an A* for invention. What a great idea!

How about you? What sorts of zany clubs have you been tempted to join or create? Do tell…

Image: Black and Decker Corded Steam Iron by Your Best Digs via Flickr

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways to Rethink Vacations

vacation

vacationOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

The summer is nearly over. Here in London, where I live, it’s been well over 90 degrees Farenheit for the last few days, and my daughter and I still have one day outing left before she returns to school next week. So I’m not quite ready to get out the iron and attach name tags to her school uniform (which is my own official marker for the end of summer).

Still, despite all the research telling us how good vacations are for both us and for our employers, Americans, in particular, struggle to use up their vacation days.  I myself am guilty as charged. And bad habits start young. Fearing “vacation shaming” from bosses and co-workers, millennials are now the least likely cohort of workers to use up their vacation time, despite becoming the largest generation in the workforce.

In my newfound embrace of balance, however, I had a better summer this year in terms of rest.  So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned:

a. Take shorter, more frequent vacations. Apparently, holiday memories tend to depend not on how long the holiday was, but on the intensity of the experience. So even going away for only two or three days can be enough to re-charge your batteries.  Moreover, research shows that vacations from work seem to have positive, though short-lived effects on wellbeing.  This is perhaps why a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies recommended spacing your holidays out evenly throughout the year, rather than bunching them all at once.

b. Go alone. Our family had a very different vacation experience this summer than our normal fare – which is either to go on one, short family holiday or to stay home. This year, each of the four of us took short trips on our own, in addition to the short family holiday. I myself went to Argentina for 10 days at the beginning of July to see an old friend. It was blissful. I’d had a very busy and difficult Spring on both the professional and personal fronts. So going away without the strain of having to coordinate my time with the other three members of my family was a huge relief. Some days, I strolled the streets of Buenos Aires. Other days, I stayed home and read while sipping beer and listening to Cuban music. I came back ready and able to spend time with my family.

c. Split up and do your own thing. Which brings me to my truly revolutionary vacation suggestion: if you’re going on holiday with your family or friends, don’t try to do everything together. My family tends to take breaks to European cities when we go on vacation. We all love experiencing foreign foods, cultures and languages. But our ideal time spent in a museum varies enormously. I can last about one and a half hours, two max. My husband can do at least three; my daughter, five; and my son, eight. So this year, we instituted a new rule:  everyone gets to do their own thing during the day and we meet up for meals. It worked beautifully. Our family holiday was in Vienna. Both of my kids speak German and they are both very comfortable using public transport. It’s also a very safe city. So I got to visit the obscure clock museum in Old Vienna, my daughter got to go to the imperial palace, Schönbrunn, my husband was able to take a massive detour to find the best coffee ever and my son, well, let’s just say Egon Schiele got a lot of face time.

d. Take a micro trip. I first learned about these from my neighbor, a guy in his 30’s who was setting off one Thursday afternoon around 4 pm to cycle down to the British Coast, camp out on a beach, and wake up early to cycle back up to work. That’s not my personal idea of fun, but he said he’d been sprinkling lots of these little mini-vacations throughout the summer and had found them quite energizing. Apparently, micro trips are all the rage in 2019. (Note: you can also take a train or a plane; you don’t have to cycle!)

e. Staycations really are fun. I’m a huge fan of the staycation. We probably do one once every other year, and I’ve never been disappointed. The trick is not to try and sneak in work, even though you’re at home. Sure, you may wish to tackle something on your dreaded To Do list, and that’s fine. But mainly staycations should be about discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary and being more mindful about where you live. And if all else fails and you either can’t – or simply won’t – take a proper holiday, at least do yourself the favour of adopting a vacation mindset on your weekend.

How about you? What tips have you discovered for maximizing happiness on vacations?

Image: Summer Sun Beach Greece by KRiemer via Pixabay

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Why I Struggle With Weekends

gardening

gardeningI was observing a presentation skills workshop recently aimed at a bunch of Alpha Male, hedge fund-type guys who wanted to improve their pitching skills. Attendance had been spotty; every hour or so, one of them disappeared to make a crucial phone call or broker a deal. During one of the breaks, one of them raised his hand and asked: “Couldn’t you deliver this on a weekend? I’m sure you’d get a better turnout.”

My first instinct would have been to say, “Sure! Let’s do that!” Instead, the guy running the workshop smiled politely and responded, “No, sorry. I don’t work on weekends. Weekends are for gardening and spending time with my family.”

I was floored.

Part of it is that I’ve been drawn to a series of careers over the years that don’t lend themselves to normal work weeks. My first job was in academia. When you’re a junior professor, you’re evaluated on how much you produce, not the quality of your teaching.  So weekends are gold for advancing your research, free of the distraction of students and committee meetings.

My next career – journalism – wasn’t any better. When you’re writing on deadline, or producing a daily radio show (as I did for four years), you’re a slave to the clock. The entire concept of 9 to 5 disappears.

Now I’m launching my own business. The first question I was asked by a company who recently hired me as a consultant was “Do you work weekends? Because if you don’t, we can’t hire you.” My gardening colleague above has been doing this for a long time. It’s easy for him to turn down work. I’ve just started, so I’m not in that position. I said “sure” without blinking an eye.

There’s a societal component to this as well. Katrina Onstad has written a book called The Weekend Effect. She blames the loss of the weekend on two primary factors. First, there’s the rise of competitive parenting, forcing parents to feel obligated to pack their kids’ weekends with soccer practice, chess tournaments and mandarin lessons. There’s also the pull of the constant, 24/7  technology era in which we live, which encourages us to remain permanently “switched on.”

In my own case, it’s far more personal. I struggle with slowing down. There is a fear of the abyss – of how to deal with the thoughts and fears that crop up when I don’t have 10,000 things to tick off my to-do list. Sundays are particularly bad, because vestiges of my childhood creep in to the poison the day.

Because I’ve conditioned myself to this expectation of working on weekends, I now feel guilty if I don’t do at least some work over the weekend. As if I’ve done something wrong. A therapist I saw 20 years ago once asked me why I found it so difficult to not work on weekends. I worked religiously on Sundays back then, so he was really asking me why I couldn’t at least take Saturdays off. I responded, “It’s not that I can’t take a Saturday off. It’s that when I do it, I feel like some people do when they’ve consumed an entire box of chocolates.” It was simpler to just to work and not deal with the guilt trip.

I know this is all terribly unhealthy. I’ve read the research showing that when people are nudged to treat the weekend as a vacation, they return to work on Monday happier than those who crammed too much in. Nor does adopting this “vacation mindset” mean that you need to spend a lot of money or race off to the beach. It just means taking a mental break from work. Like my friend the gardener.

So here’s a new resolution. In a year when I’ve resolved that my watch word will be balance, I’m going to try and gradually let go of feeling compelled to work on weekends.

After *this* Saturday, that is, when I’m scheduled to help facilitate an all-day workshop…

Sigh.

Image: A Woman enjoying gardening outdoors via Freestockphotos.biz

 

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How I Finally Found Time for Podcasts

podcasts

podcastsI was a bit late to the podcasting party. I did binge-listen to Season One of Serial when it came out. And as a former Chicago Public Radio employee, I’ve been a faithful fan of  This American Life since the show was launched in the mid 1990’s.

But for someone with a background in radio, it was strange that I didn’t listen to more podcasts once they became all the rage.

The main thing stopping me (or so I thought)?

Time.

When I got laid off a year and a half ago, I’d already committed to reading more. I made the conscious decision that I would continue to read fiction at night, but would begin reading more widely in the non-fiction arena every morning, even if that just meant reading for 15-20 minutes. I really wanted to stay up to speed on developments in the longevity space, and this was the only way I could figure out how to do it. It worked.

I made a similar decision about podcasts a few months back. I kept hearing about all these fantastic shows from people whose tastes I really admired, but somehow I wasn’t finding time in my day to listen.

So I took the advice I give other people (not terribly original, but useful nonetheless), who often ask me how one makes time in a busy day to contemplate career change…or start writing a book…or take up the violin. I told them about the “15 minute rule”: find 15 minutes in your day to experiment with this new thing. Not everyone can find an extra hour in their day; but everyone can find 15 minutes.

That might mean waking up 15 minutes earlier to tackle said activity. It might mean re-allocating 15 minutes you currently apply to something else to this new thing. Or it could mean multi-tasking, if the two activities, like exercise, can be done simultaneously.

In the case of podcasts, I took advantage of two windows in my day: first, the time I set aside for my old-lady stretches. That’s at least 15 minutes every morning and every evening a piece that could be prime listening time. Second, because I don’t have a car, I do a lot of walking around London, especially to and from the local tube station (in addition to the local swimming pool.) Boom. That was another 20 – sometimes 40 – minutes of daily listening.

Before I knew it, I had a whole bunch of new podcasts in my roster and people are now asking *me* for advice on which ones to listen to! (Quick plug for my monthly newsletter: I recommend one podcast a month).

I’m always reassured when solving a problem turns out to be so much easier than I imagined it would be, simply by applying some ingenuity.

How about you? Have you ever sworn that you didn’t have time to do something new and then learned how to sneak it into your day without it overwhelming you?

Share your lessons in the comments section.

Image by Colleen AF Venable via Flickr

 

 

Halloween in London: Why I’ll Never Make It As A Brit

jackolantern

jackolanternToday, in honor of Halloween, I am re-running a post I ran seven years ago about what it’s like to be a grown-up American running around London in a Halloween costume:

So today is Halloween.

And like all good Americans, I arose early and donned a costume.

Neither of my kids’ schools were dressing up this year. But Halloween is increasingly popular here in London, especially in neighborhoods like mine, which are home to their fair share of Americans. So even though my kids weren’t putting on their costumes, I thought: “What the heck?” and threw mine on for fun.

And that’s  – as we say over here – where it all went a bit pear-shaped.

You see, for the past five years I’ve dressed up as a witch on Halloween. This basically amounted to wearing a large, black, pointy hat, a black sweater and some black jeans and boots. But I was tired of being a witch. Plus, my hat had started to droop. So this year, when browsing for my son’s costume in a local shop, I decided to go crazy and buy a wimple.

For those in the know,  a wimple is that black and white thing that nuns wear around their faces.(Think Maria, pre-Captain, in The Sound of Music.)

From there, it was just a  matter of rummaging around in my closet for a frumpy, over-sized, white turtle neck, a plain, black skirt, some dark tights, a pair of clunky shoes, a semi-gaudy cross and – within minutes  – I looked just like my father’s Irish cousin, good old Sister Claudette.

Needless to say, I was extremely pleased with myself. (It’s amazing what can impress you when you’re unemployed.)

But then I went outside. And that’s when the fun really started.

You see, no one realized that it was a joke. That was fine, when I was walking through my neighborhood at eight a.m. past all manner of  harried parents, construction workers, commuters and shop owners. They could be forgiven for thinking that I was either a real  nun or just…a bit strange. But by the time I hit the school run and – STILL – no one had gotten the joke, I knew I was in trouble.

The first person I ran across was a good friend – (and fellow American, though she’s lived here for 15 years) – who was rushing to catch a train. I greeted her with something on the order of “God Bless you, my child,” at which point she did a double-take and paused to take me in.

“Are you going to wear that all day?” she asked, somewhat aghast.

Then I hit the school gate. After a few odd looks on my way in, I found myself standing in line behind a recent immigrant from Lebanon with the improbable name of  – wait for it – Jihad. It was Jihad’s daughter’s first day of school and he had all sorts of questions for me. I got so caught up in orienting him about the school that I completely forgot that I was dressed as a nun…until, of course, I turned to introduce him to my daughter and I noticed that he looked a bit uneasy.

“Oh! Right!” I chuckled, glancing down at my habit. “This is just a Halloween costume. I’m American,” I added, by way of explanation.

“It’s O.K., Madam,” he answered, smiling politely but looking over his shoulder as if a taxi might miraculously present itself within the school yard.

At line-up time, I ran into another acquaintance. While not American, she’d lived in the U.S. for at least five years. But when her gaze fell upon my costume, she looked positively grief-stricken.

“It’s for Halloween!” I said, clapping her on the shoulder, thinking that she didn’t recognize me and was wondering why my daughter had been escorted to school by a nun.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said. “I thought that maybe…maybe…” Her voice trailed off.

You thought that maybe I’d gone into the convent over half-term?

I left my daughter’s school, dejected. No one seemed to get the joke. No one seemed amused. They all seemed perplexed…and mildly concerned.

Of course, I should have been prepared for this. I’ve appropriated a lot of things during my five years living in the U.K. – The BBC, The NHS, even a fair bit of British slang. But one thing I’ve never quite internalized is the whole buttoned-down, reticent thing.

For better or for worse, I’m loud. I’m chatty. And, no. I’m not afraid to walk around dressed as a nun at nine o’clock on a Monday morning in October. Especially if it’s Halloween.

On my way home, I ran into one of my son’s ten-year-old friends who did recognize me, wimple and all.

“Bless you, my child,” I said, half-heartedly making the sign of the cross.

He studied me carefully, looking me up and down.

“But that’s not scary!” he finally exclaimed.

Oh, my dear, you’d be surprised.

Image: Halloween pumpkin lantern by Barnimages.com via Flickr

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Why I Hate Sundays

Mamma Mia

Mamma MiaI saw Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again recently with my 14-year-old daughter. I need to get that out of the way up front in case there are any ABBA haters out there. Yes, the film is cheesy as all get out. And yes, Cher makes an appearance in a platinum blonde wig towards the end, improbably cast as Meryl Streep’s mother and Andy Garcia’s long-lost lover.

My daughter kept asking me who “Cher” was.

“Be quiet!” I hissed, brooking no distractions as I drank in Cher’s velvety rendition of Fernando.

Sunday Dread

I saw the film on a Sunday. Watching Mamma Mia was probably the best anti-depressant I could have hoped for. I hate Sundays. I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who could enjoy them as much as I enjoy Saturdays. I desperately want to experience it as just another day of rest a day when – as The Lord’s Prayer so aptly puts it – you can “protect yourself from all anxiety,” kick back with a craft beer and read The New Yorker.

But it’s never been like that for me. Invariably, I wake up early, even though it’s the only day of the week that I don’t set an alarm. I always feel like I’m right on the edge of a tidal wave of despair, but that if I swim fast enough, I can just escape being swallowed up. So I douse any lingering anguish with a double espresso, and hope for the best.

I call this feeling “Sunday dread.” I used to think that it all stemmed from an underlying fear of Mondays and the resumption of normal activity. But I’ve been in a career transition for the past year, so I don’t have that excuse anymore. Monday can be whatever I want it to be. And still the Sunday dread arrives.

I’ve tried to flee this awful feeling at various points in my life with all manner of activities: swimming lessons, phone calls to old friends, elaborate brunches where I experimented with the kinds of foods I imagined people in Southern California to be eating: kale burritos or banana chip loaf. You know, relaxed people.

But it’s to no avail. I can’t escape the underlying anguish. It’s sort of like having a hangover, except that I don’t really get drunk anymore. Still, there is that vague undercurrent of nausea and fatigue, exacerbated by too much caffeine. Over the course of the day, what might have been depression morphs into a prickly disquietude. As with a hangover, I know I just need to ride it out until it passes. And eventually, it does.

Childhood Sundays

I blame my father for my hatred of Sundays. As a child, he forced all four of us kids to go to church on Sunday mornings. He was a devout, if deeply conflicted, Catholic. My mother had left Catholicism when I was born, refusing to carry on submitting to a religion that obliged her to keep having children. I was never quite sure what to make of the fact that my birth simultaneously prompted my mother to abandon religion and my father to quit drinking.

But the upshot was that she stayed home and slept while the rest of us trudged off to Mass. So, church was never a neutral experience for me. It was always entangled in some sort of deep, unspoken conflict between the two of them, glimpses of which would occasionally bubble to the surface and then recede.

In the late afternoons, we’d drive down to visit my Grandmother on the outskirts of Newark, NJ, where my father had grown up. Our family had long since “graduated” from this part of Jersey. My Dad became a successful lawyer and escaped to a big house in a good school district further North in the state. But Sundays meant revisiting the bleakness of East Orange – a town name that still rings with the false promise of a Fitzgerald novel. To my seven-year-old eyes, it was nothing but a string of shuttered factories and faded corner stores with chipped paint, all surrounded by shady looking men drinking out of paper bags.

The Warmth of New Possibility

I live in London now. This means that if I’m up before 9 a.m. on Sunday – as I was the day I watched Mamma Mia – I can listen to the “Sunday worship” program on the BBC (a live broadcast of an Anglican service), while I empty the dishwasher. There’s no separation of Church and State in the U.K. So you often get this weird (to an American ear, anyway) co-mingling of the religious with the secular. Still, I find it soothing to listen to the rote mumblings of the Episcopalian service, which is so similar to a Catholic mass…and yet, distinct.

Yesterday, the weather here conspired to make me feel even worse than usual. London is experiencing its first proper heat wave since 1976. This is not a country that’s set up for this much heat, and I don’t just mean the lack of air conditioning. The baseline mood of your average Brit hovers somewhere between dour and nonplussed. So, when it gets above 80 degrees Fahrenheit – as it has on several occasions in the past six weeks – people lose it. They just don’t know how to operate with this much…bright light.

For me, however, the sun has been an unexpected blessing. In a summer where I’ve been trying to land an agent for a book I’ve written and launch a new business, the weather has lifted my mood. Every day has felt full of possibility. Like it was all within my reach. And work might finally be, I don’t know…fun?

Until yesterday. For the first time in over 45 days, it was windy and rainy, and we reverted to the London of Charles Dickens and Graham Greene.

Which brings us back to Mamma Mia. Cher sang: “There was something in the air last night, the stars were bright, Fernando.”

And for two hours, I could breathe. When I stepped out of the cinema into the light rain, I felt hopeful again.

Image: Mamma Mia by Nick Grabowski via Flickr

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