Monday, November 29, 2010

"My brain is the key that sets me free," said Harry Houdini, the great turn-of-the-century escape artist and magician.

Thousands gathered wherever Houdini performed to get a glimpse of a man who truly believed he had the power to emerge unscathed from nearly any situation, certainly situations far more scary and dangerous than the everyday scenarios regular people face, even in the hardest of times.

At the Jewish Museum exhibit we visited last week, it became clear that what Houdini's daring stunts offered up in spades was hope. His successful escape from handcuffs, ropes, chains or water-filled tanks, was a metaphor that even poor immigrant Jews, like himself, had the ability to free themselves from the shackles that bound.

As the curator of the exhibit offered, "Houdini's metamorphosis was his own, from foreign immigrant to native star..." His story, as well as his performances, provided much-needed relief and inspiration for the crowds of fans who watched his every move with baited breath.

A gold star goes out to Houdini for giving thousands a reason to believe they could do it if they tried.

The spirit of his message, of the power of belief, lives on in so many places we visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. It resides in plays like Neil LaBute's The Break of Noon, which offered up the message of one man's soul-saving belief that he had been spared from a killing spree in order to spread the message from God about goodness. It rests too in more crowd-pleasing shows like Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular, which, beyond the sexy, magically-moving-in-unison legs of the Rockettes, hard hits with the mantra that the holiday season, hell, life itself, will be bright because of the power in all of us to believe in the magic of Santa and the saving grace of Jesus.

As he read R. Crumb's graphic novel version of The Book of Genesis, my son Eli asked why they refer to what he has learned in Hebrew School as the Torah as the Old Testament, why people needed something else. The weekend's lessons loomed large.

"People always need something new to believe in, they always need a story of hope," I said. It is a lesson I will teach, and learn, again and again and again in so many ways.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Power of Public Art

Jim Power has been doing public art in the East Village for more than two decades without pay. He has covered more than 80 poles with beautiful mosaic, "more than two miles of mosaic trail," he says. Sitting with his dog, Jesse Jane, with her beautiful mosaic collar, and his mosaic-covered cane, he continued to sit amongst the crowds and practice his craft.

"It's beautiful," I said, as I put money in his tip jar by Union Square. "And for enjoying something in New York, you must pay..."

He shook his head in disagreement. "Not always," he said.

Mr. Power has given his life to offer free art, so it stands to reason he would not agree. As my mother and I stood talking to him, a crowd had gathered, a sightseeing group from all over the world led by a guide who chatted with Jim, asked him what was new.

What's new is that Jim is finally asking for funds. He has started an e-mail writing campaign to get something back for all he has put in, to finally, maybe, reap the benefits now that Wikipedia has named the area the East Village where his art resides officially The Mosaic Trail.

To help Jim, you can e-mail In addition to $5, I gave him a gold star and he put it on his hat, covered with a variety of other signs and symbols.

"I got a promotion!" he said, giving himself and me a big thumbs up.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Service with a Smile, Rewarded

The new guy at Naidre's, Gatlin Hardy, always has a smile when I walk in. He seems genuinely pleased and upbeat, always ready for an amiable chat. When I complimented him on his attitude, he just laughed.

"It's what got me fired from my last job," he said. "They didn't like it. The guy said, 'You laugh too much, and you spend too much time with the customers.' I reacted poorly when he said that, I guess. I laughed."

His reaction was perfect, I thought, perfectly worthy of a gold star. He has found a place that allows him to his be his playful fun self instead of just a productive robot.

"I love that you guys are all so chatty, always willing to go there. And I don't even mind if it means I sometimes have to wait..." I said.

Gatlin nodded. "The regulars feel that way," he said.

I laughed. I could recall a variety of non-regulars impatiently waiting behind me as I caught up with one or another of the boys behind the counter. "I have seen some people who come in and get frustrated and walk out," I said.

Naidre's would not be the place for someone in a hurry. I never used to go there in the days I had to rush into the city for work, in the days I had only the desire but not the time to stop and make friends with baristas. I think of that often, that different pace, that different priority. It is what makes me loath to be too busy. It is so important to take the time to tune in to the people you encounter, to allow them a moment to tune in to you. I have found that a good laugh goes a long way, farther even than a latte maybe, toward making a good morning. To help someone do that, to do that yourself, should be raise-worthy, gold star-worthy, certainly not a fireable offense.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Tamar is a painter. She is also a mother and a wife. Being all three is a challenge.

"You sound just like me," I said as she explained how she had given up her studio when she had kids, how she found it hard now to structure the time she had in between pick up and drop off to do her own thing.

"Maybe if I had to, if I needed the money..." she said. But, like me, Tamar has a husband whose job covers the bills. As a result, she lacks the direct motivation to make something out of her art as she once did.

It is, of course, a lucky position to find oneself in, not having to work to pay the bills. But with it comes a certain pressure all its own, the need to drive oneself, to be productive, without necessity. It is a conversation I have had often about the sad necessity of capitalism, why socialism sometimes does not suffice. My Swedish exchange student boyfriend in high school taught me that lesson well. We each believed in the greatness of the other's system. Maybe it's that no one thing works, that we must mix it up in order to appreciate the finer benefits of both.

Either way, Tamar and I headed to yoga together to get centered and focused on the day ahead, on keeping things in perspective about our work and ourselves in order that our children might be able to do the same. She had moved the gold star I had given her from her forehead to her jacket, sadly. I believe it often requires a third eye, a sixth sense, to figure the way forward.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Midtown Madness

They step, stone-faced, onto the escalator, hoards of them, out of the E train up toward the exit into Midtown on the East side of Manhattan. People touch each other, but only by accident and such touches are often met with snarls, to which the offender might offer only a defensive apology. It is rush hour after all, not easy to stay to oneself in such crowded environs, although everyone is attempting it.

Would that I could brighten the mood, give gold stars to everyone. But I myself get trapped into the me mindset, the attempt to keep hold of my own psyche as I head into an office where things have to get done, productivity is crucial. A transition is necessary, a need to get out of oneself and focus on external tasks.

I am only going in to Midtown once a week, to help a friend, and yet the weight of that one day, the effort it takes to mold myself once again into the conformity of the mass mentality and then break out of it again is a challenge.

Lunch in Midtown is always interesting. The cashiers at the salad/sandwich/soup cafes are like automatons, trained to move as fast as humanly possible with as little emotion as possible. There is no time for chat.

"How are you?" I asked the girl who grabbed my food and flew fast and furiously to ring me up though there was no line behind me.

The question startled her. "I'm fine, how are you?" she asked, looking up at me for the first time.

"I'm good," I said. "Hungry. Excited for my salad."

She looked at my salad, then, really looked at it. "Oh, what did you put in?"

"Curry chicken," I said. "Doesn't it look good?"

"Yes," she said. She was a human. I had surmised it all along.

The line had begun to form so I paid and thanked her and moved off to dig for a gold star. I stepped back, moving around the next customer she was helping, and handed it to the cashier, whose face, which had fallen into expressionlessness once again, shifted into a huge smile.

She looked at me then with great appreciation. "Thank you so much," she said.

"You're welcome," I said. "Have a great day."

A little human interaction might have actually helped improve this girl's day. It must be hard, I always think, to stand in a place where people can so obviously see you and yet rarely be seen at all. People are busy, moving fast, caught in their own mental swirls. But to step out of oneself, into the world of someone else, if only briefly, to connect over something totally trivial even, is crucial.

I am happy to be viewing Midtown with a new lens, to bring to it my stars so that I can remind myself and others that we are all aligned, if even for just for brief moments.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Moveable Plan

I am not in the practice, typically, of awarding gold stars to inanimate objects. But, walking around the West Village yesterday, before wandering into Grey Dog's Coffee on Bleecker, I saw this sign in the window of an antiques store and I thought it (and the person behind it) deserved a BIG gold star.

I loved this sign for its refreshing honesty and humor, for its heart. We try to pin everything down to specifics, specific times, specific places, specific tasks. Everyone wants to know exactly when, how, who. Wouldn't it be nice sometimes just to be flexible and slightly vague? To open when you felt like it, when you really felt excited about being in the shop, when you were really mentally there? Wouldn't it be nice not to have to be there when you didn't really feel like being there?

The sign made me laugh and I instantly liked the person who put it there. Would that I might catch them sometime actually in the shop!

I had given my first gold star of the day to a Dad I knew in the neighborhood, a writer, who had shaken his head in sheer frustration when I saw him on the train platform.

"I knew it wasn't going to be a good day when the dog pooped in the house, when I spilled my coffee," he said. "Aaah, Mondays."

I gave him the biggest gold star I had and he did seem to brighten a bit as he put it on his hand. But, maybe, just maybe, if he had such a sign to put up in the window of his office, maybe if he had the out not to go when the stars weren't aligned, to crawl back into bed and go later if at all...

The perfect thing, really, is a basic plan with built-in flexibility. I made a new friend at Grey Dog's, a man whose great task it is to put on big events like the city's Halloween Parade and the Family Reunion after the New York City Marathon. Lewis Siris, president of PublicWorks, Inc., knows well the nature of having to try to run things like clockwork but, also, how to step back and cede control to the universe.

Talking to him about this idea, for which I gave him a gold star, I quoted a friend who said recently, "You can plan the picnic, but you can't control the rain..."

He just stared at me, hard. "Oh, right!" I said, laughing. "You know that all too well!"

He shrugged. "People still show up, with umbrellas," he said. "There's nothing you can do."

I laughed. "Woodstock was a big washout, wasn't it?"

He nodded, lost then in a moment of nostalgia. "I was there..."

My mother always uses the line, "Man proposes, God disposes." Whether you believe in God or not, it is sheer hubris (or folly to non-believers) to think you will always know what will happen or where you will be when. You just have to relax and roll with it.

I said to Lewis how I always pictured the model Petra Nemcova during the tsunami, clinging to a tree.

"All you can really do is hold on," I said.

Lewis laughed. "Write about that," he said. 

And so I did.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Lotto' Hope

I heard something flutter to the ground as I opened my book on the subway. Looking down, there was some kind of paper, and I leaned over to pick it up. It was a lottery ticket. It was definitely not mine. I am not a participant in this particular form of trying. But, under the transitive property of trash pickup, once it's in your hand, putting it back down is littering. That's what I tell my children, so I must follow the rule myself as well.

I put the scratched-off lottery ticket in my book as a bookmark without looking at it. A moment later, an older man sitting just over from where I was standing called out to me.

"I think that's mine..." he said.

I apologized, handing the ticket back to him, feeling guilty all of a sudden even though I'd thought I was being a good samaritan.

"Is it a winner?" I asked.

The woman sitting next to him, maybe his wife, maybe a friend, said supportively but somewhat suspiciously, "He thinks so."

He smiled at me with his few-toothed smile. "It's $50 I think..." he said.

"Wow," I said, laughing, "and to think I picked it up and didn't know. What if it turned out to be even more, turned out to be millions, and I had just stolen it and put it in my book? Sorry about that."

He leaned on his cane, slowly masticating a bite of the sandwich they were sharing around with his gums.

I handed them both gold stars. "For trying..."I said.

The woman barely looked at me, grasping at the star greedily. "Thank you, thank you so much," she said as she quickly worked to put it in a safe place. She turned to her gentleman friend, admonishing him for not taking better care of his star.

"She gave that to you for good luck," she said. "Put it in your pocket, put it somewhere...we need all the luck we can get."

I hoped, then, that she hadn't heard me say the stars were for trying. I amended.

"They are for good luck," I said in agreement, slightly under my breath. I'm not sure she heard me.  I was long gone from the equation. In some ways, more than many, they were already lucky: they had hope, in spades. It showed on their faces as they stared longingly at their lottery tickets. I was happy to have given them even more.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jazz for the Next Generation

Sunday in New York City, what to do. There is so much on offer that sometimes we do nothing. But my kids are both music enthusiasts, learning piano better by the week, and I have been remiss at bringing them to see much live music, concentrated as it often is in dark bars long after their bedtime.

I had heard tell of jazz brunches around the city and, after a bit of an Internet search, focused on my mission enough to patiently sort through the various and sundry offerings, I found a good one. The Jazz Standard every Sunday features an ensemble of talented kid musicians as part of a Youth Orchestra directed by conductor David O'Rourke. The $5 per person suggested donation goes to support the Jazz
Standard Discovery Program, which connects New York City School children to the jazz art form.

The trip was a huge success. Taking the train into the city from Park Slope is itself an adventure, one my kids need to do more so as not to become afraid of the big bad city that abuts our little leafy neighborhood. We walked through the fancy new Italian food court, Eataly, and across Madison Square Park with its bubble-making man and public art installation, "Scattered Light", to the Jazz Standard.

As we ordered barbecue from Blue Smoke upstairs, we were front and center for a jazz master class as Mr. O'Rourke coached the kids to pay attention to their own playing and to the playing of the musicians around them. Jazz is a lesson in collaboration but also one's own singled-out efforts in such a great way.

After a bit, the actual performance started and the kids were amazing, confident and clear and strong. Any awkwardness these adolescents felt in other situations was erased as they put their minds and mouths and fingers to work for our great benefit. It was awesome to see the next generation continue what is a music form many often worry is dying. I wished I had brought enough gold stars to give them all. Next time. We'll definitely go back before too long.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Trying to Name It

I sit in the corner at Parco and chat with whoever comes in who is willing. Often, as I'm chatting, other people will be compelled to pipe in and there grows a full-blown salon, homegrown, right in the tiny cafe with its pictureless gold gilt frames.

The other day, I began talking to a woman I know, a fellow mother, about the difficulty I have trying to help my little one, Oscar, navigate his need for physical and emotional contact while staying on the right side of the rules.

"The teacher talked to me after the second day of kindergarten, concerned, that Oscar  was hugging all the girls. It didn't bother her, she said, but she was worried that the other mothers would complain..." I said, still struck by this two years after the fact. "Funny, none of the mothers did complain. They all wanted playdates. But still... Should I have told him not to hug?"

Another woman next to me, at the little high counter, nodded. "I had the same thing with my son," she said understandingly.

We began talking at length about the need for kids--and adults--to express themselves, and the difficulty of doing so openly and still functioning politely in society. I told her of my recent article openly discussing my mid-life dissillusionment and the outrage at my disclosure that divorce is on the table among a whole host of other options.

She shared with me some of her own personal details openly and was very calm and rational about issues I find often send other people packing.

"What do you do?" I asked suspiciously. She laughed.

"I am a marriage and family therapist."

How did I know? I introduced myself and took her card. Michelle Sheridan-Milovanski, Peace of Mind Counseling. "When you're ready for a change," her card offers. Parco always delivers.

While some therapists stay quiet, Michelle struck me as a real straight shooter.

"I talk about all the crap and name it," she said. In her practice and with her own family, she offered, she has a "willingness to look at the real human condition."

I gave Michelle a gold star and she boldly placed it on her cheek. Clearly, she is brave, an important attribute in anyone who sits where she does, in a position of power, helping people with the difficult process of naming what they might want and maybe even having the guts to go for it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Gold Star for Giving

I was being cheap. Candy is expensive, and I know how much of it kids in Park Slope gather on Halloween. Within minutes, my kids take a quick easy walk around our courtyard and their bags are full. It took me hours of ringing doorbells, walking up to strange doors and having the nerve to say "trick-or-treat" to strangers to get even a fraction of their haul on the cactus-lined streets of Tucson, Arizona. Yes, that's right, I'll admit it: I'm jealous and a little bitter.

So it was, then, that I found myself at CVS reluctantly picking up a bag of candy then, realistically, a second. I shrugged at the people snatching up bags around me, feeling the need to defend the second bag, mostly to myself.

"Kids in Park Slope are..."

Someone jumped in to fill in the blank. "Hungry?" they said.

I laughed. "Greedy!"

My little candy-lover, Oscar, had already picked up a third bag, a package of Jolly Rancher fruit chews, and added it to our basket. "Pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaase?!" he begged with his eyes big and round. He knows I am a sucker, likely to overcompensate for my moments of begrudging. Just for fun, we perused the candy aisle to see what else we could see, to figure if our fast choices were good ones.

It was then that I spotted Marty, with a shopping cart full of candy. I eyed my own meager offerings and felt guilty.

"Wow," I said, "You're generous!"

He smiled a big smile down at the many bags of candy he was buying. I could almost picture him giving it out generously, personally to every kid.

"It's the only way to be..." he said.

We chatted a bit, Marty Glucksman and I. Turns out he is in the business of being generous, giving people rides (albeit for some cash) as the owner of All Seasons Car & Limo Service, 718/369-1234.

I had no stars on me, but I told him I owed him one and I always make good on my promises.

"I need one," Marty said longingly. "I never got gold stars in school. I was not a good student."

It made me sad that there is ever a ranking of who deserves gold stars and who doesn't, that Marty might once have felt passed over, even though he is so clearly deserving, so clearly good at rewarding others. I'm glad Marty will soon, finally, after all these years, get a big gold star!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Talents Abound If We Try

I am always impressed with patience, as it is a virtue I sometimes lack, especially with my children. This mom was incredibly patient as she worked tirelessly to create a likeness of her daughter's little stuffed animal, Pinky. Little Coco was a taskmaster, as are all small bright children who know their own mind. Christine studied the image, tweaking it here and there with her pen like an artist hard at work on a masterpiece. Finally, she looked up at me and, seeing me smile, said with great surprise.

"I didn't know I could draw!"

I laughed and nodded in recognition. "My husband said the same thing, a few years ago when he 'copied' some images of SpongeBob for one of our kids' birthdays," I said. "He is really good, takes drawing classes and everything now, and he never knew. I always find it amazing what we find in ourselves after we have kids, when we are forced to do things for them that we might never have believed we could do."

Christine nodded, still amazed at her newly discovered ability. "I always thought I couldn't draw at all, I always said I couldn't."

"My father is an artist," I said, "and he always says 'anyone can draw...' We are just, usually, often, afraid to try."

Discovering latent talents is a gift. I gave Christine a gold star for her efforts, and one to cute Coco for hers. Our children have so much to teach us about trying new things, things we are sure we can't do, especially those who won't take no for an answer.