Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Parent Filter

There was a time when I told Mom everything. There was really nobody around me who understood me better, who was more compassionate and who had better advice. This lasted through high school and college, through friends, boyfriends and career choices. She’s a good listener, and while her advice didn’t always sound popular at first, it usually worked.

But lately, my brother and I have started many conversations by saying: “We really shouldn’t tell this to the parents.” It’s not that we’re doing anything illegal or shameful, but as we have become more “grown up” our issues have also grown more complicated. We’re finding it harder to talk about our problems without feeling like we’re letting our parents down or causing them to worry unnecessarily. They raised us to be able to take care of ourselves, so we don’t want to show when we waiver in our independence.

For example, if I have a fight with my husband, will they think that we’re having major marital problems? If I complain about my brother, will they worry that we’re not that close anymore? If I talk about my thoughts about having a baby, will they just think it’s silly and we should just get on with it? If I tell them what keeps me up at night, will I just give them something extra to worry about, without the power to be able to help? My brother and I already know not to complain too soon if we don’t feel well, or need to see a doctor, because then the worrying might go into overdrive.

My brother and I also run into this parent-filtering problem because we live half a world away from our parents. While they might remember what it was like to be 30, they really don’t know what it’s like to be 30 in the United States, in the 21st century. When they were 30, they had two kids and lived in communist Hungary. It was a very different world from the one my brother and I now inhabit and we sometimes find that while their advice is wise, it doesn’t always apply to our situation. I think it must be just as difficult for them to not be able to help us with problems because they’ve never experienced them.

Do parents want this kind of filtering? I assume they don’t — most parents want to know what’s going on with their children; they want to help and they want to worry. They think that they can always come to our rescue, even when the problems are the kinds they never had to deal with. And secretly, we do want them to come and help us.

But the reality is that they can’t. We’re the ones who have to stand our ground during a fight with a spouse or settle a disagreement with a sibling. We have to go to the doctor alone and deal with the poking by ourselves. We have to decide when and how to have a baby and whether we’re ready for it. We need to deal with difficult bosses and impossible in-laws and the mortgage company. There is nobody else to do it for us; we can only count on the fact that our parents have prepared us well for these battles.

It is good to know though, that if we REALLY need to, we can always pick up the phone in the middle of the night. Our parents really won’t mind a sleepless night.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What nobody tells you

My brother, Andras, recently had a sort of awakening about the facts of married life. He was married last October and he and his wife, Jenny, are still in the stage of newlywed bliss when couples call each other “honey” and “baby” and there is a lot of kissing and hugging going on.
A few weeks ago though, Jenny’s grandmother died. They made the drive to Virginia for the funeral and my brother hoped that he could sort of get lost in the crowd and just be there quietly to support Jenny.

It was not to be … Within a few hours of their arrival, he found himself as one of the pallbearers—probably not a very pleasant duty. I think he was still a bit shaken up by the experience when we talked a few days later.

“Nobody tells you this kind of stuff,” he said. “Nobody tells you before the wedding that in a couple of months you are going to be carrying your wife’s grandmother to her grave.”
Ah, yes. There are many things nobody talks about before the wedding. Usually everyone involved is very concerned about your gown or tux, the color of the napkins, the flowers, the cake and picking the right photographer. Nobody talks about the nitty-gritty details of everyday married life and the stuff you’ll have to go through for and because of your spouse.

My little after-wedding surprise was an early morning phone call from Drew on a sunny Saturday, just a month after our wedding. As a volunteer firefighter, he was on a practice burn with his fire company when his gear failed and he got burned from shoulder to elbow. A month before that day, when I was all decked out in a beautiful wedding gown and we danced the night away, the last thing I expected was bandaging third-degree burns on my beloved’s arm. I wouldn’t have even thought that I actually knew how to take care of burn injuries.

And that’s the thing about marriage. No matter how big your extended family might be, suddenly it’s just the 2 of you in this little cocooned unit. When your spouse is in trouble or pain, it’s you who is going to get the phone call, not his mom, or siblings or friends. You are the one who has to bandage the wounds, carry the casket, make the chicken soup or drive to the emergency room.

In the process, you realize that you have all these skills that you never thought you had—you suddenly become an expert nurse, a master chef and a therapist all in one. And what’s even better, is that in return, you suddenly have your own personal nurse, chef and therapist.
Of course, marriage is not all about injuries and death. You’ll also discover a lot of perks—like someone to warm your cold feet at night without much complaint. And somehow along the way, “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” will suddenly make a lot more sense than it did when you first uttered those words.

What's in a bag?

I am on a quest for the perfect purse.

Maybe only women will understand this, but that does not diminish the seriousness of the mission. The purse is an integral part of a woman’s life and I bet I would be hard-pressed to find any woman who hasn’t been on this quest before.

Some women will never find “The One.” Some will search for years until one rainy afternoon, on the bottom of a sales rack, their unsuspecting but hopeful hands will come upon the softest leather, the best little hidden pockets and the perfect length strap.

I have found my match once, and I am afraid that no such luck will ever come my way again. It was about 9 years ago when one of my friends gave me a very small, black, beaded purse. It was very dysfunctional, as far as purses go, but I couldn’t care less: it was love at first sight. It fit my wallet, lip balm and keys. On the inside there was a little coin purse — also beaded. The bag had a woven strap that was long enough that I could fling it across my shoulder. It was practical for day, but small and elegant enough for night. The purse and I went everywhere together. As the little bag gently bumped against my right hip, all was right with the world.

A woman’s relationship with a bag can start at an early age. I got my first purse when I was about 4 or 5: it was white with a red apple on the flap. My Dad brought me a marble every day from work and the little white bag was the best place to keep them.

Once I started school, I entered the “I carry my entire life on my back” phase. For those next 14-15 years of elementary, middle, high school and college, there really was no need for frilly little purses. It was heavy-duty backpack time.

After graduating from college, I was more than happy to downsize to the little black beady bag, and for a while it served its purpose perfectly.

The first sign of trouble came when I purchased a car and later a cell phone. I had a hard time fitting both my keys and the phone. I knew that something had to change, but I was reluctant and, frankly, in denial about the limited abilities of my favorite bag.

But unfortunately, the little bag couldn’t take the stress and slowly started to fall apart — first just a couple of beads fell off, then the strap broke. Thus, the great search began.
First I tried the no-bag policy, but that just seemed plain silly. Next came a small, clutch-style bag, with a very short strap that tucked under my shoulder. It wasn’t much improvement from the favorite purse, because it was just as tiny. While living in a larger city, I also tried the messenger bag and the backpack, but they didn’t exactly scream city chic, not to mention the disapproving looks I got as I tried to navigate crowded buses. The straw bag looked like I got lost on my way to the beach, and I definitely was not hip enough for the red studded and fringed number I tried for a couple of days.

I’ve also been through professional-looking briefcases, leather backpacks, L.L. Bean totes, suede, embroidered bags — but honestly, they just weren’t me. They were either too serious, or not quite serious enough, too girly, too soft, too … something.

Then one day, Drew, my husband, finally shined a light on the whole purse issue for me. I think he was pretty sick of standing around department stores while I searched piles of bags like a mad woman.

“Could it be,” he said, “that this is not really about the purse, but where you are in life?”

Great. So now I am not only looking for a bag, I am trying to find the true meaning of my existence. I bet Macy’s doesn’t have a coupon for that.

But I had to admit that he was right. Maybe I just have to accept that I am stuck somewhere between the beaded party bag and a diaper bag. While the days of carrying just a lipstick and keys are over, I am also not ready for carrying around sewing kits, science projects, a week’s worth of groceries and baby wipes either.

So, while the quest continues and I never leave a store without checking out the bag section, I am a little less obsessed with my search. I trust that the right bag will come along when I am ready for it.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

For children, the answer to this question seems obvious: astronaut, firefighter, doctor or stewardess. Even though our parents are secretaries, car technicians, bankers, insurance salesmen or stay at home moms, as children we believe that something more exciting, fun and dangerous is out there for us. But what if our expectation of an amazing career in an exciting field doesn’t become reality?

I have to admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of a crisis lately when it comes to my professional life. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but one question has been nagging me for a while: Is this IT? The idea that for the rest of my life this is what I have to look forward to — get up, go to work, go home, eat dinner, go to bed — is daunting.

Let me start out by saying that I like my job. It is actually related to what I studied in college (writing and business) and what I do might actually make a difference in people’s lives — even if not directly. I work for a small publishing company with people I like, the pay is not bad, I get to travel a little bit and the work itself is creative and exciting. I do learn new things from my bosses and colleagues, there is a cute puppy in the office and even my cubicle is a luxurious, large model.

But let’s be honest — what I do is not extraordinary. It is not going to change the world or heal people, and if I got hit by a bus, another 20 people with the same skills would line up in my place. And while I am committed to doing a good job, this is not my life’s passion. Does anyone grow up wanting to be a marketing and editorial coordinator?

I have to wonder: Do most people feel this way about their jobs? Is it normal to feel this way? We are taught from an early age that picking a profession is serious business — from the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question to choosing a major in college, we are encouraged to examine what we are good at, what we love to do, what our unique talents are. We are also told that if we work hard enough, we can be anything we want to be and that every little girl and boy has the opportunity to grow up to be the President.

Unfortunately, we are not told exactly how we are supposed to figure out what brings us meaning, or that the search will be slow and painful and will probably not happen for a few decades. In the end, we might not find meaning at all, no matter how hard we work. Reality sets in pretty early in our careers: No matter what your dream job might be, sometimes you just have to take a job, any job, because you have to pay bills. How do you balance that with your search for meaningful work? And how do you deal with the realization that you might never become the astronaut you’ve always dreamed of becoming? Is it naïve to believe that it’s important to find meaning in a job? Maybe we should just suck it up and deal with the fact that this is life — getting up, going to work, going home.

As you can see, I have more questions than answers. I know that I am lucky. I know plenty of people who not only have no passion for their jobs, but dread getting up in the morning and facing their idiot boss. I am certainly not one of them, but I do think a lot about what else is out there and what is the best way to find my meaning. I don’t believe that I am extraordinary at any one thing, but I think I am pretty good at many things, so finding a passion is not so obvious.

Until then, the secret might be to find the small stuff that makes every day a little more enjoyable. I am personally grateful that I don’t have to crunch numbers, for example. I enjoy petting the puppy and chatting with my cubicle-mate and sometimes when I come up with an inspired design for a postcard or see my work in print, I do get a bit of a rush.
Of course, this is where my Mom would tell me that having kids will help me find meaning — but that is for another column.

Dating your hubby-mission possible?

“So, after you’re done with cleaning, do you want to go out and grab some Chinese?” Drew yells from the living room. I am wearing rubber gloves up to my elbows with my trusty disposable toilet brush in one hand (thank you, whoever invented that!) and a wad of paper towels in the other. I am wearing my old sweatpants from college and a T-shirt that has seen better days. It’s Saturday night: time to go on a date!

Once you’re married, dating is just never the same. There is no anticipation, no giddiness, no long hours of consultation with girlfriends about what to wear. And afterwards, there is no debriefing on the phone, no analysis of every word spoken or every move made. And it is really hard to feel sexy and desirable after your hubby’s just seen you with your hands in the toilet. Is it even considered a real date if you’re going out because the only food in the fridge is butter and pickles?

Of course, the relationship experts tell you how important it is to keep the romance alive in a marriage. They say that you should plan evenings alone and rediscover each other over candlelit dinners and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and that you should wear something new and risqué in bed every now and then to spice things up.

Yeah, right.

We don’t have kids yet, but I can already tell that even without kids this “keeping the romance alive” thing is hard. Between jobs, stress, in-laws, friends, hobbies and more work, I’m glad we remember each other’s names at the end of the day.

I do complain from time to time that I don’t get flowers that often anymore, that we don’t go on “real” dates and that we watch too much TV in the evenings instead of reconnecting after a long day or week. But then an unexpected connection in the middle of a bad day reminds me that what I thought was a romantic date in college or in my single days is no longer what I want romance to be.

During one of the recent winter storms, we were without electricity for a day. Neither of us slept well the night before because the power kept popping off and then on, we listened to the wind howl and were generally concerned about the violent weather outside our windows. Drew had to go to work in the morning and he was cranky because he couldn’t shave without his electric razor and he missed his energizing hot morning shower. I was cranky, because I was in a cold, dark house all day, alone, and a little scared. I felt dirty and stinky and just plain unattractive.
I drove to Drew’s office during his lunch hour and we went out to eat together. The streets were deserted and the restaurant was quiet too. We sat down, ordered, and talked and talked about all kinds of stuff, like we hadn’t seen each other in days — about the stupid weather, things going on at our offices, plans for the summer, about my parents, about his Mom and siblings, about what to do with the food in the freezer if we don’t get our power back soon.

Drew suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and said: “Zsozso, are we on a date?”

I only had to think for a second to realize that we were, indeed, on a date.

It’s true, I wasn’t wearing my lucky shoes, my hair wasn’t done and he didn’t bring me roses. But I was sitting across the table from a really cute guy, talking non-stop, laughing and playing footsie under the table. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was funny, whether there was food on my teeth or whether he might think that I’m a pig for finishing off that burger.
I knew that I was going to get a kiss in the end, no matter what.

Leaving Your Types Behind

Drew, my husband, is not my type.
Or, I should say, he wasn’t my type, because now we’re married and I am quite smitten with him. I honestly don’t know why I wasn’t head over heels in love with him the very first time we met. Life is strange that way.

And that is why I am dubious every time I hear someone describe their “type.” Tall, blond, blue-eyed and a doctor. Or tall, with a 6-pack, dark hair, blue eyes, rock star. Please … do people like that even exist? The problem with “having a type” is that it makes you blind to the actual person who is right next to you and who really fits you. Not the crazy dating you, but the you who wants to settle down in a solid relationship without games, without being “friends with benefits” or any of that other stuff we claim to constitute a real partnership for life.

I admit, 7 years ago my type was a certain blond, blue-eyed, cosmopolitan, rich, spontaneous, fun guy, with a great wardrobe, who would fly in from a different continent and show up at my door unannounced. Or we’d rendezvous at various major international airports as he crisscrossed the world. Did I mention he had a cute accent?

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t he?
Not so much. But I didn’t know that back then.

When I first met Drew, we hated each other. We worked together at a small newspaper — he as the photographer, I as the social page editor. I was there first, but Drew walked in and acted like he owned the place and was smarter than everyone. That didn’t go over well with me. We clashed over pretty much everything at work, but things really went downhill when during the course of an argument I told him that I would never date him.

We didn’t speak to each other for days, not even at work. Then came a period of “thaw,” when we spent time together outside of work and, during one memorable non-date, we shared the contents of our wallets. (Him: foreign currency, picture of his niece, volunteer firefighter membership card. Me: A quote reading “the map is not the terrain,” Hungarian currency, picture of above mentioned blond.) We talked for long hours after work, went to the movies, even held hands, but it never occurred to us that we had found what we’d been looking for. I was too busy pining for the blond to realize what was happening.

Then one day, something changed. I honestly can’t say what it was, but we looked at each other and we knew that this was IT. We were both ready — we didn’t want games, we didn’t want a pretend relationship. We wanted the real thing. Cosmopolitan, he wasn’t. Great dresser? If flannel is your definition of style, then yes. And his 6-pack was in the fridge, not on his stomach.
But he got me. He understood and enjoyed all my little quirks. He was — is — warm and funny, works hard, appreciates a good laugh and he doesn’t think it’s weird to make stuffed animals talk and dance in order to cheer me up. We both have our own little demons and traumas from life, but we aren’t afraid to talk to each other about them. He doesn’t judge or make fun of me or tell me that I am crazy or emotional, even when I am. These are not the qualities I ever thought were “my types.”

So all I am saying is that if you’re still out there, searching for Mr. or Mrs. Right, maybe you should forget your types. It sucks to be out there in the dating world, hoping that someone special will come along. Sometimes it doesn’t happen; sometimes it happens from one day to the next when you least expect it. Sometimes the constant waiting and hoping can make you crazy.
But take a look around you: Is there someone in your circle of friends or at work, who doesn’t have a chiseled face, isn’t tall, is maybe a little awkward around you? Do you know someone who is the complete opposite of your type? Even better: Can you be open to the possibility that your type, the way you imagine it, doesn’t exist? That thought might give you a lot of freedom to share the contents of your wallet with someone you’d least expect.

A different kind of spring cleaning

“Do you remember that wind-up doggie you had when you were little? What do you want me to do with it?”

Mom asked from thousands of miles away as she and Dad began the impossible task of cleaning out my childhood bedroom.

“Oh, just throw it out,” I responded immediately. “Are you sure? Maybe when you have children they will want it,” Mom said, full of hope.

My parents are contemplating moving to the U.S. from Hungary, but before they can do that they have to take stock of the contents of the apartment that’s been in the family for generations. There is stuff everywhere.

My room is just a small part of the problem for them, but the decision of what to keep and what to throw out is all my problem.

Some of the things my parents ask me about, I don’t even remember — like the wind-up dog. How am I supposed to know how I feel about toys I haven’t seen or played with in 15 years? How do I know what I’m going to feel sentimental about in another 15 years?

During a visit to my parents’ last fall, I did do some cleaning of my own. “The trip down amnesia lane,” as my husband likes to call it, lasted two full days and involved lots of garbage bags and dust. I resisted many “are you sure you want to throw that out” type of questions from my parents and managed to plow through the elementary, middle and high school years in record time. Diaries, old letters and photos were all keepers. Old hair clips, jingly plastic bracelets and pink pencil boxes had to go — with some exceptions, I admit.

In the end, the process was sad, but necessary. I haven’t lived in that apartment for 13 years and I probably never will again. I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 and this is where my adult life began. I carried some of my stuff with me when I first moved — letters from good friends, photos, my favorite books, pictures of my neighborhood — and that’s enough. I’m 30 now and I have an apartment full of new photos and mementos from a very different life in a very different place. Once my parents move here, everything and everyone I love will be near and I have a feeling that I am not quite done collecting memories.

As I stood in the middle of my messy room in Budapest, surrounded by my childhood stuff, I realized that I can’t be weighed down by the Barbie dolls and stuffed animals of the past. Some things, like the wind-up doggie, just have to go to make way for whatever comes next.