From Puerto Rico to La Mercè: Deep Thoughts on Another Friggin’ Birthday

So… life’s been happening while I looked away. I briefly escaped to Puerto Rico, and squeezed in two days of quality time with my venerable Maman Lady F at Villas del Mar Hau in Isabela. It is a very scenic (and reasonably priced) little hotel with incredible views from every casita, which we thoroughly enjoyed right up until Security came to board up our windows on account of the HURRICANE WARNING.

Scenic  Security

In the short time before being entombed alive in front of a screaming TV forecasting doomsday–I won’t say before the storm because THERE WAS NO STORM!–we did manage a quick beach stroll during which I got to walk around blind on account of the crazy wind and Lady F could engage in one of her favorite pastimes (which is not finding seashells but picking things up from the ground wherever she is–even green plastic trash-like things as clearly observable below).

Mom  Windy

I learned this about Isabela: I don’t like it. At least not as a beach destination, because the waves and currents look (and are) deadly at all times, weather event or not, except for the occasional natural or artificially-made pocita or pool which is never deep enough. The views are great, though, and you will like it if you are a surfer or don’t mind the ever-present, scary, and visually abstruse tsunami danger warning signs (is that a wave or a dragon?).

Stormy  Tsunami

We also pulled off a brief stop for delicious fritanga at some place called Willy’s At The Beach where the food was actually great and the service quite friendly, but which was a little too bilingual for my taste:

Pollito Chicken

As my friend Dr. A loves to point out accusingly, I am a self-hating Puerto Rican (somewhat, I qualify), and things like that just throw me back to kindergarten and one of the first songs I learned, Pollito Chicken Gallina Hen–an insidious tune that, as a method for teaching English, flies in the face of every second-language acquisition theory ever, and which for me (and countless others, I’m sure) is probably the origin of decades of cultural trauma. NOW look, they’re trying to undo the damage, as schizophrenically as fingerwaggingly!

Back in San Juan, I had a chance to catch up with my lifelong BFFs Miss LG, Miss I and Mistress Yodalina, as well as Mr. P, who was out of town for last year’s reunion:

BFFS

Lots of beauty, if you take into account that there’s 250+ years worth of humanity in that photo. The happy occasion took place at newly discovered (recently opened, really) Micheito Bodequita, which is now up there with La Jaquita Baya and Soda on my list of San Juan faves.

But that was long ago and far away, the last hurrah of my brilliant summer. Now I am once again in New York: beauty, happiness, and hope all destroyed by the beginning of a new academic year. As usual, work work work–weekdays, evenings, weekends. I also have my second throat infection in less than two months, a clear sign that my aging body and soul can no longer deal with the unbearable banalities of gainful employment, at least in increasingly corporate academia (where I am so oppressed, I literally don’t have a voice). And as I spent Friday night lonely and miserable because I could not even talk on the phone, I suddenly realized I am less than a week away from turning… 51 (on the feast of La Mercè, no less, perhaps explaining both my catalanophilia and my love of a good time). FIFTY-ONE!!!!!!!!! I haven’t fully processed 50 yet! Has it really been a full year since the jubilee?

And yet in some ways it seems so long ago. Last year I didn’t know Lady F wasn’t an immortal Vampire Queen–this spring she had a brush with cancer and I do believe it was the first time I ever saw her not-well (she won that battle, though it’s not clear how the scuffle with her post-surgery pill is going, and neither of us is exactly the person she was before). Anyway, I’ve now found out how far I am from the perfect daughter, and how both of us may ultimately have to make do with “good enough.” But also that I’m grateful to the Universe for Lady F and in fact for the entire dysfunctional F clan. So, in pondering such transcendental topics at this new turning point, I also wonder if I’ve learned anything else; possibly something that isn’t quite so sobering…

The other night my longtime michelangelesque bollycao, back from the claws of famine and disease, waxed poetic about how “together” I seem compared to other fiftysomethings he knows, who are all midlife crises and drunkenness (funny how young’uns regard us old folk). Oh My, I thought, as I held on to my wine glass, perhaps in the company of my version of a Porsche: am I indeed not all drunkenness and midlife crisis? Have I learned anything substantive in my past year/half a century of life? Am I becoming prudent and wise? Unable to come up with answers to these questions right off the bat, I posed them to an assortment of my dearest contemporaries, and got some interesting answers, publicly (on Facebook) and privately.

Foreseeably, the very first replies were from friends less than happy with things their bodies are (no longer?) doing: “I feel about 30 but sometimes my body disagrees.” “I have learned that my body has its limits.” (I myself am coming to terms with the realization that ten pounds gained over a stressful spring semester won’t just go away over the summer because Greece and Spain have that healthy Mediterranean diet.) Someone tried awfully hard to sound thrilled about it: “If you could [stay] 22 again or whatever age you deemed your more youthful and beautiful… how long do you think before you got bored with life?” (Hmm…) Less foreseeably, more than one person is afraid at some point no longer far off in the future they’re going to start smelling bad.

None would describe themselves as feeling more prudent, quite the opposite! And some questioned the notion of acquired wisdom–“the older I get, the more I’ve experienced, the less I understand.” But they seemed fine with that: “I’m good with now, whatever now seems to be.” Some did feel wiser, but in a very particular way: “I say and do what I please and don’t care much what others think, because after all others don’t pay my bills. I’ve embraced my flaws.” And a personal favorite reply: “I no longer believe in ghosts, gods or the afterlife. I can now focus on reality and that the consequences of my actions are only mine to accept, amend or ignore. I no longer carry the weight of my parents’ mistakes, beliefs or their total lack of imagination.” Being wiser to them means being more in charge of (and responsible for) their own trajectory and liberated from pressures to behave, succeed in the rat race, or live up to expectations: “The main thing I’ve learned is that society’s rules don’t always apply.” Or, in meme form,

Fuck This Shit

Discussions on gained wisdom, in some cases, took a much more “applied” drift (via text). Lovely female friend: “You wear bikinis if you are very young, or after 50, because you don’t mind cellulite anymore; it’s there to stay. Also, when you get older you’d pick a 90-minute massage over a quickie.” Lovely male friend: “I vote for the quickie!” (I may or may not have said something about the unfortunate illegality of happy-ending massages; why must we always choose? But I do wear a bikini, even if I’ve chosen a modest old-lady style.)

Some friends expressed an uplifting feeling of renewed energy: “My mid-life crisis made me feel young all over again!” On the other hand, certain answers denoted a spunky ennui colored by the disappointment and loss that most people will have experienced by this time: “I feel alive, finally able to ditch all the components of that dreaded straightjacket that was my younglin’ age.” “I’ve solidified my belief that independence is key. Rely on no one (man).” Curiously, and inspiringly, these responses were feisty rather than subdued.

More contemplative observations hinted at underlying anxieties, sadness, and nostalgia, always expressed with the fabulous dry wit characteristic of my bunch: “I think that the 40s were a lot better than the 50s. You’ve already gotten to the point where you don’t care what people think, but your body hasn’t started to give out yet (your memory either). And most of your friends are still alive. But at least most of your friends’ children have grown up, and you no longer have to deal with them trying to bring them along when you go out to dinner. Of course, once I’m completely through menopause, I might be in a better mood about all this.” (I hear ya!) Together with the wit, I also got very moving valuations of what’s been worthy and worthless along the way and how to navigate what’s coming: “Older and wiser here, far more cynical than ever, especially when it comes to institutions, including governments and universities. Don’t like the people, so often ill-bred and in-your-face, but very fond of individual persons, the only source and repository of love. Art matters, perhaps more than ever. The strange matters–the sounds and letters of a new tongue; a fish market in a foreign city. Cities–cities matter despite the people. Trees and flowers matter. The Alps matter. Wine o’clock matters. The past matters enormously; the prospect of one’s conscience dying totally sucks.” I agree with every single one of those phrases, most notably the one about wine o’clock (but also the affirmation of dignity, consequence, and–forever–wonder).

Nora

A couple of friends rejected or circumvented the idea of having learned (or having to learn) from age, quite refreshingly: “I have learned that I am not as young as I used to be.” “My problem is that I was never too brilliant and life’s lessons keep going over my head… BTW I think I’ll get you moisturizer for your birthday” (yes, and yes!). Or, the ultimate self-deprecating loveliness: “Um, I’m the queen of regrets? But perhaps the wisdom of Grace Jones will help you.” I went straight to the source, and as much as by Mighty Grace’s pronouncement that “I’m always rebelling… don’t think I’ll ever stop,” I was motivated by the fact that she requires her rooms “furnished with two dozen oysters on ice, unopened because ‘Grace does her own shucking.’” As do I! Oysters matter too.

It was interesting that while most of my pals responded with introspective ruminations on lessons learned (advice implicit), only one translated those into explicit advice. Quite welcome; I can totally use it: “1) Go for the nice girl over the crazy one. 2) Meditation is way more effective than therapy. 3) Might as well try and enjoy life now b/c we’re almost dead.” Meditating requires patience I don’t have, but I take #3 to heart, and–as she well knows–obviously need #1 (orientation-adapted) because, unlike the enlightened woman in this meme who learned so much after 40,

Pelotudos

I not only cannot for the life of me spot a pelotudo–they are my fatal attraction and addiction.

Although I started this as mindless chatter for my silly blog, I am quite humbled by the collective insights that came up. I am certainly not more “together” than my cohort (unquestionably a select slice of my generation). If anything I’ve managed to figure out a few things about myself and my true needs (not the things Walt Disney thought I should need). It’s not just that I no longer want the things I wanted between my 20s and early 40s: I am no longer sure that I ever did. I am a bit of a self-hating Puerto Rican, and fundamentally rootless–always surprised by the ease with which I could just pack up and abandon my current life at any time. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I get sick of everything in nine-year cycles. As per recently encountered Spanish pop psychology, I seem to be an agamist: someone who’s firmly come to believe that physically and emotionally satisfying relationships can and should occur outside the traditional monogamous couple. I knowingly do the same pathetic things over and over again (because maybe the sixteenth time is the charm), and sometimes take unnecessary risks. I am also a card-carrying feminist who often lapses into horrifying adolescent girly-girl behavior. I’m fiercely independent, and tend to keep people at arm’s length, but also become fiercely attached to those with whom I finally become friends. I am much more concerned with ethics than with religion (which I despise) or spirituality (which I suspect). Despite an admittedly privileged salary, I am a financial disaster and have a hard time making myself care (except when I worry about not saving enough for the nursing home or, more frequently, can’t afford a shiny goodie I desire). I spend the nursing home money foolhardily on grooming, because I don’t fucking want to age gracefully. I like to travel–another cornerstone of my financial negligence. I like Barcelona. I need Barça. And champagne and cava. And horses. I love reading, passionately. And air conditioning, also passionately. And boys (of various ages), with all their snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails. And PORK. And blah blah blah.

Some of those things are good, many others not so good, and most are decidedly contradictory. In the end, all that self-knowledge hasn’t made me figure out how to go about living well for however long is left. All I’ve learned about life is that it likes to happen while you’re looking away. But at least I’m lucky to have these wise (though imprudent) friends for rescues, ass-whoopings, and sensible advice. Together, over 600 years of sage humanity!

So as the fateful day approaches, this is what I plan to do. I’m not going to say yes when I mean no, or do things I don’t want to do (started today already!). I’m going to unnecessarily alienate people at work if I feel like it. I’m going to engage in stupid, pitiful behavior and not kill myself about it afterwards. I’m going to burst into my hairstylist’s and give her all my money to please do something. I’m going to charge things I can’t afford to my credit card, because I want them. I’m going to run the a/c even if it’s not that hot outside. I’m going to eat cake. I’m going to drink with friends. I’m going to drink ALONE! I’m going to idle. I’m going to party and shake my booty and even hanky-panky just because I still can. I’m going to run away from old age like it’s a dragon or a tsunami wave. And then I’m going to keep doing all that, way past La Mercè until the day I finally have to close up shop.

Let the festivities begin.

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About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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