Saturday, August 14, 2010

Remembering Leila Ferioli

I would see Leila Ferioli all the time in my travels around the neighborhood. She was one of the first people to whom I gave a gold star, whose eyes lit up at the idea of it, who wore it proudly.

We would most often stop to chat, about boxing, about getting projects started, about life. She would always say something nice. "Look at you..." she'd say, eying a dress or shoes I was wearing. We talked often about fashion. She was, she told me, starting a t-shirt company.

One day, not too long ago, I came out of the house all dressed up, nowhere in particular to go except to get a cup of coffee, to visit my friends at Naidre's, to ponder my many projects before picking up the kids. I ran into Leila and she admired the outfit. I can hear her voice now, impressed. "Look at you!" she said. "Where are you going?"

I laughed. "Um, nowhere," I said. "But sometimes you've got to look good to feel good..."

She nodded knowingly. "You gotta fake it to make it..." she said.

"Too true," I said. We laughed.

I thought of this the other day and began to smile, then remembered with sadness that Leila is gone. She passed away recently, a great heartache to her friends and to the Park Slope community in which she was an active part, moving through with a smile and a kind word for everyone.

I've been talking to Leila's friend Bill at Parco, who has taken her dogs and is tirelessly helping with the sad work of putting together a funeral, of celebrating a life well lived, well appreciated by so many. The service, in Brooklyn Heights today, will doubtless reflect the many zealously-lived moments of Leila's time here on earth. May she rest in peace.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Keeping Up Community

Fear can be paralyzing, and we are, all of us, wittingly or not, so often afraid. If we are lucky, we reach out in those moments of fear to others, to family, to friends, to doctors and religious leaders, even to strangers, to help us, to guide us. No one can tell us what to do but, hopefully, we can find solace in a hand, in a pair of sympathetic eyes, in a hug, as we face what it is we have to figure.

I meet so many brave people each day who inspire me, who help take me out of my own spiral and remind me what it's truly about. The last few weeks, as I have been searching for ways to put shape to the many projects that have been simmering in my brain, to figure how to build a business that will bring together many brilliant minds toward the common goal of crucial community-building, I have encountered so many helpful humans.

Looking for office space in Red Hook, for example, brought me to Red Hook Realty's Rachel Shapiro and Ray Hall, the head of Security for Pier 41 Associates, the owner of much of Red Hook's waterfront property. The two exemplify the small-town community attitude of Red Hook.

"We work in harmony," Ray said, hugging Rachel and telling her, "You rock my're cool like Kool-Aid!"

Rachel knows the neighborhood and the people in it like the back of her hand, and Ray--with his brother Earl--runs a non-profit youth organization, Red Hook Rise, which uses basketball games as an incentive for teens to read. With a smile, in a sing-songy way that offered a window into his DJ voice, Ray repeated the organization's mantra: "We play in unity for a better community."

Brooklyn's community ideal was a topic that had come up days before when I met Georgie, a Brooklyn boy born and raised and "never leaving." Together we sung the praises of the borough from Coney Island to 12th St. Bar & Grill where he sometimes works. His infectious grin and great giving attitude reminded me of why I was drawn here from Arizona. It was the kind of attitude that the characters in Saturday Night Fever had, that had stuck with me as authentic and true and very, very appealing.

Could it be John Travolta's walk, the earnest cleft in his chin, that brought me here? 
It is mine to figure why I am where I am, to ask the right questions and pay attention well enough to find my proper path. But I cannot always do it alone. 

Parco provides me, often, with people who can help. Like yesterday, when Reiki Master/Energy Healer Linda Gnat-Mullin sat down beside me and, after a bit, looked up and chimed in with her incredibly insightful theories of people's "hidden patterns," the lies we tell ourselves to disassociate with the dangerous deeper truths. But it is important, this delving, crucial even if we want "to be who we came to be on this planet," she said.

I gave Linda a gold star, thanked her for her help. It does, indeed, take a village, one where people learn to share knowledge and information and, sometimes, solace.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ode to Marshmallow

Dog-sitting is a tricky business. I purposely borrowed our good friends, The Gospers', dog, a sweet cocker spaniel named Marshmallow, to determine if in fact The Thompsons should take the plunge. A few days in, I'm still unclear on what to do, am beginning to think maybe dog-sharing is the best thing for now, but one thing is perfectly clear: I have a lot to learn about my own fears and need for control. Marshmallow gets a gold star for forcing me to face them!

It all crystalized on our morning walk yesterday, as Marshmallow took off running down the sidewalk, me trying in vain to keep up and not yank on her leash. Once in the park, I knew she wanted to run free, could according to the rules, but I kept her leashed.

As I passed another woman with her own little dog, off her leash, free, I explained guiltily, defensively, "She's not my dog, I'm afraid to let her off the leash..."

The woman smiled. "Well," she said, "this is my dog, and I'm afraid to her off the leash too." She shrugged. Clearly, she was beating back her demons for the sake of the dog. Good for her.

I commended her. "You're a braver woman than I," I said.

I followed Marshmallow's lead to the water, pulling her back and away from her potential new puppy friend diving in happily. I didn't want to have to deal with a wet dog, to deal with how she and the puppy might interact. I couldn't always control her. She seemed to have her own mind about other dogs, to sniff them and then, sometimes, antagonize. Could I trust her? It was hard to tell.

The other dogs swirled around freely, off leash. Finally, a man, crouched down in the field next to the pond, encouraged me. "Come on," he said, "it'll be fine."

It was all I needed. I felt bad for Marshmallow, knew what I was doing was wrong and, still, it was hard to give myself that extra push. This man's calm, confident voice did that for me.

I smiled, "Ok, Ok..." I said, crouching down myself to unhook the lead.

As we watched Marshmallow run free, tail wagging, tongue lolling happily to the side, I looked at the man.

"Thank you," I said. "I wanted not to be worried but..."

He waved me off. "I don't usually say anything..."

"You could tell I'd be receptive," I said. He nodded.

Soon, of course, Marshmallow was swimming and then out, rolling around in the dirt.

"Oh, yeah, now I remember why I didn't want her off the leash..." I said, laughing. I looked at the man, my new mentor. "Don't worry, I won't blame you."

Marshmallow played a while, nicely, getting the excercise she needed. Then, with a wave to our new friends, she and I set off onto the trails I usually travail alone. I could feel my heart sink deeper into my chest every time she would take off running, out of sight. But, then, I would call her, squeeze her little squeaky toy, and she was back, running full speed ahead straight for me. Every time, I would think to myself, 'A little trust goes a long, long way.'

It is a good lesson for dog-ownership surely, for parenting too, for life: you can't always control a situation. You have to let go, and believe.

Thanks Marshy Marsh, my new furry friend, and other brave owners of urban dogs, for helping me see how much work I have yet to do, how hard, still, always, I have to try!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shortcuts Help Us Try: Duncan Hines

Last week, I happily attended an event at the Cupcake Cafe in Chelsea. I almost never eschew an invitation for free food, and cupcakes for breakfast seemed an indulgence one definitely deserves during the doldrums of summer.

The event was the live judging of Duncan Hines' Red Carpet Cupcake Challenge in which a panel of distinguished judges, including Cupcake Cafe owner Ann Warren and a collection of foodie editors such as Betsy Andrews from Saveur, munched away at finalist cupcake concoctions based on the baking mix, among them Devilly Good Chocolate Peanut Buter Truffle Cupcakes and Elegant Pina Colada Cupcakes.

I wrote about packaged-goods marketing for more than a decade and I am, as a result, often a skeptic. But Duncan Hines is my go-to birthday party cake mix, the one I rely on as my base when I nervously try (often in vain) to recreate Pokemon's Pikachu or an inchworm, or a campfire or, last year, badly, a block of Legos.

So it was with mixed emotions that I put the question to the cupcake queen, Ann Warren, whose detailed, flowery cupcakes crept up around her fabulous bakery amongst those of the packaged-mix contest entries.

"Is it weird to have Duncan Hines here?" I said.

She shrugged. "It's fun," she said, wiping at the crumbs around her mouth from doing the hard work of judging, "and, you know, a lot of people use Duncan Hines and then do these elaborate other things, with all these other ingredients, it's amazing."

She was on to something, I knew from my personal experience. Sometimes you need a starting point, a base you can trust and then build upon. Starting from scratch, trusting only yourself, is hard, sometimes so hard we do nothing at all. I have to remind myself sometimes and remember to remind others, if they are so in need, that it is not always crucial to reinvent the wheel. That others who have come before us, like traveling salesman, food critic and book author from the '40s Duncan Hines, sometimes have great ideas that we can get behind to make our lives a little easier.

While we don't want to get too complacent, while reliance on convenience foods has, as we've seen, created a too-strong taste for unnecessary salt and sugar, for processed flavors, in moderation these things can be good, especially if they get us to do things like bake. Baking, I'd argue, is a metaphor for giving, for love, even from a box. It is a joyous event, a community builder, if you will, if, in fact, you share said baking with the world.

During the school year, many times a month, I can be seen walking down the block with baked goods for one or another fundraiser, to feed visiting authors or my kids' classmates and teachers and faculty. The plates on which I place these baked goods--cupcakes from a Duncan Hines base topped with my own simple buttermilk frosting (butter, powdered sugar and a little milk, a little vanilla or chocolate if I so choose) or banana bread or oatmeal cookies with some chocolate chips thrown in--are well known in the office of PS107, they always keep them for me.

So I give out a big gold star to inventor Duncan Hines and to the contest entrants who took the time and energy to give it their best, to bake their way to fame, or at least try. The winner, Katie Rousonelos, whose Red Velvet "Red Carpet Glamour" recipe will make it to the Emmy's, held her face in her hands and cried as the Duncan Hines' folks finally reached her via Skype.  It was awesome. Sometimes, most of the time, trying pays off. At the very least, you can say you tried, and that definitely counts for something.