Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Trying to Talk About Mental Health

In his work as a rock-climbing instructor, Philippe Fontilea saw a lot of kids with issues they were too afraid to acknowledge. Finally, last summer, he decided. "Change was going to happen," he said. "Everything that was happening didn't work, and this works."

And so was born Lets: Let's Erase The Stigma, a non-profit dedicated to erasing the stigma of mental illness by funding and developing educational programs, mentoring opportunities and research among high school and college-aged kids.

"We've all experienced it in some way," Philippe explains on his website, "A grandmother with Alzheimer's. A cousin with depression. A younger brother with Autism. Or even you. We see it, but many of us don't know how or even want to help. The way mental illness has been portrayed in the media, arts, and literature (think: Psycho, Silence of the Lambs), there is no question as to why people fear or deny their given situation. The social stigma against mental illness has become so prevalent that even those suffering from it deny their condition or refuse treatment."

I met Philippe in his booth at the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Annual Meeting. Posing as a psychiatrist (not really, just as a member of the media), I met so many people trying, like Philippe, to institute preventative measures to ensure the overall health of kids in our communities, including the crucial area of health that often gets overlooked.

"Rather than wait until it's a crisis, let's talk about it," Philippe suggested. He is talking about it and establishing clubs in his hometown of L.A. in addition to New York and Washington, D.C. this year. And that's why I gave him a gold star.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Help Build Community One Gold Star At a Time!

I got an e-mail from a woman last week who reached out to tell me about where I might find puffy glittery gold stars similar to the kind I had written a while back were being discontinued. She had gone looking for them herself and found them, and me.

"Today was the sort of day where I needed a gold star, as did about everyone in my office," Elizabeth Livermore wrote from her perch as an office assistant in Washington, D.C.

I was filled with joy upon receiving her e-mail. I have been waiting for a while to have help doling out stars, help recognizing people and rewarding them in this great but seemingly insignificant way, a way I see as increasingly crucial as lack of faith in ourselves and the world around us grows in spades and with it our anxieties.

Elizabeth has herself ordered a slew of gold star stickers "to dole out to people here in the D.C. area, where far too often people are driven by money and politics," she wrote. "Just wait til I catch a man in a business suit giving up a seat on the Metro and ending up with a gold star sticker to wear to work!"

I sent Elizabeth a virtual gold star and asked if I could share her story, if she wanted to share her experiences of giving out gold stars--including to those unwitting businessmen--when she gets them. She agreed to both and I can't wait to feature her commentary on giving out stars in the nation's capitol.

It is not necessarily easy to get up the gumption to give, to leave oneself open to the judgment or mockery of others. But I think Elizabeth and anyone else who takes the time out to reward someone for their efforts with a gold star will be surprised at the amazing response, the enthusiasm and graciousness with which the star (and the person offering it) is met.

At Jaya Yoga this month, the theme is Sangha, a Sanskrit word for community. Today, in class, our fearless instructor Judy spoke of the strength we need to find in ourselves in order to be open to the various communities we weave in and out of, from our offices to our schools to our religious organizations to the neighborhood cafes we frequent. "You need to have strong backs to have soft fronts," she advised.

I work so hard to find that strength in myself to remain open and love to hear stories of others' efforts. The aim, of course, is to build community, one glittery gold star at a time.

If you'd like to receive an e-mail version of my blog or find out how to give out gold stars in your community, e-mail me at

Friday, October 22, 2010

Big Eyes on the World

I couldn't stop staring.

"I'm sorry," I said to the little baby girl's mother behind me in line at Parco, "she's just so amazing. Do you just stare at her all the time?"

The mother smiled and nodded. "She is incredible, everything is new to her."

Her big brown eyes stared out at me from below her knit cap, stared out then at her fingers and their movements, at the glass case in front of her housing all those yummy things she had yet to try.

I shook my head. "What's the line, when we stop finding everything a wonder?"

"Hopefully there isn't one, hopefully never..." the wondrous baby's mother said.

"I agree. It is sometimes a bit harder, though, we have to remember to do it amidst everything else."

Gold stars to maintaining a child-like wonder, to seeing everything old as new again even if it's not. Try.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Helping Conquer Fear

Sometimes, the biggest success is inspiring other people to succeed.

This year, I am coordinating the Second Grade Swim program at the YMCA for my sons' school. Despite an hour and a half in cold over-chlorinated water, it is easily my favorite thing all week. I find it amazing to figure tactics to get kids who are scared to swim to be less afraid, to help their tense little bodies loosen and relax and enjoy the water. I love being their biggest cheerleader.

It is for both safety and sanity that kids should learn to swim. Floating in water, that feeling of weightlessness if you allow it, is amazing. It is only the gravity of fear that will keep them down.

This week, I focused on one little boy from the special needs class who, with a smile on his sweet dimpled face, nods no whenever first asked to do something. But I just smile and gently prod him.

He has been afraid for the last few weeks to put his face in the water. He watched enviously as other kids dipped down and back up, but, still, he was scared. Bobbing in the water, I started coaxing him, showing him how he could do it just so fast he wouldn't even know he was doing it. Over and over again, I dipped face first into the water, fast, blowing bubbles like a fool to show him how easy it was. He laughed at my silly antics and, sure enough, did it himself a minute later. All of a sudden, he was a show-off, putting his face down in the water again and again, amazed at his own ability.

My heart soared. His success was greater than anything I could do myself. To help a kid have confidence in himself, in his ability to do something he is deathly afraid of? That is the best reward. I wanted to give him a gold star but it seemed unfair to all the other kids, also trying their very best. I told him, though, that he won most improved for the day and gave him a big high-five. His little smile was my gold star.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Trying to Keep Native Culture Alive: Angela

Angela was filled with pride as she addressed my son's fourth-grade class at the National Museum of the American Indian. She shared with us a beautiful hand-loomed Treaty Belt whose symbols offered up the laws set up by her Haudenosaunee people hundreds of years ago. But then her pride turned slightly to anger as she told a story of when she was six, picking blueberries with her mother and brother on native lands protected for them under long-ago treaties.

She told of coming out of the woods to find a policeman, a modern-day law enforcer, who didn't subscribe to the native treaty, who told them they had no rights to the berries. "We poured them on his feet and ran," she said.

Battles over berries and other things picked and fished and hunted on lands protected for Angela's people according to their tradition are being fought every day, in tribal courts all over, she said.

It is not an easy thing, balancing history and tradition with modern ways that render the rules of a beautiful culture moot. I gave Angela a gold star for trying, for teaching us with her personal story about the ongoing struggles in our midst.

Angela took the star proudly, being, as she is, from a culture of symbols. She felt acknowledged by the star and by the picture I took of her holding the many handcrafted items of her beloved heritage. As she offered her e-mail so I would send her a copy, she acknowledged her personal struggle to reconcile tradition with living in modern America.

She was married to a Jew for 27 years but recently divorced. "It was difficult," she said. "The Haudenosaunee is a matriarchal tradition, egalitarian..." Now, she is "trying to live as traditional a life as possible, my mother's way." I wish her much luck.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Trying Not To Get Robbed

Sometimes, to be effective, you have to get creative.

I walked into a vintage store, Exquisite Costume, on Broome St., to find a 60s disco outfit to go with the afro I picked up at Party City for Halloween. Full disclosure: I have always been envious of ladies who sport afros, so I am finally going to fulfill my dream.

The clothes are beautiful, truly exquisite and bold, but a little pricey for a one-time wear item. As I looked around, I caught sight of a sign. It said, "Fashionable girls don't steal."

I laughed and said aloud to the owner, Stacy, and her friend Aaron, "That's awesome."

She nodded. "It really works, actually. No New York girl wants to be unfashionable."

Aaron agreed, and then she looked at him, struck with another idea. "We could put a sign in the dressing room that says, 'Skinny girls don't steal...' I think it would work."

Nice. I gave them both gold stars. "For trying not to get robbed..." I said.

I bought a blue shiny shoulder-padded jumpsuit in the $20 bin. Perfect.

Sometimes we can forget this when tackling a serious problem, but humor and a little creativity can take you a long way.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Communities Call For TMI

A friend who had moved to a new city after fulfilling a major wanderlust called me one day, frustrated.

"I know everything about everyone, even stuff I don't want to know!" she complained.

I laughed. Sitting as a do at cafes, wandering around talking honestly and openly with my neighbors and randoms passing through, I knew exactly what she meant. Sometimes knowing things about people does create a sense of responsibility we'd rather not have, it makes us look at our own lives in a way we'd often rather not.

"I hate to break it to you," I said, "but that's called 'community.'"

I have recently shared what many feel is far too much in my column for The Brooklyn Paper, but I am steadfast (as is my husband) that being open about our issues, first off with each other and then with others so they might not feel so alone, is crucial. I have always been deemed, "the one who says what everyone is thinking but doesn't say...", a trait that has left me out dangling on a limb many times. But I am convinced that TMI, if there is such a thing, is what is called for now in our era of TLRI, or Too Little Real Information.

There is a danger in our communities that people are walking around in a daze, not acknowledging even to themselves what they think, let alone reaching out so that others might help and support. But, in sharing myself, I hear so many amazing people's stories every day, stories of painful divorces that lead to awesome self-discoveries, stories of people speaking honestly within their marriages about the challenges so that they might move forward in something other than misery, people goosing themselves to make difficult changes in the hopes of finding more fulfillment.

Yesterday, I began singing to myself, out of nowhere, "The Rainbow Connection," from the Muppets and I turned to the woman walking next to me on the sidewalk to share with her this random fact, to wonder why this song of all others.

Broken out of her solitude by some crazy lady, she shrugged. "I guess it's just that kind of day...a Muppet kind of day. Maybe you're feeling Fozzie, maybe Oscar the Grouch..."

I laughed. "He did to an amazing job, Jim Henson, at capturing different moods with his characters, didn't he, at capturing all the people in a community?"

I introduced myself to the woman, Leslie, and gave her a gold star, just for engaging.

We are all here together after all. There is no reason to pretend we don't see one another, to not smile and chat about whatever might be on our minds. Try it. It's amazing what can happen.

 If you want to be sent GoldStar4Trying via e-mail, please send along your e-mail address to

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Bravery

I couldn't have made a better choice of where to spend my 40th birthday. This past weekend, I joined together with a group of warm, lovely people, trying hard each in their own way, in their own lives, to find peace and joy and happiness. They are brave souls, both the students and the teachers of the Memoir as Buddhist Practice workshop at the beautiful Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Amazingly, sitting cross-legged on cushions, all were willing to open up to total strangers about their greatest hopes and dreams, their tragic sorrows, who they thought they were and are, and who they might want to be.

I gave them each gold stars, which seemed not nearly enough. I wanted to give them what they wanted, their sought-after babies, their children lost to suicide, their parents long deceased. We all seemed, in our faces and in our voices, in our acknowledgment of one another, to want that. It is lovely to look around a room and see a sea of faces all wanting for you what you want, all rooting for you. It is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Leaving Omega and its warmth (despite the freezing temperatures in my tent cabin) would have been a challenge had it not been for the arrival of my smiling husband and children, who came to scoop me up before I could decide to stay forever.

"Will she be different Daddy?" my son had asked my husband nervously. Apparently, my husband thinks I did come out a bit different. "More you..." he said. That is perfect. I can only be me, it is all I can really strive to be.

We went from the Omega campus straight to Hyde Park. In a continued best-birthday-ever weekend, we traveled to the home of my childhood idols, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I could barely believe my luck when the tour guide offered up that we had arrived on what would have been Eleanor's 110th birthday. She is a Libra like me, and the difference she made in people's lives through her brave writing and communications with all people, both powerful and common, is truly an inspiration.

It was after 40 that Eleanor broke off from what others wanted her to do and found her own strength and voice. I give her, posthumously, a big gold star. Would that I could have had an audience with the great lady, but at least I have access to her great thinking in quotes, like this one I shall leave you with:

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.
We do not have to become heroes overnight.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Trying to Get Past Prison...

I barely heard him over the sounds of Kate Nash in my one working headphone ear, but somehow the voice broke through, sure and strong.

"Ya know the first thing I did when I got out of being locked up after 4 1/2 years? I spent a few months with my kids." He shook his umbrella for emphasis at his friend and then continued. "And you know where I was New Year's Eve? That's right, with my Grandma, 'cause that's important, that's where I should be, while I still have time to spend with her."

I took out my working earpiece and reached in my bag. If ever there was a time for a star, it was this one.

"I couldn't help but overhear, and I wanted to give you a gold star, for trying. I'm sure it's hard..." I said.

Isiayah leaned over and took his star gratefully. "Thanks!" he said with a big smile.

"What about me?" his friend asked.

I took out another star and handed it over to Malcolm. " was just his story I heard," I explained. "I'm sure you're trying too."

The two men happily posed for a pic amidst the flourescent lighting of the F train as if they had received an Oscar.

Recognition of the efforts of the formerly incarcerated is likely far from common. More likely they get a kick in the teeth. Isiayah basically said as much as he went back to advising his friend, clearly a fellow former inmate.

"You've got to come out and make something of yourself," Isiayah coaxed. "I'm not going to lie to you, it will be bad, but it will get a little better, slowly." He paused then and shook his head. "It took me 8 months, but I finally got a job. And you have to try to stay away from the drugs 'cause that's what will put you right back in. It's hard to stop cause that's what we know, that's what we're accustomed to. It's hard to stop, but it's also easy: you just stop."

Malcolm was listening, hard, and nodding. He needed all the help he could get. I can only imagine how demoralizing it is to have all the cards stacked against you, to try in the face of so many closed doors, so much judgment and prejudice, when it is so hard under the best of circumstances to "make something" of oneself.

I waved to my new friends as they hopped off the train at Jay Street to pursue their various endeavors. I'll keep my fingers crossed that they can stay clean, stay out of jail and that people on the outside will give them both second chances, let them try, hard as it is, to change their habits. I pray they have the presence of mind to feel proud of themselves for trying.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Discovering Yourself

I walked in to Naidre's and saw John helping someone in front of me, looking all serious. Now, he often acts like a hard case to crack, but I have managed, in the months that I have had the privilege to know him, to mostly make John smile, to harass him enough that he eventually is forced to laugh.

I told him as much when it was my turn to order. He immediately smiled, which made me smile in turn.

"See, there it you're showing the dimples," I said.

He was all of a sudden back to serious. "I DON'T have dimples..." he said.

"I think you do," I said.

He shook his head, no, definitively no. Despite a co-worker having said the same thing, despite it being true, it was impossible that he should have dimples. Why? Simple: "My brother has dimples, and I always thought people who had dimples were dipshits..." he said, wide-eyed and serious.

I threw back my head in laughter. When I recovered, I looked at him sympathetically. "Wow, sorry," I said. "How old are you?" (I can ask this question still of people I know to be at least a decade my younger.)

"I'm 22," he said, looking perplexed, not understanding why it mattered. So I explained.

"It must be hard, at 22, to discover something new about yourself, to discover, in this case, that maybe you're a dipshit..."

Out came the wry smile, the dimples John can't really help but show. I pulled out a gold star and gave it to him, taking a number of pics to see if I could capture the denied dimples, harassing him as usual for my own entertainment and, I'd like to think, his.

I placated him with the notion that I, at 40 just this week, am still discovering things about myself that I have long denied, making realizations that I may be all kinds of things I don't want to cop to, have all kinds of attributes I don't want to acknowledge.

"You have to make your peace with who you are, even if it turns out you're a dipshit..." I ribbed him.

I jested but I think it's true. There is so much to know about oneself, so much one realizes as time ticks on. Sometimes there are things, positive or negative, that seem so obvious to others that we just cannot see, that we don't want to see. But it's important to accept ourselves despite the strange notions we might have built up in our minds about others who posess those same qualities. Shine thy mirror on thyself, I say, and try, try hard, to like what you see!