On Feeling Blue


“Are you feeling blue this morning? Want to go for a bike ride?” my husband said, looking up from his computer and smiling.

“We’ll see,” I said, tersely. My husband always gets up early, and by the time I drag myself out of bed, splash my face with cold water, and walk into his study, he already looks like a man who just won the lottery or was given a free sample of some useless product that is supposed to change his life.

Of course, I’m feeling blue! I’m not a morning person, so that’s how I feel every morning. Not to mention that I just looked at my Fitbit and read, “Went to bed too late!” What’s that about?! I didn’t buy it to admonish me! I just wanted to know if I got enough deep sleep (which I didn’t), so stick to that!

Fitbit aside, unbeknown to my husband, the American expression “feeling blue” means something very different to me. In my native Russia it doesn’t refer to being sad but to being homosexual, which in my mother country is still very bad news indeed. I’m not saying that everybody in Russia is a homophobe. In fact, when my daughter was young, she loved a cartoon called “The Blue Puppy.” In it, the cutest puppy you ever saw was rejected by everyone because of his color. I even remember the song the other puppies sang when he tried to approach them: “Goluboy, goluboy, nechotim igrat s toboy” (You are blue! You are blue! We will not play with you!) Amazingly, that story ended well for the blue puppy, and they all became friends in the end. (Even now, I cannot believe that Russian censors allowed it!)

Goluboy shchenok PosterImage result for blue puppy cartoon

As for the American meaning, I know people who, when feeling unhappy, eat or drink a lot. I also know a man who, when he got divorced, shaved his head and drove from Missouri to Alaska. That happened long before being bald became a fashion statement, and also before Americans traveling to Canada had to show their passports. So, when the guy arrived at the North Dakota-Canadian border at 5am in the morning with his head freshly sheared and a huge supply of canned goods (he was also short on money), the border patrol searched his car five times! First, because they had nothing else to do at that hour and second, because they believed that anyone like that must be smuggling drugs or firearms

In any case, eating or drinking won’t help me. For one thing, I watch my weight. For another, being from Russia, I’ve seen too many drunks lying on the street, so I don’t feel like emulating them in the US. As for shaving my head, my hair is one of the few features that still makes me presentable. Shaving it without any medical reason would make me look like that man in the Russian proverb: “I’ll poke my eye out so my mother-in-law will have an one-eyed son-in-law!”

My husband doesn’t know much about the intricacies of the Russian language. Besides, he believes that physical exercise cures life’s ups and downs, and bicycling is one of the things he prescribes for me freely. He’s not wrong about that. Since I no longer jog or play tennis (my knees gave out on me), bicycling is as good as anything (actually, there’s only one “other thing” left — walking). And so, an hour later, we found ourselves on the nearest biking trail, pedaling as quickly as we could in our age and watching young people effortlessly pass us.

Trump supporters aside, there’re only two kinds of people I hate with a passion: people who cut me off on the highway and immediately head for the exit, and young people who outdo me on the trail. How can I enjoy my retirement when I’m left literally in the dust? Where’s respect for old age?

Of course, old age is a major reason for feeling blue in the morning. As soon as I open my eyes, a stream of things that are wrong with me floods my mind. Vision, for example. It’s bad enough to have to wear glasses to see what I eat (I know they say that it’s the smell we react to, but from my experience, you still have to see what you’re putting in your mouth or you may deeply regret it!)

Worse, more and more often, I find myself leaving the house in at least one item of my clothing worn inside out. When that happened to me for the first time, I was still working, and when I finally noticed a label of my jacket informing me that it was made in China and consisted of 100% polyester, my first reaction was to blame my colleagues. Why didn’t they tell me? Do they hate me that much? Do they think I’m an old hippy or an Alzheimer’s sufferer? Now that I’m retired, there’s only one person to blame — my husband, who, no matter how I look or what I wear, always says, taking off his glasses, “You look ravishing!”

Speaking about that, looking good used to be very important to me. In Moscow where I grew up nobody would take her trash outside without putting on a decent dress (and possibly makeup!) and carefully combing her hair. Nowadays, I can go the whole day without even glancing in the mirror. And not because I took an oath to look like hell for the rest of Trump’s term, but because I just forget!

Then, there is hearing – so far not mine but my husband’s. Conversations like, “What would you like for dinner?” often trigger responses like: “Who did you say got thinner?”

Bicycling is good for me, though. It makes me feel content, although competitive, which is strange, because I’m not competitive in my regular life. Yet on the trail, my wounded pride gets the better of me. Of course, not every passerby gets me. The majority of bicyclists on our trail are nice. Some say, “Good morning!” till about 5pm. Some comment on the weather. And many ask if you need help when they see you carefully examining your bike with no tools in hand. Once, when I got flat tire two miles away from our house and had to walk my bike home, people stopped so often, that I now carry a little sign in my bag, “Thank you for asking! My bike and I are beyond help”

Some people even ask personal questions. Just recently, while my husband and I were resting on a bench, one lady slowed down, looked at us very thoughtfully and said, “How are you?!” And as long as she was in our line of vision, she kept turning her head towards us. I felt just fine before she asked, but watching her riding with her head backwards, I began worrying that her neck would snap or bicyclists coming from the opposite direction would run her over.

“Do you know her?” I said when she melted into the distance.

“No,” he said. “Do you?”

“No. What’s wrong with her?!”

But, I immediately felt ashamed of saying that. It was a nice gesture. Besides, it’s been a while since I looked at myself in the mirror and I examine my husband’s appearance only when we go to classical concerts. It’s conceivable that we both look so old and decrepit, that the woman was contemplating calling 911! Surely, she wasn’t a Trump supporter, so I could’ve said something nice to her, too, and not just stared at her as if she had offered me her no-good husband in exchange for mine.

By the way, that’s another thing that is wrong with me. I’m not quick on my feet. I can never say anything smart and witty on the spur of the moment, and I spend a long time afterwards mulling over the things I should have said but didn’t.

No, I take it back. Sometimes, not being able to express myself is a good thing. Like that time when the Westboro Baptist Church decided to descend on our synagogue during a Jewish holiday. Not being very religious myself, I wasn’t planning to go to the synagogue that day. Instead, I decided that I would drive there, stop my car in front of those ugly people and give them a piece of my mind using all taboo vocabulary I had mastered during my life in America (something I never did even in Russia where curses were much more intricate and the opportunities were more plentiful).

I carefully rehearsed everything I was going to say in my head, but on the appointed day, I blanked out. As luck would have it, my husband and I found ourselves driving in the direction of the synagogue at the same time the group was due to be there, and everything came back to me.

“Drive slowly,” I said to my husband. At first, he obeyed, but as we began approaching a small group of people standing on the corner and I began lowering the car’s window, he said: “What are you going to do?”

“You’ll see,” I said with so much feeling in my voice, that instead of slowing down, he accelerated, taking me and my anger away.

I didn’t talk to him for the rest of that day. Yet next morning, I read in the newspaper that the Westboro group never showed up and the people I saw on the corner came there to protest against the haters. In short, I was this close to insulting really good people!

Going back to bicycling. Besides its mostly wholesome atmosphere and the fitness aspect, you can run into interesting people that way. Since the trail we usually bike on is some 200 miles long and it connects the St. Louis area to the Kansas City area, people come from all over. You can always spot long-distance riders by the packs strapped to their bicycles. When they stop, it’s usually to replenish their water supply, take a breather, and look at the map. Most of them don’t linger but some do. They ask questions about the local area or make short conversation, and although the interactions don’t last long, there’s enough time to get a sense of what kind of people they are. In fact, it’s a game I play in my head.

Would I want to see this couple again? Or that guy with a sign “Waco Riders” on his jersey? Is he a NRA member, too? What about the group of young people playing Oldies?

 

That particular morning was hot and humid, and when we stopped at a trailside gazebo, I wasn’t feeling much better than I did in the morning.

“We should’ve stayed at home,” I started, wiping sweat from my forehead, but at that moment a middle-aged couple stopped at the gazebo, too.

“Are you local?” They asked.

The man wore a jersey that read, “Ride for Mental Health!” and the woman “Vote!” and in no time, the conversation switched to the state of mental health in America and, especially, youth suicide. Nothing was entertaining, but I began feeling better. The strangers were my kind of people, smart and caring, and I was already regretting that we’d never see them again.

Just as they were getting ready to leave, a large butterfly landed on of my husband’s blue jersey, and both the woman and I began snapping pictures of it with our phones. The butterfly didn’t seem to mind. It sat still on the blue fabric as if posing for a butterfly lovers’ magazine.

“I think it likes the color.” The woman said.

“Yes,” I joked, ““It must be “feeling blue.””

Everybody smiled and then they left.

Riding back, I didn’t pay attention to other bicyclists, even those who left me behind. I thought about the young people ending their lives and their parents. About our grandchildren and the difficult world we’re leaving them. And, at the end, about myself. Here I am, 66 years old, complaining about minor aches and pains, and constantly misplacing things. Do I have the right to “feel blue” about that? My grandfather never made it to 66! In fact, he never made it even to 62! As for me, I’ve lived a life. I’ve experienced things. I’ve traveled. And what is that “feeling blue” nonsense about anyway? Why do we attach feelings or stereotypes to words? After all, it might be just that – liking the color.

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

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ALL THAT MATTERS


It was the fifth day of our grandparents-connect-with-their-grandchildren vacation. The day started as usual – the grandchildren needed “five more minutes” to finish their electronic games; their mother, my daughter, needed more sleep; and I needed to get all of them out of the apartment to continue our exploration of Lisbon.

The reason that we found ourselves in Lisbon was simple. It was the final destination of my husband’s and my “Classic Portugal” tour, and it was also the place where my daughter, who settled in England 15 years ago, could bring her children — ages 10 and 13 — in a mere two hours, so the kids could bond with their US grandparents.

Pena Palace, Cintra, Portugal

This was the first time we assembled in a country foreign to all of us. Our previous vacations mostly took place in English sea towns where, no matter the month, the quaintness of the place was inevitably dampened by rain and darkened by gray skies. Portugal was chosen for its weather and also its food – the latter based on my husband’s recollection of his 1965 American-on-the cusp-of-being-drafted-in-the army-and-possibly-sent-to-Vietnam tour of Europe.

In general, I found his recollections correct. Portuguese food, with its abundance of fish, sangria and good bread was great! However, in 1965, my husband’s traveling companion was a guidebook “Europe on $5 a Day,” but in 2018, $5 couldn’t even buy gelato for my grandchildren.

Well, it wasn’t the money that bothered me. It was my firm belief that we needed to get our money’s worth. Therefore, I packed our days with various tours and activities, and lingering in the rented apartment wasn’t one of them.

The grandchildren, on the other hand, happily spent time playing their electronic games or talking to each other (you would think that siblings living in the same London flat wouldn’t have much to talk about!). And they had tremendous fun riding around the apartment on a coffee table, which was too low for food or drink but featured four large wheels.

Still, I persevered. I endured the pleas and arguments of the children. I reasoned with my daughter who, exhausted from the hustle and bustle of London, wanted to sleep till … I never actually found out till when, because, by the time a small volcano threatened to erupt in my chest, she usually got up.

In any case, we had already taken two walking tours of the city — both very successful, especially from the point of view of gelato sellers. We had visited the Castle of St. George, from which Portuguese Kings ruled the country for four centuries — also very successfully, particularly when the kids discovered several peacocks who, true to the manners of the former castle occupants, cried loudly and fanned themselves with their luxurious tails. And we had ridden a Hippo Bus, an amphibian vehicle that first rode around the city center and then splashed into the Tagus River.

That tour was fun, although somewhat noisy. First of all, as we splashed into water, everybody (me included) screamed bloody murder. Only my grandchildren sat quietly, demonstrating the proverbial British “stiff upper lip” and looking at me with pity.

Secondly, our tour guide said,

“Let’s show everybody around how much fun we’re having! When I say, “Hey, Paul!” I want you to shout, “Hoo-rah!” And she raised her clutched fist the way one does celebrating a major sports victory.

That surely was overboard. Back in the USSR, which I left at the age of 39, we raised our fists only to demand the end of “rotten capitalism.” So, when my husband began bellowing and raising his fist, I felt embarrassed. Besides, to whom was she referring? Did I miss some explanations? I turned to my husband,

“Who is Paul?”

He looked at me blankly,

“I don’t know.”

You just cheered him! I wanted to say. But, I didn’t. Being married for 21 years does it to you. You learn that your spouse can be deaf to your needs. And even more so as his hearing goes. Yet since everybody kept greeting the mysterious Paul every few minutes, I said again,

“Who’s Paul?”

Another blank look and my husband turned his attention to the monument to Vasco Da Gama we were floating by. That was really ridiculous! But, I didn’t want to make a scene in public, so I let it go.

Later, when we were eating pizza (the kids’ choice), I repeated my question — this time addressing it to my daughter. She didn’t know either.

What a dim family I have, I thought, and slowly began describing the situation to all of them.

“Grandma, she never said, “Hey, Paul.” My grandson said. She said, “Hippo, Hippo!”

“Yes, she did! I heard it!” I insisted.

Several minutes of silence went by, and then my husband said,

“I think I know what your heard. In her Portuguese accent it sounded like

“Hee-po, Hee-po!” Sort of like “Hey, Paul,” I guess. And my daughter doubled over in stitches.

Street art in Lisbon, Portugal

That was embarrassing. Of course, English being my second language, I occasionally, mishear things. Once in London, while watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, I got puzzled by our tour guide’s description of the guards’ hats, which, according to him, were made of “beah skins.” Since I knew no animal by that name and had no idea of its whereabouts, I asked my husband if the “beahs” lived in England or were brought from abroad – only to endure five minutes of blankness and then to learn that the guide had said, “bears,” and that the Brits habitually drop the “r” sound.

Still, “Hey, Paul!” surely took the cake. Today, I needed to rehabilitate myself. I just had to get everybody out to visit the Oceanarium, where I already reserved tickets for both their permanent collection and their temporary one: “Forests Underwater by Takashi Amano.”

By the time we finished with the permanent collection, my grandchildren wanted nothing but ice cream and my daughter and my husband wanted a “quiet place with no activities.” As grand as the Oceanarium was, the sheer number of tourists, local students, and the parents with strollers was overwhelming.

Bones Chapel, Evora, Portugal

With my tired legs trembling and my voice breaking from shouting over the noise of the crowds, I made a weak attempt,

“Let’s see the temporary exhibit, too. I already paid for it.”

To my surprise, they agreed, and we walked to a different floor, crossed another threshold, and, suddenly, the noise ceased and time slowed.

The large room with a raised platform in the middle was dark, with its only lights coming from the glass walls on three sides of the room. Behind the walls appeared the ocean floor, where underwater plants swayed their willowy limbs, and small fish swam unhurriedly, seemingly in rhythm with the soft contemplative music. There were no interpretive signs, no crowds, and the dark silhouettes of visitors moved around quietly. Some took selfies and left, and some stayed there for a long time, watching.

Bewildered, I stopped and inhaled the air, as one would beside the sea or after a thunderstorm. Then I sat down and gave myself fully to the fluidly changing images, the haunting sounds of music, and the unpretentious artistry and harmony of the place. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that so did my husband and my daughter.

What do you do when faced with perfection? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you cry that nothing lasts forever? Do you analyze your life trying to find the missing element that could make it beautiful?

I don’t know the right answer, as I don’t know how long I sat there, relishing the moment and also longing for something I could not describe in words. Periodically, I glanced at the kids, making sure that they didn’t wander out or start a fight. They did not. Yet after they walked around once and took several pictures, their attention wavered, and they began crawling on the raised platform and quietly chatting.

“Look how beautiful!” I tried. But the grandchildren just nodded and went back to their game.

After we left, I kept contemplating the kids’ lack of interest. Were they not susceptible to beauty or was it too early for them? True, they had not yet accumulated regrets, disappointments, and unfulfilled promises. They had no need to heal their broken hearts. And yet, I felt disappointed. Not with the waste of money but with the wasted opportunity. The kids saw true magic, but they didn’t recognize it.

At night, when I kissed my grandson good-night, he said, with his eyes closed, “It was pretty, Grandma,” and I stopped, surprised. I was wrong after all. Nothing was wasted. The seed took, and no matter how long it might remain dormant, some day it will sprout. Maybe not soon enough for me to witness it, but it will. And that’s all that matters.

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

River Tagus at night, Lisbon

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