Tuesday, June 30, 2009

L.A., I love it!

I have arrived in L.A. just at the end of June gloom, as Southern Californians begin to revel in the sunny glory of their perfect state. I have yet to give out any gold stars. The first day in a new place is always an exploratory day, a day to determine the receptiveness with which the stars might be received. It turns out that L.A. is surprisingly receptive, judging by the friendliness I encountered from so many. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This is where stars are born, where they shine. But, often, they are hidden from plain sight, behind steering wheels and the security of private estates. It is harder here to get the attention that one gets just walking down the street in New York. That’s why I love the Grove.

The Grove is a mall, yes, but more than that it is one of L.A.’s few pedestrian playgrounds, complete with a dramatic fountain show, a mouth-watering Farmer’s Market with every kind of food imaginable and people, people who want to strut like peacocks. Cars, even monster SUV’s or convertibles, make strutting tough. There is even public transportation at the Grove, a trolley that takes people up and down the roughly five-block stretch of street in case one’s shoes aren’t made for walking, a common problem in car culture locales.
My friends’ house, located as they say in “Beverly Hills adjacent…”, has a beautiful landscaped courtyard complete with wicker couches, small apple trees and a fireplace to take the chill off cool evenings. Man, I’m envious. I love the indoor/outdoor living here, their bright orange-painted French doors open all the time to let the in out and vice versa. The kids sat at the long picnic table eating fresh Mediterranean fare and fresh-picked apples. They had woken up in their bunk beds in Brooklyn at 4 a.m. and by breakfast they were here. As Oscar, the little one, says often, including yesterday, “This is the best day of my life!” Eli, always curious about what’s famous, is in heaven here. I pointed out the Hollywood Hills, probably the most famous of any hills anywhere, and named names of office buildings we passed that all house movie moguls or modeling agencies whose sole mission is the making of fame. Fabulous. L.A., we love it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sticking to Your Own Material

It was a busy morning at the cafe yesterday, a constant stream of familiar and unfamiliar faces. I picked up the newspaper, which I rarely if ever do anymore, and saw that there was a reason I had been compelled to grab it. On the front cover of the New York Times' Arts section was a story on Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down, a book that inspired me so much when I read it nearly two years ago with its honesty and frankness and bravery. Mr. Thomas is being recognized with a prestigious Irish literary award and a hefty cash sum for his thinly-veiled autobiographical story masquerading as fiction. Big gold stars for the award committee and for Mr. Thomas.

The article gave me back my recently faltering hope that people want to hear the hard truths, that they can stare straight in the face of their own and others' difficulties and not look away. I had to put Man Gone Down aside for a bit before I could face it, had to shift gears away from the stuff-it-away mentality I had created to live day to day without losing it. When I read it, it was like flying. It is exactly the kind of writing I want to do, that I am working toward.

As I thought about this, a man sat down next to me and asked if he could borrow the front page. I looked up. "No," I said with a smile, handing it to him. I somehow enjoy messing with people. He smiled. I saw an opening to tell one of my family's favorite jokes.

"Have you heard of David Brenner, the comedian?" I asked the man.

"Um, no..." he said.

"Well, anyway, he tells this joke where he's sitting on some newspapers on the subway and someone comes up and points to the newspaper under him and asks, 'Are you reading that?' He responds, 'Yes,' and gets up and turns the page under him and sits back down."

There was no smile or laughter when I finished the joke. My new neighbor just stared at me, then shook his head. "That might have been funny if your delivery were better, if I had known who this David Brenner was," he said. "Your 'No' was funny, it made me chuckle, you should have stuck with that."

Wow. I loved it. He was right, totally insightful. Unlike Michael Thomas, I had a problem sticking with my own material, trusting that it was as good as other people's. How did he know?

"Thank you," I said. "That is exactly what I needed to hear this morning. Were you sent here by someone to tell me this?"

"Actually, I do believe in that, that I was," he said.

"Me too," I said. "That's awesome." I thought he might like Man Gone Down and I pointed out the article to him. But no, he said. He only reads non-fiction. About powerful people, about wars and political leaders, about how to rule the world.

"And what do you do?" I asked.

"I'm a real-estate developer," he said.

I laughed. "Well, that's a step toward ruling the world, especially in New York..."

He shrugged. I gave him his gold star for his great advice and for getting through thick books on people he admires, on searching for some ideas on how to be his true self, not someone else.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When 'Trying' is a Punchline...

When I walked in to the weight room at the Y this morning, I was immediately accosted by Trainer Extraordinaire, a man who has managed to motivate my husband into the fitter, trimmer man he is today, a man who trained the friend who trained me. He always has a smile on his face, always a joke on his lips, and his lack of body fat is in and of itself an inspiration. He has worn his big gold star proudly on his nametag ever since I gave it to him a few months back.

"Everyone's asking me, 'how come you get a gold star? Who gave you that?'" he said, motioning to the gaggle of guys who I see nearly every day chatting in between turns on the weights. "Why did I get a gold star? Tell 'em..." he demanded.

Without skipping a beat, I gave the honest answer: "For trying!" I said enthusiastically. I couldn't make out what the responses were exactly over the din of laughter that ensued. 'Trying,' clearly wasn't good enough for these muscle men, at least in a group to whom I didn't have the time to explain. Clearly, in this situation, it was results that mattered.

The poor trainer was sorry he'd asked, as they all took turns poking at him.

"Good try, better luck next time," "Well, at least you're trying..." and "Try, try again..."

I so wish trying would be rewarded more often. Trainer E tries when he gets to the gym every day at 6 a.m., tries when he pushes people who don't want to expend the necessary energy, tries when he pushes himself on the machines so he can manage to lead by example. He often succeeds, as in the case of my husband, but sometimes he doesn't. I know what that feels like.

I am in the midst of so many things that likely won't amount to much, except I like doing them, I like my kids to see me doing them, to see me trying. I've never really cared if I win the game, just so long as I have a good time playing and so do the other people involved. I guess that attitude doesn't always get you so far, but it depends on where you want to go. That is always the question.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Policing

Major issues are complicated. Take obesity, for example. My first gold stars of the day went to a mother whose son is in the second grade with my son at school and to the boy. She had brought him in to the YMCA, out of school for a physical, to learn more about the Y's Strong Kids program and how it might help her keep him active and fit. She and I spoke about the program and its importance and, then, about the tragic death of another second grader's father, a morbidly obese man who had just died suddenly at 34.

There was a controversy swirling over the fact that the bereaved family, when asked where they would like the school to donate money collected for them, chose a local pizza parlor where they were likely to spend a lot over their period of mourning, where they ate often. The child of the man who'd passed away suddenly was himself obese. I have helped coax him many times into pool during second grade swim, helped encourage him to move his solid, hulking frame through the pool. He is buoyant and strong, athletic in his moves when he gets up the energy to make them. I can't make him move his body, just like I can't change his diet at home. No one can. Do we not give them the pizza they asked for because we don't believe it's the right thing for them longterm? Do we send them a fruit basket that won't get eaten? A gift certificate for Fresh Direct? No. We give them what they asked for. We cannot make people's choices for them. We do not live in a police state.

Which brings me to my second gold star of the day. Rushing from the gym to move my car in time for street cleaning, I came three minutes too late and a young traffic cop was already writing out the ticket.

"Please," I said, running up breathlessly, "I'm here..."

He barely looked up and, trying to hide the smile I saw emerge on his lips, he said, "It's already been scanned. Had you been here before I scanned it...but it's too late."

"Ok," I said, taking the ticket, "I know you're just doing your job." I thought about giving him a gold star, but I think it would be considered bribery or something. It just seems untoward.

I got into my car so distraught. The day before, I had handled a flat tire with aplomb, so too getting caught in the pouring rain as I rushed to provide hot dogs for a class picnic moved indoors, baking a bunch of things for an evening fundraiser at the school. But this unglued me, this stupid $45 ticket. I take tickets as a bad sign. Universally and literally, I wasn't where I was supposed to be. In my upset, as I often do, I headed to Green-Wood Cemetary, a beautiful, magical place that often helps me put it all into perspective.

I drove through the castle-like entrance and down and around the tomb-covered hills to a beautiful rippling pond filled with geese. I parked the car and got out, sitting on a bench contemplating life and death and writing in my journal. I started to fall asleep, dragging my pen across the page, so I shut my notebook and decided to take a quick rest on the grass. I promptly fell fast asleep and woke with a start only after the Cemetary Security man pulled up and yelled out to me.

"What are you doing?"

I jumped up out of my sleep of the dead and apologized immediately. "Sorry," I said, "Am I not allowed to be here?"

"You are," he said, "but just not like that." Not sleeping on the grass, I guess.

I walked toward his truck, still in a sleepy daze. He smiled. "Didn't mean you had to jump up so fast..." he said sympathetically.

"No problem. I have to get going anyway," I said.

"What are you doing here?"

"Just writing and thinking," I said. "I love this place."

"Is it your first time?" he asked.

"No, I've come before." I'd been here on other distraught days and brought my family for an amazing puppet show, had become a member actually, though clearly that didn't come with napping privileges. "I just got a ticket and was so mad."

He nodded, understanding. "I'm a retired cop," he said.

I saw my window of opportunity and seized it.

"How did you feel when you gave out a ticket?" I asked.

Without skipping a beat, he answered emphatically, "I loved it, especially when I gave them to pretty girls."

I laughed. I loved his honesty. He tried to back-pedal when I asked him why he liked to give them to pretty girls, to say he'd been joking, but he clearly wasn't. There was a reason. I got him to tell me, I prompted him.

"Why, because they tried to get out of it using their wiles?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "They'd be like, 'Oh, officer, please don't give me a ticket,' all sweet, unbuttoning their blouse a little and batting their eyes. And then, when I told them I was sorry, I had to give them a ticket, they would turn ugly, 'You mother fucker,' they'd say, 'I hate you pigs, cops suck.' Nice. I liked it, though. You'd always have to guess what someone would be like, and you weren't usually wrong."

Cool. He definitely deserved his gold star for his honesty, for confirming something I'd always suspected: you can't flirt with a cop. They're not stupid, they know insincerety when they see it, bribery in the form of a little breast. It's pathetic.

"Yeah," I said. "That's why I've never flirted my way out of a ticket. If I'm going to prostitute myself, it'll be for more than $45." I waved and went on my way, in a much better mood than when I'd arrived, my faith in humanity restored.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Of Personal Responsibility

I need to give out gold stars today, to remember that so many people are trying in their own small ways. Over the last few days, I have forgotten. Last night, I forgot.

I sat on the 4th floor of my children's school, in the library I so love, listening to journalists try to explain to a rapt audience how we got in to this economic mess. I heard them blame "entitled" Wall St. bankers, the inept government, insurance agencies and corrupt credit rating agencies who--shock of all shocks--actually got paid to try to put things into perspective. I became incensed. And not just because my husband works for a credit rating agency. I got incensed, as I always did at work as a journalist and as I do on the playground, when people wish to pass the buck, to blame someone else, to deny personal responsibility. Sorry, I think, that's a little too easy, a little too simplistic. We are all at fault. I am going to get a t-shirt or at least a bumper sticker asking the question I always want to ask in nearly every situation, "What did you do?"

The problem is, the question makes me a pariah, makes me very unpopular. We'd rather not see our role. Better always not to blame ourselves, to turn our anger outward, to imagine that we have no role in the problem, that we are keeping our heads down and going to work or taking care of our kids, that we are paying our taxes and our occasional parking tickets like good samaritans and, so, don't have to do anything, don't have to change. Bullshit.

Blood boiling, silencing conversations when dialogue turned in to my raving monologue, as so often happens, I headed to 12th St. Bar & Grill to visit my friend, who bartends. I needed a kindred spirit and a glass of wine. I got the glass of wine but the kindred spirit was busy and I got the ear of a stranger instead. My anger grew.

"What's the matter?" he on the next bar stool asked. I, stupid as usual, told him.

"I'm mad because I went to event where they were supposed to explain how we got into this economic mess and they blamed only a handful of people when, really, we're all at fault. We don't ask the right questions."

He just shook his head and picked up a forkful of Caesar salad. "Not me," he said. "It's not my fault. I work hard, I pay my taxes, I lost money on my mortgage..."

"But don't you see? That's what everyone thinks, including the guys on Wall St. and at the ratings agencies...They were just doing their job." He just shook his head in disagreement. He wasn't about to take any blame.

I didn't let him off that easy. "What do you do for a living?" I asked.

"I'm a sales rep," he said.

"What do you sell?" I asked.

"Software, for Adobe," he said.

"And who are your clients?" I asked.

"Banks," he said, "insurance agencies, the government...Right now, AIG is my account."

Perfect. He had walked right into my web, just as I knew he would. I can snag anyone since, of course, I believe everyone plays a role.

"So...you help these guys how?"

"They want to go paperless with their billing, but it's hard because that takes away a major part of how they promote themselves to customers. We help them figure out ways to get their messages across online, give them the software."

"Ok, so you help them market themselves and streamline themselves, make them more efficient and effective, make them more profitable?"

"Yes, if we're lucky."

"Right," I said, "because if you don't you're out of a job."

"Right," he said.

"So, you're to blame..." I said.

He looked confused. I had failed, as I often do, to connect the dots.

"If AIG is to blame, you're to blame. You're helping them. You are complicit, not asking any questions as you quietly do your job to help them do theirs..." I gloated, at least in my mind, imagining he would have to obsequiously agree with me. How I expected that, I don't know. Pathetically hopeful as usual. He just shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I'm just doing my job. And, anyway, I just got on the account. I don't agree that everyone is to blame."

Why I went on I have no idea. I thought maybe pulling out the big guns would work. I often, in my adamant arguing, take the giant leap I think will drive my point home: I invoke The Holocaust. To me, it is the greatest of all recent lessons, this horrible devastation in our not-so-distant past, this brilliant systematic genocide of a variety of peoples, a genocide that could not have worked had not so many "innocent bystanders" played a part.

"Like in the Holocaust, when people were just doing their job, minding their own business, not asking any questions...is that what it's like?" I asked.

At this point, the guy on the barstool to my left obviously rolled his eyes or made some gesture to the guy on my right that I was crazy, since Mr. Right looked over my head at him and started laughing, clearly at me. I looked left, then right. What was the point?

"I don't need to talk to you, I don't need to convince you..." I said, getting up and gathering my things, angrier even than I had been when I came in, near-paralyzed with the pointlessness of trying.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we're on all the right path and it's only a few bad seeds who spoil things. But I don't believe that, not for a second. When we fire, arrest or even kill those guys, there will be a new crop of greedy bastards. That's because the greedy bastards are us, every one of us. Given half a chance, we will take that bonus no questions asked. We need it to pay our mounting credit card debt, the mortgage we gambled we'd be able to afford. We, most of us, wriggle out of paying taxes if we can, through loopholes or inventiveness, the same way we wriggle out of jury duty. Many times, it's as simple as not turning back when we discover the extra $10 the cashier mistakenly handed us.

Even for the perfect among us, even for me who is trying to be better about going back in to return the $10, to drink coffee out of a mug instead of environment-killing paper, something in our past or present makes our hearts race just a little bit faster when a police siren blares. It should. We should be trying to think all the time about what we did, what we do, what we could do differently. It's the only way things are going to change. It is the only way that we can prevent repeating the same cycles, blowing and popping the same bubbles over and over and over again.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On the 70s

I was 7 in 1977. I followed my grey-goateed grandpa, Irv, around the desert behind his white adobe house on the hill, picking up garbage with a sharp stick. It was part of his crusade to save the environment. He also hoped, somehow, to harness the hot Tucson sun for power so we weren't so reliant on the Middle East. He stood at a table at the mall as part of the Energy Fair to recruit others to his cause, but most were too interested in finding the perfect metal-studded double belt to put over their tunics and leggings to pay the old man much mind. Gold star for him, for trying.

Thirty years later, as every news source has been reporting, we're in exactly the same boat. Just the other night, I gathered a few ladies I knew at a wine bar to listen to a college friend's pitch for Green Energy. Double belts are back (wish I'd saved mine) as are leggings and tunics and clogs. Maybe this time, people will stop in the mall to listen to the pleas of those who see the solutions. I hope so.

I'm hearing from a lot of people that they want to be useful, to work with their own two hands to build with wood and metal, to plant trees, to get involved in a real way with politics. I even had a politician do a double take when I asked him, please, to be honest. That I could handle it. He agreed that politicians in this day and age have to lie, that Obama had to lie to win. But, he said, he loves Obama, trusts him. I didn't trust him because, as a journalist, I knew he was lying during the election. He had to, I know. It's what we have come to expect, what we trust. Ha. It's a joke, but it's true. Answering from your gut instead of from prepared questions will always get you in trouble. It is, unfortunately, not going to please enough people to win you the race, not the popular one and not the electoral college. I am the same. I speak from the heart, not from my head and it often gets me in trouble with people who don't agree with my opinions or do but don't want to. What can I do? Like my grandfather, I want to fight for things, to be the outspoken one, even if people walk past.

Usually, as I blather on in one cafe or another, because Brooklyn is alive with the "Change" Obama was elected on promising, people stop and listen, participate, share their hopes and dreams. It is all we can do to at least recognize and connect with the past and forge an honest trail into the future.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On Frenzy and Feelings

It's strange. I finally ordered gold stars in bulk from the art store, but I haven't picked them up, haven't been giving out very many at all. That is me all over...Just as I begin to commit to something, I begin to back away, in fear.

To be fair, the end of the school year with two little kids is a whirlwind of last days. Last day of chess, last day of Hebrew School, soon to be last day of school school and all the gifts and baking and parties that those last days bring. My head begins to swim as I sit in front of my calendar with all the little sheets of paper for school trips and requests for cash and the harder currency, time.

I have also been busy writing difficult,highly personal pieces for my memoir class, which takes up psychic energy that is often hard to find amidst the swirl of running a household, keeping us all smiling and not sick.

My husband gets a huge gold star for his amazing efforts to support me in my non-remunerative tasks, to keep himself up while the economy is down, while his job and the people who work for him and with him struggle to make sense of the changes the new environment has wrought and adapt to them out of necessity rather than desire. He gets up in the mornings and writes to clear his head, often gets himself to the gym, then works a full day and comes home to cute but crazy kids and a wife who is constantly figuring herself and her life in an insane weekly therapy group masquerading as a memoir class. It can't be easy.

I have in the last few days given out some gold stars to great, deserving people. After my memoir class Tuesday night, frustrated with the dynamics of the group and the tensions that rise between people who are trying to open up and really see themselves and those that are digging their heels in the sand in denial, I ran into a fellow parent at my sons' school who had begun reading my blog and told me he enjoyed it, that it resonated with him. I was incredibly pleased. It reminded me why keeping up with the blog is important, why sharing real thoughts instead of just mundane details of life is so crucial. It is hard raising kids, and there are so many details to keep track of that it's easy to get mired in the maze of paperwork. But it's so much more important, so much harder, to keep track of the emotional life of a family.

The other day, at a publishing party for my kindergartner, he shared with me his adorable book on snails and I began to write on the separate comments page how, "I loved this book..." Oscar began to yell at me and cross out those words. "No, Mommy! You can't write that! You have to write about snails!" he said.

"No, honey, you had to write about snails, I have to write about what I think of your piece, and I loved it."

He wasn't hearing me, just shaking his head and crying and crossing out whatever feelings I wrote down. Finally, it occurred to me. He is never sure what to write about it in class, his teacher often tells me. But here's a kid, like me, who is never not talking, who always has something to say, who tells you how he's feeling. He thinks, somehow, that feelings are not valid things to write about, only facts. His snail book repeated over and over the two things he knows for sure about snails: that they're slimy and have tentacles. Not whether he likes them or doesn't, what relationship he has in his little brain with the little suckers he finds often around our courtyard, that we kept as pets for a time a few summers back.

I tried to explain. "Sweetie, we can write about our feelings, not just about facts. You know how you feel and sometimes maybe that's all you know. That's OK, that's valid!" Other parents had begun to look over as he cried, as I let him let out his feelings. Someone suggested it was Monday morning blues. I don't think so. I think this was a necessary conversation. He was blocked in writing, as so many of us are, as I often am, by feeling the need to say something for sure instead of just saying how we feel. Finally, after his teacher came over to concur, he let me write some things about how I felt about his snail book, he wiped his tears.

At Target, later, I bought him a notebook, a cute monkey notebook, and gave it to him after school with express instructions to write in it his feelings. I remember that Eli, his older brother, loved writing in a little diary for a time, writing his feelings. It's important. Oscar was happy with his notebook, with the assignment, and he immediately began a list: Happy, Angry, Mad, Sad...and talked about how many times each of the feelings had occurred that day, making little check marks next to them. At one point, he came over to me and gave me a hug.

"Oh!" he said, "That reminds me of another feeling: loving!" He jumped off me to write it down.

"That's my favorite feeling," I said.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On Real Estate, Fashion and Direction

Sometimes, I swear, I actively try to steer clear of getting involved in a conversation at the cafe, to stick to my own writing or reading or thinking. But I usually get sucked in. Something gets me. Yesterday, it was a very lively, passionate woman from Trinidad speaking excitedly about a cabin she'd purchased in the Catskills, seven acres for a mere $22,000. I nearly spit out my coffee...

"Did I hear you correctly?" I said.

"Yes," she said. Granted, the place--a one-bedroom cabin--has no running water or electricity and is a long haul up a big hill. But still. A home for that price? I was intrigued, to say the least, especially since the first thing I felt like doing when we got to the Catskills to ski over the February break was looking for an old barn to buy. I could picture my antique turquoise-painted pick-up parked outside this fantasy barn home, picture myself easily with a cool ceramic coffee mug staring out at the mountains in between typing away at my blog or book.

She was so cool this lady, has grand plans for a studio for herself and one for her boyfriend, for an expansion of the one-bedroom to offer freedom and space for her two city kids. Awesome. She got a gold star and wore it proudly.

I headed into the city for a dentist appointment and, once there, waiting to be tortured, I received a compliment from a lady on my crazy-patterned summer bag with black-beaded handles. "Great bag," she said. "Is it some expensive designer?"

I laughed. "It could be, I guess, I don't know. I got it at TJ Maxx, though I saw the same one for double at a boutique near my apartment." I looked at the tag, curious. It was no brand I had heard of. Obviously, I didn't care either way, but she had piqued my interest.

She sighed, audibly, taxed by the concept of shopping it was clear. "Is there a TJ Maxx in the city?" she said.

"Oh yes!" I said, giving her the location. I want to take her there, to help her find clothes, to help her find her fun self. "They should have personal shoppers there, but they don't. It's worth it, though, to sort through all the junk. You get such great stuff!" I should work for TJ Maxx and Marshall's, get paid for as much business as I throw their way. In this economy, a lot of people who didn't want to do the legwork are coming around. Now is the time for designer discount. As the lady got up to leave, I gave her a gold star. "Good luck shopping!" I said. I know it's hard for some people. I wish it was hard for me. So does my husband.

Post-torture, gums aching, I needed sustenance and, stuck in midtown, couldn't figure where I might go to get a bit of sunshine. I remembered from my expense-account days a great Greek spot that feels like you've left the concrete jungle for the Mediterranean Sea, despite its outdoor patio's proximity to the exhaust fumes off Madison Avenue. I couldn't remember its exact location so I began to ask people who might know around me. Ray, the doorman at a fancy hotel, took it upon himself to find out, running inside to check with the concierge and running back to give me the information, that it was just a few blocks away, on 48th St.

"Thank you so much!" I said. "I knew it was right around here..." With that, I gave him a gold star, a big one. He was a big guy and a small one would have looked wimpy.

"Here, have this pen," Ray said, trying to hand me his pen in exchange for the star. I laughed.

"You've already given me something!" I said, and walked away waving goodbye to my new friend. Whoever says people in Manhattan aren't nice are wrong.

I met a friend at the Greek place, Avra (I finally remembered its name,) and we talked a lot about the difficulties of the work/life balance, of trying to do a job job and the mothering job even half decently when doing them both at the same time. There is not a second to breathe during the years of raising little kids with a full-time career, and staying home is no easier, just different. Rewards are hard to come by in either case. I gave her all I could, a rare if brief lunch with a friend in the sun and a gold star, a big one that she placed on her blouse before she headed back to the office after an emergency message on her Blackberry.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Them or Us...

My friend, a.k.a. Soon to be Writer of Her Own Woman Show, and I sat in the cafe, checking in with one another as we do, catching up. A man walked in with a little boy and ordered, his back to us while the little boy stared at us, twirling his sunglasses. There was something so adult-like about him, but childish just the same. Adorable.

"He's so cute," my friend said, louder than she needed to tell me, raising her voice to tell the boy, the Dad. The Dad turned around slowly and as he did you could see the boy in the man, the man in the boy. They were near mirror images.

"Who, him?" he asked, skeptically. It was hilarious. We died laughing. It worked on so many levels. The Dad wanted the compliment for himself, needed it after a long Monday morning trying to get himself and his toddler up and out. He also probably wasn't appreciating at the moment how adorable his son was, tired and taxed as he was by him. He looked a little sheepish as we laughed, not knowing whether he was the butt of the joke or part of it. This is where a gold star comes in handy, shows a person you sympathize with their plight in the best of ways, that you appreciate what they're dealing with and that connection is what made the exchange funny.

He took his gold star appreciatively but, as my friend pointed out later, was unsure whether to place it on his own briefcase or on his son's lunchbox. This issue comes up a lot with overtaxed parents. They need the star, want it, but feel guilty not giving it to their kids. In this situation, it's never a problem, I always give a star to both. But in regular life it's not that easy. Sometimes you have to choose who gets the attention and the praise, whose rights get precedence over whose. Sometimes, often, parents and children lock horns over whose music gets played, who gets to use the blow dryer first, whose problems get talked about first and for how long. It's a constant question and, it seems to me, it goes on forever with families. Ugh. "Life isn't fair," my mother often said when we would complain that she got what she wanted and we didn't. It's a balance, I guess, a hard one to strike.

Later, after errands and phone conversations and the gym, I was walking home and ran into some friends, Chef Dave and his lovely wife and their beautiful babe. He made fun of me, as usual, for my carefree lifestyle, said something along the lines of "Oh, yeah, you don't work." I begged to differ. "Oh, I work," I said, and his wife piped up: "You work?" she said. I just laughed.

I have to explain myself a lot since I quit paying employ, but the truth is, I am working harder than I ever have, in part because I am doing things of my own choosing, I am committed. My writing, of this blog and of other work about my life and events in it that I am painstakingly sorting through, is the most challenging stuff I've ever done. It is hard to look honestly at oneself and one's past and to figure out how to proceed into the future, how to get happy and stay happy and raise happy kids and keep up a happy marriage, if we can even begin to guess at what "happy" means, if that is even the goal. I am working on this, keeping of fit mind and body to help me in my figuring, to help me be a better mother and wife and daughter and sister and friend. Striking a balance during this time between the figuring and writing time and keeping up with my kids' schedules and spending quality time with them is nearly impossible. I always knew it would be. Working at a real job was, in a lot of ways, much easier. I could distract myself from my own life writing about Pop Tarts advertising. I had editors breathing down my neck to make me do it. I might get fired if I gave up. No one would care if I gave up now. They've already written me off. I'm not doing anything already. I'm not "working."

Grabbing a quick lunch, a kid with pants falling beneath his underwear and big diamond earrings in both ears was scouring the magazine rack for a magazine. I couldn't help myself.

"Parents," I piped up.

"Excuse me?" he said, turning to reveal a killer smile, a great open face.

"I think you should read Parents," I said.

"Oh, I don't have any kids yet..." he said.

"I know, or I guess I don't know but I figured," I said. "I was just joking."

"Well, my girlfriend and I are talking about it, thinking about it," he said. "I want kids."

"It's fun but it's hard," I said. "It's a lot of work."

"That's what everyone says," he said. He picked up Parents and read it while he waited, interested, engaged. I heard him tell someone about something interesting he had learned about kids.

After he got the smoothie he'd ordered and headed out, hiking up his pants, I gave him a gold star. "This is for when you do have kids," I said. "Good luck."

"Thanks, thanks a lot!" he said.