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.

The big 8-0: the Right Way

Me and Gramps*

Me and Gramps*

It’s official.

Gramps turned 80.

It’s been a long awaited affair that started with frantic calls from my brother a little pre-planning, had some tears thrown in (I love family planning) and included a grand finale (we come through in the end!).

We went all out for him.

The original idea was to take him fishing – his favorite activity. As a kid, my family would go up north for a little cabin-living during the summers and gramps would catch the fish that would feed us for weeks.  Days were spent watching Bewitched Re-runs swimming and trying to grab the fishing rod being grandpa’s little helpers.

At the last minute though, the wish to make this big milestone unforgettable took us away from the lake and had us putting on black-tie appropriate attire.

5 days before the big day, my grandma and I engineered a plan that involved live music, pretty dresses, dancing, toasts and mountains of our favorite Ukrainian food.

80, after all, deserves more than a trip to the lake.

Once the night of the big event came, it was time to begin our favorite tradition: toasting the person of honor.

I didn’t know what to expect.  All I knew was that little bro and I were prepared to bestow love on Gramps.

As I’ve mentioned before, my family has been through a good bit.  There have been divorces, re-marriages, riffs, deaths and re-organizations of sorts.  It’s been a long road.  When I’m not busy filming them for my made-for-TV-movie (MTV are you reading this?), I’m sitting around like a cocker spaniel with my head cocked to one side in disbelief.

My life is kind of like Modern Family.  The traditional family unit we are not.  But serious undeniable love there is.

Good thing this band of misfits is really good at pouring it straight from the heart.

My dad was up first (always) and delivered a speech about the make-up of the family unit and that regardless of life’s changes, my grandpa and he will always be family.

Little bro gave a speech inspired by Will Ferrell in Old School during which he yelled “you are a legend” multiple times and pointed at Gramps.  I have no comment.

Uncle began his toast by giving a summary of every major event that occurred around the world in the year 1933.  He ended the toast by likening Gramps to Christopher Columbus and reminding everyone that without Grandpa’s pioneering efforts, we would have never immigrated to America.  According to the story, after Grandpa’s first trip to the U.S., he came back and announced “one can live there,” after which, my immediate family, aunt, uncle, grandparents, great grandparents and cousin colonized the USA in mid-1991 (and subsequently learned to live off the new land by shopping at Kmart, Farmer Jack (R.I.P.) and CVS Pharmacy).

I spoke last.  I reminisced about the forts Gramps and I used to build out of pillows in Kiev, the 8 AM Saturday morning wake-ups during my competitive figure skating years and the adamant stance he takes on loving grandma and making them one unit.  Grandpa was always my hero as a little girl.  I thought he could move mountains.

There were tears.  There was laughter.  There was caviar.  There was love.

Gramps was beaming all night and even stayed up partying past midnight.

Not bad family.

Awesome.

*Note: Clearly I had a momentary awkward stage as a baby before I became this 4-year old beauty.  OK I don’t want to hear anything more about it.

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An Autumn Sail in July

chicago boat

The old saying goes: “it’s all how you look at it.”

Never is this truer than when your oldest friend in the world comes to visit and you plan to bop up and down with a bunch of other boats on Lake Michigan….

And it’s 61 degrees in July.

(Yes, this is a first world problem post)

Let me lay out the significance here.

My friendship with oldest friend was kind of pre-planned in the womb.  Back in Soviet times, when our parents were perfecting the art of homemade vodka distillation well-behaved model Soviet children, their entire high school class started to like one another.  And then married each other.  And then had some babies at the same time (it’s like a backwards Brady Bunch).  And then moved to America around the same time.  And then vacationed every year together.

We were basically destined to be besties.  Mostly because no one else was going to understand the trials and tribulations of having parents who started their life anew in a new country with small children and little knowledge of English … but I digress (I’ll save this enthralling sociological theory for another post).

Back to the significant problem at hand.

Months of preparation, one flight, one taxi, one night of serious dancing and too many hours of hype, we were ready for my promised day out on Lake Michigan (how else was I going to get her to move to Chicago?).

I told her to pack nothing but bathing suits and get ready for pool, beaches and BOATS.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up Saturday morning, felt around for my iPhone, found the weather app while squinting with one eye (daily morning routine) and was told by Yahoo! That it was winter.

I quickly checked the calendar app to make sure I hadn’t slept through July, August and September.

Nope.

It was 61 degrees in Chicago on July 27.

glass half full

The Mother Nature Gods were testing us.

Do we throw in the towel and… see a movie??  Go sight-seeing with sweatshirts and fall scarves??

NO.

We put bikinis on.  Bring hoodies.  Buy snacks.  Go anyway.

After all, having fun is really about whom you’re with and our history shows that we can basically tear it up under any circumstance.  Like when we were 10 and our parents took us to Lake Placid for New Years and we decided to make memory cups by dripping candle wax into wine cups and… set her hair on fire.  We danced all night anyway (tears were brief).

Lucky for our positive attitudes, the friends we were joining (on their boat) were in too.

The ride out to the location of said boat party induced a bit of sea sickness and it was cold but we indulged in the day anyway.

sail

Once anchored and tied to a row of boats (for boat hopping), adrenaline (and beer) took over and we jumped in the water, made friends, played with water toys, took  pictures, laughed, drank, danced and truly vacated.

Most of all, there was a lot of laughter and bonding.  I’m pretty sure that was the whole point anyway.

I’m really glad we got out of bed on July 27 and went out to sea.

It was Awesome.

picstitch (3)

Reflection… Book Club Style

siblings brother

My book club met tonight.

This month’s choice: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

If you’ve read either one of Hosseini’s other novels, then you know this book will not be made into a chick-flick.  And you know that probably everyone in the book club cried at one point or another while reading this puppy (I held out to the end.  That’s right.)

Hosseini’s novels are set in Afghanistan, offering an intimate view into a world many know very little about.  Above all else, though, these stories are about universal human struggles.  This one in particular, delves into family and takes the reader on a journey through multiple generations.  The stories show the ways in which the decisions of those who came before us shape our lives today in the same way that we will shape the lives of the next generation (pressure).

One thing the book focused on, above all else, was the sibling relationship.  The story displayed (in heart-wrenching fashion) how sacred a bond between siblings can be and how grateful we should be to have these bundles of joy in our lives.

This above all-else hit me hard.

I thought about my siblings.  I thought about how grateful I am that my parents gave me this gift.

I thought about the stories I’ve been told about my brother’s arrival (I was 4) and the fact that I felt, for whatever reason, very protective of him.  Reportedly, I used to throw myself onto strangers (friends and doctors) who dared approach my little bud and try to take them down (I’m still looking into the validity of this report).

I thought about how to our friends’ great annoyance, my brother and I used to play at recess together everyday during elementary school.

I thought about how my brother and I are now sharing vital information about young adulthood with our little sister.

brother

Lil bud and little sister discussing strategy for the fruit roll up competition about to commence

I thought about the bond I share with two other people who understand the struggles and triumphs unique to our family.

Hosseini has a talent for writing eloquently and beautifully about some tough subjects.  He inspired me with this last one… to argue less with my siblings.  And to cherish the bond we’ve been given.

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.

Axles, Loops and Salchows

figure skates
Today I went back to the rink.

Although it might seem like I skate every day, given the fact that I’ve mentioned it about 63782 times since starting this blog, I actually haven’t laced up my skates in over two years.

I was introduced to figure skating at the age of 4. A family effort – if you will – was mobilized back in the Soviet Union (so they tell me) to let me try this popular Russian sport.

Skates were procured. Sessions for toddlers were found. Transportation was arranged.

On that fateful day, grandpa laced up my skates…and introduced me to my life-long passion.

Skating is one of my earliest memories. I skated when we were newly immigrated and money was tight. I competed through elementary school, middle school and high school. I skated through college. I skated through good times and bad.

Now my recent move back to the Midwest has reignited my desire to lace up my skates once more.

One train and one bus got me there.

I was overwhelmed and excited coming up to the rink. I was an ocean away from where I started and 300 miles away from where I skated most of my life. Yet my surroundings were familiar. It even smelled the same.

I warmed up a bit, laced up my skates, got onto the ice with other skaters at “my” level and picked up on what I suspect I knew all along…

Figure skating is hard.

I wish I could say it’s like riding a bike. But it’s not (unless relearning means toppling over a couple of times on a flat tire).

I was a bit shaky at first and spent half the session doing backwards and forwards crossovers but by the end of the session I was feeling more confident. I tried a couple spins and even threw in a couple (easy) jumps.

Most of all, I just loved being out there again. It was different but it felt the same.

Looking forward to training session number 2.

Awesome.

Russian Thanksgiving: An Exercise in Over-Eating and Food Hopping

thanksgiving vodka russian people celebrating

I am accustomed to wading through crowds, airports and screaming children to make it home for the family – oriented holiday of the year.

This year was no different.  I was home for thanksgiving.  However, having moved to Chicago (from NYC) a few weeks ago – my heart sang when the typical airplane ride home was replaced with a friend picking me up and delivering me to my hometown in Michigan a few hours later.

The rest of the weekend was business as usual.

Of course I say weekend because a Russian family’s thanksgiving couldn’t possibly consist of one evening or of one household.

Instead, we prefer to see how many times we can prepare an entire feast and how many other homes can provide the feast for us.

My arrival on Wednesday prompted the setting of a celebratory feast.  A visit to the grandparents called for a banquet.  A check in with family friends was the perfect opportunity for a ceremonial spread.

By the time today rolled around, I had eaten more than I had in the past month and was really starting to crave bare vegetables.

For those of you from the Ukrainian/Russian/Jewish/Immigrant variety, you’ll probably relate to the following:

  • Roasted chicken instead of the traditional turkey
  • Spanakopita (the always beloved Greek addition to thanksgiving)
  • Herring, sardines, lox, cheese, salami and prosciutto (favorites the pilgrims overlooked)
  • One too many toasts about being thankful (for a reason to toast)
  • Turkey (or chicken) for breakfast
  • Family members discussing your figure while simultaneously scoffing at how “little” you’re eating
  • And of course (my favorite)… using what’s left of Vodka as gravy (see picture above)

We watched our family’s favorite movie (Other People’s Money) for the 187th time (and recited lines together).  Sis and I told stories under the covers with flashlight (modern times: flashlight app) and engaged in cartwheel competitions that dad judged (I still got it!).  Days were culminated with family swim hour after our hearty meals (not advisable).

Aside from the fact that comments such as “you should eat more” started to have negative effects on my aggression meter (I can’t fit anymore!), I’d say it was a perfect thanksgiving.

Awesome.

Giant Statues and Pink Wallpaper

Day 47 commenced my official countdown to my move from New York City!

I know I’ve mentioned it in previous posts but here it is officially:

I’m leaving the big (crazy, yet fun) apple to head to the windy (more balanced and clean) city.

Friends, followers and random passerby’s, as of around 8pm on October 29, I will officially be a resident of the state of Illinois.

During these last 14 days, I am aiming to soak up the Awesome (what else) in my NYC life (no real complaints here).

I’m going to take this opportunity to count backwards…..

On day -14 I found myself in a living room.  6 flights of stairs up from the ground.  In the middle of one of NYC’s busiest intersections.  Sitting on a (very comfortable and purple) couch. Staring up at the room’s centerpiece:  the famous 70-foot statue built in 1892 of Christopher Columbus.

discovering columbus

I wouldn’t have believed it myself had I not accompanied a friend to the exhibit (one of our last outings!), complained and moaned the entire 6 flights of stairs and spent more time than was allowed in the “living room.”

“Discovering Columbus” is an exhibit created by Tatsu Nishi that allows visitors to experience the famous Columbus statue as if it were in their living room.  The room’s expansive space, covered in pink wallpaper, adorned with modern furniture and over-sized windows, is a surreal and a one-of-a-kind experience for several reasons.

1)       Seeing a 70-foot statue brought to life in touching distance is not an everyday sighting.  Sitting on the couch, I studied the details of the work.  Everything from his dress to his face are etched in a type of accurate precision I would never have suspected

2)      The sheer idea of something so large and grand that one would never see up close to be in a home setting is bewildering (not something you pick up while “antiquing”).  Not surprisingly, my jaw dropped when we turned the corner on the top floor.

3)      The exact views we saw can’t be replicated.  Out the fake living room windows was a sea of lights coming from cars speeding down Central Park West.  The top of buildings on the other side of the island were peeking over trees and Central Park was spread out before us.

central park west

On a personal note, Columbus Circle is one of my favorite parts of this city.  It’s the place where I ate my mac and cheese and sushi rolls during lunch as an intern.  It’s the place where I’ve gone to clear my head.  It’s the fountains my brother and I played in just a few weeks ago (errrr I mean watched the children play).

I loved experiencing this part of the city in a completely different way.

Awesome!

Babs: The Early Years

Barbra Streisand hello, gorgeous book signing

On Day 46, I attended the William J. Mann book signing pertaining to his new work:

Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand.

Yes.  I was the only person there under the age of 62.

Yes.  The older folk and I gave each other weird looks.

Cat’s out of the bag: I’m a Babs fan.  I realize I was born about 20 years after her big break, but I was born to parents who went to Barbra’s concerts, bought me her CD’s and introduced me to her movies.

I’ve seen Hello Dolly about a hundred times and I’ve choreographed about a dozen figure skating programs (as a 12-year old) to Tell Him (a duet with Celine Dion).

Highly reminiscent of my mom’s love for soulful love songs, I immersed myself in her inspirational story.

Some info on Babs: she was born in Brooklyn and lost a parent at a very young age. She didn’t always have the means or the support that was much needed to pursue her dreams.  She fought hard and achieved unbelievable success.

She might be from a different generation, but her story is inspiring and relevant to me just the same.

I listened to people speak up from the audience who had gone to middle school with her.  I thought about how my mom would have enjoyed the event. I met the author (who gave me a surprising and great compliment ;)).

Awesome!

Holidays: A “Family” Affair

rosh hashanah shana tovah new year jewish

On day 39, lil bro and I found ourselves in Brooklyn for rounds of toasts with our New York family in honor of Rosh Hashanah.

Today my brother and I toasted to the New Year with our family friends from back home (Michigan) who now also live in the boroughs of NYC.

Our history stems back to our pre-teen days.

Our moms introduced us when we were about 7 and 12.  They would have girl time while my brother and I were “baby-sat.”

These stories are legendary (including one hairbrush incident that involved the loss of some of my hair…).

Fast forward 20 years.  Marriage and kids for her and running wild in NYC for us and you have yourself the second generation of our family unit.  We celebrate birthdays, important anniversaries, milestones and promotions.  Our version might be different than the original but we still get together in much the same way our parents did 20 years ago.

Tonight was no different.

We told inappropriate stories.  Discussed bedroom incidents.  Teased each other mercilessly.  Attempted to remember the endings to old Russian children’s stories (wine was involved).  Feasted for 8.

Add a plethora of apples with honey for a sweet New Year (to increase our odds) and you have one great night.

Mom would have been proud.

Awesome.