A Thing or Two About Life: A Birthday Chronicle

lala bday party 1 - Copy

A photo of the besties in costume for their big performance honoring/teasing my aunt

My aunt turned the big 6-0.

She’ll probably kill me for broadcasting this to the world.  But I think it’s necessary for my purposes.

Mostly because, it’s kind of a big deal.  In Russian, we call this a “circular date.”  A milestone.  Something huge that deservedly requires something grand to mark its presence.

To commemorate, my aunt invited friends and family from our town, other states and other countries.  I’m pretty sure she invited everyone she knew.  Old friends, new friends, relatives I’ve never met and neighbors who treat me like family.

She decided to put aside that whole “shit I’m getting older” situation and decided to have a big damn blow out.

And we applauded her.

And we braced ourselves.

Because we knew this meant a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” style party, during which we would eat enough food for 30 days and those of us “youth” would stare with mouth agape wondering how it was possible we ever made any friends.

food

One of the tables. It could have fed a 1st world army. Instead it fed 50 of my aunt’s closest friends.

Unfortunately, this post isn’t about my eventful childhood (we’ll save that for later).  It’s about my aunt’s choice to ring in her important birthday with a positive attitude and a hell of a lot of fun.

She always tells me about the parties she and her friends throw together.  The kind of fun they conjure up, seemingly from nothing.  When she phones me to catch up, the conversation inevitably turns to some gathering these friends had and the songs, skits, poems, readings and/or ensembles they put together.

My aunt’s birthday offered me a peek into their traditions.

These weren’t ordinary toasts.  The MC’s main job was passing the microphone around from group of friends to group of friends so they could start on their “prepared piece” in honor of my aunt.

My expressions went from awed shock to laughter.

And at the risk of showing the world the insanity that is a birthday party in “my culture,” I’ve attached the video of one of the performances here – my favorite one.  Where they dressed up in “Ukrainian wear” and sang a Ukrainian folk song in jest to tease my aunt.

You don’t need to watch all 2 minutes and 48 seconds of this video.  I realize it’s a lot to ask.  But should you choose to click on the link below, keep in mind that these women are dentists, lawyers, doctors and engineers by day.  Also – I had no idea they even knew how to speak Ukrainian (my family speaks Russian).  Also – I had no idea our friend the MC could play the accordion.  Or that people still played the accordion.

It was absolutely ridiculous.

But so damn fun.

I’m thinking my aunt and her friends have a thing or 2 figured out.  Maybe they know how real fun is had.

Between catching up with my cousin and family friends, dancing with my boyfriend, my uncle and my dad, stuffing myself with deliciousness, taking hundreds of photos, and watching my family members dance together, I was absolutely caught up and living in the moment.

brother sister

My dad dancing with his sister, the birthday girl.

Admittedly, I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

We laughed.  We danced.  We sang.

What more can a person ask for?

Awesome.

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Does My Bamboo Stick Make Me Look Fierce?

martial arts weaponry stickfighting

This week I got intimate with some sticks.

Bamboo sticks.

Full disclosure.  Last week a new startup called Vimbly reached out to me about experiencing something new. Vimbly finds activities, classes and date ideas in New York City, Seattle, Maui, Las Vegas and Chicago and compiles them in one place. They asked me to try out their system and engage in the activity of my choice.

I’ve actually never accepted any type of sponsorship before this.  Nothing until this felt like it was aligned with my blog or mission.  (Thanks for reaching out – gardening company and tattoo equipment re-seller – I can’t wait to introduce the self-airbrush kit to the blogging community)

However, new experiences, pushing the comfort zone and knocking things off my personal bucket list?

I’m game.

I browsed my options and thought seriously about laughing my ass off at an off-Broadway show, taking a glass-blowing class or learning to DJ.  But what really caught my eye was the list of martial arts and self-defense classes.

I’ve ALWAYS wanted someone to show me how to kick some ass. And since this opportunity allows me to try anything (in Vimbly reason), I immediately committed to the Filipino martial art of Weaponry Stick-fighting.

Now, when I say I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I didn’t know what to expect.

So when I got to class, took off my shoes and was introduced to the other three long-term members of this semi-private class – Richie, Ryan and Matt – who have each spent years with bamboo stick in hand and was given the following demonstration… I thought – WELL OF COURSE.

My first partner was Ryan, a tall 20-something who quit his job and started his own law firm so that he could have the flexibility to practice stick-fighting as often as possible.

so, NO BIG DEAL.

I’ll use my ballet-influenced figure skating maneuvers to my advantage.

Really tall Ryan: do you want to attack first or defend?
Me: I would like to trade in this bamboo stick for a real sword.
Really tall Ryan: okay I’ll attack first.
Me: sir who is in charge – any qualms with my arrangement here?
Me: no?
Me: OK.

The good news is that Ryan didn’t take my head off.

We started class by going through five attack maneuvers in standstill, then we added footwork, then we did the same with defense techniques.  We tried these attack/defend moves on each other then added footwork, allowing us to fight while moving back and forth, attacking and defending with our bamboo-swords.

By the end of class, I had figured out the entire coordinated fighting dance.  I was able to perform the attack and defend movements in correct sequence with the correct footwork.

The build-up of the class alleviated any intimidation.  As with anything that appears difficult, breaking down the movements makes it extremely manageable.

I love new experiences because there’s nothing to lose.

From the moment I took off my shoes and walked through the door, nothing else was on my mind.  I left work, stress, busy schedules and deadlines in my neon pink sneakers and injected effort and excitement into my bamboo stick (still petitioning for real swords).

I’m pretty sure there were times where I looked like Monica on that episode of Friends where she tries to learn to tap dance (OK no one is THAT bad), but it felt good to be out of my comfort zone for an evening.

Plus, now I’m prepared the next time I’m summoned for a duel or I need to protect myself and I have a bamboo stick.

Awesome.

Why I Broke Up With New York City

new york city

view from the roof deck in my last New York City apartment

In 4 weeks exactly, I will celebrate an important anniversary.

Exactly 11 months ago to the day, a friend and I packed up our fabulous apartment in New York City and drove 15 hours until we saw the Chicago skyline.

It’s been almost 1 whole year since I did this scary thing – left New York – and dared to build a life elsewhere.

I planned to post this entry closer to the 1 year mark, but my friend Irene (in New York City no less), sent me an article, entitled “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24” today, in which Ann Friedman chronicles with great sincerity, the reasons why she left New York and her “Meh” feelings on the city in general.

The topic of New York City has been implanted in my mind, unwavering, since I moved.

Between meeting new people (HI! I just moved here from NYC…), my new co-workers, friends back east and random strangers, the topic of the move comes up more than talk of the weather.  And every time I’m at a house-warming, networking event or on a date, I feel extremely unsettled about my answer.

Why DID I leave New York?  Why don’t I EVER want to live there again?

Every time I hear these questions, a slew of verbal diarrhea ejects itself ranging from reasons to do with work, family, my childhood in the Mid-West or just LOVING the deep-freeze of winter (not really).

Unlike Ann, who moved to NYC because she couldn’t think of anywhere else to go and followed a boyfriend who reportedly had her dream job, my path and times in NYC weave a different tale.

As a child, I was fortunate enough to visit New York almost every year.  My parents’ best friends (the ones who are credited with birthing Irene) moved to New York City when we immigrated from Ukraine, while we settled in Michigan.  I found myself visiting New York “frequently” on family trips when I was a child and then on my own when I was older to see Irene.  The lights of Times Square used to mesmerize me.  Irene’s parents would take us driving through during every visit.  Those big billboards represented big dreams to me (12 year-old me thought corporate America was like six flags) and I longed to grow up and find these corporate dreams of my own.

Once I grew up, my educational goals pushed me to the East Coast.  I attended a competitive liberal arts school, after which, what felt like my entire graduating class, moved to New York City.

I didn’t follow a boyfriend (he ended up moving a year later to follow me).  I was psyched about my first job (until I wasn’t).  I lived with one of my best friends from college (see Brunch post).  I had 3 jobs during my 5-year tenure in the city, during which time I had great experiences, and one of which was in the smack center of Times Square.  I even had my little brother by my side, after he graduated and moved to NYC (and lived on my couch for 3 months).

From the outside, my NYC life probably looked like a Great Gatsby party or a Sex and the City episode (except with parades of frat boys and no Louboutins – those actually aren’t affordable, Carrie).

Somehow though, the city left me incredibly unsettled and – this has been hard to admit – I don’t think I was ever incredibly happy.  Yes, I had some great times and I accomplished professional goals and I frolicked with old friends and made new ones.

But I somehow still felt like I was in a box.

Ann describes New York as the prom king in high school: “He knows he’s great, and he’s gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.”

I think in my version the prom king loves you back and you realize he’s a douche.  Or you’re Cady Heron in Mean Girls and you’re accepted by the popular clique only to find out that the 3 of them are absolutely miserable people.

I haven’t put an exact stamp on my feelings.

Maybe it has something to do with the eventual break-up with my now ex-boyfriend.  Maybe it has to do with my lack of desire to hang out with the prom king while he runs around town telling everyone he’s #1.  Maybe I was just getting tired of being shoved on the subway in the morning.

Maybe it’s all 3.

I realize this topic hits on some buttons for many people and there are those that love NYC with extreme passion.  I still have friends who are there and love it.

I will say this though, I agree with Ann – I breathed easier after moving.

Over the past year, as hard as it is, I’ve thrown myself into establishing a life here.  I decorated my first personal apartment by picking out furniture piece by piece, I joined internal organizations at work, I went to networking events, I started coaching figure skating again, I put in effort to reconnect with high school friends I’ve lost touch with and I’ve opened myself up to finding matches in new dating pools.

It was hard.  But even on the hardest day, I still breathe easier.

The city you live in that suits you is a personal choice.

On this anniversary, I’m proud of myself for taking a leap of faith and leaving.  The move has turned a number of my worlds upside down, but it’s also grounded many.

I feel happy about the direction I’m moving in, and that friends,… is Awesome.

Brunch: a Study in Friendship, Personal Growth and Chili

That Time I Saw Walter Isaacson Speak and Spent 8 Days Trying to Write About It

I went to brunch with one of my best friends this weekend and something unexpected happened.

She pulled out a notebook and told me she was going to interview me.

It was 11am on a hung-over Saturday.

I gave her the best death stare I had.  She gave me the “yep this is happening” look.  And I gave up.

Friend was headed on a leadership retreat with her company and was given the assignment of interviewing 2 people she felt had “influenced” her.

I was pretty surprised she chose me.  And Kinda honored.  (OK really honored).

But definitely surprised.

Not because our friendship isn’t Awesome (it is) but because I had never stopped to think about the types of life-altering effects we’ve had on each other.

Best friends are not strangers that inspire you during a chance meeting or teachers, professors and superiors that you look up to.  Best friends are, in some ways, extensions of you.

And this friend in particular could very well be my right arm, since we’ve been more or less inseparable for a decade.  We met during orientation of Freshman year, lived on the same hallway, lived together Sophomore and Junior year, shared an apartment in New York City Junior summer when we were super cool and doing internships and lived together Senior year on the same floor.  Post college we moved from one apartment to another in New York City for 5 years and then casually escaped Hurricane Sandy last Halloween when we drove ourselves (in a rented minivan) to Chicago where we became grown-ups and got our own apartments (less than a mile from each other).

It’s been 10 years.  That’s more than 1/3 of my life that I’ve had this one friend by my side.  Through the coming and going of boyfriends, tragedies, births, deaths, triumphs, games of flip cup, book clubs, travels to exotic destinations, costume parties and that one time we were “guests” on the Rachael Ray show (true story).

We’ve shared clothes, experiences, laughs, hugs and tears for 10 years.

So when friend pulled out a notebook on a sunny fall day and told me I had influenced her, I was forced to put down the eggs benedict menu and give her a look that could only read “what are you talking about.”

During the next hour or so, while I devoured my much needed comfort food, friend fired a number of questions at me.  Some I’m sure she knew the answers to.  Some that brought up experiences I forgot existed, buried deep where I keep my childhood memories.  Some that brought up new topics and conclusions we had never spoken to one another.

What is your favorite trait about yourself?  My ability to connect with others.

Who has influenced you the most?  My mom had the greatest influence on me before she passed.

Name a moment that stands out as time when you recognized your own leadership skills.  When I was named a “team leader” while studying abroad in Madrid, Spain during my junior year of high school.  I had just transferred to a new high school and was feeling out of place in my environment.  Being so far away from home and in a new setting with other teenagers from around the world forced me to bring out my extroverted personality and gave me a clean slate to run with.  There was a moment that I’ll never forget, when one of the program organizers pulled me aside after an event, and told me that the spirit I had shone through and she could foresee big things for me.  I think my confidence grew twofold on that day.

How do you think you’ve influenced me?  I think we probably push each other.  I believe in surrounding myself with positive influences and support systems.  I imagine it’s similar for you.  My drive and ambitions push and inspire your own, as yours do for me.

What is one trait that you would change about yourself?  I would like to be calmer and take things in stride.  I would like to accept the things I cannot change, have the courage to change the things I can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.  Just like the quote.  I’m working on it.

It was an unexpectedly deep Saturday morning.  And definitely not your typical Friday-night-recap brunch.

Luckily, they had a Do-It-Yourself chili (It’s a thing) to which I added poached eggs, avocado, sour cream, chips, mushrooms and cilantro cream.

The chili was amazing.  So was connecting in new ways with someone you lived with for 10 years and still see almost every week.

Maybe everyone should bring a list of life questions to brunch dates?

Awesome.

That Time I Saw Walter Isaacson Speak and Spent 8 Days Trying to Write About It

steve jobs book

Obviously, this is when it happens.

I meet the man who basically invented inspiration and my ability to write about it resembles a kindergartener on the first day of typing class. (But a really advanced one!)

For seven days I’ve been wrestling (physically) with writers block, trying to figure out how to put this evening into words.

I’ve been trying to relay the luck I felt to be in this right place at the right time to get some perspective during a hell week at work that included an all-nighter, a boss that thinks “this is shit” is constructive feedback and instructions to my team to redo all the work.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a sequence of words that conveys the extent to which I was nerding out during this speech about the corporate dictator/lunatic genius himself, Steve Jobs, and the things true passion can build.

After all, you don’t hear every day from the man who spent two years taking long walks and discussing Jobs’ life, the legacy he wanted to leave, his regrets, his formative years and insane stories that could only come from someone who started and saw through the very thing that lead to the iPod/iPhone/iPad situation (The situation being their existence, of course).

My eyes were glued to the stage for the entire hour-long speech.  Somehow Isaacson squeezed in what felt like Steve Jobs’ whole life story, added his own personal feelings and threw in examples of bringing in strengths from those around you as demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin and the team of leaders that wrote the United States Constitution (yep).  Isaacson addressed the meanings of “success,” both positive and negative and most importantly, the roads that lead there, the critical interactions that matter and the manner in which these leaders treated those around them.

I’m not sure how he wove these stories together, but strong messages of the entrepreneurial spirit were conveyed.  Knowing about challenges faced by those who achieved greatness gives you appreciation for your own struggles (however small they may seem in comparison).  I felt stronger.  I felt pumped. I somehow felt even more patriotic (??) than usual. (Walt, you sneaky bastard).

A week later, I am still thinking about the messages I heard and the stories that were told.

Clearly the act of conveying these messages is throwing me for a loop.  So I leave you with this.

My main takeaways:

1) Being a successful leader means surrounding yourself with talented and capable people and enabling them to do their best work.  I’m pretty sure Jobs drove 90% of the people he encountered absolutely nuts, but he was smart enough to recognize Steve Wozniak’s technical abilities and the CEO of Corning Glass’ ability to invent a new glass product that would make the iPhone what it is today.  He pushed these people out of their comfort zones because he saw their immense potential and diverse strengths.  In my opinion, this is the sign of true leadership.

2) Even those who reach great success have struggled too.  This might seem obvious, and yet it’s so reaffirming and encouraging to know that the unexpected challenges, road blocks and crossroads we meet are a normal part of the journey.  Jobs was thrown out of the very company he built, and yet, without this turn of events, he would not have found the creativity and innovation that powered the dynamic Apple synergy that exists today

3) How you treat people is important.  Word on the street is that Steve Jobs was kind of a dick.  Although he pushed those around him to greatness, he also broke them down at times.  Whether this type of demeanor is required to achieve the best results is something I’m still mauling over.  I have a feeling that the answer stems somewhere from your own personal values.  As Isaacson put it, not to give Jobs any excuses, but unless you’re planning on re-inventing the face of technology on planet earth, being “lovable” and loving others is a virtue not to shy away from.  (ie don’t be a dick).

He left us with is:

“Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

That’s the plan, Walt.

That’s the plan.

Awesome

Note: At some point during the writer’s block process, I found myself wearing the dress I wore to an 80’s prom party a couple years ago.  TOTALLY NORMAL. The photo shoot just naturally followed.

Dating Inside My Culture / Why I’ll Never Date Boris the Hunter

RUSSIAN MAN WITH USHANKA

This post was inspired by an article I read while sitting in the inviting confines of the MRI waiting room.

While I was busy mouthing off to the “doctor” at the orthopedics unit (NO. It’s fine. What? An MRI? NO.), a friend sent me an article to read just in case I needed something to keep me busy.

(For those that are just joining the party: I added excitement to my life a few weeks ago when my wrist took one for the team when I fell on a boat.  I’ve been pretending it’s FINE ever since.)

Friend apparently thought that the best form of therapeutic literary Zen before being sent into the tube to enjoy the rare acoustics of a jack hammer was to have me ponder my dating life (Clearly friendship will be questioned later).

The article, written by Diana Bruk, pushed my primal buttons.

In her account of why “I love (and hate) dating Russian men,” Bruk recounts, in impressive honesty, the ways in which she feels torn between dating her culture’s Russian “patriarchal alpha males” in St. Petersburg and the American egalitarian, no-strings-attached guys.  According to the author, who has split her time between the privileged New York liberal arts school where she attended college and the “crumbling communal building” in St. Petersburg where she moved thereafter to teach English, dating in Eastern Europe is like dating in modern day 1927.

Like the author, I too was born in the Soviet Union.  I also moved to the US at a young age and sure enough… went to a liberal arts school on the east coast where I learned valuable lessons like: your natural beer pong abilities are directly proportional to the caliber of your love life; boys can be judged on their ability to pair a pink Lacoste polo with a Brooks Brothers pant; sneaking onto the President’s lawn post frat party is considered a romantic date.

Unlike the author, I have never been back to the motherland and I’ve committed to my one and only US passport (like a glowing bride).

Until this year, I had never dated a Russian before.  Nothing about a union with a Russian male appealed to me.  I was sure that I had more in common with a Filipino rice farmer.

Most of the reasons why I never dated a Ukrainian/Russian are neatly outlined by Bruk.  In fact, while reading it, I kept gripping my iPhone trying not to yell “NO DUH.”  Not surprisingly, the lack of respect for your independence, chauvinistic sex practices and the inability to digest the word “no” is not absolutely thrilling to a girl who moved to the land of the free and freakishly independent when she was 5 (her. Not me. I was 6.) and then graduated from Liberal Arts University where, let’s be honest, feminism is taught as a first year requirement.

So Yeah.  I’m not running towards Boris the Hunter.  I’m turning around slowly with some swagger and thinking “tool.”

I hadn’t given it too much thought to be honest – this whole Ukrainian/Russian man topic (except for NO thanks) – until this year; when I moved back to the Midwest, reconnected with some of my roots and thought about what I wanted to be when I grow up.

In the past year, my family has taken it upon themselves to casually suggest some Russian dating partners… as if to say OK you’ve had a great deal of fun… time to settle down. Boris the Hunter is waiting for you.  He brought his club.  And some meat.  Swoon.

While I was busy beating Boris the Hunter over the head with his own club, I connected with my roots by way of extended family, family friends and even made some new friends from my culture in my new city (Chicago).

Recently, in fact, I’ve found myself “at home” dating and hanging out with Russians and Ukrainians.  I’ve found a familiarity and understanding I didn’t know would bring fulfillment.  While Boris the Hunter and I still come from different worlds, Boris’ assimilated offspring and I have found some common ground.  They might not tear my clothes into pieces in the heat of passion, but they’ll eat homemade pirogis, engage in broken Russian banter and rock out to Soviet pop hits of the 1970’s that our parents used to love (that we secretly keep on our iPods).

Boris the Hunter Jr. and I connect on a level I never considered before.  The one where you don’t have to explain where you come from.  Or why smearing fried chicken liver on toast is breakfast.  Or why your uncle still dresses himself in the same clothes he’s had since we immigrated to America two decades ago.

I don’t care if your mom immigrated from Zimbabwe, your grandparents came from Venezuela in 1952 or you were born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Everyone has a point of origin that dictates their values and cultural roots.  What I’ve learned is… no matter how far you wander and what new worlds you encounter and assimilate to… something about spending time with those from similar backgrounds strikes a chord of familiarity and gives a taste of home.

Boris… you’re OK.

And that realization is kind of Awesome.

A Birthday At Home

cake

My birthday was last week.

I spent it at home.

In true time honored tradition, I flew to my hometown to see my dad, little sister, grandparents and aunt and uncle to have my cake and eat it too.

It wasn’t your typical shots-at-the-bar fiesta (that came later).

Instead, I asked for a birthday party.

Maybe I was in a reminiscent mood.  Maybe I wanted to celebrate in a grandparent-friendly establishment.  Maybe I had my kick-ass 10th rollerblading birthday at U.S. Blades on my mind or the one that followed when my parents rented out an entire ice arena and I made my friends skate with me (watch me skate).

I wanted cake.  I wanted to wear a dress.  I wanted balloons.  I wanted toasts.

I wanted my home-based family around a table.

My dad made reservations at our favorite Russian restaurant (the only food grandpa said he would eat).  My grandma took me shopping to purchase a new birthday dress.  My little sister spent the morning picking out her most appropriate soon-to-be-a-teen ensemble (sweatpants and over-sized shirt).

The day was everything I hoped it would be.

It was nothing fancy or extreme.  But it was special.

Dad pre-ordered all of my favorite Russian dishes. Each family member took a turn at a toast.  We took pictures.  We laughed.  We reminisced.  We ate cake.

I felt blessed to be celebrating quietly (loudly) with my family (possible sign of oncoming maturity).

Absolutely Awesome.