Saturday, February 27, 2010

Choosing College...or Not

I am tempted to begin my blogs these days as one does Catholic confession: "Forgive me, Father, for I have has been four days since my last blog." I give in to the temptation. Why not? Therein lies the beauty of a blog.

Today's topic, though, to go or not to go to college, and when to go to college if you do, has been swirling around in my head for days. It seems to come up at every turn, to be the reason for so many of my gold star giveaways. It's time to discuss.

It started last week with my kids, who took out the SpongeBob version of Life, a game we hadn't played in a while. Eli took it upon himself to guide his younger brother.

"First," he said, "you have to decide whether or not you're going to go to college. I'm going to college," he said definitively. "You make more money that way."

I interjected. "Excuse me," I said, "money isn't everything..."

Eli just looked at me and I think I saw a slight almost imperceptible eye-roll. He is used to this. I don't want him to take the idea of going to college for granted, to imagine it as a given. I am constantly piping up when the subject is raised to make sure he knows there is more than one way to go. He, though, as children with vocal parents often do, has made a clear-cut decision already, at 8, just to spite me: he is not only determined to go to college, he told me recently, but he's aiming for the top, he's headed to Harvard. Ugh. What have I done?

Back in the game, my children head to college and I, of course, playing devil's advocate, do not. I end up with a $400 job as a mail carrier and, opting not to live with Grandma but on my own, I also end up with a $400-a-month Clam Shell rental. Between my low-wage job and my bad luck, I am very short on cash. My progeny, however, especially Oscar, a conscientious risk-taker, confident in his moves, are loaded.

"I hope you guys are going to take care of me when I run out of money..." I joked. After briefly balking, they both proffered their hard-won $1,000 bills to help me out. I declined. "Thank you, but I'm fine right now, still holding on. Nice to know that you'll help out if necessary."

It was an amazing experience. Such are the lessons of the Game of Life: accepting money from your children feels weird, even if they have bucketfuls and you have barely enough to get by. Interesting. They, of course, in their little minds, I'm sure decided for certain that college was the road to take, seeing me as I was in desperate straits. But I'm not sure college is always the sure route, especially straight out of high school.

The other day, at an event I attended, a 40-something woman who had entered a French's mustard cook-off contest offered up the fact that she was back at college along with her kids.

She shook her head. "I wouldn't have been ready back then," she said assuredly. "Now, though, I'm getting straight A's. Oh, except for that one B..." The look on her face was so proud, it was amazing. She didn't win the $25,000 prize for her Stoplight Sausage Stuffed Peppers using French's Spicy Brown Mustard (that was offered to the creator of Onion Polenta with Spiced Tomato Avocado Salad made with both French's Cheddar French Fried Onions and French's Horseradish Mustard). She did, however, get a gold star, which she wore proudly on her sweater.

This incident came right on the heels of hearing from a friend that he had finished his graduate degree. He was a great example to show my kids, someone who has been able to get great, well-paid jobs not because he had a college degree (he didn't) but because he had the brains and the courage to take risks and go for what he wanted, and the confidence to convince others he knew what he was talking about. While working at said jobs, he finished his first degree and went on, quickly, to post-graduate work that he recently completed. He is overseas, moving and shaking, but I sent him a digital gold star. I hope he visits soon to tell my kids his story, to convince them that not every person has to take the same path to get solid results.

We have recently swapped French roommates from a young man who is in one of Paris's top university programs to his cousin, who was headed into the same program until, shortly before, he decided instead to travel and work for a while. He worked, straight through and barely stopping for a break, for a year at a Greek restaurant in London and now is planning on spending time travelling around, first taking his time to get to know New York then the larger U.S. He took advantage of the incredible snow day yesterday and wandered through magical Central Park. Now that, my friends, is an education.

This isn't a game. The outcome of Life is the culmination of many choices made. I just want to remind my kids, as I do myself every day, that decisions we make in a free country, common as they seem, are indeed still choices.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blame "It" On...

The sun hasn't emerged in days. Let me blame my bad mood on that. It's the easiest target. As a writer, I know I should delve deeper, it's never just about the rain, but today I will try to let it be, just for the day. I will put my energies toward focusing on others. It is easier that way.

In line for coffee at Red Horse, where I've come to attempt to get organized, side by side with others who use the mellow cafe as their office, it is easy to put on the good face. The barista, a fellow writer, trying, always trying, working many jobs to support her habit, asked me the usual question: "How are you?"

I laughed and put on a big, big smile. "I'm amazing, of course, as always," I said.

"Great," she said, willing, wanting to buy it, to believe.

I laughed. "Wouldn't that be awesome?" I said. "Do you think there are people who are actually always feeling terrific?"

She shrugged. "Maybe. I worked with a guy who always answered that he was great..."

Another patron piped up. "I think there are people like that, I've met them, they are just sunny all the time."

"Come on," I said, "Do you think that's really possible? Don't you think they're just pretending, putting on the good face?"

My barista friend agreed. She is a writer after all. "Don't you think they are maybe just in deep denial?"

The woman shook her head. "No, I think they are really just good all the time, or maybe...90% of the time?"

I laughed. "As a journalist, I am very skeptical of statistics, especially ones like that, that you just made up. How do you have any idea what these people think?"

"Look," she said, hands up, defending herself from my badgering. "I'm not saying I can identify. These people are not my friends...They couldn't be." She shook her head vehemently. "No, no, I couldn't relate."

I laughed then, hard, pulled, as usual, out of my blame-it-on-the-rain funk just because people are so, so funny in the ways they think. I gave her a big gold star.

I feel bad sometimes pressing people to be skeptical. It would be nice to believe life is easier for some people, that they don't feel the bumps in the road as hard as others. I think, maybe, that is true. Sometimes, if you keep busy enough, distracted enough, sometimes the bumps are easier to gloss over.

Choosing to focus on artistic pursuits, however, pretty much guarantee that the bumps will take center stage. They have to. You have to look at them, try to capture them in order to offer up relatable moments for audiences who will turn to your song, your story, your paintings in the moments they cannot but feel the roughness of the road.

The barista offered up her own personal coping mechanism. "I used to date musicians," she said, "but..." she shook her head.

I laughed. " gave them up for lent?"

She shook her head. "No, survival. If I see a cute guy with a guitar, I just try to run."

I laughed and gave her a gold star, a big one. "It's hard because musicians tend to pour themselves into their music, that's why they play..."

Funny, I had just given a gold star to a musician yesterday, a friend I interviewed about why he had begun playing music as a child in Israel, why he had come to the U.S. to try to make it here, why he was now, more often, back in Israel. He had, in fact, taken up singing and songwriting and playing piano and guitar as solace, a place to put all his childhood angst. He has worked hard since he was 8 to try to actually get paid for performing, but the road is a really hard one, try as he might. Band members have come and gone.

"It's like a marriage," he said. "It's all about ego and expectation..."

I laughed. He's not married, but he is a musician, one who creates excellent ballads. He gets it. He deserved his gold star, as does everybody who just tries, tries and tries again to put "it," whatever "it" is, maybe the rain, maybe something more real, in a place.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Can't Rulers Just Be Nice?

Doing the family hebrew homework last night, Eli had no trouble answering the question of what he thought about power and violence vis a vis a story about the Jewish holiday of Purim, where the Jews are once again saved from extinction from an evil anti-Semite. He started writing even before we could discuss it. "Power and violence are both bad..." he wrote in his little scratchy swirls, saying the words aloud as he penned them, slowly.

"Wait a minute," I said, "power isn't always bad, sometimes it can allow you to do good things."

He shook his head. "No, Mommy, you can't be nice if you're in power." He was so sure, I had to ask why. Again, without hesitation, with a "duh" in his tone, he explained.

"See, it's like in the Presidents book [a book about past presidents he has taken out many times from school and poured over,] the president after Lincoln was a bad president because he was nice to the South. You can't be nice, especially after a war, whether you win or lose." He smiled, pleased with himself. "You see? I gave you a perfect example," he said.

I shook my head. "I don't know..." I said. "I'd like to believe you can rule and still be nice."

He just shrugged, jaded at not-even 9. "Being nice is pretty good," he said, "but being too nice could really backfire. The people you're not as nice to then turn around and are jealous, they say, 'hey, what about me?'"

I just stared, openmouthed, listening to philosophies of rule by might come out of my progeny's little mouth. Shit.

I ran the whole conversation by a friend at Parco this morning, a human rights activist who once questioned if I thought it would be a good idea to give out black stars to bad people, like the kinds of masterminds of genocide that he put behind bars.

"Wow," he said,after I told the story, "sounds like you're raising a little Machiavelli." He defined the philosophy basically as my son had, that "it is better to be feared than loved because fear can be spread more evenly than love."

I get it, but I am hopeful that it is not true, that my son, smart as he is, will somehow in his own life, in his own promising political career, maybe in his future presidency (if he doesn't make it as a pro baseball player) manage to be nice and still be effective.

I did a little research on Eli's example and read about post-Lincoln president Andrew Johnson, a nice, honest man who was "no match for the ruthless Republicans." It is, sadly, still a problem good, nice politicians are up against every day, every election. Realistically, Eli is right: caring doesn't get you there or get the job done, would that it always could. But there are always jealous, violent forces to contend with.

According to an online summary of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli states that "in an ideal world, it is virtuous for a prince to be good. But in reality, princes who distance themselves from ethical concerns and do whatever it takes for the benefit of their states rule best. Therefore, it is better to be parsimonious than generous, cruel than loving, crafty than honest. Machiavelli's general rule is to be as good as circumstances allow, but be willing to resort to any means necessary for the good of the state."

Oh, how I wish it weren't so. Doesn't anybody believe that gold stars can do the trick? That black ones aren't necessary? Obviously I haven't done a good enough job if I can't even convince my own son...But then, I have no desire to rule. You know why? I just want to be nice.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Recognizing Creativity

Today I am the featured guest "artist" on Hey Brooklyn, an awesome weekly podcast featuring, and I quote, "creative people living and working in Brooklyn."

I loved chatting with the host, Amber, who I met at a book party I threw for my friend Ken. She, like me, is trying to recognize people's efforts to put themselves out into the world in one form or another, using a small sound studio off the BQE in what was once a storage unit to offer struggling Brooklyn artists the opportunity to talk freely about their passions. Definitely check it out at

It is interesting timing, the podcast, after my night last night, spent marking the closing of artist Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen's gallery show of detailed scalpel-cut paper works in Tribeca with Wanted editor John Slattery, who had featured Ms. Gregory-Gruen in the latest issue. There is on any given day so much artistic endeavor to be celebrated in New York.

The art show, on the fourth floor of an unmarked warehouse building on Leonard Street, was packed and Ms. Gregory-Gruen was a gracious hostess, explaining her intentions with the smooth, perfectly swirling cut pieces and with those that had been shot through from behind with a 12-gauge.

Sometimes, she said, you just need to shoot at things. I knew exactly what she meant. I put on pink boxing gloves instead of picking up a gun, but there are those days. I gave her a gold star, for trying. Each of the 20 or so pieces on the wall represented, she said, three- to six-months work, a lot of effort, painstaking if the exactness of them was any indication.

She took her star graciously. "Thank you," she said. "You have to just get up the energy again, and again, sometimes every 15 minutes..." Doing one's art, doing anything, isn't at all easy. She had sold some pieces, she said, but with the recession...

Even famous artists don't have it easy these days. Her husband, Bob Gruen, is a rock photographer whose shots of John Lennon on the roof of The Dakota are some of the most well-known images of the legend. The photography business has changed, though, with the advent of digital, with so many changes in technology and the world.

"Everyone is a photographer now," Ms. Gregory-Gruen said.

They live in an artist's commune downtown Manhattan that Mr. Gruen has lived in since the 70s, since well before the area was populated with $13 million condos. Being an artist in New York has changed, a lot. Pioneers are hard to come by on the main island.

"I think you need to move to Brooklyn, that's where it's at," I said. Then, maybe, she could be featured on Hey Brooklyn...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mountain High

A vacation was had. I hadn't intended to abandon the blog but there it was. Me in the Catskills with a small broken-screened computer and no plug to charge it when it died the first night of our four-night stay at Winter Clove, a.k.a. Family Camp.

I brought gold stars with me but left them back in the room in lieu of lip balm and my Blackberry, all I could feasibly carry with me on the slopes. I should have tried harder. Oh, the efforts being expended, the trying I overheard on lines for the lifts.

My favorite, the comment that could very well capture skiing as a sport, was the one out of the worn-out, ragged mouth of a mother headed out into the driving snow from the lodge at Windham Mountain:

"I HAVE SPENT $400 TODAY AND I AM NOT HAVING ANY FUN!" she screamed, probably to someone in particular but, really, to everyone, to anyone who would listen. I laughed uproariously to everyone, to no one in particular. Oh, how I wished I had stars on me. The great expense of skiing is, in fact, staggering and, sometimes, if maximum fun is not being had, it feels like a terrible, terrible waste.

Second favorite gold star worthy moment was the mother in line with her two small children, the younger a boy of about 6 on a snowboard, whining about something incessantly. She turned to him sweetly.

"Do you want to go to babysitting? Draw a little? Do a little Play-Do?" she asked lightly, airily, making it sound like a genuinely kind offer. A mumble emerged from the mini-boarder, obviously a refusal of the alternative. Jekyll turned to Hyde, sweet to narrowed-eye anger: "Then KNOCK IT OFF!" she yelled. I laughed and she looked up at me and smiled, shrugged as if to say, "sometimes you gotta do whatcha gotta do." Hilarious.

The third, another skiing-weary mother, would have received her star for her addition to my own family drama. I had, as usual, disappointed by progeny, I can't even remember how, forgetting to charge my iPod, failing to hold their glove or some other disgraceful shameful negligence on my part. Oscar chastised me loudly. "You're fired Mommy!" he said.

A mother trying desperately to put on the many layers of ski-wear on her own child looked up longingly. "Can I be fired too?" she asked.

I laughed. "Sure," I said. "Let's see how they fare on their own...They have to get there eventually, right? We can't quit, but if they fire us..."

She just sighed. No such luck. Ah well. Another day, another dollar, lots of them, spent trying to have fun...

I joke, but skiing with the kids was awesome, despite its trying moments. Both my boys deserve big gold stars for their bravery, their (mostly) smooth sailing down mountains on thin, slippery sticks. Oscar, who never left the pen last year learning simply to stand on skis without falling, asked me before we left on the trip this year, "Is skiing scary Mommy?"

I paused. Hell yes! I would have said if I hadn't stopped and thought about it. But I knew that was the wrong answer. His expectant eyes told me I needed to come up with something better if I hoped to see him skiing any time soon, or ever.

"It's FUN!" I said with a big smile, no mention of the sport's many possibilities for death and dismemberment, the trees one could crash into or the cliffs one could slide over...

He got a big smile on his face then and many times afterward as he skiied alongside me, fearless, having fun. "This is awesome!" he said. "Skiing is my favorite sport!"

Eli too loved hitting the trails, the names of which, all W's, he alone could remember. He wanted me to teach him but I am in no position, myself unwise in the ways of keeping my skiis together to turn. After a day of me telling him unhelpfully to keep his skiis together but not knowing quite how to tell him how to do it, he finally acquiesced to lessons and improved greatly, doing more "french fries" than "pizza wedges," in the hands of more able instructors.

Skiing, like all sports, is a metaphor for how hard one is willing to try, a metaphor for getting out of something what you put in. Sore and tired from trying, though, it is good to be home, to rest up for future mountain endeavors.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Trying to See A Star as Enough...

It's been harder to write blog entries recently. I find myself avoiding my computers, all three of my barely-functioning ones. It's not because I'm not giving out gold stars, not because I'm not out there every day trying to recognize people's sometimes Herculean efforts. It's not even because of snow days and being busy with all the various and sundry things a mom trying to be a writer has to do. It's because, many days, a gold star doesn't seem nearly enough, not even a powerful puffy glittery one.

Take yesterday. Everyone I talked to seemed to have a tragic tale to tell about themselves or someone close to them, someone who was sick or had died.

"Man," I said when I ran into a friend who was running out quickly, leaving three kids at home with her husband who had just had his tonsils out, "all the gold stars in the world don't seem like they could even make a dent today..."

She smiled. Is it the thought that counts, I wondered? I have given out hundreds of gold stars, enough to know they often brighten someone's moment if not their hour or their day. People have started conversing in local establishments, sharing stories about the stars when they see them. I love that something I have done, that I do, might have the power to bring others together toward something positive. I have not lost faith in the star's ability to shine, to make a small difference in its own way. But, man, sometimes it's a challenge to sing out loud and proud when people are up against so much.

I guess it's really about focusing on the trying part, the pushing through that people have to muster every day in some way. The snow is a good metaphor. It is beautiful, magical in moments. The park was mesmerizing as I hiked around, sometimes up to my knees in thick crunchy powder. I laughed as I tried to hike up mountains where stairs used to be, as I plunged through places where I knew there were once paths. In the far-reaches, along the frozen ponds, it was mostly just me and a few starlings, every once in a while an urban cross-country skier. Icicles clung fast to the trees, little clear buds that glistened in the sun. Amazing. It was so easy to enjoy it at my leisure, nowhere to be for a bit.

Back on the city streets a bit later, hurried mothers back-brakingly braced themselves to push strollers through the same said snow, albeit blackened by dirt and exhaust. It was a different story altogether.

"Enjoying the snow?" I said to one of these mothers, a friend. She just sighed and rolled her eyes as she passed, pushing her young daughter.

"Trying..." she said.

I laughed. It's amazing how many times a day the word is used, how many times a day we think it to ourselves or say it to others. There are so many opportunities in any given day to see the positives, to think of snow as a beautiful and awe-inspiring show instead of something that's a pain in the ass to shovel. No matter how much I might momentarily falter, I always manage to pull out a little ray of hope that someone is going to be o.k., even when they're headed to the hospital. I make that promise to myself to not get cowed by fear, to pull it together despite the many sad stories, because of them in fact. I break out stars even when I'm afraid they are not nearly enough. They are, at the very least, something, right? Sometimes, a little something is all we can do.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stars That Brighten

"I'm sorry," the mailman said, shaking his head as I handed him a gold star. "My wife won't let me take things from another woman."

I looked at him quizzically. "Really?" His fellow mailman had been ribbing him about something he'd done, whether he'd told his wife, as they sorted the mail at the storage box on my corner. I had noticed them then, real people, working hard at their jobs and trying to keep themselves entertained, talking about real things.

"Uh huh," he said, still not taking the star from my finger. But the ruse was up, he cracked into a deep smile then took the star, just as his colleague had. "Just kiddin'..."

"Phew. I was going to say...that'd be rough. Thanks guys for your hard work!" I said and waved as I walked away, into my building.

It was going to be a great gold-star giveaway day. I had popped open a new package just for the express purpose of giving out some big ones, the ones there were only a few of. I had tons of sheets of little stars lying around. They seemed sad after a while, they felt not nearly so fresh as those in a new pack. Strange how that is. On days I needed to re-ignite the fire of the project, renew my energy, I had to tear open a totally new pack.

I found myself a while later in the dressing room at Anthropologie in Rockefeller Center. Along with a new pack of stars, this is a place I turn to for inspiration. Trying on various things from the sale room, I solicited the advice of the male dressing room attendant. He was sheepish, very cagey. I didn't care so much since I knew I didn't really like the pants that much. I gave him a gold star for trying. Then, I tried on a dress I really wasn't sure of, that I suspected might look really weird but could have been super cool.

"So?" I said, "what do you think of this?"

He got nervous. "I don't want to say...I don't want you to get mad," he said.

I laughed. Typical guy, except one thing: "You're working in the dressing room!" I said. "You have to have an opinion!"

He looked sad. "Are you going to take away my gold star?" he asked.

I laughed. "No, you can keep it...but what do you think?" I looked in the mirror, gestured to the strangely cut top of the dress. "Is this weird?"

He nodded. "That's what I meant when I said, 'ugh,' when you first walked out."

I hadn't heard him. So funny. Sometimes people tell us things but if we're not ready to listen, we don't hear it.

"Thanks for your honesty. If you saw me in what I came in wearing and said, 'ugh,' then I'd be mad, but if you are helping to stop me from buying something that doesn't work, I appreciate it!"

He nodded. I hoped I helped him think about how to communicate with other patrons as well. It's important not to let people buy things that are bad on them, that don't work, especially at these prices.

I hit another pricey shop I figured I'd just walk through to get ideas on what to look for at the discount stores this spring, and I found a fabulous shift dress for a mere $29.99. Amazing. A young guy helped me, offering up his opinion that it was good on me, that I should buy it. I'm always skeptical of the sure, convincing sell, but he seemed genuine. And, more importantly, I loved the dress, especially at the low price. I even wanted to wear it out.

"Will you tell me what I should wear tonight, the top I came in in or this?" I asked the guy.

"Sure," he said, more than happy to oblige. He preferred the new dress, so did I. I gave him a big gold star. "Thanks!" he said. His accent was of indeterminate origin, maybe he had never even received a gold star from a teacher. But it made him smile from ear to ear anyway. "Have a great night!" he said.

"Thanks, you too!" I did have a great night. Giving out gold stars had, once again, helped me appreciate the world around me, most especially, the people in it, the people really trying hard at the jobs they do.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Pull of NYC

The hairdresser looked at my hair, not me, as he started to explain a little bit about himself.

"I'm from Arizona..." he said.

I looked up at him in the mirror. "Really? Where?"

"Oh, around Tucson..." he said, vaguely, pulling my frizzy ends toward himself with the comb, clipping.

I laughed. "I'm from Tucson. No one in New York is from Tucson."

He stopped cutting and stared at me. "Wow."

"So where did you grow up?" I said, knowing he would give me the specifics now, now that I would understand.

"Nogales," he said.

"Mexico or the Arizona side?" I asked.


I smiled. I had a friend who had lived in the little border town, who I had gone to visit a couple of times, had a great time with her friends and family. I told him this. Told him she had worked at the Walgreen's, that my family used to park in the Safeway parking lot and walk across the border to shop, to buy Marionnettes that got instantly tangled and little chicle from the kids on the street.

"My mom's favorite flavor was the violeta," I explained, shuddering at the memory of the purple gum that tasted, to me, like chewing flowers.

He shook his head. "It's all changed," he said. "The Walgreen's is gone, the Safeway, no one really goes over the border to party anymore since they cracked down on underage drinkers and since the drug fighting has gotten so bad. Somebody gets killed every single day."

I shook my head. I had heard this from a lot of people, warnings about the Mexican borders. I was sad to hear that it was true, not just an exaggeration of xenophobic fear.

"That's terrible," I said. "My friends and I used to drive down for the day to go to this department store that had a liquor license on Saturdays from noon to four and sold these great, strong fruity drinks in little clay pots that you got to keep. It was so fun."

Here I was, walking down memory lane when I had really just come in to the Antonio Prieto salon on a Sunday afternoon as part of a fundraiser for my sons' school and to get a much-needed cut and color. This was unexpected and great. My new hairdresser thought so too.

We chatted about our separate paths out of Arizona to New York City, out of the constant sunshine into the iffy world of seasons, out of small and slightly more predictable into huge and scary and full of possibility.

He had started down the safe road, the one moms encourage, going to school for accounting. But it hadn't felt right. Two years in he pulled the plug and caved to the pull of his creative spirit, heading to school for cosmetology instead.

"Then," he said, "it all started to fall into place." He began working for a salon in Scottsdale then decided one day to sell everything and move to NYC. He loves doing hair and makeup and, I have to say, he is the first person who has ever done my hair where I haven't wanted to take matters into my own hands, grab the gel and do it all over again. I loved it. It was exactly what I would have asked for had I not purposely exhibited a rare bit of self control and let him have at it.

He has been in New York three years, struggling, like most artistic people, to make his way to wealth and fame in the Big Apple.

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

He nodded. "But you have to try..."

We both are a long way from home. We came here, like so many people, to give it a try. Gold star to him for going for it!! And, also, of course, for giving me fun springy curls!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Passion for One's Position

I walked into Parco the other day and my barista friend handed me an inter-office envelope, a book, Against the American Dream: Essays On Charles Bukowski, which had been left for me by my professor friend.

"Oh, good, I've been waiting for that!" I said. I looked around for a plug to charge up my Blackberry and sat down with my carpenter friend who I was meeting there to give keys.

"Wow, this is cool. This is now feeling, officially, like my office," I joked.

I love my new office. I visit it at my leisure, when I feel like it, and I am most often passionately engaged in the work I do there, the work of soliciting the opinions of real people who are out in the world dealing with real problems, real issues, people who are really trying and whom I try to reward with a little gold star.

I left my "office" after a brief stay, on to chaperoning a first-grade field trip to the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Our first stop was to visit Fantasia, the Museum's 20-foot-long albino Burmese Python, who was putting on quite a show in readiness for her weekly feeding, small pigs we were lucky enough to miss being poured down her gullet. We also got to see--and touch--a beautifully-patterned Ball Python.

As I stroked its soft skin, I said longingly to the Museum guide holding her, "Ummmm, I want a purse just like this..."

She gasped and held the beloved snake close up to her face protectively. "No!" she said. I laughed. "Not her, just something LIKE her," I said. "You can't create patterns as beautiful as those found in nature."

She agreed. "You should see her right after she sheds her skin," she said, "Gorgeous." I gave the guide a gold star. Her love of the animals she taught us about shown through. The kids were mesmerized.

We wended our way around the newly renovated museum, visiting mock-ups of various ethnic shops found around Brooklyn as well as learning a lot about local nature, and ended up at the cafe for lunch. As I picked out my lunch, having forgotten a brown bag for myself, I overheard two of the cafe workers in discussion.

"I'm sorry," said the one young girl, clearly complaining about someone, "but if you're a teacher, you have to have a passion for it, you can't just go through the motions."

I nodded in assent. "But that's true of most jobs, isn't it? Wouldn't it be great if everybody had a passion for their job? The problem is, sometimes, after you've done it a while, it stops being interesting, you stop being interested in it."

"You have to find new ways to make it interesting," the cashier piped up.

"Agreed," I said. "And, with teachers, it does make a big difference when the teacher is enthusiastic. The kids know it," I said, thinking of the enthusiastic woman who had taught us all about snakes and other animals and the kids' enthusiastic response to her.

"Well, I'm going to get my bachelor's, and then I'm going to teach, passionately," the young girl said definitively, passionately.

"That's awesome, good luck," I said. I gave her and her friend gold stars, which they took gratefully.

"You have to at least try," the would-be teacher said. I agreed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Clothes Shows: Uniformity v. Individuality

I often give out gold stars to people who are wearing appealing apparel, donning something that makes me smile or makes me think, two of my favorite things.

This morning I failed to pull out a star but should have to a neighbor whose flirty socks-and-flats look brought a definite sparkle to my morning.

When I commented to her about them, complimenting the look, she offered up that she needed the pick-me-up they brought.

"I hear you," I said. "I always look to the little girls for fashion cues, on the things that just make you happy 'cause you like it and you just don't care."

She looked at me. "You know.." she said and nodded. She has two adorable girls and being with them and all their friends, I'm sure, sparks loads of ideas, plans for fashions those of us facing forty square in the face often fear.

I have a four-letter word for that fear. I gave a gold star to an older 60-something lady at the grocery store the other day for saying *%#@ to that fear, to wearing a fabulous sun-yellow chenille sweatshirt I couldn't help myself but to touch when I told her I loved it.

"Well, thanks Sweetie, thanks so much!" she enthused as brightly as the sweatshirt.

I walked away toward checkout, kicking myself for not having given her a star. But then, as luck would have it, she showed up in my line. Her smile was contagious, her funny comments too. I gave her a star. She deserved it. She was dressing and playing the part. I loved it.

This morning, I saw a friend who I know works in a pretty casual office setting wearing a suit.

"Meeting?" I said.

"No. I just wear a suit sometimes."

I nodded. "I totally understand. Sometimes you just have to put on something that will put you in the right frame of mind."

"That's right," he said. "Sometimes you just have to put on the uniform."

Amazing how much what we wear can make us feel, how a certain "uniform" can literally unify us toward a common goal, especially one we might not be feeling like working toward.

Example: Eli's 8th birthday. It was a camp-out party, which began with a nature hike through the wilds of Prospect Park and ended with a sleepover in a tent hung from the rafters in our living room. (City-living sometimes demands ingenuity:)) I prepared for the event by buying bush hats, water bottles they could sling across their chests and fanny packs filled with trail mix, a granola bar, a fruit leather and a bug catcher.

As the boys wrestled their way to the door up to my apartment, I stopped them and formed them into a line, giving them instructions on what they would be receiving upstairs and what they needed to do with it (put on the hat, fill the water bottle,etc.) I marched them upstairs. After a few weak complaints and threats not to wear the hat, not to don the fanny pack, uniformity won out. We walked to the park calmly in formation and the day, until the end, when the sugar from the smores we'd made in the park kicked in, they kept in line. I am convinced fully that it was the uniform.

Before that day, I understood vaguely the concept of how what we wear can have an affect on our individuality versus our conformity, but it had never really sunk in. I now don't think it, I know it: what we wear matters, it changes us, whether we realize it or not.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

An End Doesn't Mean There's No Means...

Retirement is hard, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that, often, you've been looking forward to it your whole life. The time carries with it so many expectations. In my semi-retirement, quitting my job a few years back with no particular plan, I was shocked at how little I knew about myself, about what I wanted, who I was, who I would be if I could. And I still have young children to take care of, a reason for getting up in the morning if ever there was one. Real retirement, in your 60s or 70s, at the point at which you could really just take the time for yourself, maybe together with a spouse, means facing an infinitely blank slate and having to ask yourself the question: How on earth do I fill this?

There is a man now visiting a cafe I frequent daily. He is, he tells everyone happily, blissfully, recently retired. I gave him a gold star. He had worked a full career as a psychiatric social worker for the City of New York, in hospitals mostly, had definitely put in his time I imagine, seen a lot.

We talked a bit. He planned on doing some consulting, he said, after a well-deserved break. I nodded.

"Older people with experience and historical knowledge are so valuable, so necessary," I said.

He just shook his head. "These young people, they come in, they think they know everything," he said. "They think technology is the end, not the means..."

"I agree!" I said. I had had this same conversation a while back on the train with a woman as we sat staring at someone in the grips of a handheld device. "There are so many great things about technology, so much great information it affords us access to, but we don't seem to be looking beyond creating it for its own sake."

It is sad that the generation heading into retirement is taking with it so much information that they gathered in their own brains, long before they could compute it or commit it to one application or another. We have to tap their knowledge, learn from their hands-on approaches, make sure we don't forget in our rush toward modernity that people make most everything and they make it in their own image, rife with potential errors.

Figuring out my new phone, my Verizon guru suggested that there was a glitch in the system when someone went to perform a particular function because the system felt it had already done too much and would stop.

I laughed. "Are you telling me this device has an ego?" I said.

He nodded. It wasn't so crazy, as I thought about it, imagining the man who created the system saying, 'screw it, I've done enough,' and heading out for a drink. Sipping at that drink, I imagine, he was dreaming of retirement.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Trying to Find Love

Some people are very aggressive about looking for love from an early age.

"I set up an office in the corner of the classroom in first grade," a wry barista offered up this morning. "The girls would come in, and I would kiss them."

My head went back and I gave him his deserved guffaw. I had already given him a gold star.

"That is great!" I said, "I love that!"

He shook his head. "Sadly, I had to give up my office. The teacher didn't like it..."

I smiled. "Too bad..." I told him the story of my romantically-inclined son who, early days of kindergarten, was hugging all the girls. I think I've written it here before that the teacher was a little non-plussed, imagining that all the parents would complain.

But there were no complaints, only comments about how, "my daughter can't stop talking about Oscar!" Playdates were scheduled, including one where a little girl barricaded the door and tried to hide Oscar's backpack when I arrived. She wanted him to stay.

It is funny how some people believe in true love from early on, others eschew it or just don't think about it constantly, obsessively. Some people are skeptics, imagining that love can only do so much, that it brings, often, more harm than good.

My new friend at a local cell phone store bought a hedgehog recently and told me the fabled story of hedgehogs, which I somehow hadn't heard.

As it goes, he regaled me, hedgehogs want very much to be close, to be together, but because of their prickles, being close is painful...

I laughed when I said this, he being the same guy who said he can't look at dogs 'cause they would see his soul and wouldn't like what they saw.

"People are so funny, they seem to buy pets based on how much love they think they deserve," I said. Dogs, mostly, will love you though it depends on the breed, cats are pretty aloof but can sometimes allow for some love, hedgehogs clearly offer up a bit of the self-fulfilling prophecy of love not working out. I imagine there are a whole host of pets that say a lot about how people love and get loved that I have yet to explore. I look forward to my research. I think it will tell me a lot about human love.