Monday, November 30, 2009

Music Can Make a Difference...

I've traded lizards in the bathroom for my regular life. But I am not so bummed as usual after a trip to be back in Brooklyn. I was looking forward, despite my amazing time away, to get back to giving out gold stars. I hadn't brought any for the lizards or the monkeys, would that I had. The monkeys would have liked them I bet.

My opportunity to get back to work arose easily this morning, as a woman sat down across from me in Parco with her beautiful baby dressed cozily in lime green wooly pants and a patterned sweater. I coveted the outfit.

"But, really," I said, "I don't think I could pull off those pants even if I had them...I'm gung ho about a lot of things that might not be age appropriate, but some things, I've discovered sadly, are best left to the little girls!"

The mom was herself stylish in a patterned headscarf and cool booties not dissimilar from her daughter's leather slippers, shoewear she chose purposefully to relieve her bunions, for comfort, but, it seemed, their purple hue didn't hurt. They were fun. I liked them. I liked her. I liked her even more when she told me, appreciatively, that her daughter's pants were made from sweater sleeves someone, not her, had sewn together.

For some reason, the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the pants reminded me of Costa Rica, of the people there who used everything around them to create things of great beauty, among them shell necklaces, rings made of coconut casings, even magnets of angels where the glittery wings were drawn on the backs of beer wrappers. I will think of that beautiful magnet I didn't buy forever, more probably than I would have noticed it on my fridge...

We started talking about Costa Rica and my new friend, an Australian it turns out, was anxious to hear about it, anxious to go if she could find the time and money.

"I know," I said, "I am so grateful to have had the opportunity and now I would think harder about making it there on my own because it is really so amazing."

I asked her what she did. She is, it turns out, a freelance violinist sometime music teacher, although the nursing child on her lap and the older one she had dropped at kindergarten nearby made giving lessons harder.

The musician life is a hard one, I know from many musician friends, but less hard here, in New York with its multitude of opportunities than back home in Australia, she said. She talked with appreciation of her native land, of the great candor of the people, the ease of life, but New York is home because of the music scene and, partly she said, because of a societal phenomenon she noted about Australia where "you cannot move beyond a certain level without people criticizing you, trying to bring you down."

She called it the "Tall Poppy Syndrome."

I laughed. "Isn't that true here, too?" I asked. All you have to do is pick up any tabloid or Star magazine to see how we rake successful people over the coals. It seems everyone wants to make sure their people stay humble, to prevent them from feeling too good. Wikipedia offers that the "Tall Poppy Syndrome" is in fact not unique to Australia, but is a pejorative term used in the UK, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada as well.

No matter who people are, where they are from, there are always many things, cultural or personal, syndromes named or not, that can prevent them from reaching the soaring height of their potential.

I invoked "Walk the Line," arguably one of the best movies ever, which I watched on the plane home last night for the third time. In it, Johnny Cash is portrayed as having felt like a murderer for the death of his brother. But, like most great artists, he was able to turn that feeling into art, into beautiful music, into lyrics that outed his innermost secret prisoner. He wrote as if he was in a literal prison, recorded his most popular album amongst the prisoners there. He had escaped, finally, it seemed, through his love for June Carter, through her love for him, and felt maybe his music could help others.

My musician friend got her star for helping me explore the different ways in which I can offer my own kids the chance to express themselves and their feelings through music, through the often unconcious emotional expression of their fingers. It would be nice if they had some way of escaping anybody who tries to pull a "Tall Poppy" on them, wherever they are.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Rafting Through the Past...

Visiting Costa Rica offers a valuable lesson in globalization. The lessons here, unlike in America, are learned very personally. They mean the difference between being able to get a cell phone or not. The centralized government is loathe to give up control of its land, but the decision means that the people here, mostly opportunistic service providers, are often stuck in their rustic open-air homes waiting for phone calls instead of out and about, plying their trade or drumming up business. They are severely limited by their government's decision, by the monopoly it holds over the bulk of major infrastructure. But, our rafting guide pointed out to us in the van across bumpy roads, the electricity might be spotty, but everyone gets it, everyone. With competition would come better service but, as in America, it would come at a price. It would create a set of haves and have-nots. It is what most of the world aspires to, but it is sometimes sad.

We passed a palm tree plantation, which we were told replaced bananas as a cash crop a while back. The palm oil expressed from the little fruits is exported for soaps, makeup and foods, though McDonald's use of it for fries was a debacle, exposed in Supersize Me as not such a healthy thing.

On the way to the rafting, we walked with a friendly Rotweiler through a spice farm, smelling local varieties of cinnamon and mint, vanilla beans, clove. Even our pit stop was exciting, open as the third wall was to the jungle.

We made it to our launch spot and got suited up for our rafting adventure, complete with helmets, clearly to protect us from the large boulders should we fly out of our little rubber raft. The kids started to get slightly nervous as we were instructed on survival tactics including how to grab the rope or how not to panic should we get stuck underneath the boat. Hmmm. Was this too risky an endeavor, we all began to wonder?

The minute we hit the water, though, we knew it was worth it, whatever the risk.

"This is awesome!" Oscar yelled from the back.

"Woo hoo!" Eli yelled as we hit the rapids, got drenched with the whitecaps as he ducked down for safety.

None of us fell out, though we did stop along the way to take a little float down the rapids. It was the only time the rope was necessary. Our navigator, Nacho, was expert at avoiding rocks, guiding us when exactly to paddle out of harm's way. Amazing. A cow watched us from the side of the river and we glided along, flying almost as freely as the baby blue heron we followed.

Eli shook his head at one point, as we compared it to a now-closed water ride at Coney Island. "No," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity..."

I smiled. Hopefully we will have more opportunities to do this but maybe not. It is certainly very special.

Finishing up with the rapids portion, we glided down the river toward the sunny skies ahead, the rains having held off for the first afternoon in months, Nacho told us. We were lucky.

The surrounding setting was spectacular.

"It looks like prehistoric times," Oscar said. And, though we laughed, it seemed almost true. We had heard, in fact, that the sound of the Howler Monkeys, in reverse, was the sound used for dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and, looking around, all of a sudden, it seemed we had been placed on the set of Land of the Lost.

I felt sad suddenly, imagining a McDonald's on the corner, a Starbucks where only tin-roofed huts now stand. Globalization, hopefully, will be kept at bay, the economy here kept afloat by catering to those of us enmeshed in the muck of modernity, offering us a bit of the simplicity of the past in the present.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Monkey On My Head

The boat ride through the mangroves today was awesome. It seemed, potentially, a fated mission, the van that came to pick us up having gotten stuck in the muck well below our house. Finally having arrived at the little covered boat, the guide and his assistant seemed unable to get the motor started. Impatient New Yorkers that we are, we weren't as relaxed as they seemed to be, these mellow Costa Ricans, but we held our tongues and our reward was final movement down the murky estuary, spotting in the reeds a variety of egrets, crabs, kingfishers and, even, a crocodile.

We had been promised that monkeys would play with us on our boat and the promise was kept. Capuchin monkeys leapt from the trees onto the tin roof of our boat and in at us, searching for the bits of banana the guide carried in his hand, gave to us to feed the hungry happy monkeys. We took turns, those of us that wanted to, starting with Eli, sitting with the monkeys on our head, on our shoulders. I was ready to take one home. They licked their fingers from the banana mush we fed them. They seemed so much like us. I think, though, they are happier here than in Brooklyn, jumping from tree to tree.

The boat went on after the monkeys had receded into the trees, continuing down a narrow path where we followed the ringed kingfisher through the trees, spotted so many red-legged crabs on the mud walls of the narrow channel. The kids were gripped, taking pictures, looking through binoculars, amazed at nature in all its glory. It was quite the show.

We finished up and were treated to another typical Costa Rican lunch of rice and beans and a protein of one's choice. It was only noon but we needed our siesta. Arriving back at home, there were a variety of workers gardening around the pool. We felt bad, the Ugly Americans at play. My sister-in-law spoke to them, offered them drinks and found out they work seven days a week for very little pay. One of them turns 70 tomorrow, works still to keep himself and his family fed. There is no government safety net here, it will be hard for him to get any social

It was a bit of a wake-up call, the harsh reality of what it's really like in a place that, while on vacation, seems blissful and easy. I wished a gold star would help. Maybe the beer did, I don't know.

We went and bought some things at an open-air market, some trinkets, some souvenirs, and we barely haggled. It seemed disgusting somehow to make people offer their hand-made goods for less when so many who have done so little are able to command more. I happily snapped up some local jewelry and t-shirts and such as gifts, buoying the economy as I did. A little green goes a long way toward assuaging guilt.

I Could Just Eat Rice and Beans...

I think, being here in Costa Rica, how easy it would be to slip away from regular life, how easy it would be to just sell everything and come back here to live simply, on rice and beans and plantains and the occasional bit of chicken or beef.

My little one, Oscar, is nervous. I keep mentioning this to him, how we might just stay.

"We are not moving!" he says.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because we like Nick and Tracy so much," he says, imbuing our nice next-door neighbors. Somehow, in our house, they have come to represent all that is good with our neighborhood, with our life. I laughed.

"OK, why else?" I asked.

"Because I'd miss our house, my school, my friends..."

"But we would make new friends," I said. "We could hang out with Elmer, for example," I suggested, referring to the funny young man who had been his "taxi" across the zip line. "We could do the zip line all the time..."

This gave Oscar pause. Maybe the idea of moving here wasn't such a bad one after all.

"OK," he said, "but just for the summer. Or for one month, that's it."

I smiled. "OK," I said, "that's it."

I want my kids to be flexible, more flexible than I was at their age. It's taken me an incredibly long time to feel comfortable outside my comfort zone, to be able to imagine the possibilities outside arm's reach, to be able to get on a plane and get off again somewhere else and not feel completely confused and disoriented.

There are bugs here, ones with strange antennae that are scary for no other reason other than that you don't know what they do, if they're harmful. But we have learned in just a few short days to walk right past them, to ignore them, to ignore the possibility that they could harm us, even if they could. Or, we have even learned to stop and look at them, to appreciate their strange beauty.

We were shown a poison dart frog from Ivan, our Canopy Tour guide for the zip line. He picked up the flourescent-green frog from the forest floor as it attempted to hop away. Eli was amazed, had his hand raised immediately having read of the frog's lethal aspects. But Ivan knew how to hold it, knew that it can only hurt you if you touch it a certain way when you have an open wound. Then, it can put its poison right into your bloodstream, it could possibly kill you.

I feel here that people have so much more to fear than we do back home and yet they are unafraid. The power goes out and they shrug, waiting patiently the minutes or hours it takes for the powers that be to get it back on. They don't know why it goes out, why it goes back on, and, really, it doesn't matter. Maybe they feel, like I used to at the office, that it gives them a necessary break they might not otherwise have taken. Here, though, I'm not sure they need the forced break.

Our contact at the rental office for our house, a former Raiders football player, saw my sister-in-law and I up at the market and offered us a ride home. He stopped, momentarily, at his office.

"I just need to drop off this ice and beer," he said. I love it. Why not drink and work? Why not? It's a nice mellow life here. Tourism abounds, despite the supposedly depressed U.S. economy if not because of it. Latin America is a great place to put it all in perspective, to recognize how little you need, how much you have.

A little cafe up the bumpy unpaved road tells on its menu the "cliche" story of its owners, an American couple who kicked off the shackles of their old life and moved here years ago to roast good coffee and serve it to the mostly American tourists who come to visit Manuel Antonio park. The signs are all in English, offering up crucial information such as how coffee and souvenirs like locally-made soaps can be shipped straight back to the U.S. As I sat at a table speaking rusty Spanish with my El Salvadoran sister-in-law, we were alone among the patrons in our language choice. The staff was local but they do take dollars if one doesn't have local currency, colones.

Six months here, my sister-in-law tells me, and I would be speaking Spanish like a champ. Oscar will not allow me that long, I think. We'll see. He may change his mind after we go rafting or ride horses on the beach...Maybe those things will even edge out the niceness of our Brooklyn neighbors, maybe.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Zipping Around Like Monkeys...

I am so proud of my kids, my nephew, my brother-in-law, my husband and myself. I would give us all gold stars if I had them. Today, we all harnessed up, donned helmets and zipped across the rainforest, hundreds of feet in the air, on metal wires, mostly smiling even if we were scared. Amazing. I would have been petrified at 6 or 8, even at my nephew's age, 10. I might even have been petrified myself a few years back, before I decided I needed to learn to be fearless so that might children might also learn, earlier than I did, to do cool things even if they seemed scary.

I love Costa Rica. I'm definitely ready to move here, at least for a time, though my kids are not. They love our neighbors, our friends, our life in Park Slope. So do I, but the pace here, the people, the fresh fruits...I'm sold.

We were awoken, all of us, around 4 a.m., to a sound that seemed like it could be nothing else but some sort of murderous pack of wolves after having finished eating my children. My hubby hopped up, looked out the window.

"I thought I heard something..." he said, half-asleep.

"I heard it too," I said.

"I'm going to check on the children," he said, heading out the door in his underwear. He was back in a second, the sound having sounded again, seemingly right outside our door.

Next thing, our sons had come to us, run down the stairs, deathly afraid in their tree-house of room, open all around except for some screens and a few sliding doors.

The sounds continued, every few minutes for the next couple of hours. We never really went back to sleep. How could we?? Turns out, they were Howler monkeys, known by locals in Costa Rica as Congos because they look like gorillas rather than monkeys. They made up for waking us up in a panic by the show they put on for hours as they jumped around the trees with their babies along with Capuchins and a few Titis.

None of us in the house will soon forget the sound we heard, as if in a nightmare, a sound that resonated like we had died and gone to Hell. It is no surprise that Eli has asked to sleep with me tonight, despite his knowledge that the evil sound came only from the cute jumping monkeys he joyfully watched through the binoculars over the railing of the fourth floor open-air living room.

Hopefully, he will be too tired from the day's activities to worry. I have promised I will now know better than to be afraid and will come and get him should the monkeys make their scary sounds again in the morning. They are starting now, though, before 8:00 p.m. Uh oh. I cannot complain, though. It is amazing to learn about nature firsthand. Even Eli can appreciate it.

He looked at me this morning, wide-eyed, having pulled the binoculars away from his eyes for a moment, away from the monkeys.

"I am learning so much, not even from reading!" he said. Three-dimensional experiences are truly a gift, one I am so happy my children can appreciate, one I appreciate immensely.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Slow as a Sloth

I am writing from Central America, Costa Rica to be exact, Manuel Antonio Park to be exacter. I forgot my gold stars, too bad because there were so many opportunities to reward airport workers, but I didn't think the concept would translate. I don't know if Costa Ricans get gold stars as kids, in school.

Without the stars, I am still trying to be friendly, even to the car rental guys who, after our long flight and long wait at customs yesterday, had clearly lied about having cars with automatic transmissions, then added insult to injury by offering sweetly to give us a 4-wheel-drive for no extra charge. Turns out those are all they really have to traverse these often unpaved mountain roads. When they charged us extra, then, for necessary insurance, I smiled sweetly.

"Really, is there nothing more you can do to make up for the fact that I now have to drive stick-shift, which I haven't done in years?!"

The man behind the counter smiled just as sweetly back. "You see," he said, "we have a monopoly here...so there is nothing I can do..."

I threw my head back and laughed. Awesome. I do love honesty. It would have been a perfect gold star moment. I continued to banter, then, making fun of everything the man said with the response, "Well, you do have a monopoly..." My joking managed to encourage him to bypass the invisible dictator and offer to waive the $5 extra driver charge, which we weren't sure we needed since my husband has never driven stick and was unlikely to learn in this small, mountainous country, especially with me as the teacher.

Turns out, the nearly four-hour drive to our house was not a nightmare as I began to fear as the rental guy walked me around the car showing existing bumps and scrapes and smilingly telling me, Miss Gringa, about the random police blockades, the flashing lights to warn about dangers such as animals in the middle of the road, and the looooong wait should anything actually happen to our car and we should attempt to get help.

Once out of the rental lot, though, imagined fears put aside out of necessity, it was amazing, even despite my burning rubber as I remembered, with some difficulty, the delicate balance of clutch and brake and gas. We saw along our path a rooster, a rainbow, herds of skinny cows and a man sleeping in the dirt right off the road waiting, interminably I guess, for a bus. There were tons of open-air bars promising yummy fruity drinks and stands selling local fruits and veggies. I was ready after a half an hour to give up Brooklyn life for this, for something simpler.

We finally got to the house, an amazing, open-to-the-ocean five floor extravaganza, and the drive seemed even more worth it, so, too, my mother-in-law's months of nervous e-mails as she prepared us and herself for her 70th birthday extravaganza. The place didn't just meet, it exceeded expectations. My father in law was sad to hear I'd forgotten my stars.

"This house," he said, "deserves a gold star."

Definitely. Especially today, in the morning light. I stared behind my mother-in-law at something in the tree and later recognized it as two sloths, embracing. Monkeys danced over our heads, over the little pool, putting on a show we joked came as part of the deluxe package. Lizards live in our bathrooms and, as we sat by the pool, hummingbirds flew about, along with butterflies of various sizes and colors and a red-tailed dragonfly, who circled over me for hours and then, finally, sat on a large leaf right by my head, so close I could see its tail pulsating. Amazing. I'm sold. I am certainly meant to have come here, to this fabulous place. I may never leave, despite the spotty Internet service. My daily blog is harder, but I will try, I will really try.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What You Get When You're Expecting...

Expectations are a dangerous thing in that they mostly require action not from oneself but from an uncontrollable Other. Or, worse, a group of Others. Good luck, I say. I say it many times a day to many people, often in the form of a gold star and, most of all, to myself. It is hard work to give up expecting that someone other than yourself might be able to fill whatever hole you have and, at the same time, hold on to the hope that must accompany forging any relationship, lasting or brief.

The other day, a friend of mine working at a local cafe was in a funk, ready to go home just an hour or two in to a five-hour shift. Bummer. Her spirits were deeply dampened. She had shown me, days earlier, an amazing hand-drawn book she had created to give to a new friend with whom she had shared a special time. The book depicted the two of them connecting. It was beautiful.

"How did your friend like the book?" I asked.

She scoffed. "Fine, I guess. I made another one, for another friend. I don't know why I'm so nice to people...they don't deserve it," she said.

I laughed. "Obviously, you didn't get the reaction you wanted or expected," I said.

"Never," she said.

I couldn't help myself. The therapist just under the surface surfaced.

"Ok," I said. "Now, wait. What's your sign?" I don't know why I asked, I know little about all but a few signs, my own and a few of the people I find myself drawn to. She was a Sagittarius. I had nothing for that, but no matter. I knew from her disappointment some of her defining characteristics.

"Look, you obviously give because you like to. My guess is that you find people again and again who take from you and disappoint you..."

She stared up, thinking, then looked right at me. "You're right," she said. "I always find myself around selfish bastards."

"Exactly," I said, "that's what works for you, for some reason. So get over it...you love making the books, you love giving them. My guess is you wouldn't know what to do with someone who responded the way you say you want someone to anyway."

She laughed. "You're right."

Aah, my favorite words. I gave her a gold star for pondering deeper, looking a little at what her role in a disappointing situation might be. It is, after all, the only role she can control.

Yesterday, I had a similar conversation with a friend whose family is coming apart at the seams. She sighed deeply as she went to sign off on a long conversation about what people were and were not capable of giving.

"It's fine," she said, "I'm done expecting things from people..."

I laughed. The tone in her voice, the deep disappointment, gave her away. She was lying.

"That was half-hearted at best," I said. "But, you know what? You do have to make your peace with the fact that people only can do what they can do..."

"I'm trying," she said, pausing a moment before adding, "I need a gold star!"

I need to put a star on my cell phone, to text them to people in those moments. I did it once for my husband and it was surprisingly effective. I needed one then. I gave her one, verbally. Would that it helped...

It is amazing how many times a day, how many times a week, people shake their head and say, "I'm trying," or even, "It hardly seems worth it to try..."

So often it is in conjunction with what they are doing not being appreciated by others, what others are not doing.

This morning, for example, at Parco, I ran into a great lady, a professor of psychology, headed to work. She has three classes to teach today.

"Yikes," I said, "so are your students enraptured by your lectures?"

She rolled her eyes. "Right. It's a horrible year."

"Oh no!" I said, looking at her with sympathy, "I'm so sorry!"

She met my eyes with her own, filled with gratitude. "Thank you," she said. She needed a little sympathy. Her students are more on the remedial end and, she said, "With the economy being what it is, a lot of people just decide to go to school 'cause..."

Here she trailed off but I nodded in understanding. I've thought a lot lately about the gamble of higher education, the question of whether the investment is sound. The jury is still out. Like with so many things.

"College is like marriage," I said, "very hopeful..."

She laughed and thought about it. "I guess it is..." she said.

"The problem is, though, with both, you only get out what you put in. You can't expect that it's just going to work out because you're in it, you can't expect anybody else to do all the work."

"Exactly," she said. She gratefully accepted her gold star and asked, hopefully, if she was going to be featured on the blog. As this was her expectation, clearly stated, and as her issue was part of a universal one I had been contemplating, I didn't want to disappoint. I didn't want to add to her burden of unfulfilled expectations. That is never my plan.

As I sat in yoga a little while later, though, a message the instructor gave us from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called "Kindness" rang true in my ears, explained a lot about the signifigance and necessity of disappointment. It explained how the emotion it brings is a driving force behind our own positive efforts.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.


Finding our way to our own kindness, regardless of how it is received, is what, in the end, will save the day, for us. I'm nearly sure of it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Getting Dumped

I guess not everyone likes me. I guess not everyone likes my writing. I guess somebody who liked me or liked my writing doesn't like me anymore. I don't know who it is. Two days ago, I had 20 followers, then I had 19.

I hadn't studied the followers closely enough to figure who it was who dropped me, but when I find them...No, really. I have to be honest: I'm bummed. But I'm also unsurprised. Not that I don't like myself or my writing, although those feelings surface at many moments throughout the day, but because I myself am not a follower of too many blogs, of others' blather. Would that I could but there don't seem to be enough hours in the day even though I am down to a mere four or five hours of sleep. I will chalk it up to that, to this person being busy, to not being able to keep up with reading my constant stream of thoughts, regardless of how fabulous those thoughts might be...

It mocks me, though, seeing that 19 where once there were 20. Even 20 isn't nearly enough, I had thought, but one less? Then, I thought, what is enough? How different would I feel if I had 1,000 or 2,000 followers? If I had 2 million and then it dropped down to 1,999,999, would I be just as bummed?

I remember listening one night to Kyra Sedgwick on Jimmy Kimmel Live at my in-laws back in September talking about being invited to a dinner with Obama. She felt great, totally cool and awesome to be invited to have an audience with the president, albeit with a crowd. It showed, of course, that she had arrived.

Well, she said, she never did get very close to Obama. And then, from another door, she saw arrive a whole slew of celebrities, among them her friend Tom Cruise.

"Wasn't Obama great?" he said.

"Um, I never talked to him," she said.

"Oh," Tom said. "Weren't you at cocktails?"

No, she had responded sheepishly, she hadn't been invited to cocktails... There had, apparently, been an A list and a B list and she had been on the B list. I mean, it was a pretty high-level B list, granted, one most people would never get to be on, but still. For her, it was a slap. She then told another story of being figuratively slapped later in the evening by A-lister Demi Moore who said, in the course of a conversation about creating a website or a Twitter name, I can't recall, "Well, of course, your actual name will be taken...but you get something close."

Ms. Sedgwick recalled with candor going straight home and attempting, first, to get her own name. There it was, untaken by any would-be worshippers. Bummer. B-list, again.

I took her point. She wasn't whining, really, she was just being honest. Fame alone won't get you there. You could always be MORE famous, on MORE magazine covers, MORE in demand. I feel that way every time I check the stats on my blog. On the one hand, I feel happy as hell that anyone out there is putting in the time to read what I have to say, that I have the nerve to even put it out there. And yet, on other days, I feel like a complete dope that my endeavors, after nearly a year, have brought me only a few handfuls of "fans" daily.

I fear it will always be this way. That's life. If I publish a book, or two, or a hundred, if I somehow jettison to fame and fortune, it will still be this way. I am under no grand illusions. You are only as good as you feel about today's project. That is why it's important to keep working, to keep striving, to keep trying, to make your goals more general than fixed. Goals have to be about how you can keep yourself feeling good, not just how you gain outward acknowledgment.

Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, touched on this back in 1903. He wrote to the young man desperate for his and others' approval of his work:

You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

Such advice both buoys and stymies me. It is much easier said than done but it cannot be otherwise. You can only move forward to where you want to go on your own momentum, not on the fleeting momentum that others might bring. The gold star can only work if you let it, if you feel deserving inside yourself.

Meanwhile, as I try myself to find myself deserving, please consider becoming a follower:)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Full Mouth Kisses, Really?

I almost never watch TV, not even at the gym, unless it's music videos. I love VH1's top video countdown. It keeps me current. TV is mostly depressing, an opportunity, I guess, to feel better about the more pathetic aspects of our own lives because those we watch seem even more pathetic. Books are the same, but, somehow different, more thoughtful just by their very nature.

Yesterday, though, I was not feeling it on the treadmill. Running has, sadly, become a chore indoors after a mere 10 or 15 minutes, a problem since I hate running in the cold, have ever since I was a kid playing soccer. Even in Arizona, my ears froze. I remember it all too well to do it willingly, for sport.

The video countdown over, I was forced to channel flip. After a moment I hit pay dirt: old episodes of The Family Feud. I hadn't seen it in years. As I watched, buoyed enough by the find to increase my pace to 7 mph, the host, Richard Dawson, walked up to one of the female contestants and leaned in sexily to give her a full-on-the-mouth kiss.

As I watched, open-mouthed, laughing, I remembered watching the semi-drunk-sounding Englishman plant those warm, wet kisses on every woman who came on the show. It had been a while. It took me by surprise. I started laughing, loudly. I looked around, but most everyone was plugged in, and no one at the Y cares anyway.

Wow, what a kisser. His whole body language as he leaned in toward the ladies, the way they responded as if they hadn't seen him do it to a million women before them, as if they were special. It was a spectacle to behold. I watched further just to see it again. The next woman, with the family across the way, got an equally juicy kiss, puckering up just like her opponent. Awesome. So, so cool. TV just isn't like that anymore. Reality shows are far too disgusting and other shows, mostly, far too canned. Can you imagine Meredith Viera planting one on any of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire contestants? Wouldn't happen, which is a big reason these shows leave me cold. There is no warmth, just the promise of money. Mr. Dawson was unusual, though, even for his day, even for the mid-70s. He was amazingly charismatic, seemingly helped along by some or another substance.

As I left the gym, still laughing at the memory of his full, near open-mouth kisses to all the ladies, I got curious about Mr. Dawson. Was he still alive? What was his real life like, after Hogan's Heroes, after Family Feud?

Apparently, a google search unearthed, he is alive, in his late 70s. Among his listed nicknames are The Kissing Bandit and Kissyface. He was always very popular with the ladies. In 1981, Mr. Dawson kissed a contestant, 27-year-old Gretchen Dawson, and the sparks must have flown more than usual. The two became an item, marrying a decade later. This girl obviously knew the power of her man's kiss. During the second run of Family Feud, she demanded that he stop the full-mouth kisses, in fact, that he stop kissing altogether. Maybe that's why the show wasn't as popular!

I am always in awe at the dynamism of people, of the spark that makes them stars. I have, in my time in New York, seen in person the awesome energy of Sarah Jessica Parker, a couple times, bounding out of her trailer while filming Sex in the City, bounding in past me into an antique store. I've seen George Clooney in full charm mode, Chris Noth, larger than life, sweeping into a crowded cafe then out again, David Sedaris, playing it sarcastically straight. These folks are amazingly able to comport themselves comfortably even in the face of celebrity, not at all an easy task. It takes a strong, strong soul. Gold stars to all these guys, gold star, especially, to Richard Dawson. Awesome work. Simply by watching such people, listening to them, we have to smile, to laugh. That is no small thing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Inside Yourself

I always love those articles about what’s inside some celeb’s purse or in their fridge. I stare at what’s in someone’s grocery cart all the time, looking down at their choice of cereal, then up into their faces, trying to make a connection between their choices and who they are. What we choose, what we buy, what we collect says pretty much everything about us.

This morning, a get-it-together Monday, I was going through my little wristlet that has come to replace my larger wallet, carrying only the essentials. As I sorted, throwing away receipts from the nail salon, from Daffy’s, from restaurants, from the copy shop, from the computer repair place, I began to get an overwhelming sense of self: this was my life. I began to sort with more conviction.

Ah, yes, I do hit a lot of cafes, as my Naidre’s punch card and my Red Horse CafĂ© card show. I love art, carrying with me at all times my membership cards to MOMA and the New Museum just in case the spirit should move me or I should need to find the spirits that might help me move. Cheese, too figures large, would figure larger if I let it. My Murray’s Cheese frequent buyer card doesn’t have too many punches and my gym card is well worn, which is why I’m lighter than I used to be. My Borders Rewards card shows my love of books, though I am nowhere near a Borders. I don’t have a Barnes & Noble card because I am always too cheap to spend the money they require to save, short-sighted I know. There are three MetroCards, likely all with insufficient fare.

Next up are the many business cards of people I meet daily who I hope can be useful to me or who I can be useful to in some way. There is a woman I met and like a lot whose business is “Personal Transformation and Healing for Women.” I have been trying to connect with her for a while, to utilize her necessary services. Another is for a great woman whose business is Cyber PR. Definitely need her, too. There are a slew of production types, ranging in specialty from music to photography. Life, I said recently, is just one big production, so we need all the producers we can get to help us stage it.

There, too, is the beautiful, ethereal card from the girl at an antique fair whose stuff I loved, I wanted to move in to her table. Her online boutique is called, aptly, “A Charming Life.”

I looked, for the first time, at the card of the doctor who had diagnosed my acid reflux and noticed that she was not, as I’d thought, an otorhinolaryngologist but simply an otolaryngologist. The rhino, the nose, was missing, not part of her practice, despite the fact that she stuck a tube up my nose. Hmmm, I thought, is that why she decided not to deal with my post-nasal drip, didn't imagine that to be the problem with my vocal chords? Because it wasn’t part of her specialty? See, titles, though I typically hate them,do say a lot in a particular setting, sometimes we need to pay attention to them.

I noticed, along those lines, that I had a card from a very confident guy I've been told by others has a very successful track record in the music business, whose card is simply his name, number and e-mail, no explanation of what or who he is necessary. I laughed, remembering a moment when a friend and I determined that his business card, once filled with explanations of what he could offer, should really just say, “Breathing.” It’s all people really need to know if you feel sure that you can offer them something.

I looked up from my sorting and saw a guy whose arms boasted a slew of tattoos. One in particular, on the arm facing me, caught my eye. It was a big heart and arrow with FAITH inscribed in the middle. I love people who have faith and here someone was shouting their belief in beliefs out loud to the world. The one below that said HEAVEN and, from the looks of it, his idea of HEAVEN was a buxom mermaid-like lady. Again, great to have faith, whatever it might be in.

“I like your tattoos,” I said to him.

A big smile spread on his previously sullen face.

“Thanks!” he said enthusiastically. “I don’t how much they say about me anymore, I got them a long time ago,” he said.

I felt slightly disappointed. “They don’t resonate with you anymore?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I guess I don’t think about it much. I used to be heavy into the tattoo culture, my ex-wife was a tattoo artist. I mean, I don’t hate them, it’s just not what I’m into anymore. They don't really matter.”

I nodded, understanding. “It’s funny, ‘cause I got a tattoo recently, my first, and people warned me against doing it because they said I might regret it later. But, you know, you’d probably never do anything if you really worried about what you were going to think about it later, as if we can ever really know…I think, sometimes, it's just about really feeling something in the moment and committing to it without worrying.”

“Exactly,” he said. “You can’t worry about it.”

“Exactly,” I said, whipping out a big gold star and giving it to him.

“Cool, thanks,” he said. “I’ll put it on my dog’s collar,” he said, motioning to the cute little Spuds dog tied up outside.

I thought about it after he left. Tattoos are like cards, but they’re more permanent. I shied away from creating business cards for two years ‘cause I didn’t know exactly who I wanted to say I was to the world at large, especially about what I “did.” But, oddly, I was very clear on putting a tattoo, of a dragonfly, in a personal place. That is more for me than for anyone else. It felt totally right, to me, in the moment, still does, I hope will forever but I am not worried about it.

Conversely, the only way I finally convinced myself to get business cards was remembering that they are, in fact, easy to change. I can tell the world I want to be anything on any given day. It is only for myself that I really have to know, that I shouldn’t be so wishy-washy. And, man, that is a tall order.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ladies In Red

When I go shopping, the stakes are high: I am searching for myself among the racks and stacks.

I have been shopping a lot lately, with the change of seasons, with my search for who I want to be right now and for the foreseeably chilly months ahead. I have been "poppin' tags" nearly every morning like a rock star, as the Rocawear brand team I once interviewed for a story referred to the concept of wearing something new every day. It is a good thing I shop, mostly, on deep discount, find a lot of stuff,free,on the street.

I love fashion. I love people-watching to check out fashion in New York. A lot of people deserve gold stars every day for their sheer bravado, for the risk they take that they could look stupid. I love it that a lot of people seem not to care. I try to be like that, but sometimes, a fair amount of the time, I opt, instead, for basic black. It's easier, quieter. I am trying to break out, to don those funky socks and tights that speak to me in the store, on others, to put on shorts and boots and rock it, but sometimes I don't have the nerve. I have more nerve than I used to since I've been going to the gym a lot, but still. I wish, sometimes, I could be even bolder.

Yesterday, a windy, blustery day with yellow leaves swirling and a light rain falling, I sat in the cafe in basic black, dressed for the gym, tucked in the corner. A young woman walked in, composed, simple black jacket over a dress, sophisticated hair and makeup and long legs of bright red tights. I smiled. Cool. I would never even think of picking up a pair of bright red tights let alone put them on early in the morning on a dark dreary day. But, you know? They brightened up the room, gave the place a shine it hadn't had, ostensibly gave the wearer a little lift. Good for her.

I got up to get my coffee and as I passed the girl, back to my corner, I stopped.

"I love your tights," I said.

"Oh, thank you," she said. Her tone was relatively flat, not so friendly and exuberant as I might have expected from a red tights wearer. But, then, I am always mistaking superficial markers for more meaningful things. I fall prey, easily, to imbuing aesthetics with more than I should.

I decided I had to give her a gold star anyway. Despite her lackluster tone, something inside her was trying to come out, at least through her tights.

"Here," I said, handing her a star.

"Thanks," she said, taking it without question or comment. I couldn't tell where she put it, I think inside her bag. She did not, as many do, put it on and wear it proudly.

I went through my day, dressing after the gym in a new/used little brown-striped skirt and a black turtleneck sweater that I funked up with some socks and boots and a cinnamon scarf I love. I thought I'd change later, to go out in Manhattan with friends, find something more nighttime, but I got lazy. I went as I was.

On the flourescent-lit train, I sat, writing in my journal, listening to my iPod, in my own world. Out of the corner of my eye, to my left, I saw a flash of red. I looked over, more closely. Yes. There they were. Red tights, same exact hue, on the legs of the girl next to me. Really, was it possible? I had thought it a bold choice in the morning, now, all of a sudden it was turning into practically a trend though my former editors would say two is coincidence, three makes a trend. Still, though, the coincidence made me laugh. I pulled my headphones out of my ears.

"I have to tell you," I said to the girl, "that I give out gold stars, and I gave one out just this morning to another girl wearing red tights," I said. "Here is one for you, too," I said, handing her a star.

She took it and smiled. "Cool," she said.

"Now, can I ask you, do you have to be in a certain mood to wear the red tights? What prompts you?"

She looked thoughtful for a second, not having mulled it over much, I guess.

"Well," she said, "there are just a few outfits I can wear them with, so if I feel like wearing those things, I wear them."

Hmmm. It was simpler than I thought. She didn't seem at all cognizant of looking daring. It was just, simply, what she did, what she felt comfortable doing. Picking this stranger's brain about her fashion habits, I missed my intended stop. I waved to her as I jumped off.

As I waited for the next train, headed the other way, it occurred to me: fashion is really all about being comfortable in your own skin. Like good actors, who have to know who they are to become someone else, we all have to be sure of who we are to make bold statements with our dress, to invite the attention that invariably comes with the donning of something bright on a dark day or in the brilliant light of the subway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Joys of Working Together

The last few days, it is clear where my faith lies: with the Tarot.

Arguably, like with psychics or astrologers, tarot card readers could seem to be dead on only because they generalize enough so that their predictions or assessments apply to most anyone. This is my skeptical husband's theory. I am of a different mind. I think there is a whole host of reasons why one's day or life goes as it does, focuses at times on certain themes, and I think that there are people sensitive enough to plug in to those reasons, to call it.

Whoever does the tarot for Facebook nailed my theme of the week: cooperation. For that, he or she gets a gold star. The last two days have been the Five of Wands and the Three of Wands, respectively, both of which speak of working with others, of having faith in others. This would be the week I needed to hear that, to believe in that.

First, the theme surfaced on Tuesday afternoon, when my son Eli's report card called him out, surprisingly to me, on not cooperating particularly well with others in study groups. He is a kid with lots of friends, always hugging people and telling them he loves them. I would think he would be very cooperative?! Think again, his teachers told us, sympathy in their eyes, as we sat across from them, vulnerable, our behinds slipping over the sides of the small,child-size chairs.

"He loves to read," the more senior teacher said, "he's always got his nose in a book. He's a very independent learner, which is great...but...We need him to be able to work well in a group situation or with another kid and he's really not that interested."

Sheepishly, as one often does as a parent, I felt fully to blame. I am the same as Eli, working best alone, efficient, not having to stop and consider someone else's schedule or thoughts or accommodate them. It is why I am a writer.

But, it turns out, as with all creative endeavors, to find any audience for my efforts, I have to build a brand, to market myself. I have tried pathetically, mostly through Facebook. I recently put together business cards and even a few silly postcards I have peppered around neighborhood cafes. But, I realized this week, just as my Tarot card reader did, that I need help. I cannot do it alone, at least not easily, not well.

As I pondered the possible foolhardiness, the hubris, of reaching out to a crack team, to a web designer, a publicist, a photographer, my Tarot card reader offered assurances by way of the Five of Wands: "Reorganization needed. Seek out others to help you in reaching goals. Listen to others' advice. Possible to rely soundly on others now to help you. Teamwork."

Hmmm, I thought. Not well written, more like a fortune cookie than a quotable philosophy, but the ideas were eerily resonant, relevant.

Okay, so maybe gathering a team might be more sound than stupid. I was buoyed as well by a conversation with a friend who wants some help crafting a pitch for a client and I thought I would like to write about her idea myself after brainstorming with her about it. It could be a great chance to barter skills. The Tarot, again, gave me trust in my instinct, albeit not in particularly precise language.

"Group dynamic capable of working together for a common purpose...growth possible if all parties have equal investment," the Three of Wands said.

Today, I put my trust in the Tarot's wisdom, the wisdom that allowed me to feel good following my own instinct, and staged a photo shoot of myself, for my new website, for the many magazines and publishers who are and will continue to come calling:) "It is important to invest in success, right?" I wrote to the super-talented photographer in a decisive, let's-do-this e-mail.

I wrote it slightly tongue in cheek but earnest all the same. As W. Somerset Maugham said, "A writer has to be both playful and serious at the same time..." Such was the theme of the day, the quote I flipped to as I sought wisdom from my favorite writer in the panicked moments before putting myself out there.

If nothing else, we all had fun, the crack team of makeup artist, photographer, photographer's assistant and my friend, the publicist. They all got big gold stars they wore on their faces, on their shirts as they coaxed and cajoled me into comfortable smiles and poses. Cooperation is key, it's the only way to move forward, even if you know not what lies on the path ahead.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Time to Ponder

Some days, most, I feel blessed at the opportunity to wander and ponder. Yesterday was one of those days, not the least because it was sunny and warm, more like spring than fall, hopeful rather than dreadful.

I met a friend for coffee at Southside, a great guy who has been out of work a year. He has now, somewhat unwittingly because he hates the hustle, become a freelance web designer, his recent clients ranging from restaurants to actresses and, "oh, yeah, a beef jerky maker."

He is trying, hard. He well deserved his gold star. He is smart, great at what he does, but not so adept at self-promotion. He'd rather just work with people he likes, barter, except that doesn't pay the bills or buy him his dream bike.

Things are looking up, though, he said. "I finally feel like I can wedge a finger through the noose around my neck," he said,acting out the gesture, a smile emerging from his scruff. "I told that to someone recently and they looked at me strangely and said 'Someone else used that exact analogy recently...'"

I laughed. Funny the phrases, the sentiments that become common during difficult times. I hadn't heard that one but I told him of a neighbor's comment, a while back, when asked how he was:

"Just clinging on to the wreckage..." he'd said. Nice. At least he was still holding on!

The beauty of having no job is that he's begun to read again, classics he never got to, comic books, anything that tickles his fancy. He is learning, about the world, about himself. It is a luxury though worries about mounting debts don't always make it feel so.

Leaving him, I popped in to Music Matters to buy 'This is It'. I was so enthusiastic about the film, about the performers, that the owner asked me if I was a dancer. I laughed.

"Not publicly..." I said, "though I will be dancing to this a lot, in my kitchen, with my kids." The last CD I bought from him was Saturday Night Fever, which I was nostalgic for, remembering the days I danced in my family room to that. I told him I related to the movie as an aspiring creative person.

"It's so hard to really put your whole self out there," I said. "Watching these people who traveled from all over the world just to dance or sing or play with Michael Jackson...it was amazing."

He smiled and nodded. "True," he said. He hasn't seen it yet. He got a gold star anywway, for carrying the CD, which he put with his other one, right on the register.

Headed home, I ran into someone I hadn't seen in a while. He had been laid off as well, more recently, and when I said I was sorry, he shook his head. "No, don't be," he said. He said he was glad for it, even though it had felt really bad right after it happened. Now, though, on unemployment for a bit, he was happy to have the time to step back and survey the landscape, to determine, without distraction of the daily grind, what he might really want to do.

I nodded, relating. "It's a great time to get creative, if you can," I said.

He is tired of working for people who want to cut corners just for the almighty dollar, who want him to care less so they can get away with being careless.

He remembered a conversation he'd had last summer with my father about the economy, about it going bust because of the sheer greed going on all around. "He was dead on," he said, "I think of him all the time..."

I laughed. My father's enthusiasm is always remembered. He's a talker, a passionate one. I take after him for sure.

We talked about the myriad of things that stop us from doing what we really want to do, of being a perfectionist and, as such, subject to the "paralysis by analysis" that plagues many who don't take Nike's advice to just do it. He is trying to strike a balance.

What should I say? I analyze constantly, it is why I write. A cousin told me today she checks out my blog occasionally.

"Wow," she said, "you think so much, I mean we all think but...by the time I'm done, I'm exhausted!"

I laughed. "Imagine being me!"

I'm glad, though, feel lucky I have this time to wander and ponder, feel glad that others who find themselves unemployed, even forcefully, see the silver lining and recognize the opportunities time and thought can bring.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Growing Friendly

Other things got in the way this week, other ideas, and I never wrote about my yoga class on Thursday. As usual, it was gold-star worthy, fuel for the body and soul.

The theme of the month at Jaya is compassion. Always a good theme, one we should all be reminded to think about often as we move through our days so stuck in our own heads, thinking of our own selves. It is easy to do these days, think only of ourselves, with jobs scarce or paying less than before for more work, and worries about even the smallest things seemingly warranted by what we hear on the news, by other scared people, all around.

It is actually a relief to think about others if we can get ourselves there, get out of ourselves. But instead of focusing on characters in a movie, in a book, on TV or other fictional places as we so often do, what if we focused on those real, living people all around us? What if we were to put our interest and attention on neighbors, friends, colleagues, waiters, barristas, fellow subway riders?

My yoga instructor suggested the idea of "cultivating friendliness," that is working to grow our level of amiability toward others, focusing on it as we would a garden so that it might blossom and bear fruit.

As I stretched and balanced, I thought about this. I am always amazed at how many people fail to even say hello in apartment buildings and offices, even people that know each other. I am shocked almost daily at how many people don't want to expend the time or energy to wave or smile. I laughed once, looking out the window of the YMCA, watching people pass move along the sidewalk, thinking what the world would be like if my dream came true and everyone went around smiling and waving all the time. It would be weird, I guess, totally surreal. Maybe not everyone is meant to be friendly, I thought, maybe it would be overkill...Or maybe it would be fabulous. Maybe, just maybe, it would lift everyone's spirits.

My husband talks often about proven research (if there is such a thing...) that shows smiling actually does lift one's mood. But you look kind of crazy if you go around smiling all the time. I know. I often do it, and people look at me like I should be committed. Granted, I am often laughing to myself, too, another "normal" person's no no.

But sometimes, a fair amount of the time, I see people coming toward me, smiling at my smile, laughing at my laughter, just as the marathoners smiled and ran faster at the cheers and smiles of bystanders. It is contagious, friendliness, if we have the courage to be friendly even in the face of frowns. It is often hard. We read things into those frowns that probably aren't there, that probably have nothing at all to do with us and are all about the frowner. When I remember this and act upon that knowledge, I can often elicit a smile or a hello from the non-smiler, non-hello-sayer. I have to admit, even I, looking to give out gold stars to all and sundry, sometimes am shy of them, though, these unfriendly people. I don't always give them the benefit of the doubt as others don't always give me the benefit of the doubt when I cave in to a surly mood.

We went to Vinegar Hill House, in Dumbo, last night for a late dinner after a play I slept soundly through except for the monologues of the male character, which followed, every time, the slamming, hard, of a door. Waiting for the bathroom after the scrumptious meal (kudos to the chef for the amazing Cauliflower Ravioli), I overheard a waiter speaking to the manager and the other waiters at the bussing station.

"They were talking about me, in the third person, and staring straight at me while they did it..." he said, amazed. "She said, 'We're going to get that, right? Have you told The Boy?'"

I laughed, interrupting. "They actually called you 'The Boy?'" I said.

He smiled, The Boy. "Oh, sorry, you heard that?" he said. I was, after all, a patron. But not one of Those patrons, the unfriendly ones who barely acknowledge the presence of the server except to get their own needs met.

I smiled. "Amazing, isn't it? The ability of some people to be total jackasses?" I said. "Sorry you had to deal with that... I waited tables for a long time, it's not fun when people are like that."

He smiled, grateful for the acknowledgement of how bad it feels to feel invisible. "It's okay," he said, "it will go along with everything else in the tell-all memoir!"

I didn't have any gold stars on me, but he definitely deserved one. I owe him. So do the people that were so unfriendly. They need to cultivate their friendliness a bit more, I'm afraid. So, likely, do we all.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Who and Where We Come From

Knowing who we are is a hard thing. I always try to help my kids define themselves because I know how hard it has been for me to figure who I am. A little help is always appreciated and I am, as their mother, a keen observer of their little selves, watching and absorbing what motivates them, why they do what they do, so I can figure them, help them figure them.

It's funny. Whenever I point things out to them that I've noticed, like that Eli gets evil when he's hungry, or that Oscar gets his feelings hurt, deeply, easily, they usually look at me hard, then hug me, or tell me that they love me. It feels amazing to be understood, to have someone tell you what you already suspect about yourself but don't feel sure about.

Gold stars give that to people in a way, give them the external OK to reward themselves for whatever it is they did that they might be proud of, that their moms might not be around to notice or maybe just never noticed, that no one has ever noticed. Why we need an external OK I'm never quite clear on, but we, many of us, seem to. I know I definitely do, all the time, much as I like to pretend I can get to self-confidence all on my own.

Maybe it stems right from the beginning, right from the birth canal. If my older son, Eli, is any indication, right from that moment of entry into the outside world, out of the womb, we look to our mothers. I remember that moment so clearly. I had waited to meet this person inside me for a seemingly interminable stretch. He, apparently, felt it too, that desire to meet me. I remember he came out crying, as one would being ripped from a warm wet place into the cold dry air. As I stretched my head up to see him, finally, I was amazed.

"He is so beautiful!" I said. The moment I spoke, he stopped crying and, I swear despite what I know about babies' lack of neck strength, turned his head quickly to see me, looked straight at me as if to say, "There she is, the woman behind that voice, that woman who will never shut up."

I was with someone yesterday, a new friend, for whom years stretched between that initial meeting and the chance to meet his biological mother again. It is a hard road, the relationship with one's mother, a hard road, too, without it. But he is a thinker, this man, his experiences, even difficult ones, obviously serving to inspire him to learn more, to understand more about the world and his relationship to it.

He told me of an experience, a rare one, not offered up to most, in which he was shown a picture of a sculpture of his biological mother, after he had re-met her. It was a nude sculpture, one in which her most private of parts was exposed rather openly. He commissioned it, the piece in the picture, the one that had been sold, from the sculptor, in bronze rather than in its original plaster, but otherwise the same. He has it in his house. I wanted to see it.

He took me to where it was and pointed. I surveyed it in all its beauty. The human form is the highest art. He stared as well. After a few moments, he spoke.

"That is the hole from which I sprung..." he said, lost in thought.

"Wow," I said, shaking my head. "That's amazing."

We are so afraid, most of us, to recognize where we came from, to peg it so directly to the hole that, in adolescence, in adulthood, seems to come to represent something else entirely, something you don't want to associate at all with your mother. On further inspection, Freudian theories taken into consideration, seeing the connection, understanding it, is crucial.

Gold star for my new friend.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Staring Failure in the Face

I gave out gold stars to a bunch of writers last night in a bar. We had all completed a writing workshop during which we turned in our most valiant efforts at poetry, fiction, non-fiction or a combination of genres. The workshop leader, for the last class, staged a "publishing" party in which she handed us all a stack of stamped envelopes and a list of online and actual print publications that might be willing to at least look at our work if not actually publish it.

While she spoke encouragingly about the "success" of others in her workshop and her own publishing coups, she was also realistic. She has a lot of rejection slips as, she suggested, will we if we truly put ourselves out there, if we try.

I grew more and more agitated as the evening wore on, the list of highlighted publications, mostly online zines or journals I'd never heard of, growing heavy in my hands. The drink afterward, with the other writers, with the workshop leader, was much needed, as was the discussion with other writers, many of whom I didn't know, who were in a different workshop night. At least we were all in this together, sort of, could help inspire one another to keep trying.

Creative writing is great that way, far less competitive than journalism. There was always a creeping distrust of other journalists' efforts, as if their work, if good, might be placed further up in the magazine than yours, might make the cover, while yours might get stuck somewhere unimportant, in the middle. It was a very obvious, tangible way of marking whose story was better than whose. For creative writing, for books or pieces in journals, somehow it seems a wider playing field, one in which there is room for everybody.

And, of course, then again, none of us could even make it on to the field. There is always that thought looming: there is no editor waiting on your story, calling to tell you your deadline is fast approaching or has passed. It is possible not to write anything or to write something, even lots of things, and not submit them.
That is why the whole group got gold stars. At least they showed up, tried, picked up their stamped envelopes and plan, possibly, to actually send them to some people with something inside.

One young guy, a film student, is taking himself off to a rented room in a house over his holiday break, just to write, away from it all. Another is in journalism school, trying to deal with a denigrating professor, to keep going despite said professor's rude assessment of his better lines as "labored attempts at word play."

I was reminded, listening to everyone's tales, of a conversation over the weekend with a friend, someone who recently lost a political election that dominated his life for a two-year period. I hadn't seen him, hadn't offered my condolonces at his loss. I offered them up and he just shook his head, baring, honestly, how the whole thing had left him feeling.

"I have no idea what to do now," he said. He had poured his all in to this election, really felt a driving desire to serve his community, enough to pace the streets, paper the neighborhood and surrounding areas, for months on end, ignoring all else including, much of the time, his family, who supported him fully in his efforts. A lot of money had been spent, a lot of labor expended. And for what? He wasn't quite sure.

I grasped at an answer, a solution to his regret. A gold star just didn't seem to cut it. I had given him a number of them during his campaign. Instead, I offered words.

"Look," I said, "you tried, you really put yourself out there, put yourself into the process. It's a horrible process, but you did it, and I'm sure you learned a lot. If nothing else, people know you now..."

I couldn't quite go to the idea that he should run again. I so vividly remember the race for sophomore class president, when Clint Clausen's name was called out instead of mine as the winner, over the loudspeaker, and I had to sit, all of a sudden 100 pounds heavier in my desk chair, feeling the sympathetic stares of students all around me. Never again, I had thought, never again. Then, all it had cost was a few dollars for poster boards, time glad-handing fellow freshmen who all knew me 'cause I had been freshman class president. This was much bigger, the stakes much higher but, in the end, it was the same.

Of course, he should run again, if he wants to, or shoot for some other lofty goal. We never know what will come of our efforts, but that shouldn't really stop us, should it? I bought a magnet recently that reminds me every day not to be bowed simply by outcome:

"WHAT WOULD YOU ATTEMPT IF YOU KNEW YOU COULD NOT FAIL?" it asks in all caps, mocking my fear from the fridge, making me think of what I should try next. No one, of course, is offering such a guarantee. How could they? But I know, I am absolutely positive of the need to try whatever it is you want to try, even if you are forced to face the wreaking stench of failure afterward. If you don't, you are forced every day to face disappointment from the most important person, the one who really matters: yourself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It Was a Lot...

I could see 'This is It' about a thousand times. I love Michael Jackson. He transports me with most if not all of his songs, with his movements, with the intensity that burns through to the world from his eyes, probably the only real part of his face left intact before he died.

I have always felt protective of Michael Jackson, well before he was accused of things that made much of the world hate him. He was a child thrust into an adult world, made responsible for the livelihood of thousands from an age when all kids should be worrying about is what to put on their Christmas Wish List.

I believe in some people the way I believe in dragonflies, that they were put on this earth to help show us the way. I believe Michael Jackson was one of those people. Watching 'This is It' confirmed it for me. If nothing else, because of the tears in the eyes of the dancers and musicians that were chosen by him to participate on his crowning tour, one that would have been absolutely incredible and magical, was, obviously, in the weeks or months that it was being practiced and put together.

"God, he is like an instrument," I whispered to my friend in the dark, watching him control his voice, his body so incredibly tightly. He had had over 40 years of practice to perfect these things, I remembered, but still. The fact that he kept at it, did practice, tried over and over again in so many ways to maintain the old favorites but with a twist, to develop modern messages about the environment, about government, amazes me, inspires me.

At one point, he spoke about the government. I wish I'd written it down to capture it perfectly but, essentially, what he said was, "What is this about 'them,' it's about 'us.'"

My sentiments exactly. It was another way of saying, "I'm starting with the man in the mirror." It was a shout out to personal responsibility. Obviously, that is something he struggled with, as all of us do. But it is, I believe, one of the essential messages of our time and it ran clearly, thematically, through so much of what Michael Jackson wrote.

Personal responsibility must have been a subject he could not get away from, being, as he was, solely responsible for so, so many people, both physically in terms of those he actually employed in one way or another, and psychically, for the millions of people who he inspired.

I can only imagine the head space that kind of responsibility, from such a young age, puts someone in, imagined it well as I watched the movie, watched people whose very life dreams were hinged on MJ's tour. It made me think hard, though the movie didn't show it, what a crushing blow his death must have been to them, both personally and for their careers.

The beauty, though, was that he made such an amazing impact on the world in his life with his music, with his moves. As the movie ran through a fair bit of his life's work, I was transported to different times in my life, to different emotions that the songs had evoked in me at the time, still. The beginning of "Thriller" brought me back to my friend Heather's house, where I first encountered MTV, to my friend Stacey's house with the huge TV in her den. Like now, I didn't have cable TV at home then. We watched those scary figures rise from the dead and got chills every time.

"Billy Jean" too brought me back. It had struck me as so sad at the time, the whole debacle. Little did we know what was to come...

I had forgotten about the gut-wrenching quality of his love songs, of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," and the sheer drive-you-to-dance quality of his more upbeat songs, like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" or "Beat It." I wished we could dance in the aisles. I will definitely be dancing in my kitchen, on the street, wherever, when I dowload the soundtrack today onto my iPod.

I was joyous and amazed watching the incredible artistic process at work during the film. It captured so well the meaning of music and performance to both performers and audiences alike.

But, the minute it was over, I found myself in a deep funk. There was no overt mention of his death, just a still shot at the end, of Michael in a dramatic shining pose, maybe at his unwitting last practice.

"How did he die, Mommy?" Oscar had asked me midway through the movie, running back to me from his front-row seat, urgent in his need for the knowledge.

I shook my head. "I don't really know..." I whispered. It seemed lame, not to know, but I haven't paid that much attention. I don't want to know the details if there are any known for sure. They are none of my business. They don't matter anyway. It was his time to go. It was a sad end to a most incredible inspirational life, one that will continue to impact people for a long, long time to come.

Gold star for you, Michael. You would, I'm sure, love its glitter. Gold stars, too, to the people who continue to positively push this important man's legacy of love.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Faith in the Form of a Dragonfly

Synchronicity is back. Clearly, I am on the right track, doing what I'm supposed to be doing, meeting who I'm supposed to be meeting. What other explanation is there for all these dragonfly encounters?

That's right. At the risk of sounding eerily psycho-spiritual and scaring off those who do not believe in the power of flying insects to guide one's life, I will tell you: I believe the dragonflies are watching over me. It makes as much sense as anything else, I think.

After not seeing one for a while, a dragonfly appeared overhead at the Fall Festival at my sons' school, an apparition that alleviated some of the pain of losing the pie contest:) At least I knew I was supposed to be at the festival, if not as a winner, at least to show.

Then, the other day, at my friend's house after the marathon, I saw she had a dragonfly picture up in her kitchen, over the sink.

I looked at her quizzically. "Are you into dragonflies?" I asked, hesitantly, somewhat afraid.

"Yeah, I don't know why..." she said. "I just really like them."

"Me too," I said. "Have we talked about this?"

She looked at me quizzically back. "Have we? I don't know."

My friend's unwitting interest in the dragonfly, like my own, like many others I have encountered over the last year, began to intrigue me. As usual when something intrigues me in this day and age, I turn, of course, to Google. Bleary-eyed from waking up, as I do now, in the dead of night, I typed in "Women and Dragonflies." I know, I know. I've been told for years I no longer have to type "and" into a search, but it seems wrong not to:)

No surprise, there were a number of entries I found where women had become similarly convinced of the dragonfly as spirit guide. To wit my kindred spirit at blessed2bestressed.blogspot.com. A few years back, this fellow blogger set out, like me, to determine the reasoning behind her developing fascination with anything dragonfly.

She found some answers. Where else but Wikipedia? Dragonflies, she reported, have taken on a mystical and magical symbolism in part because of how their beautiful shell colors get reflected and refracted in the sunlight. Thus, she quoted, "The dragonfly has come to be an image that inspires us to not only learn to practice the shedding and mirroring of light in our own lives, but to learn to see when others are doing it, too!"

At this point, I get the chills. It makes perfect sense. The dragonfly has allowed me to see what others are doing and appreciate it and give them gold stars!

She went on to report that dragonflies certainly aren’t limited to women, that in Native American astrology, there is a strong belief that each person has a totem animal spirit that serves as their guardians and guides through certain phases of life. Often, an individual would have many different totems throughout life, some for just a time, and some for their entire lives. And one of these totem spirits was the spirit of the dragonfly. It would adopt men and women, young and old. The dragonfly spirit, she said, means you must "consciously make an effort to express your hopes, dreams, needs and wishes."

Well, there it was. I have always, since my early days in Arizona, surrounded by Native American culture, desired a totem animal spirit. I can imagine a dragonfly whittled out of wood in my own personal totem pole to stand as a reminder to express myself nearly every day in this blog and in other ways.

Another site, called DragonflyMinistries.com, offers a more classically religious interpretation of salvation by dragonfly. There,a woman who runs spiritual Christian-based retreats for women tells the story of praying to God back in 2001 to send her a dead dragonfly as a sign. And then, days later, she saw one on the ground, lifeless.

She wrote that, "Over the next months, I would find dragonflies on days when I was feeling blue or when my heart was soaring with joy. Sometimes the dragonflies would be lifeless, sometimes they would be in flight. For me, this beautiful insect became a symbol of God's love, and brought me comfort in knowing that He was watching over and protecting me."

Cool. Weird. Faith is a funny, funny thing. It comes in so many different forms.

Feeling connected to these diverse women whose lives I knew about only via the World Wide Web, I went about my morning's business, bringing the boys to school and heading to coffee at Parco with a mission to make it a productive Monday, to hopefully find some interesting souls on whom to shed the light of a gold sticky star.

It seemed chaotic in the cafe, a couple of kids taking the opportunity to bounce around and scream intermittently. I cannot complain as I have two screamers of my own, but I did put on my headphones, zoning out until they left. Then, I took them off and was immediately rewarded with a killer quote coming from a very enthusiastic woman at the counter.

"I am out of here!" she sang. "I'm done with New York for a while, done with the whole 'artist' thing, I'm going to get my master's in Human Rights, in Italy, then going to stay in Europe for a while!" She danced as she told the barrista the tale, flapping her arms excitedly, or maybe I just imagined that, as it seemed to fit her exuberant tone.

"Wow" I said, "You totally deserve this!" I got up from the table to hand her a big gold star.

"Oh my God!" she said, "thank you! I'm going to put it right here," she said, pointing next to the "Free Aung San Suu Kyi" message on her blue t-shirt. "That's awesome!"

She sat down and we began to talk, about her work with persecuted monks under the brutal military dictatorship of Burma in which they have continued for 50 years to rape women and children, about Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a free election in 1992 and was summarily jailed.

I told her about my new French roommate who works with Human Rights Watch, about a friend who works for the National Democratic Institute running free elections in Asia.

"Wow," she said, "I was totally supposed to meet you!" I smiled. No doubt.

She was excited about leaving New York, about pursuing her passion in Human Rights. Her passion for acting had proven a hard path though she had just landed a voiceover job and, as we sat, got a call for an audition, a lucky break she credited to the gold star, touching it in appreciation and awe.

She shook her head. "Sometimes it's hard to accept that where you are is where you're supposed to be," she said. "I try, though. I'd say I appreciate it roughly 80% of the time."

I smiled. "That's pretty good, actually," I said. I told her about my dragonfly obsession, about some of my theories that seeing a dragonfly makes me feel better about accepting where I am.

She looked at me strangely. "That's so weird," she said. "I have this dragonfly pin I was just touching this morning, thinking I would give to my mom. Now," she said, "I'm definitely going to keep it!"

We said goodbye, making tentative plans to get her in touch with my roommate, to connect again. Will we? Only the dragonfly knows for sure...Cue eerie music.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Marathon Efforts

I was near tears watching runners move by me in a pack yesterday at the New York City Marathon. So many people trying, all in one place. Nearly 40,000, someone told me. Wow. 'Moving' takes on multiple meanings. I only had a few stars on me and even though by the time we got to 4th Ave., roughly mile four, the "runners" were mainly the slow jogging sort, it would have been awkward to slap stars on them. And who would I have chosen to single out? They all needed them. Even just a bit of cheering helped buoy them, made them go faster, you could tell.

A woman up a bit beyond me on the sidelines was shimmying and dancing and high-fiving passing marathoners, screaming out the names she read off of shirts, congratulating them.

"You're my hero!!" she yelled to one. "You're awesome! Keep it up!" she yelled to another.

Runners were so receptive to her, leaning in for her high-fives, smiling at her antics, moving past with a lightness to their step they hadn't had before. I loved watching it,watching her. I was going to give her a gold star but didn't want to interrupt her important work and, before I knew it, she was gone, maybe moving on to a different spot to continue her cheerleading, maybe moving on in her day. I'm sorry I didn't reach out. She could very well be a disciple. I can see her, easily, happily, handing out gold stars.

I tried to take my cue from her, doing a bit of whooping and cheering, calling out the occasional name. I tried to encourage my son Oscar and his friend to do the same. But it's not as easy as the girl beyond us made it look. It's slightly humiliating, even though you know, you can see, how much the runners like it, how much they need it. Giving encouragement to others takes a lot of effort, requires that you take yourself out of yourself and just give it your all. You have to get over the fear of looking silly. I didn't quite have what it took yesterday to give it my all.

Oscar tried, in his way. He got on my back and did bunny ears over my head.

"I think people are running faster, 'cause of my bunny ears!" he said.

He had been afraid to yell out as I suggested. "No!" he had said, adamantly, smacking me about the legs out of defiance, discomfort. He wanted to do it his way, funny, subtle, unique. Only as we turned to leave, to head back up the Slope to a friend's marathon afterparty, was he finally able to muster a "Keep it up! Good job!" backwards to the running mass at large. I smiled. Better late than never. He has a lot of time to muster up the courage to encourage others. It's baby steps, after all. I'm just learning now how very, very important it is, how much it really helps people.

The marathon is a strange thing. I thought as I watched people move past, some in great shape, some not, some smiling, some not, the guy carrying on his head a huge replica of the Eiffel Tower, the girls in bustiers made of chiffon flowers, how necessary it is for us all to have goals,something to strive for. I have heard that running the marathon takes a year off your life, not that I can imagine how anyone might have figured that out for sure. But, needless to say, running 26 miles is probably not so good for you. Yet thousands of people do it, thousands of others watch enviously, living vicariously through the accomplishment of those able to complete the difficult task, to finish something they've set out to do.

A relative of my friend's arrived at the party in his post-run foil poncho and received a warm welcome from the crowd.

"How do you feel?" he was asked.

"I felt really bad for about four miles," he said, "but I feel better now."

He looked shell-shocked. I imagined, as I watched him, that he must be in a completely different head space than the rest of us revelers, he must be in a zone of his own, having gotten there through pushing himself well past the point of comfort, well past boredom or pain. He just did it. Cool. Good for him.

I stood on the stairs as he went past, up to take a shower.

"Congratulations!" I said.

He smiled. "Thanks," he said. I gave him a gold star. I figured he could represent all his fellow marathon runners that day.

We saw the marathon winners on TV and it occurred to me that, even though the marathon is considered a "race," so few are in it to win it. They just want to cross the finish line, however possible. Few other places are you a winner just for completing the task, not for doing it the absolute fastest or best. That alone is cool. I can get behind that, for others if not for myself.

Later in the day, headed to a children's book reading in Dumbo, to reward authors for completing amazing books, their own personal marathons, I saw a runner, a man on my street, getting out of a car in his foil poncho, an outfit that, for a single day, confers a special status.

"Congratulations!" I offered as I passed.

"Thank you, thank you so much," he said gratefully.

It would be awesome if we could all don a foil poncho when we needed a little appreciation, to show the world we're really trying, even if haven't been able to muster the strength to run a marathon.