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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Volunteers: A Study in Contrasts


April 10-16 is observed in the United States and Canada as National Volunteer Week.

 

“Volunteer: a person who willingly does work without getting paid to do it”

IMG_1657-003Where I came from (Moscow, Russia), we never volunteered — at least not in the American way.  The thing was that we didn’t have to — authorities “volunteered” us when and where they desired. The “without getting paid” part (see definition above) worked the same way as it does in America. As for the willingness, nobody ever cared to ask.

The most common cases of Russian “volunteering” during my time there included sending citizens to express their (fake) enthusiasm at state parades, and sending city dwellers to collective farms to help with harvesting.

I still remember spending long weeks (even months) picking cabbages and potatoes, hours away from my home in Moscow — living in military-style barracks, wearing oversized black rain boots and ugly telogreikas (black, shapeless quilted jackets), and drinking vodka — the only entertainment available in the provinces.

I also remember “voluntarily” greeting foreign dignitaries, including Gerald Ford, who visited Russia (then The Soviet Union) in November 1974. My whole college was positioned along Moscow’s wide Leninsky Prospect (Lenin’s Avenue) for about 2 hours, bored and cold, waiting for the black limousines and leather-clad motorcyclists to drive quickly past us, while we waved at them and smiled forced smiles under the command of our superiors.

This is not to say that nobody in Russia would take to the streets voluntarily. There were a few — some protesting against the injustice of the regime and some trying to force the authorities to allow them to leave the country. Yet they were called “dissidents,” and the country had appropriate places for them — mostly the state prisons. All in all, “altruism” was not a common word in our vocabulary – “mandate” was.

Of course, I haven’t been in the country of my birth for a very long time, and things are different there now.  These days Russia, too, has volunteers.  One example is Russian soldiers — sorry, I meant to say “volunteers” — who fought against the Ukranian Army in 2014-15 (in Ukrainian territory, mind you).  Unlike my days of digging in the mud in Russian potato/cabbage/carrots/ etc. fields, those guys weren’t wearing telograikas and rain boots, but military style clothing. They were better equipped, too.  Instead of sacks for gathering veggies, they carried automatic rifles, drove tanks, and used Russian-made rockets. Yet small differences aside, it’s clear that volunteering has finally made its way to Russia. In fact, some Russian volunteers are fighting in Syria right now.

Coming to America in 1990 was disorienting for me in a number of ways — mentally, linguistically and culturally; and one of things that amazed me was this American “volunteering streak.” I remember asking people, “Do you mean that nobody forces (or pays) volunteers to travel to different states to help victims of natural disasters or to support a cause?! That some people would spend their time and money to feed the poor or organize and attend fundraisers?” And when I heard, “yes,” I just shook my head in disbelief.

I’m not saying everybody in this country is an altruist. Of course not. I am saying, though, that I know many people here who have done – and will do again – all of the above and more. And let me tell you, volunteering is contagious.  These days, I volunteer, too.  I’ve participated in a number of fundraisers, and I’ve donated things to my congregation and my library.  It’s not much, but it’s a beginning. For I finally understood that John Donne’s famous quote is not just poetic.  It is a truth of the human condition:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

To Make or Not to Make … New Year’s Resolutions


IMG_1657-003Humans’ attempts to improve themselves go back for centuries. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods to repay their debts at the beginning of each year. The Medieval knights took vows to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry at the end of Christmas, and we make New Year’s resolutions. Well, “we” doesn’t actually include me. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, I believe that they’re grossly overrated. Do you know what the success rate of New Year’s resolutions is? Less than 20%! Also, you have to remember to make them — which isn’t easy in the excitement of a shopping season; and then you have to remember to follow up on them – as if the thing you’re testing is your memory.

In any case, I’m still influenced by the customs of my mother country, where people don’t make resolutions – they make good wishes. What’s the difference? Wishing is a humble thing to do, while declaring that you’ll live differently next year is rather presumptuous. First of all, it assumes that you have control over your life — something we’d never assume. How would we? We’ve lived through revolutions, wars, perestroikas, and Mr. Putin. No, scratch my last statement; Russia still has Mr. Putin!

Anyway, despite my aversion to New Year’s resolutions, I have a warm place for New Year’s in my heart. It is a centerpiece for Russian celebrations, and many attributes of the American Christmas somehow migrated into our culture to make New Year’s festive: a fir tree, a red star, and a bearded man with presents. Of course, in our country these symbols lost their religious meaning. The fir tree no longer evokes the Christian faith, but symbolizes New Year’s. The star on top does not recall Bethlehem, but the Soviet Revolution, and Santa Claus became Ded Moroz (Father Frost),although unlike Santa, he comes with his granddaughter Snegurochka — a pretty woman in a sparkling blue coat and a pointed kokoshnik (a traditional woman’s headdress).1-medium_3086820006

Also like Christmas, New Year’s is the best holiday for children, and it’s accompanied with sweets, presents, and New Year’s plays. The latter take place in theaters, concert halls, and open-air amphitheaters. Their usual scenario is this:

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka are traveling from the North Pole to our cities and towns. They are in a hurry — the kids are waiting for their New Year’s gifts and, more importantly, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka must light the yelkas (fir trees), entwined by strings of unlit bulbs. If they are late, the new year will never come, and although no child knows what that would mean, everybody understands this would be a catastrophe. As the show progresses, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka get separated, and both of them face countless obstacles and Russian folktale villains. The story is breathtaking and suspenseful. Will Ded Moroz and Snegurochka find each other? Will they deliver the gifts? Will they light the yelka on time?

My most memorable New Year’s performance took place when I was five and my grandfather took me for a walk to the nearest park. It was a clear winter day. Snow-dusted trees, benches, and ice-cream kiosks sparkled under the frigid northern sun, and small snowy waterfalls streamed down the stately pine trees. Yet the reason we went there wasn’t the beautiful scenery but a beer stall located in the middle of the park and well attended by rowdy men even in the winter. Actually, Grandpa didn’t plan to take me there — he left me in a small playground next to the stall, where children made snowmen, built snow fortresses, or had snowball fights.

Unfortunately, he paid no attention to the fact that that day the playground was sparsely populated — many children had moved to an amphitheater nearby, which was decorated with tinsel and a large fir tree. I soon headed there, too – just in time for a winter tale to begin. Never seeing a live play before, I was so fascinated that after it was over, I, unnoticed by my grandfather, followed the actors to another amphitheater (there were several in the park), and kept following them around for, possibly, several hours – never getting bored with the repetition and never thinking about my grandfather.

1-IMG_2344When the last performance ended, the sun was setting and blue shadows spread on the snowy ground. Children and their parents began leaving, and I finally realized that my grandfather was no longer nearby.  This was scary by itself, but to make matters worse, I suddenly felt freezing cold. Tears began rolling down my cheeks, and a lump in my throat sent a shock of panic down to my weakening legs. I was alone in the darkening park with no hope of finding my grandfather and nobody around to help me.

Yet a New Year’s tale, unlike real life, always ends well. A passer-by who heard an announcement about a lost five-year-old girl over the park’s loud speakers took pity on me and delivered me to the park’s entrance — all the while reprimanding me for hanging around the park alone and telling me that my grandfather would “wanna teach you a lesson!”

In truth, the only thing my anxious grandfather — who by that time had lost all of his beer-induced happiness – told me was: “Don’t tell anybody. Especially your grandma!” — which I accepted only too willingly, for that meant that nobody would punish me for my misbehavior.

That was a long time ago, and yet, every time New Year’s comes around, I recall that winter day in the park. I even included it in my memoir, which I really-really wish to publish next year. Oh, what the heck, maybe I’ll make a New Year’s resolution this time around, too. A very small one – to be a better person.  How hard could that be? 🙂

P.S. If you’d like to read a full story of my winter adventure, place click “Like!

P.P.S. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka photo credit: zsoolt via photopin cc

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