Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On the Majesty of Mountains

It is hard to fathom the mountains. And that they move, slowly, without notice. But that's what happens. And it's humbling.

I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, with the Catalina mountains out my bedroom window, looming large beyond the foothills. Now, in Brooklyn, I am in the shadow of The City. It can be so daunting, what man can build with his own hands, how possible it is to be so productive, the proof right there in the awesome bridges and towering buildings, in all manner of high-speed transportation.

And, so, I return, as often a I can, to the mountains. And I am humbled, once again. I remember there are forces far greater than any of us. And it is strangely soothing. There is only so much I am responsible for.

In Joshua Tree, where I've come with my family, strange twisted Yucca brevifolia dot the desert landscape, sprouting up amidst the scrubby brush, in amongst the eery rock formations. They are apocalyptic to be sure, these "plutonic intrusions", signs of inevitable irrepressible change.

The geologic explanation for these impressive sculptural piles hurts my brain, some chemical combination of molten lava, arid climate and rains that occurred 100 million years or so ago. If only dragonflies could talk, the stories they'd tell.

As my children scurry along the rocks, rendered against their largess like ants, like characters from
Land of the Lost, I find my heart race. It is only a matter of time.

And in that moment I am forced to forget all the worries back home, to forget that I brought the wrong shoes, or that the wheel came off one of our rolling bags. Everything else falls away besides gratitude and the realization that to walk on this great Earth for even a little while is a gift, a spectacular gift we can not take for granted.

Plates shift, fault lines spread slightly and we are not in charge. But we can try, in our own small way, to recognize beauty and maintain it, to build bridges where we can, between places and people. We can walk with wonder through deserts and forests and the fine cities built by man's own capable
hands and we can stop to say thank you to the Powers that be, to the great and merciful forces that make it possible.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Resolved: Try

It is Jan. 2, 1:42. The resolutions are still not made.

I am inspired and annoyed by the many aphorisms littering my desk.

A wrinkled fortune cookie paper suggests, "Be the labor great or small...Do it well or not at all!"

Yes. Thanks. Next...

A set of cards I've kept around forever offers up in bold black: "DANCE as though no one is watching you, LOVE as though you have never been hurt before, SING as though no one can hear you..."

Good. Great. Will do.

If I search around, I will find so many pieces of paper that attempt to help me be my best self. Then, of course, there are many packages of gold stars that mock me, unopened ones with large, medium and small and many, many opened ones with only smalls left.

Is this the year I'll finally try kick-boxing? Should I go back to Bikram? I think I might have some sessions left. Running leaves me cold, but could it be The Thing that gives me the discipline I need to get back at that yet-unfinished novel?

There are many therapists' numbers among the pile of cards I've collected, a bill for one along with the insurance form unfilled out. Who is the Other Insured? Is that me, the patient?

Day 2 of the year and I am still hopeful, optimistic if only a bit confused.

What do I really want if I could have it this year, lucky 2013??

I put the question to a barista friend, what his resolutions were, and he just shook his head.

"I know you...you want me to talk about myself, and I don't want to talk about myself."

I love a challenge. I forced the issue and made him think about it aloud.

"I need to come up with something I can do every day...Running, no, that's stupid. I won't do it."

"I know," I agreed. "You have to actually be able to do it, otherwise you set yourself up for failure. You really have to believe...all those people who do the marathon, they have to believe in the end goal, that it will really do something for them."

He looked alert suddenly.

"Maybe I will do the marathon..."

I laughed. "Maybe you just need the bigger goal to make the running seem worth it..."

"Maybe," he said.

It is early days, luckily. We have time to decide what the year has in store, what we want it to be. I do want to do what I choose to do well, I want to dance, love and sing to the very best of my ability. I guess the thing I need to do is try.

What do you want to try??

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tis the Season...to Smile

Tis the season.

Tis the season to give, but where do you start and with who and is it ever enough?

Tis the season to receive, but do They even know you or care and is it ever enough?

Tis the season, if you're not careful, to be very, very bitter. Let's not, shall we?

I haven't written in a long while, and not because I haven't given out stars.

I have met and recognized the most amazing people every day, wherever I go. There is too much to say about how much people inspire me, so sometimes I get overwhelmed and don't say anything at all. But, before even my New Year's resolution to be better kicks in, I will note a few stories that stand out.

There was striking Sue Stirling, the beautiful makeup artist who worked magic on my eyes at the Mac counter at Macy's in Chicago's Water Tower.

She is a star and deserved a big gold one if ever anyone did for her kind understanding and prowess making people beautiful.

There was Sandy, on the subway, who hoped to get the train doors to close by sheer will.

"Do you have powers?" I asked, when he voiced aloud the command in his brain: "Please close NOW!"

He laughed. "Well, thank you, you've right-sized me..." he said.

We talked for the next 15 minutes about the control we have over our attitudes, whether toward being late (which I was too) or over bigger decisions in our life, like buying a home and actually enjoying it.

I didn't locate my stars before Sandy got off the train in a rush, but I gave him one in spirit.

There is Alex from the Cafe Colombe, the inspiring capitalist who buys up the coveted hoodies and hats from Supreme on Lafayette and sells them for a premium to the guys in the back of the line who didn't get up early enough.

He understood people, including the "line leader" boys he watches over and advises every week.

With a shine of thrill in his eyes, he described the Supreme brand and what it represents better than any high-priced marketing shop I ever interviewed in my days at Ad Age:

"It's rambunctious, aggressive, reckless...it's adolescence in its purest form."

I want Alex to run for political office. He understands human nature, the difference between need and desire. He dismissed my idea of gold stars for trying.

"You just have to DO," he said.

Of course, I agree, but I have sympathy--empathy even--for the inability we have sometimes to do even the things we greatly desire, when we don't NEED to.

Tis the season to give away love and understanding, whether it be a greeting card, a gold star or simply a smile and a little stupid phrase like, "Have a great day!"

That we can all do.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to Help a Neighbor in Need

She was well dressed, maybe 50-something, with a lovely coat and shoes and an artsy tote. She took her coffee to go and commented on how happy she was to be warm, and inside someplace cozy, inside Colson Patisserie in Park Slope.

"I have no place to go," she said, more matter-of-factly than one might expect, except now, after Sandy. "I'm staying with a friend until Friday and then..." she trailed off. "Then, I don't know."

The young barista looked uncomfortable, so I stepped in.

"Where do you live?" I asked, cognizant suddenly that the question was a loaded one, the tense all wrong. Where did you live?

"Red Hook," she said, turning to face me at my corner table. I just nodded. I'd not been there since the devastation, just heard tell of the wreckage 10 minutes away. I'd just seen pictures, donated money to help, as if it were New Orleans or some further foreign land.

"What do they say, about getting back in?" I asked, hopeful that there was some promise of hope.

She shook her head. "They don't say anything. No one has any information. I live in housing, and the building manager just tells me, when I ask, to go away."

"FEMA?" I asked. "Could you go to a shelter?"

She nodded no. "I just couldn't. All those cots, all those people together..."

It struck me, then. The horror of sudden homelessness, her horror.

"And the money..." she said, shaking her head, unbelieving herself. "It's running out."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wish I had some information to give you, something..."

She laughed. "It's not for you to say you're sorry, to have information..."

"I should though," I said. "I should know, be able to do something."

Without even thinking, I reached into my bag. I felt so useless, I had to do something.

"Here," I said, standing up from where I'd been sitting, eating a bowl of soup. I handed her a $20. "Take this."

It was the wrong thing, I knew it immediately. Tears started to form in her eyes.

"No!" she said. "Give it to charity, give it to someone..." She stopped herself. She was the one in need.

I felt sick, but I pushed forward. It was too late not to have this conversation, not to face the sad reality of the situation, mine and hers, have and have not.

"Please," I said, "We need to help each other, we need to be able to ask each other directly for help," I said. "I'm just giving money to organizations that help people in trouble, like you. We're neighbors, why can't we ask each other directly for help when we need it? We're going to have to learn to do that."

"Here," she said, anxious to rid herself of her feelings of helplessness, desperate to suddenly. She reached for my bowl on the table, to clear it. "Let me help you..."

"No," I said. I took the bowl and put it on the counter. I felt afterward that I should have let her take it, let her be useful.

"It'll be fine," I said, as I turned to her. Then, it occurred to me: Maybe it wouldn't be, certainly not right away. Maybe, after Friday, she'd have nowhere to go.

"Let me give you my number," I said, grabbing the pen off the counter, pulling a receipt out of my wallet.

I put my name and number down, my e-mail. I thought maybe I should just give her my address, in case she had no phone, no Internet. She could know a place that would take her in, a stranger and a strange place, but someplace.

She took the paper willingly, unlike the $20.

"Thank you," she said, gratitude in her eyes. "I'm Devorah."

"I'm Stephanie," I said.

We walked out of the cafe together. She was headed across the street, to the library.

"Thank goodness it reopened," I said.

She nodded, "Yes," she said. "I feel almost normal there."

"Good-bye," I said. "Good luck, stay warm."

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you very much."

I didn't even give Devorah a gold star. It just didn't seem like nearly enough.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Great Susan Fox

I remember meeting Susan Fox in Prospect Park. I'd just moved to Park Slope with my one-year-old son, and was taking a walk down toward the dog pond when a bright-eyed blonde introduced herself and took down my information for a new parents group she was starting, Park Slope Parents. I remember signing up at work and immediately cancelling when my inbox become inundated with information and requests and news.

Somehow, over the last decade, Susan has continued to build a network of amazing Park Slope parents, people who have the power to collaborate to do anything, if only they could be coordinated and given direction.

Susan is that amazing director. Her ability to deftly manage a neighborhood of managers was never in better evidence than this past week. When devastation struck our city by the powerful storm called Sandy, Susan's strong voice rang out simple directives on what we, the fortunate, able-bodied, monied mass of Park Slopers, needed to do to help. The Old Stone House became a hub last weekend, a physical manifestation of the virtual network she has run for so long, that I only recently had the nerve to sign up for again.

As I sit paralyzed by the magnitude of help needed in our city, overwhelmed by guilt and not sure how to do my bit, I am so grateful to that beautiful blonde light that emanates from my amazing neighbor and inspires me to do what I can.

I placed a gold star on Susan as she managed the teams of volunteers at the Old Stone house. She deserves so many more, for always trying, never giving up, for helping so many every day in so very many ways.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Cafe Faith

I stumbled upon Two Moon Art House & Cafe while waiting for my oil to be changed across the crowded expanse of Fourth Ave.

It seemed like a casual place, with a man painting a red wall along the back. The lovely girl who served me had a bright smile and nearly forgot to charge me for my Americano. The money seemed an afterthought. It almost felt like I shouldn't pay,  like I was more a guest in a private home. It felt good, comfortable, easy.

I picked up a flyer about an "Americana Passover." With just a glance, I knew. It was an attempt at creating The New Religion, the meaningful one, the alternative to the customs we grew up with that seemed hollow, the one that would give those of us searchers the community we were searching for.

As I clutched the flyer, I shared a look with the bright-smiled girl, a mutual understanding: we were in the same boat.

"Are you Jewish?" I asked, imagining she was a defector from my same group, looking for some new twist on old traditions.

She shook her head no.

"I was raised Catholic by atheist parents." She shrugged. I laughed.

"Hmmm...faith is tough," I said, in sympathy with her and with her parents, trying to give their child something they couldn't buy themselves. It would be so much easier, wouldn't it?

I looked around and gestured to the space, "Is this place yours?"

"Yes," she said, nodding. "I'm one of the owners."

I'd figured, having heard her address the painter and someone who walked in to talk about practicing for a show. From the look of it, Two Moon housed a little bit of everything from music to films to food and wine, even a new religio-political movement called Organs of State that was behind the Americana Passover to inspire like-minded engaged people to gather around food.

Their slogan, "Come Dine and Remake America" was hopeful and proactive, a seeming solution in itself unlike so many other modern movements.

"I'm impressed with what you've done here," I said. "It looks like you've already created a azzeo, community."

"Thank you!" she said, "We're trying..."

"I can see that," I said, and handed Joyce Pisarello a star. She and her co-owner, Danielle Mazzeo, are filling their space with artists and actors and thinkers and doers. They are creating faith in the most modern way: cafe-style.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kristian Orozco- Trying to Raise Boys

I sat down with Kristian Orozco to gain some insights on raising my crazy 9- and 11-year-old boys, and he put it to me straight, albeit sympathetically.

"The difficulties we have with our children often stem from our own personal 'lacks and gaps,'" he said.

I laughed. I'd come to this conclusion myself, although I hated to admit it. I'm not consistent, I love to live on the fly, I hate to set limits for myself, I hate to sit still...the list of my flaws that show up in my children go on and on.

With his organization, The Boyhood Project (www.theboyhoodproject.com), Kristian hopes to foster an environment in which people can "raise emotionally intelligent boys to transform the world."

Emotional intelligence starts, of course, with parents' recognition and admission of our own contributions to the home environment.

Kristian says clearly, with great sympathy in his eyes, "We have to realize that our own emotional shortcomings make up our parenthology. Sometimes we don't realize that  a child's behavior is a reflection of our own belief system."

The Boyhood Project is all about creating what Kristian calls a "center column" between the strict, punishing ways of the last generation and the often too-permissive ways of today's parents.

"Where did we get the crazy idea that to get kids to do better, we have to make them feel bad?" Instead of just praising kids, which makes them dependant on your approval, he suggests we stop hovering and controlling our children and "start letting them know they are accountable for their own success."

Parents taking responsibility is the first step toward raising kids who take responsibility.

"It's hard," Kristian said, again looking at me with big, sympathetic eyes. "But we have to try."

Gold star to Kristian for trying and for helping others, including me, do the same.