Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Explaining Orgasm

My doctor got a gold star this week. Not just because it was long overdue, because I attribute my first son's life to her confident prediction, a seeming prescription, that I would get pregnant in the fall of 2001 no problem. But, also, because she is trying, hard, to be open with her own kids.

I went to her Midtown mid-rise about the strain in my voice, but came away, as usual, with more than just medical advice. She seems, in the cumulative hour max I've probably spent with her in my life, a calm and non-judgmental sort, just the kind of person, ahead of me in years and experience, that I like to poll on some of the bigger of my life questions.

She asked how old my kids were and I asked about hers. She has two girls who are now, she offered, with surprise in her voice, already 12 and 13.

"Wow," I said, and then hit her with the first thing that popped in my head when I think of parenting adolescents. "Do you talk openly with them about things?"

A look crossed her face. I had obviously struck a nerve. She shook her head in frustration as she felt my glands, looked down my throat.

"You know, I try, but they don't want to hear it from me, it's embarrassing for them," she said. "Even when we're watching Gilmore Girls together, which we do 'cause all of us like it, they'll be upset that I talk about someone kissing."

I nodded. I know. My kids are the same. "They don't really want to think about their parents as people," I said.

"Right, especially people who have sex," she said and we laughed.

I told her that my 8-year-old was very inquisitive, asked a lot of very detailed questions about sex, ones that I sometimes found it hard to answer, like when he said, "OK, I get it that semen carries the sperm into the woman's vagina to get together with the egg, but how, exactly does the semen come out of the penis???"

That one had been a stumper, I said, "'cause I'm not sure he's ready, or I'm ready, to talk about orgasms."

She had stopped examining me at this point to focus straight on these non-medical concerns of mine and, it turns out, hers.

"Oh," she said, "I have this great book for kids on orgasms, that talks, really, about what it's like, explains the sort of contractions the body makes...it's great."

"How did your kids take it?" I asked.

Sheepishly, she acknowledged, truthfully, "I never gave it to them. It's sitting on my bookshelf."

I laughed,"So you read it?"

"Pretty much," she said, putting her stethoscope back in her ears, back to business, "I guess I have to try harder..."

I gave her a star for her efforts on my behalf and on behalf of her kids and gave her my card to check out the blog. She took it happily, like a prescription.

"Maybe it will help me..." she said hopefully. I would love to think I could return the favor.

I continued my polling on the subject of talking openly, talking about orgasm, with a friend I likewise respect and trust, a woman with bold, beautiful white-girl dreadlocks she pulls off gracefully. I am so jealous.

As I repeated the story about my doctor and the book, how hard it is to talk about orgasm, she interrupted me to tell me what she told her own nearly-8-year-old son.

"I told him 'it's like the biggest, wildest sneeze,'" she said, demonstrating how, in fact, she had physically shown him the gyrations of such a "sneeze." I cracked up.

"That's awesome!" I said. But she wasn't finished.

"And, then, I told him, 'it's followed by a stream of warm Coca-Cola...' and he said, 'Ummmm...' " She closed her eyes to show how the description alone had made him feel yummy, made him understand how such a thing might feel good. Or maybe he was just imagining Coca-Cola and liked it, but, either way, the link to orgasm was positive, as it should be.

"Then," I laughed, "he locked himself in the bathroom for three days and...No,not really,not yet. But soon." Scary.

I was reminded by her story of what my own mother said to me about childbirth, how she explained it in a way I could understand. She always said it was like "taking the longest, hardest bowel moment of your life." Nice. Certainly visceral. Two kids later, I wouldn't wholly disagree. And it had made me feel better then and through the years as I got closer to having children to relate something so strange and scary to a just slightly more intense version of something I did regularly, if I was lucky. Gold star for you, Mom.

Talking about this stuff is incredibly hard. We are so puritanical ourselves, so ashamed of even the most natural of acts, that even handing off a book can be hard. But the alternative, I always think, is so much worse. I hate to think of my kids learning about really important things from other clueless kids at school. The ones who act like they know, who "teach" all the other kids things are usually, it seems, the ones who go off half-cocked, no pun intended.

I was reminded by these conversations to beseech my own children at breakfast yesterday, as they ate their waffles and cereal and fruit with no thoughts, I imagine, of orgasm, "You know you can ask me anything, right?"

As usual, I got a great round, in unison, of "Whatever, Mom!" It is the favorite response to whenever I have crossed the line beyond where their little brains want to go. I do think they know, though. I've told them often enough, like a mantra. But whether they'll do it or not at the important moments is another question. I better be paying attention, close attention. Just in case they forget to ask, I better be ready to tell. Yikes. Anybody have a gold star?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Optical Delusion

A good friend looked at me in surprise recently after I told a story, and shook her head.

"You're delusional..." she said, as if it had just occurred to her, as if in the last few years since I've known her, she might have thought otherwise.

I laughed. "Of course I am," I said. "You didn't know that?"

Delusion has been on my mind since then, what it means, if I'm more or less delusional than most, if it's a problem. Reality is subjective, isn't it? Even a video camera or a tape recorder can only account for what is said and done, not what is thought. That thought recorder I want isn't on the market, not yet. And we all come at things from our own self, don't we? 'Selfish' and 'self-centered' have become pejorative terms, but that strikes me as strange since, of course, by our very nature we have ourselves to worry about most. To want what we want regardless of others' realities is, I suppose, always a delusion.

The idea of my delusion and selfishness haunts me most on Yom Kippur, the holiest most neurotic day of the year for Jews who opt in to the Day of Atonement. We are told to ask for forgiveness from others, to forgive, but as I sit in temple, wracking and sorting, I can never figure who is to blame in any of the situations I think to conjure. I can always both defend my actions and see the other side, I just can't figure out who is right. Then, I realize, right is different for everybody, and we should all just be able to say, "I'm sorry for having hurt you, I didn't mean to," and move on.

But it's not that easy. With husbands, children, family and friends, we most often say things or act based on who we are, and someone else's condemnation or disagreement makes us feel bad about who we are. Easier, then, to be angry at them rather than yourself, 'cause you can always get rid of them, not so easy to get rid of yourself. Even drinking or drugs don't do the trick as it turns out.

As she always does so beautifully, the rabbi provoked thought on how to think about this subject just before setting us to meditate on our transgressions. She invoked Albert Einstein, arguably one of the smartest Jews ever, a guy who, if living, would definitely get a stream of gold stars. Mr. Einstein, it turns out, explained my delusion, even made it universal. This is what he said:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.


Nice. True. Hard. As I sat, crushed in a pew between other delusional prisoners trying to pray to a better path, it made so much sense. Of course we need to get outside ourselves as the center of the universe and embrace others. But how do we know what others want, what they think, when they so often stay silent, or speak without really communicating, when they don't tell us until it's too late? As a long-time journalist and as an inquisitive person, I know to ask questions, but still, often, even if I remember to step outside myself and ask, I know I'm not getting the true answer. I resort, then, without a true perspective of the other, to come from my own perspective, a strategy that so often gets me into trouble. There seems no winning.

A psychiatrist I saw for a bit in a crisis looked at me with sad, sympathetic eyes one day as I got up to leave. I can't remember what particular comment of mine prompted it, but she said to me, hand to her chin in proper psychiatric stance, "Do you think everyone thinks like you do?"

I laughed and thought about it for a minute before answering. "You know, I guess I do. I just think sometimes they don't admit it," I said.

I never got her exact thoughts on my response. She probably thought, like my friend does, that I am delusional, that I am self-centered. But isn't that kind of what you have to think to be a writer, to imagine anyone might relate to your words? Aren't there universal truths?

We are told to "do unto others as you would have done unto you..." but I've said for years, usually after an intractable argument with someone I care about, that that's not what people want. The saying should go, "Do unto others as they would have themselves done unto." But how the hell do you know? Optical delusion seems, sometimes, the only way, a prison to which we are permanently bound.

Take a friend whose seemingly great relationship broke up recently. He sat in my kitchen and shook his head about the break-up, confused. "I mean, how do you stay with someone who just cries all the time?"

"Well, why was she crying?" I asked.

"I don't know, she wouldn't tell me. She expected me to know, and to know how to fix it."

I sighed. Sad. We all want to find that special someone with the crystal ball instead of searching inside our own consciousness. Seems so much easier, right?

Well, another Day of Atonement done, another fast begun and broken and I seem no closer to an answer, just filled with more questions, ones I will spend the coming year thinking about but not having figured so I'll have a new set of situations to atone for next year. I'll try to do better. I guess that's all I can do.

I was reminded at day's end, cleaning up from the dream buffet of foods I'd shared with good friends, of running into a woman who I think sometimes reads this blog, in the morning, on my way to temple. We said hearty hellos but didn't slow down as we neared one another.

"Are you having a good day?" I asked hopefully as I passed.

Behind me already, moving forward into it, she answered: "Trying..."

I laughed. "That's good," I said, "that's all you can do."

I'm not sure if she said it because she wanted a gold star or because, more likely, it was just true. Either way, though, she'll get a gold star, a big one.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Decisions, decisions...

Fall is upon us and, with it, the inevitable forced return of routine. In Park Slope, it seems, this year more than most, the return from Montauk, Maine, Fire Island or far-flung European destinations means block parties. Big ones, scattered among many closed-off streets, complete, of course, with bouncy castles.

At yesterday's 10th St. block party, to which we'd been invited by a friend, my children played happily, far too long, in an uncrowded bouncy castle. We left them to their nausea-inducing play, feeling nauseous ourselves even watching, and meandered through stoop sales, shopping through other people's junk to, hopefully, find some joy. I almost bought a hat.

"I need a new hat," I said as I placed the taupe-colored cap on my head.

The girl selling it looked at me as if I was a bit dim-witted. "It's not new..." she said.

"Well, it would be new to me, different than the one I wore last year," I said.

"That's true," she said. She offered, in lieu of a mirror, to take a picture of me wearing the hat with her phone, but luckily her phone proved mirror enough. I was in no mood for pictures. I was dressed wrong for the cool day, as for summer, having thought it was warmer than it was. I needed to get in my Fall style groove, but I was fighting against it, not ready. This hat was not going to help, even at the low price of $5. I decided against it.

I'm trying to be better about deciding no on things instead of just buying them and wondering, later, if I'll wear them. I have a closet full of things I've worn once or twice just out of obligation, because I spent the money. But I'm conflicted. Sometimes I want just a few options, but, probably more often, I like to have more to choose from.

I found my friend's stoop sale and saw what looked like a box of young adult books on her table. I was confused. She has two young children, the oldest in kindergarten.

She misunderstood my confusion. "Oh, I know, you think I shouldn't be selling them..." she said.

"No,I'm wondering why you have them?!" I said.

"Oh, they're not recent, these are mine, from my parents' garage."

All of a sudden I was interested. I had always wanted my parents to have saved my books. It's hard to remember, sometimes, the titles that had great impact on your thinking unless you see them again. A lot, like Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary, have stood the test of time but others, like her boxed-set of Paddington Bear books or Benji, the novelized version of one of my favorite-ever movies, have not. I snapped them up before she could change her mind. I felt guilty as slips of paper with to-do lists from a time where wall-to-wall carpeting and wallpaper were de rigeur and yellowed tissues fell out of the books and, with them, memories. I could tell she was conflicted.

"They even smell like my parents' basement," she said. Really, they smelled like anyone's musty old basement, to me, but who was I to judge? They were her memories.

As I stood, still rifling through the books, trying to sell my kids on reading ones I loved but knowing it was going to be difficult when they couldn't see the cartoon version on Nickelodeon, my friend introduced me to a woman, to the mother of the little girl who had just gone inside to "marry" her own daughter.

"She used to live next door, but she abandoned us, moved to Rye," my friend said. There was an awkward silence, as there always is when a defector returns. It is hard to know what to say not to put people on both sides of the situation on the defensive. If she's happy, we're all idiots here, stuffing ourselves like sardines into our little spaces. If she's not happy, she's the idiot, sitting, bored and lonely in her big space. But, of course, none of us are idiots. We are just making different choices.

With little segue, she began her defense. "It's just so different in the suburbs, we're not adjusted yet, it's hard to know."

I just smiled sympathetically. "I always say that if you have the gnawing desire to do something, then you have to give it a try, otherwise you'll always wonder, regret it."

She nodded. "We had just talked about doing it for so long..." she said. Obviously, the jury was still out. She looked around a bit longingly at the city scene around her, at her daughter jumping happily in marital bliss with her old best friend. "People keep asking me if I like it, if it was the right thing to do. I don't know."

I laughed. "People always ask, as if anybody else can decide for them, as if anybody has The Answer. Like if you were happy or not it would mean anything about what they should do," I said. "It's like a friend I have who's divorced, and all the moms come up to her, quietly, and ask her if she's glad she did it, if they should do it, if they'd be happier. She's become the poster child for divorce, as if every situation is the same."

She smiled. "I guess the key is to just be happy with what you have," she said, somewhat resignedly.

"I guess," I said, "except you still have to decide first on what to have..."

As we gathered our shaken-up kids from the bouncy castle and waved goodbye, I felt bad. I wished I had my gold stars on me.

"It's so hard to decide," I said to Geordie as we walked down the middle of the street.

"What?" he said, panicking. "It's not hard...I don't want to move to the suburbs!"

"No," I said, "that's not a hard decision for us, but it is for so many people. It's hard to be so conflicted...about anything."

I was reminded in this moment of the sage advice of my son's first pediatrician, Dr. Michael Yaker, who I have likely quoted on this blog before.

"Look," he had said, staring at me kindly, sympathetically, helping me sort through the scary amount of advice I'd been given in the first hours of motherhood. "You're going to do it your way, and that's going to be the right way, for you."

I went into the woods of Prospect Park the other day, mere steps but seemingly 100 miles from civilization, to think, to write, to get to my own way. Unlike the boy scout camp up on Mt. Lemon, high above the heat of Tucson, where I used to sit under the tall trees this time of year and contemplate, between High Holiday services, there were torn condom wrappers, broken glass and a mean, hissing squirrel who obviously felt I should get off his turf. New Yorkers can be so territorial. But yet, still, now like then it is important to take that time, to escape the way everybody else is doing things and just figure my own way into this year's routines.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Trying Relationships

Relationships are trying, in every sense of the word.

I found myself at Marshall's in downtown Brooklyn the other day, unable to resist the lure of its shoe department. It offers the thrill of the hunt like no other place. If you can find your size, or even two shoes that match, you are lucky, finding two shoes that match in your size that you actually want to buy feels like winning the lottery.

As I tried on a pair of fur-lined high-heeled clogs, broken, I discovered sadly, or I would have bought them, I overheard an older mother and her daughter bantering over what one another thought of various styles as they searched. I smiled. They were cute. As commonly happens, for I am not subtle, I was caught eavesdropping.

The mother, I'd place her in her 70s, with a sassy grey bob, turned to me with a smile to say, "We want to be together, but then all we do is fight!"

The two of them giggled, then the daughter piped in, "We're on day six, and we've decided our limit is five!" Her mother, she told me, was in from Florida.

In the midst of the shoe rubble, this seemed a perfect moment to reward efforts expended. I hopped over to my bag on one furry clog and grabbed two of the biggest stars in the pack, handing them over to the ladies, now seated closely together on a little bench. "Well," I said sincerely, "good for you for even trying!"

They sat, matching mouths open wide as they took their stars and, in unison, placed them smack dab in the middle of their shirts. "Oh my God!" the daughter said, "We got gold stars!" They turned to one another and hugged, huge smiles on their faces.

At this point, I wished, as never before, that I was making a documentary, that I could have video-taped this moment.

"I've been giving out these stars for six months and I've seen a lot of great reactions, but you guys win the award," I said. "You're awesome."

I gave them one of my new cards to lead them to my blog and, back in my own shoes but with a new bounce in my step, I moved on, out of the store to do my real errands, to buy a skateboard for my 6-year-old for his birthday. It is amazing to see how hard some people will work on their relationships, laughing through the difficulties of them, putting up with things they don't want to put up with but still doing it. It is so much easier, of course, to let things slide, to just stop trying altogether.

My kids remind me every day that effort is necessary for a relationship to work. Much as I would like it to be, it is rarely smooth sailing and if I pretend there are no waves, we all begin to go under. It never fails: if I check out, my kids begin to notice and retaliate. But keeping checked in is so hard! Sometimes it feels like you are constantly on day six of what should be a five-day stay!

I spoke on the phone yesterday to a woman I met recently at Naidre's, Kathy. When I met her, she had been searching for something that fit her dietary restrictions, but she settled, in the end, for something that wasn't perfect, something that she would enjoy in the moment at least. She is a registered nurse and has a business counseling parents on how to establish peaceful environments at home, one she blogs about at www.parentingpresence.blogspot.com. I'd say her services are well-needed in Park Slope as in every place where kids abound.

She wanted to interview me about my needs as a parent, what I wanted to work on. She had slotted me in for 20 minutes. Ha! Did she have 20 years available? As we talked, I did gain clarity on some things, for example, that I am in constant conflict because the things I love about my children are also the things I loathe. Their physicality, for example. I love that they often snuggle close in one or the other of their single bunks, using one another as a safe harbor, a refuge. But when they seek that same safe harbor through wrestling at pick-up, pouncing on one another and pushing into other people? Not such a fan.

Kathy imbued a bit of science to make me feel better, offering that such physicality is a great way to get rid of stress. Of course, that makes sense. We, as adults, get stress relief, too, from physicality, if we're lucky:) We tend to downplay, sometimes, the need for physical connection, especially in kids, because of our own fears, our own inhibitions. But it is important, she said, and I wholeheartedly agree. The problem, of course, is, like with all things, learning to keep it in check, learning to control oneself in moments where you can't be clawing all over someone just as a stress reliever.

After the conversation, which ran, of course, well past the 20-minute mark, I felt a renewed sense of energy to work on my relationship with my kids and also a deep feeling of dread. I had to really work on my relationship with my kids. It had seemed to be going so well for a time that I had put it on the back burner, focusing on other priorities. But, of course, it's the most important priority. It's the hardest, though, the one on the list that you're least able to check off at the end of any single day.

Last night, as he went to bed, Eli smiled up in his bunk, shutting his library book on Obama.

"It makes me so happy to read about presidents," he said, explaining why before I even asked. "It's really amazing that someone could set such a big goal and actually achieve it! You know, I could be a professional baseball player, if I really try..."

I felt myself tearing up as I leaned in through the slats of his bed for a kiss.

"Yes," I said, "you can do anything you want as long as you try!"

No matter what isn't working in our house, one message, one mantra is definitely shining through loud and clear. Like Obama, I have pushed hard on a single-word stance: Try.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reasons Why to Try

I keep thinking about a woman I met at a kids' birthday party the other day, a mom who was threatening to leave because, she said, "I'm a black cloud, ruining everybody else's good time. I'm just in a horrible mood."

I didn't know her, but I can read people, even strangers, well enough to know when they're reaching out.

"You're not bothering me," I said. "Just stay, what are you going to go do instead?"

She guffawed. "Just go home, I guess, and yell at my 13-year-old for not cleaning his room, have him wonder why I'm back, why I'm bothering him."

"Sounds to me like it'd be a better idea to stay here!" I said. She did stay, not even grudgingly, and we got into a conversation about room cleaning, whose job it is, how one can get kids to take responsibility for their own things.

"I just want some small sign that he's even trying," she said, exasperation and defeat showing clearly from her sad eyes down to her sagging shoulders.

I was reminded of this moment today when I went into the bathroom at the Y and saw a woman stop, look at a faucet left running by the last person, and move on, without touching it, without turning it off, into a stall. I stepped out of the stall I'd just stepped into and turned it off. How could I not? How could she not have? As I parent and just as a person, living in the world, I wish there was an easy answer to how to teach the lesson of attentiveness, of taking responsibility for things, of going the extra half-step to do something, even when you don't have to, even when no one is going to make you.

I left the gym and ran into a friend, a fellow parent at my sons' school, who began talking as if she was reading my mind.

"I'm trying to get the school to give homework on the weekend," she said, "because my son won't go beyond what he has to do, won't read on the weekend if he doesn't have to, and I'm worried. I tell him all the time, 'you don't want to be dumb and beautiful.'"

I laughed. Her son, at 9, is a successful model, his sweet innocent face found on the pages of major magazines in ads and fashion spreads my kids come upon excitedly. He is no dummy, either, putting together intricate Lego ships with rapt attention, for hours at a time.

"It's funny," I said. "I was just thinking about this, about what actually makes people learn to try hard. But I don't think it's our desires, our demands that make them learn. I think, somehow, we have to give them their own selfish reasons for doing it."

I imbued some teachings from the Torah. I know, can you believe it? My faith usually rests more in flying insects, but it is the High Holidays after all, and for the first time ever, I was asked, as a member of my extremely open, fabulous temple, to look at a verse from a prayer with my older son and share thoughts on it at services.

The verse was the V'ahavta, which, loosely translated from Hebrew into English, means "And you shall love God..."

The Rabbi, a fabulous and insightful woman whose own gay lifestyle and non-Jewish partner gives her a wider take on things than some other religious leaders might have, asked us to question how we might feel about being demanded to do something that it might seem more appropriate to come to ourselves, to decide on our own. She had offered some thoughts, some teachings she had found, that suggested that by following other verses, such as "love thy neighbor as thyself..." and "love strangers as thyself," we might more naturally come to our own faith in God.

As I discussed this with my son, it occurred to me so clearly: Wow! That is exactly what giving out gold stars does for me! As I think about the efforts of others, neighbors and strangers alike, as I take a moment out of my own internal world to reward them, it gives me faith, faith in myself, faith in others, faith in the universe and, though I don't often imbue the G word, faith in some sort of higher power.

I shared this story with my friend in regard to her situation, in regard to getting her son to try harder.

"So, you don't think my screaming at him all the time will work?" she asked sarcastically when I finished my rant.

"No, probably not," I laughed. "It's hard, though."

She stared intently at me. "So this gold star thing, this is like a new religion?!"

"Absolutely!" I said. "Actually, it's just like all religions are, how they should be, how they begin, as a movement, to make people think."

As I enthused, I began to worry. My new film-producer friend had told me about a whole slew of people stuck in mental asylums in Jerusalem, having come there because they thought they were Jesus. Part of the therapy was to introduce them to one another, "Jesus, meet Jesus," the psychiatrists would say.

The story had hit a little too close to home. A friend and I who hung around a lot, talking and walking, thinking our deep conversations might change the world, used to get into scuffles when one or the other got too high and mighty. "OK, Jesus," one of us would say. "No, you think you're Jesus," the other would most often respond.

For the record, I don't think I'm Jesus, don't desire to be. But I have been wanting to buy a cross lately, just for fashion sake. You never quite know why some things start to look more appealing. Hmmm. WWJD?

On Balance

I dropped my kids at school yesterday, then high-tailed it for a cafe, wasn't sure which one. I have the luxury in my neighborhood of choosing from so many, and the choices just seem to grow every day. I decide between the coffees themselves--levels of bitterness, amount of froth on top, etc.--between atmospheres--chatty or plug in and get your work done--and, of course, between barristas, knowing where and with whom I can banter.

It wasn't an easy choice yesterday, Monday, because I'm never sure on the first day of the week what I'm doing, who I want to be. Do I want to be the chatty, confident gold star-giver? Or do I need to curl up, quiet, in a corner with my At-a-Glance calendar and get things organized? I opted for the latter, helped in my decision by the fact that I had forgotten my gold stars, and walked the relatively far distance, through Detective Mayrose Park, to Southside. It is filled with parents I don't know from another school, with a range of barristas who, even when they offer slight banter, leave me alone. I am not enough of a regular.

My to-do list was long, filled with things to do for my kids, ways to promote and pitch my blog, things to buy, tasks for my writing workshop. It just seemed endless. I set about working on my blog-pitching plan, and, after not long a period, my cell phone rang. It was a friend I hadn't seen in a long time, a woman I love to talk with, who makes me laugh and think and see things in a different light. I had proposed we go on a walk in the park, and she, amazingly, had the time. In a flash, my At-a-Glance was shut, the pitch I was putting together tucked away to finish another time.

I met her with her baby, a sweet, smiling, calm redhead (an oxymoron, I should know, I'm married to one), picked up her dog and headed into Prospect Park. It was an absolutely glorious day and the dragonflies were swirling all around as we walked, confirming I'd made the right decision.

She is a yoga instructor, a former art therapist, a painter, a new mom, a wife, and she is trying always to strike a perfect balance. She totally understood my own problems balancing, figuring out how to keep my creative head in its place, to ensure my ideas kept flowing by doing things like taking walks, taking the time to blow dry my hair and working out but still having the time to do the business-side tasks, to promote my blog. She fully related to how difficult it is to stay true to what you do and also give it mass appeal.

"The best yoga instructors, the really inspirational ones, aren't necessarily the ones with the videos," she said.

"Right, but just because you have a video does it mean you've sold out? Shouldn't you try to reach as many people as possible if you feel you have something to offer?"

We both were quiet, thinking about it. It is the classic artist's dilemma, one we weren't going to solve, even on a mindful meandering through the urban woods.

We came out of the dense brush, the bird sanctuary, back on the far reaches of the lake, behind, it seems, most everything, and we saw, in an open field, a man, high up in the branches of one of the highest trees. We strained our necks to see him.

"What are you doing up there?" I asked. He had a harness, there was another Parks person on the ground, watchful, but still. He was very high up.

"I'm looking for Japanese beatles," he yelled, "and luckily, I haven't found any."

"That's good," I said. "How amazing to be up there, what a gorgeous tree."

"You should see it from up here..." he said, then immediately apologized for what amounted to a kid-like 'ha ha, I get to do this and you don't.' But, hey, better him than me. Much as I would love the vantage point, not sure I'd be climbing to the tippy top of any tree. I'd leave that to the squirrels, and to him.

I had no gold stars, which was a crying shame, but I offered a meak, "Thanks for your efforts on our behalf!"

See, I couldn't take the day off from acknowledging other people, with or without a star. It is in my nature, it is what I do. I am amazed at the heights people will go(pun intended)to do good work. But now that I've made it the closest thing I have to my job, it's hard to segment my time, to know when giving out appreciation is something I should just do for doing it, or if I do it and then use it in my blog.

It is something I have always feared, really loving what I do for a living, really integrating it into my life, because then, I knew, I would make time to do little else. And there is so much else to do, so much on the to-do list, things I want and need to do like spending time with my kids and my husband, having time for extended family and friends, cooking and yes, even cleaning.

Our walk came to an end, we stopped in at the local diner for some lunch, and then I had a mere couple of hours left before pick-up to accomplish something. A friend needed me and I called her but I was clearly distracted, self-centered, and she was miffed, unused to me in work mode. I haven't been there in a while, would rather chat endlessly, but there it was. I wasn't really available. I'm not she understood.

I went to pick up my kids in a funk, angry at my inability to balance, and delivered them to their respective activities. After swimming, waiting for Oscar to appear out of the boys' dressing room, I overheard a mom talking to her young son.

"We're going to eat dinner out, kay? 'Cause mommy didn't get to the grocery store today, she got very involved doing a project, cleaning all the wood in the house very carefully with a special cleanser and a cloth."

"Does it look different, will I notice?" the boy asked.

She pondered that, head to the side for a moment and then answered, "I hope so."

I couldn't help but laugh. "I'm not sure kids totally appreciate these kind of efforts we make, not yet," I said. "Of course, it would be nice if they noticed, since they take up our entire day but..."

She nodded in agreement. "I know. But my husband has allergies, and it was so dusty, it just needed to get done. I actually enjoyed it, and I enjoyed appreciating it in the few minutes I had to sit there before I had to come here."

"Of course," I said, "if it hadn't taken you away from doing everything else you needed to do, it'd be great. I used to love to spend a whole Saturday cleaning, before I had kids. And then sit down with the paper and revel in my work."

I wanted to give her a gold star, she definitely deserved one, but I still had none on me. I told her that I give them out, that she would get one if I had it to give, that she had done a good day's work. She smiled, grateful. Balancing is so very, very hard. I pondered that as I hit the grocery store then hurried home as fast as possible with Oscar on and off his bike with constantly-loosening training wheels to make dinner.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Change

Change is so hard. We butt up against it constantly and yet we fight it. Just this morning, a bright cool Fall one covered by an impossible, endless blue, I encountered so many people grappling with this.

First, there were the two engaging barristas at Red Horse who willingly entered into conversation with me about the ills of America's capitalist system and the necessity for change. I had paid, excitedly, with a new Red Horse card the owner had loaded up with a few dollars he owed me. What a great idea to inspire loyalty, I thought, and, of course, to get people to spend more than they normally would.

"It's so much easier to spend on a credit card than with cash," I said as I handed it over, paying happily even though it was still money. "My son, at nearly 6, is totally on to that idea, isn't taking it. He said to me the other day, in answer to how much he thought would be fair for a weekly allowance, '100 million dollars...And NO CREDIT CARDS!!'"

The barrista laughed. "He's no dummy. He wants cash only. Well, maybe that's good, maybe it'll change things, make things better if kids are more aware of how dangerous
credit cards are."

I just shook my head. "I'm afraid not. I'm afraid that we will get back on track economically in a year or two, then quickly forget how we got into this predicament in the first place. Then, we'll go back to our bad old ways. If history tells us one thing, it's that. We didn't learn much from the stories our grandparents told, it seems. Basically, we don't do things unless we have to."

I then launched into my usual rant about switching to a barter system. I have this idea of creating a directory of the many talented musicians, artists, writers and creative entrepreneurs in Park Slope and connecting them to one another, to share skills and services without monetary exchange. My lawyer and financial services friends warn me against this, about heading up what virtually amounts to tax evasion. Our government is no friend, they feel, to skirting the whole "money" thing.

"I used to do that all the time, when I was a pastry chef," the other barrista piped up. "I had a friend who was a woodworker and we often traded services," she said.

Aaaah. It was a utopian ideal, can you imagine? 'Hey, I'll bake you a cake, and you can make me a table.' How perfect would that be? Nirvana. I guess it would probably be a little more complicated than that, unfortunately, but maybe it could work...The conversation went on a bit, we were all in agreement that things needed to change, to really change, and they probably wouldn't. A little heavy for first thing Sunday morning, but there it is. That's why they got their gold stars. Finally, they had more coffee to brew and I had to hit the gym.

Arriving at the Y, I was asked by the young guy behind the counter to step inside and around the desk to sign in manually.

"The computer is broken, again, still," he said. "They should really get a new one."

"Yes and no," I said. "They'd get a new one, and then that one would break too. We have three computers now, and now we have three constantly-breaking computers. Change for change sake isn't always good."

"I guess you're right," he said, rubbing his eyes, yawning. "I just want to go home."

"When did your shift start? Have you been here all night?"

He nodded. "Yep, all night."

"Do you have to keep your eyes open the whole time?" I asked, hoping, naively, that he'd been able to get some shut-eye during the night shift.

He just laughed and nodded.

"Well, you deserve this then," I said, digging out a gold star. He took it, as most people do, without question, with an appreciative "thanks!" His tired colleague behind him got one too, got up gratefully and came over to accept it. I'm always amazed that people seem to want the stars, to put them on happily, as if they mean something important. I now believe they do.

Back in my building's lobby, I ran into a neighbor I always enjoy chatting with. "What's new?" I asked.

"High school!" she said, referring, I knew, to her smiling daughter's beginning of the 9th grade. Wow. I remembered her as a little confident, chatty kid, before braces, pulling my toddlers around on a sled in the courtyard. Her braces had come and gone now, and I barely recognized her as she breezed by me with a dazzling smile, nearly my height, on her way into the city, alone.

"Wow, how's it going?" I asked.

"She loves it," she said, relief in her voice. Bullet dodged, for now.

I shook my head, thinking of so many kids in our building who had such a hard time adapting to the changes in their bodies and brains, to growing up, to getting along on their own. I found the last gold star in my little bag and proffered it up.

"It's so hard, isn't it?" I said.

She nodded and we discussed the sadness of seeing little happy kids turn into sullen, even deeply sad teenagers. Some come out of it, some don't. It's hard, as a parent, to help kids deal with the changes in their lives, to pay attention in the few tired hours in the evening enough to help, to stay connected. I knew she was trying, this mom, doing the best she could do, really trying to communicate with her daughter despite the challenges to doing so.

I thought on the way upstairs of how my gold star giveaways help me deal with change, how they help me appreciate new people who enter my life, new experiences, to look around with wonder rather than with worry. Sometimes, though, like with any job, they also take time away from me noticing the people in my own home, little people who are changing into big people before my very eyes, that I need to pay close attention to.

As I spoke of my project the other night, sat in front of the computer writing or trying to spread the word, Eli approached me.

"I haven't even gotten a star..." he said, somewhat sadly as he stood behind me, his newly long legs shooting out from his Paul Frank underwear.

I turned around fully to face him, shocked. "Really?!" I said. I know he probably took some at the beginning, know they're always floating around. But I realized that I probably hadn't placed one on him as I had on others whose efforts I'd paid close attention to and rewarded. I guess I figured they wouldn't be meaningful to my kids because they knew the shtick. I guess I thought he'd be skeptical and think it silly, like my belief in dragonflies. I guess I was wrong.

"I'm glad you told me that, glad you asked for it," I said. I grabbed a package next to me, and peeled off the biggest gold star on the page. But as I started to place it on him, he backed away. "I need a shirt..." he said. Apparently, that's how he'd pictured it. But he quickly adapted, looking down. His bare chest would do. He beamed as he placed the big glittery star front and center in between his nipples, puffed up like a big, strong man, like the one he'll be far too soon.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Promotion and Oppression

I woke up at 3:33 this morning. I don't know what that means. At this hour, I don't know what anything means. I am up, though, my brain humming, so as I might as well get out of bed, be useful. I might be okay for the day, to remember and to get ready to atone for all my sins this Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, cause I crashed early, after the curry my friend made for dinner sent me home in a hurry, to lie prostrate, in pain. It was good going down but...If I ever get to India, I'm going to have to bring my own food or go hungry, otherwise I might die in the street. It kills me that I can't eat Indian, cause I love it. But it doesn't love me. It is going to have to be, forever, an unrequited love. I hate those, but there it is.

Yesterday, before the curry felled me, I had an amazing day. I have decided in earnest to more vigorously promote my blog, not that I know how. I've started, though, with my own guerrilla marketing, hitting the streets even harder than usual without a hint of shyness, ramping up the gold star giveaways, writing down the blog name for people who take them excitedly.

Sick of having to dig out a pen, to make my writing legible enough to read, I in desperation designed a slap-dash business card with newly-mustached Win at 7th Avenue Copy Shop. He patiently but proddingly moved me through the various fonts until I found one that fit me. As I've said before on these pages, I don't make decisions easily. The line of customers waiting, sighing, around me made me go more quickly than usual with my instinct, with the one whose name had made me laugh the most. As it turned out, I loved it. "Yummy Apology" it is called, who knows why. But it's swirly and, indeed, yummy. I'd love to meet the people who design fonts, who name them. They definitely deserve gold stars.

The great thing is that, in my newfound aggressiveness, I have noticed so many deserving people. In fact, it is hard not to just stand on a street corner, like the hawkers of the new sports drinks or energy bars I wrote about at Advertising Age for so long, and hand stars out to whomever I see. I could easily stand in front of Methodist Hospital and give stars to all the doctors and nurses and technicians and janitors. I'm going to say it straight up: aesthetically, as a daily office environment, hospitals suck. I can only hope that the idea of doing good work saves these people from focusing on the depressing lighting, the strong anaseptic smell masking the stink of the sick. It is a far cry from Anthropology, let's just say that.

But I don't just use scrubs as a reasoning, even if I should. I walk past the hospital without stopping. I shy away from giving out stars willy nilly because they have to be given out for a specific act, in a specific moment to really work, to really resonate. And, anyway, I only have so much energy to expend, so many stories of people's lives that I can take in, that you can take in. I think that, as witty and insightful as I try to be, there is a small catchment zone between the tipping point and jumping the shark. I must navigate carefully. Readers, even readers of blogs, have lives. So, ostensibly, do I, though mine has been ignored during my push. The breakfast dishes from yesterday, with now-dried apple slices and remnants of Life cereal, stare at me from across the table as a reminder that I have been remiss at my housewifely duties, so too the empty-of-all-but-rotting-food refrigerator and the disgustingly dirty white-painted-wood kitchen floor. My super was right during the renovation, painting this floor white was completely ill-conceived.

But enough about me. Yesterday's star receivers were an amazing lot. First, there was the woman who I heard from behind me in Red Horse Cafe thanking another woman profusely for the seat she was giving up, the one that the gracious thanker had been "coveting forever." I laughed and turned around.

"Really?" I said. "How long has it been that you've been wanting to sit there?"

She smiled, "Weeks," she said, shifting her computer from the high counter, herself from a backless stool onto the coveted corner table and chair, respectively.

She was cool, I could tell. She proffered something about how getting the seat she wanted was a good sign for the day, an otherwise bad-omen day that she called something I didn't recognize, can't remember, some universal sign she said, "I used to not believe in, but now I do..."

I got it. I feel the exact same way as I age, holding greater and greater stock in theories I once dismissed, explanations that seemed too strange to be true that I now pray could shed light on at least some of the things I can't understand.

I gave her a gold star and one to the woman who had given her the precious place to do her work, sans backache.

She loved her star, touched it appreciatively, and, siezing the opportunity, in full promotion mode, I told her about the blog.

"Oh, good, can you write about my movie?" she asked enthusiastically in a fabulous English accent. I have to get used to this barter of services, this tit for tat. With people and things I believe in, it shouldn't be hard. I don't know anything about the movie, but I'm willing to believe, based on her seeming savvy, that it's good.

"Sure," I said, "what's it called?"

"It's called 'As Good as Dead'," she said. "We're going to have some secret screenings, to get reviews, to get the word out."

I just shook my head, frustrated. It's crazy. I am amazed in my travels, in talking to the tons and tons of talented artistic people in my neighborhood, in Park Slope, that I hear every day how hard it is to promote one's art, even when you're a somewhat known quantity, even when, as in this case, your film has a big star, Andie McDowell.

My gold star recipient was a producer of the movie, she said, with an Israeli partner. I had noticed the kafia she wore, the scarf that symbolizes, to many, support of the Palestinian plight.

"Did you say your partner was Israeli?" I asked.

"Yes, so is my husband," she said.

"Aaah...Well, I noticed your scarf?!" I questioned hesitantly, but she didn't skip a beat.

"Yes," she said, "I wore it today because I'm angry at both of them."

I died laughing, wishing in that moment, I told her, that I'd waited to give her her gold star til now. Hilarious. I think often of my Lebanese friend, his mother a Palestinian, who came back to New York after a vacation in Beirut to deal with his faltering band and its Israeli leader, wearing a kafia. I always say that politics are incredibly personal and it is proven to me again and again.

We exchanged information, my new friend and I, e-mailing one another from our side-by-side tables, and both went back to our respective efforts to promote our work.

Strangely enough, although it's hardly strange to me anymore, this crazy kizmet I have to think about someone and then see them (my small neighborhood helps), I next ran into my temple's Hebrew School coordinator, a beautiful girl, bright-eyed in every sense of the phrase, who recently returned from Israel's West Bank where she was working on The Palestine Education Project, an organization of educators and artists from New York, Beirut and Ramallah that develop interactive workshops for high school students and youth groups using hip hop and other creative ways to raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle and connect it to the similar struggles of oppressed communities in the U.S. This summer, she had told me, she brought a group of Native Americans with her to Gaza to connect them with Palestinian refugees. Amazing. Big gold star to her (actual) and all involved (virtual). These are not easy tasks, solving world hatred and oppression, no walk in the park. Though walks in the park with people from the opposing side might very well help...

The clock reads 5:55 now, right as I look at it. I don't know what that means. Hopefully you are not as tired and bleary as I. I guess if you were, you'd have stopped reading this incredibly long blog entry by now. But I don't digress. This was all in a day's work. I will end on the last gold star of the day, given to a stressed-out first-time mom who I saw standing, ordering, at the counter at Hanco's, a new place I'd gone for a Vietnamese sandwich. The fact that there are not one but two Vietnamese sandwich places that have sprung up recently within blocks of my apartment when I looked for years for one near my office, googling "Vietnamese sandwich New York" in vain on many days when I suddenly thought of its fresh pork and cilantro flavor, is, again, a matter of kizmet I now take for granted. But I do digress here, away from the panicked new mother.

As I watched this woman, bouncing, as I used to do, on her feet to keep her dangling baby happy in her Baby Bjorn, the Vietnamese girl behind the counter said to her, with a smile, "Your baby, she looks so angry!"

I could hear in the mother's response how the comment wrecked her, "But I always hear how happy she looks..." she faltered, questioning. I put my head in my hands. Really? Really? Even if you're young, even if you don't have kids, even if you're not from this country, you should know better than to tell a new, angst-ridden mom that her baby, facing forward so she can't see her, looks "angry." With force, I jumped out of my seat with a star.

Quiet, quiet as I can be, so as not to insult the insulter, I handed her the star to counter the counter-girl's upsetting remark and offered up what I hoped were comforting words.

"I am SURE your baby isn't angry," I said. "She is adorable."

As the woman turned to directly face me, gratitude in her worried eyes, I had to stop myself from laughing. The baby's downturned pout did, indeed, look slightly angry. But I'm sure she wasn't. She is too young to understand all the things she should be angry about.

The mother placed the star right in the middle of the Baby Bjorn, right within baby-finger-grabbing distance.

"Um, maybe you should put the star somewhere else, so she doesn't put it in her mouth?" I suggested gently. I didn't want to kill the kid before she had her chance to be angry.

The mom looked down, thanked me for the idea, moved the star. She shook her head.

"There is so much you don't even know about to think about," she said.

"I know," I said, "Oh, I know." All we can do is try.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Beauty of Being Giver and Receiver Both

I was moved to tears this morning when I opened my e-mail and found a note from a childhood friend in which she told me she was an avid reader of the blog (thank you!) but, more importantly, that she had had an experience, a profound one that she had been waiting 20 years for, that she came away from feeling both deserving of a gold star and as if she had given one. That, I believe, is the perfect scenario.
In this particular case, my friend achieved such a state of grace when she finally, at long, long last, got an apology from an old, loved boyfriend, a seminal one, one who had wronged her, pretty despicably.

“Gold Star,” she said, “for all the girls who have had their hearts torn apart just wishing that one day, just one day, that jerk would fess up and say those difficult words, ‘I’m sorry.’” That group, of course, includes her, or at least did, before yesterday, before “the jerk” fessed up that he had, indeed, been a jerk. Gold star for you babe!

She happened to look great when he did it, she said, which helped her feel good in the moment, of course. But she came off the best because she gave him what he was looking for: forgiveness and the peace of mind that she had moved on and that he should too. Do we ever really move on? I don’t know, but his apology went a far way toward helping that be true for her. In fact, she told me, she even, in her great relieving generosity, thought that he deserved a gold star.

“It was a hell of a try,” she said, “and if guys knew they could get a gold star for doing it, maybe more would step up. What do you think?”

Here’s what I think: Definitely! We are all of us so afraid to do things because we don’t know what others will think, are afraid of how they might view us. But more often than not, if we go with our instincts, say what we really want to say, step out from in front of the mirror where we inspect ourselves too harshly in ways that no one else will or wants to, we would all be better off. Whenever I get mired in worrying about what others think, I seem always to make the wrong choice, the wrong one for me and, probably, for that other person too. Maybe if we all imagined that there would be positive acknowledgment for taking responsibility, for not hiding behind a scared fa├žade, if there were a gold star or some fantastic or real facsimile, we would begin to do it more?! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Look, for those who have wronged me, take note: I hereby promise to give you a gold star for your apology. Thanks, in advance. I guess, though, that means I have to do the same…ay, there’s the rub. That’s when it begins to feel hard.

Reciprocity is fundamental, though. Call it 'paying it forward,' 'tit for tat,' 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' or a thousand other phrases we have developed to describe it, but it is what it is: crucial to feeling even halfway decent.

My sage yoga instructor again today read my mind, or the universal unconsciousness, which feel like the same thing on good, connected days. During a moment when we all stood, asses high, stretching our legs taut as if our lives depended on it, she told an inspirational anecdote from a recent subway ride. Yes, ye of little faith, there is such a thing.

She had been feeling good, she said, up and ready for teaching a great class, when she unwittingly clocked a stranger with her bag. Instead of understanding that it had been a mistake, he showered her with, she recalled sweetly, "not nice words." In a flash, her zen-like readiness for helping to restore others' minds and bodies was destroyed. She was angry. In true guru fashion, however, she didn't let her anger get the best of her. She immediately looked around for something good, she said, something to remind her that she wasn't wrong, that the world was a generous, understanding, happy place.

She lighted on goodness immediately, as one is wont to do if looking, in the form of a 20-something punk kid helping an older person with directions. She went on to find a variety of other things, small acts of kindness. I smiled to myself as I listened. It was exactly what giving out gold stars did for me, turning me from foul-tempered to foolishly, impossibly optimistic all in one fell swoop. As usual, she deserved a gold star for imparting her story, for helping all of us disciples on our stretchy, spongy mats try to make sense of things.

"I think I'm going to cry!" she said when I handed it to her. I hope she felt the same way I did after she said that to me after she taught the class, that she felt the blessing of being giver and receiver both.

Trying to Get Laid...

Sometimes I wish I wasn't so nosy, but sometimes it pays off. Take yesterday. Sitting alone in a diner I frequent, putting the last minute touches on a piece of writing for a new workshop,finishing my tarragon chicken salad (yum!) I overheard one of the girls behind the counter wishing a departing co-worker good luck. He was a young, sweet guy who often remembered my finicky veggie sausage and egg sandwich order correctly before I even had to ask, who chatted with me amiably as I waited for it.

He waved her off somewhat sheepishly. "Aw, thanks," he said, "I'm hopin'..."

I couldn't not ask. "What's up?" I said, "What do you need luck in?" I thought maybe I could offer my own well wishes.

He looked at me in a bit of a panic and then back at his co-worker. "Thanks," he said to her, joking, "why don't you just tell everybody?" But he didn't seem to mind sharing as he turned quickly back to me and spilled it:

"I've got this lady friend, see, and I'm hoping she'll sleep with me tonight," he said enthusiastically, no longer even sheepish just straight-up desperate. "Really," he said, eyes wide, leaning in toward me "and if not, if you know anyone who'd be interested..."

I threw back my head against the booth, dying of laughter. "Nice, very nice. Well, by all means, I wish you luck...hey, you deserve it!"

It seemed to me he should have no problem, but it has been a while since I've been single. As I thought about it, put myself back in that place in my head, I recalled that it wasn't always easy to find a bedfellow despite the knowledge that all single people seemed to be in search of one much of the time, in search of the same thing, maybe just not with each other. Things often seem like they should be simpler than they are.

"Where are you taking her?" I asked.

"My house," he said, pursing his lips in cock-sure fashion. "I'm making her dinner..."

I laughed. "Aaah, well," I said, "then it seems it will be yours to lose. You'll be mere steps from the bedroom, no problem."

He smiled, crossed his fingers. As to not leave it wholly to luck, however, he said he was making filet mignon, "pulling out all the stops...only the best!"

"I'm sure she'll love it...good luck!" I said, again for good measure.

He waved and walked out. Smiling, I paid my check and walked out myself. No sooner did I see my sex-starved friend up ahead than I slapped my forehead. Stupid. If ever there was a gold star moment, it had been this one. I picked up the pace and finally cornered him a ways up the street.

"I forgot to give you this," I said as I pulled out the biggest gold star in the pack and slapped it right on his chest. "Tell her a stranger gave it to you, just for being such a good guy..."

He patted his star happily. "Ooh, that'll work, that'll definitely work! Thanks!"

I can only hope it did, that his efforts on his lady friend's behalf, for his own best interest, paid off. I'm not sure, though, that I'll ask when next I see him. Sometimes you have to know when not to ask the question. I'm bad at that. What would I say if the answer was no, that his efforts didn't pay off? That he was left hanging? What would I say if it was yes? Either way, it's none of my business. But, who am I kidding? I'll have to ask.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Precision Parenting

First Monday back to regularly scheduled programming, kids happily ensconced in school, me back at Parco, I was bound and determined to give out gold stars, to stop the incessant whining about my indecision and focus on others' efforts, on someone else's abilities or inabilities to decide what to do.

I didn't wait for a chance encounter, I just willy nilly started out giving out gold stars to regulars, to the lovely barrista and to a few of my fellow coffee-drinking time squanderers, women who I well know are trying in a myriad of ways.

Stars in place, one in the middle of a beautiful new tattoo of boxing gloves, others on shirts, interesting conversation, of course, ensued.

One woman, a fiery former journalist back in school for interior design in between raising two kids, began talking about a chat she'd had with her 12-year-old daughter. She had some concerns about the mega-popular Stephenie Meyer series, Twilight, which her daughter had just read. She was concerned about its conservatism.

"It's about vampires and they don't even have sex, because the writer is Mormon and doesn't believe in premarital sex," she scoffed, waving her hands excitedly. "So I said this to my daughter, I said, 'They don't even have sex, do they?' and she corrected me,'They have sex in the last book, Mom.' But, I said, "By then they're married, right?' and she said, 'Yes.' So I said, 'I just want you to know, I don't want you to have sex right now, but I think you should have sex before marriage...' At this point, she said 'Ew! Mom!!' So I said, 'What, you don't want to talk about this now?' and she said, 'I don't want to talk about this ever!' "

I died laughing. She'd already gotten her gold star but I was tempted to give her another for the great story. I have been talking so much lately about what I have come to refer to as Precision Parenting, the painstaking, swiveling navigation between various courses of action to be taken in any given circumstance that is required in the attempt to raise open, communicative, independent, understanding, sometimes-happy people, a navigation no GPS system could ever attempt to speak to. If one could, I might waiver from my adamant anti-GPS stance.

It might seem strange to be guiding your 12-year-old toward sex before marriage, but I find myself in just the same boat. While I sometimes steer clear of actually recommending courses of action that some might see as morally questionable or in some cases that even break laws (there are, frankly, some laws I just do not wholeheartedly endorse), I try to at least offer up my own openness toward, well, toward most anything, anything that might in some way help them lead fulfilling lives.

Take a recent sidewalk exchange between me and Eli.

"Mommy," he said, "have you ever kissed a girl?"

I didn't skip a beat. I am well accustomed to the inquisitive ways of my constantly pondering 8-year-old.

"You mean, like how I kiss Grandma or like how I kiss Daddy?" I asked.

"Like how you kiss Daddy..."

Here I paused, not because I didn't have an answer, but because I was disappointed that my answer offered up a conservative behavior, one that might seem to imply judgment that I really don't have, especially when it comes to others' choices.

"No," I said, somewhat sadly, "I haven't." I thought to add more, like my friend to suggest that he should kiss someone of the same sex, especially if he was so inclined, but I didn't. I didn't really feel that my judgment for or against was germain. Hopefully, in my not condemning the question, in answering it honestly and not balking at it or taking it as silly, he would see that I didn't think the topic was untoward, that he would feel free to do or not do what he wished when or if the situation should arise.

My Precision Parenting skills have been tested, as well, with Oscar. I am reminded this fall of last year's first days of school, when my deep-brown-eyed kindergartner was reprimanded in school for hugging all the girls. The teacher was hesitant and sweet when she told me, "I don't care, but I'm afraid other parents might complain..."

Complain? If by telling me daily how their daughters spoke about nothing but Oscar was complaining, then they complained incessantly. Playdates were demanded by a series of girls, one after the other. I was a little flummoxed as to what to do. On the one hand, I could see that invading people's personal space, even if the little girls liked it now, in kindergarten, could pose a potential problem down the road. Grabbing what you like at the gym, for example, is a no no. But, then, it was Oscar's interest in connecting, his openness and affection, that were the drivers of such "bad" behavior. How could I squash one without squashing the other? Challenging.

This year, I have heard nothing yet of hugging, but have heard tale of Oscar's charming ways by a few mothers in not altogether positive tones. "My son says, 'Oscar is so funny in music class!'" one mother says and we both sigh.
There are times to be chatty and silly and times to listen, to stay silent. To be fair, my husband and I, sad or no, never learned the difference between those, opting always for the former rather than the latter. It is hard to teach what you yourself do not know. And, as for what we do know...oh, wait, that's so little. All we can know, like doctors, is what we've seen before. And even that often doesn't apply.

I was running through the park yesterday, a beautiful still-summer Sunday, when I caught a glimpse of a flying something overhead. Could it be a dragonfly, I wondered? Could I be on the right path? There are so many paths in the park, it's hard to know...I looked more closely and saw that it was a bee. I laughed. Why should we be afraid of one flying insect and inspired by another? Especially when from way down on the ground it is hard to distinguish one from another? Bees sting, I know, but rarely, and they certainly do more good than harm. As I thought about this, trying to determine why what inspires us inspires us and what scares us scares us when often there is little difference between the two, I looked up again at something flying overhead and saw that it was, indeed, a dragonfly. I guess, I thought, just the questioning of things puts me on the right path.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

To Decide or Not to Decide...

I can't decide. I will do anything not to decide. I will spend money I don't have, borrow time better spent on other more necessary tasks, and strain my voice as I wander around talking to all and sundry--any stranger will suffice--about what I should do.

On different days, it is different things I can't decide upon, but whatever it is, large or small, matters of life and death, or just simple questions of what to wear or what to eat for lunch, it cannot be decided without a quorum.

It can be draining, certainly for my husband, who is nearly always consulted, and for the friends and family who still take my calls and e-mails, even for the neighborhood at large. There are a fair number of people in the vicinity of my apartment who have been pressed unwittingly into service to help me decide. I see them on subsequent occasions and recognize "the look." It is fear, panic even. As they pass, quickly, sometimes with a wave-off, they often make excuses for where they have to be as I near, cross the street even if they think I haven't seen them. I don't blame them. After all, I am avoiding me myself, avoiding listening to my own excuses and explanations. If I can't convince myself, maybe I can convince others, I think. A stranger often believes I will act instead of just talk, but only once, at most twice. I, of course, know better but I like the look of enthusiasm I see in someone's face as I tell them my ideas anew.

"Good idea!" they'll say.

"Isn't it?" I'll say, as if I haven't told it to a million others, as if I've done anything toward completing the story, book, song, whatever let alone beyond coming up with the idea and a killer beginning.

This weekend, the first following the end of summer, the beginning of school, I am faced with myself and the myriad of tasks I have laid out in a list, in a new academic-year calendar,for myself to complete, in no specific order. I want desperately to reach out to people, personal and professional acquaintances, people who love me or even those who couldn't care less. I want them to tell me what to do first, to tell me how, to make me do it. I know this is impossible, but, like the tales of my own ideas,it it disappointing anew to find out that no one but me can decide, let alone do it.

I have said a lot lately, as if it is an epiphany, that advertising copywriters are the philosophers of our time, the ones who create the aphorisms of our time. Someone I said this to recently stared up to the sky, in thought, and nodded.

"Yah," he agreed, "that's true: Just Do It..."

Right, I thought. Just do it. I would say I'm trying, but am I? I know I'm talking an awful lot about trying. Is it the same? I guess it depends, depends on what it is I want to do, what I need to do. Turns out, only I can decide. Bummer.
I have wasted so much time and I'm looking to waste more. I am afraid.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dealing with Impermanence...

I walked into yoga this morning, the cool fall air following me through the screen door. I try to get to the studio, to relax and elongate, every Thursday, as much as possible. But I am unwilling to commit. I have been burned before, buying a multiple-class card that must be used within a certain time frame and losing money when one or another crucial thing has kept me from coming.

"Single class?" asked the girl behind the desk, familiar with my fickle ways.

I sighed. "Yes, I just never know for sure..."

The teacher, a calm and rational presence always, piped up. "Aaah, that fits our theme this month, Impermanence, so maybe it's ok..."

"Maybe," I said. "I just have to reconcile myself to dealing with things day by day?!"

She nodded, understanding.

It is funny, because I have of late buoyed myself in difficult moments, boosted myself up out of funks with the idea of impermanence. This is new, a sign, I hope, of much-needed maturation.

I have never navigated through life and its near-constant change of people, place and events easily. In my early years, not travelling much or enduring much in the way of change, I would literally lose my footing when I found myself elsewhere than home. I fell out of beds, down stairs and even just tripped on my own two feet 'cause I was so flummoxed and out of sorts.

Later, when college presented changes of rooms and roommates more often than my mind could accommodate, I began packaging up my little sack o' safety, a straw bag that held my white metal makeup basket, my flowery jewelry box and a little happy yellow strip of fabric that I could lay these things upon wherever I might light. It helped me a little, but I still did not flow easily and fluidly through the many ripples real life presented. I ached over friends and family who might get busy or be gone, those people I had left back at home or those who had left me. I had little experience, thank goodness, with death, but the tales of others' losses were enough to scare me into a deep funk.

It is maybe as a parent or simply to save my own self that I have begun to grapple with change and loss and deal with it more honestly, put it in a place, recognize my lack of control over it.

I picked up a book at Barnes and Noble a few weeks back in search for answers to some angst I was experiencing, ignoring the silly self-help cover because the name appealed to me. It was The Age of Miracles, by Marianne Williamson. I bought it because its first few pages resonated deeply with me, mentioning as it did much of what I have been trying to figure myself during the past two years, a period many have termed my Mid-Life Crisis. I prefer to think of it as a time of necessary growth and acceptance and have not developed an easy label to describe it, but suffice to say it has been a very reflective time and I value having had the luxury to take it.

Anyway, sulking over the loss of a close friend, I came upon a passage where Ms. Williamson describes a relationship with a younger person in which there was what she calls a "built-in time limit." Such a limit, she says, "seems terrifying at first, until I realized, but isn't that what death is?"

Of course, I thought. Every end is a kind of death, our inability to deal with it a denial of that death. She went on talk about the deep learning this relationship brought and warned that "the only thing that can ruin such an experience is when someone doesn't know how to let what happened in Paris be simply that."

That's it, I thought. I have never been good at letting go of Paris. But I am learning. To do so, I am hosting a lovely French student, here in New York from outside of Paris itself, for an 8-month stint as he helps Human Rights Watch watch the atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a period where, I hope, we can gain much from one another and walk away without despair but with great joy at the experience. I hope to understand more from him about how to deal with the eventual independence of my own young boys, who are every day bigger and bolder and more assertive in their own reasons for being. I have to be able to help them as they too struggle with the idea of impermanence.

"I am happy," Eli tells me yesterday as he reads a book for his homework, in the late afternoon, after a long, trying day, the first day of third grade.

I am so thrilled to hear that he is happy on what can be a day of difficulty.

"Excellent," I said. "Why are you happy?"

"Because," he said, looking up from his little paperback, "if an asteroid hits the earth, it will probably only kill a million or so people..."

Um...huh? I am lost but I pretend I am with him.

"So, you are worried about asteroids and the fact that it won't kill us all, but just a million of us, makes you feel happy?" I said.

He looked pleased, understood, as he nodded. "Yes," he said.

"Well, honey, I know you're worried about asteroids and such," I said, walking over to stroke his thick dark hair, remembering vividly his his sheer panic as we watched Cosmic Collisions at the Planetarium, "but it is pretty much out of our control, so I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about it. Just enjoy..."

"I know," he said, back already to his reading, to making the best of things in his own way.

Does he know? Do I? I hardly think so. But all we can do is try.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

No Answers

There are a lot of things I don't know, I'll admit it. The hardest thing is being a parent and trying to answer questions you don't know the answer to without making your kids think you're a total idiot. Even if you are, it doesn't feel great for a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old to look at you with disdain, with a look that says, "there must be an answer, how could you not know it?"

The other day, traversing the more touristy parts of lower Central Park with my boys, Eli, looked up at the zillionth person he'd seen that day in passing and then at me and asked pointedly, "Are we special Mommy? Or are we just average?"

I thought about the question and about the possible answers. I guess I could have asked him why he asked, but I assumed it was because we were in a crowded place, which always makes me wonder where I fit in the scheme of things, makes me feel insignificant unless, of course, I think of myself as special. Now, I could have gone with my gut instinct and answered, "Yes, of course we are special! Us, average? No way!" But it rang false inside my head. Didn't we only think we were special because we are special to ourselves? All the people walking toward us probably felt they were special too. Were they? Were we? By definition, not everybody can be special. But what is the criteria and who decides? Like a gold star, the moniker is given out willy nilly, passed along in moments that seem meaningful and personal, to someone in particular. Sometimes there is agreement among many, as in the case of some celebrities, Meryl Streep high among them. But rarely is there consensus. People love to debunk the "specialness" of stars. When Michael Jackson died, a lot of people cried out, "Why should I care? Why was he any more special than I am?"

Of course, I want my kids to feel special, but I don't want them to be spoiled or braggy or to act better than other people even if they happen to possess skills in something that puts them on the winning side. I am conflicted about how to handle this subject, very.

Luckily, as I pondered, clueless, we got to our destination, to lunch on the cheapy side of the Boathouse Cafe where Eli had remembered having a great cup of Chicken Noodle Soup, his favorite. I was off the hook. I never actually got around to answering the question. I might have to buy him a book or write him a story about how to think about such a thing, a moralistic piece like The Ugly Duckling or Elmer. Somehow it's easier when we can talk about a subject using an anthropomorphic animal as the example rather than ourselves. It's one thing to say, "See, Elmer is a special elephant because he is patchwork, all those other elephants are boring and the same, they're average," and a whole other to say, "See, you are a special kid because you're FILL IN BLANK HERE and those other kids in your class, they're just average..."

Kids have enough ways that they are told they are special or just average in school, and I think it's so hard, no matter where you fall on the spectrum. Competition is always making winners and losers out of people, even a group where everyone is trying. I hate that. I know it is the way it is and therefore, sadly, has to be most of the time, but it's one of the many reasons I am finding it hard to gear up for the school year. Summer and its randomness puts everyone on somewhat equal footing. At camp, it seems, there is less grading and more focus on everyone being gung ho.

After lunch, we wandered across the road to a shaded area under the trees, within earshot of some pleasant live music and within sight of the remote-controlled sailboats. We lazed there for a bit, then got up to rent a boat. As we walked along, we saw some dragonflies. I, as usual, got excited. They have over the last couple of years become my symbol, my sign that I am in the right place at the right time. If I see one, it is a revelatory moment, but revelatory of what I often can't figure.

Eli, again, called me out for answers I don't have.

"Why do you get excited when we see dragonflies, Mommy, when we see them all the time?"

I thought about it. Really, I thought, it's a matter of faith. I want to believe so desperately in something and I am so often disillusioned. In an uncharacteristic placement of spirituality over practicality, I have chosen to imbue dragonflies with meaning, to imagine that they are saying something about what path I should take, about the meaning of life, not just anybody's life, but mine alone. Can I say this to an 8-year-old? Should I really be saying this to myself? Isn't it stupid?

Luckily, we came upon the source of our musical enjoyment, a trumpeter and a saxophonist playing out of a "Loser's Music" book, and the kids were dying to pay them some money, to be early benefactors of the arts. I'm all for that so I dug out some dollars. Saved, again, from trying to explain to my progeny what I myself cannot even answer definitively, what I don't think anyone really knows. What books can I buy them about faith? Can I use the upcoming Jewish holidays as a metaphor for overall meaning, for why things we don't really know anything about become signs and symbols for why our lives have meaning, why we should be allowed to feel "special," dare I even say, "Chosen?" It is complicated. Why can't it stay summer forever? I like the distractions of not having to say anything for sure, of just trying in little ways each day to find some joy.